Business continuity and training expert Bob Clark joins Danielle Ricci, Vice President of Marketing for AlertFind, to talk about how organizations can overcome resistance and create more engaging emergency preparedness training with a series of zombie scenarios.

In our upcoming webinar, he’ll discuss how to use these scenarios in a variety of formats – walkthrough, tabletop and live events. He’ll help emergency preparedness professionals avoid common training pitfalls and create training that helps employees understand how to better protect themselves in a variety of situations.

Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Join Bob Clark and Danielle they show you how to use a zombie apocalypse to teach key emergency preparedness principles in our new webinar, “Zombie Apocalypse! Bring Your Training Exercises To Life” at 11 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, Oct. 24.

Danielle Ricci: So let’s start by talking about the importance of exercising your emergency preparedness plans.

Bob Clark: I came across a quote the other day which I thought might be appropriate for this. General George Patton, the famous World War II general said, “A pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.” He meant that tough training before a battle will save lives of soldiers in combat.

Now, let’s wind forward to the active shooter incident earlier this year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. One of the teachers there, Ivy Schamis, was teaching a class and as soon as they heard shooting outside in the hallway, she said, “The kids just instantaneously dove to the floor.” They didn’t think about, they didn’t question it, they just tried to take cover around the perimeter of the classroom. And the reason they did that was because they had rehearsed, and rehearsed, and rehearsed. So it comes to the point where it’s instinctive.

If you take that a step further, the Business Continuity Institute in its Good Practice Guidelines, 2010 version, talked about the four levels of competency and it starts with unconscious incompetence. In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know. So if you were faced with a serious incident, you wouldn’t have a clue what to do.

The next phase is conscious incompetence. You start to understand what your shortcomings are and why you are not best prepared to face this particular incident. Then you come on to conscious competence. You might then need some guidance, you might need to refer to recovery procedures but you’re more in control.

And then finally, and this applies to the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, you come into unconscious competence. You don’t ask questions. You don’t think about what you’re doing, you just instinctively do it. It doesn’t matter what scenario you’re facing. If you’ve rehearsed the situation sufficiently, you should be able to just get on with fixing the problem along with your colleagues.

And that’s what every organization should be aiming to achieve. That people are capable of reacting, without giving any thought, without wasting time. In certain situations, wasting time could cost lives.

Danielle Ricci: How can companies use the zombie apocalypse training scenario as a framework for their training?

Bob Clark: The zombie apocalypse training document contains three different scenarios. In order to decide how to best use it, they need to consider: Where are they going to do it? What is the layout of the place? How are we going to plan this? And then adjust the diagram in the document to fit that new space.

Companies need to take this as an example of what could happen and say, “Okay. We want to do this for our main office” or “We want to do this for our factory production line.” Then create a training plan from there and tailor your risks to that space.

Danielle Ricci: How can companies use zombies to teach these core principles and get our employees so prepared that they just react instinctively to an emergency?

Bob Clark: We’re going to be talking about validation of plans and in this case we may be focusing on emergency plans but the principles will also hold for emergency preparedness, business continuity and disaster recovery.

We are using zombies as a means of generating and maintaining interest, to keep the interest of those people that otherwise might just switch off during a training exercise.

What zombies can or can’t do is all down to someone’s imagination. That, in turn, stimulates the interest of all the people who will go to the theater and watch it on the television. So it’s something they’re already interested in. And if you can introduce it into their work lives by means of a exercise that ultimately could save their lives, then you’re going to get their immediate attention because of the subject matter.

Danielle Ricci: What are the three types of exercises?

Bob Clark: The first type is a walkthrough. With a walkthrough, you tend to have maybe two or three people. One of those would invariably be the author of the plan. And it’s a bit like a discussion. You’re going to go through the plan, talk about it, maybe the two that have joined the author will play devil’s advocate. Or at least one of them should be playing devil’s advocate.

Sometimes, just walking through the plan, you can see a silly mistake. It’s an easy, inexpensive, and low-risk method for making sure that your plan is in good shape.

Danielle Ricci: So, who should be part of the walkthrough?

Bob Clark: It’s important that the author is there. Now, it’s entirely up to the organization who they nominate to be part of that little group. But it would make sense that if it is an emergency preparedness plan that you’re looking at, that they’ve got some idea as to what emergency preparedness is. There’s no point going outside and stopping the first bus that goes past and grabbing two volunteers to come in and sit in the walkthrough group.

You need someone who’s got some idea of what’s going on so that they can make a contribution. They’re not there to actually say, “Well, of course, you got this wrong. So what you should be doing is–” That’s not the purpose. The purpose is to say, “I don’t think this particularly works. I think we need another look at the strategy we’re looking to implement there and see is there a better way of doing it.”

So these sessions are not intended to be concluded with the answers to any issues that have been raised. That is something that you would normally take offline and deal with independently. And if necessary, you go back and have another walkthrough. Or maybe, a walkthrough of that part of the plan that people felt uncomfortable about.

Danielle Ricci: What about the second option – tabletop exercises?

Bob Clark: A workshop is a good example of a tabletop exercise. It would include potentially more people. And there may be situations in there where the plan says in the event of X happening, then we need to contact so and so. It could be someone within the organization, a third-party supplier or someone else.

When I was working with an organization in Holland, their plan was that if they lost their building, they were going to relocate their key employees to Brussels. So that was a good plan, except the Belgians didn’t know anything about this.

So there was a big assumption being made in the plan and at the end of the day, that assumption has not been validated. And consequently, it was a major risk to the plan being successful. So, you can ask during the workshop, “Okay. Well, let’s actually see whether the plan works.” It’s more like an audit.

Now, in the case of the emergency preparedness, because it’s primarily about life-threatening situations, there probably won’t be very much in the way of third-party involvement apart from first responders. Now, if there is something in there which is making an assumption about first responders and their actions, then I would certainly want to be validating that first responders agree with whatever those assumptions happen to be.

For example, during an active shooter situation you may want to have people send the police any information you have. So you want to validate the process for that.

Danielle Ricci: So what the biggest, most involved exercise – the live event?

Bob Clark: Now, there’s two types of live events. There is the pre-planned event and there is the unannounced event. Now, the pre-plan is set up so that everyone knows that tomorrow, we are going to have an active shooter event at 10 in the morning.

The unplanned event is where messages go out and people are expected to respond immediately – whether it’s an active shooter, an emergency evacuation, whatever. So there are advantages of doing both and there are also disadvantages of doing both.

But first, it’s important to understand that whenever you are getting into live exercises, they are more expensive because they can be disruptive to an organization’s operation. And it’s also much higher risk.

Something which is probably worth emphasizing and that a lot of people forget is that if you do something which ultimately compromises your organization’s operation, you may find that any business interruption you have suddenly becomes the fault of the exercise.

Remember, these things don’t just happen overnight. They need to be planned. And in the case of the walkthrough, obviously, that needs far less planning than a live event. But if a manager comes in on a whim one morning and says, “Oh, let’s do an XYZ rehearsal,” then that could be dangerous. It depends on how prepared the workforce is. Now, this used to happen in IBM. We would sometimes get a 30-minute warning that we were doing an IT disaster recovery drill.

Danielle Ricci: What factors play into the cost of a live event?

Bob Clark: While there’s no set algorithm for determining the budget for a live event, you need to think about if you’re inviting first responders, where are you holding the training, are you bringing in facilitators, what types of supplies will you need, etc.

For our zombie exercises, you can make it a simple live event by simply handing out index cards that assign people to the different groups or to the zombies. Or you can make it very involved and hire actors, do fake blood and makeup, have video clips running in the background. The sky’s the limit, really.

Danielle Ricci: What other roles do you need to include?

Bob Clark: It’s also useful if you can have observers. And their role would be to watch and make notes. And at the end of the day, they can comment. They’ll have a brief, of course, but they can report back in terms of where they saw the plan working well, any particular concerns that they had, anything that went disastrously wrong, and so on. And it could be someone from within the organization, it could be someone completely independent.

You also need a scribe, who will write down everything that is seen and said in a way that they can play it back. And during a live event, record the event from an audio perspective. And whatever decisions are made, it doesn’t matter who makes them, make sure there is a record of it. It’s not about witch hunts or anything like that, but it’s all about when you look back at the later days and say, “Why on Earth did they do that? Why didn’t they follow the plan?”

It may have been a very good reason that they didn’t evacuate through the main reception area because that was where the active shooter was last seen or there was a bomb threat and that the bomb had been left in, on or around the reception area or something like this.

So you’re going to use other evacuation routes because you’re acting upon information that’s available. On the other hand, you may have just done something which is just wrong.

I will just emphasize it’s not intended to be a witch hunt. It’s about making sure that the plan has fit the purpose and if not, let’s understand where there are holes. Ultimately, it will go back to the author to say, “Okay. We found these items weren’t working as we thought they would. Take another look at the plan or revamp the strategies.”

Once you identify the issue, then you need to go back and fix the issue. You may need to go back and start again. Until you do that, everything that follows it is likely to be wrong.

Danielle Ricci: Is there ever a reason to pause or stop an exercise once you’ve started it?

Bob Clark: If someone in the exercise said, “Well, I think we should do this. I think we should’ve been doing that,” then that should be discouraged. Because this is something that should come out of the review exercise afterwards.

You shouldn’t change directions simply because someone feels that the plan is wrong unless there is a valid reason to say we cannot do this. And in some cases, it may be not the wrong decision to say, “Okay, we’re stopping the exercise because we’ve reached an impasse. We’ve not thought about this situation occurring and it has a significant effect on the plan and how we should react to it.”

So don’t think because you’ve started an exercise, you need to take it through to its natural conclusion because you may not be able to.

Danielle Ricci: Are there other issues to look out for?

Bob Clark: The first one is the people who say, “I haven’t got time for this.” And you need to make sure that your program sponsor is someone with clout so that you can escalate it. There may be a genuine reason why someone cannot participate in an exercise, but if they are key to the exercise and they don’t want to participate, then you go the sponsor. The sponsor may say, “Yes, I hear what he’s saying. And, on this occasion, I agree with him.” Or, “Leave it with me. I will deal with it.”

What an organization should be doing, from a disaster recovery, business continuity and emergency preparedness perspective, is looking at the strategic plan. What are we trying to achieve and what’s the timeframe? What’s the scope?

Look at it from the strategic perspective in terms of all the things that you are going to consider. And also keep in mind that management have the right to say, “We understand that you have flagged this particular risk but we accept it. We’re not prepared to do anything further in terms of mitigation or contingency measures or, in this case, invest in exercises.” That’s their call.

Danielle Ricci: Once you’ve finished the exercise, what are the next steps?

Bob Clark: First thing I would recommend that immediately after an exercise, you have what I would call a hot debrief. It’s been a long day and people may be tired. I accept that. But it’s worth it to ask them, “So what did you think went well? What could be done later on? What was a mega-disaster in your view?”

You’re not looking for them to give you recommendations at that point in time. You are merely looking for their feedback rather than for their recommendations. I would follow that up about two weeks later with what I would call the cold debrief.

People have had a chance to reflect and see what else that they may wish to add because sometimes, some of the exercises I’ve been on, they have really got heated and emotional. And you need to give people the opportunity to cool off and look at things and determine if they see things in a different way after they’ve cooled off.

As part of the debrief, you need to identify who the key players are that you’ll be looking for feedback from. In some cases, you may give a questionnaire to department managers and ask them to collect feedback. On the other hand, if you’ve got stewards or fire wardens for a particular exercise, you can ask for their specific feedback as well. If you include first responders or other third parties, make sure you ask them as well.

Danielle Ricci: What’s the biggest takeaway for anyone planning an exercise?

Bob Clark: One of the key things in any exercise, in any rehearsal, is to learn to walk before you try and run. So you don’t write a plan and say, “Right. Next week we’re going to do a live test to this plan.” That would be crazy.

Go through the walkthrough, go through a table talk exercise, and then think about the live event only if the previous two activities, the walkthrough, and the table talk, have not thrown up some concerns about the plan that you need to go back and take another look at it. But do not, under any circumstances, just start with a live event.

Danielle Ricci: So how do you approach this – with individual or team training?

Bob Clark: Now if you’re in a situation where you are working in a team then clearly you need to continue working as a team. If you’re individually facing an emergency situation, then how are you going to behave? Is there something we each need to consider? And if we’re looking at it from the workplace perspective, then we would be encouraging people to endeavor to carry on working in teams where that’s appropriate.

Now every team would normally expect to have a leader. If the team is disorganized, you may find that chaos prevails rather than a smooth operation to resolve whatever the issue is.

And I go back to the quote of George Patton. “A pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.” And in the case of an active shooter situation, unfortunately, there is a direct parallel there. Most people that have rehearsed what to do, things to avoid, etc. they may be the ones that are less likely to fend up as a statistic.

Danielle Ricci: How frequently should businesses conduct training exercises?

Bob Clark: In some cases, the frequency is legislated. You need to check in with both industry requirements and state requirements. Those can be driving factors but the frequency of the exercise is up to the business. When I was at IBM, we did a drill, either a fire or a bomb scare or other scenario every three months.

Now, if you think of Sept. 11, there were people doing anything but getting ready to evacuate the building when the alarm sounded. And because of that, people died. So you need to focus your training on getting people to instinctively react when that alarm goes off.

They need to know to go to the nearest emergency exit unless instructed to do otherwise. You need fire wardens to make sure that everyone does what they’re supposed to be doing. If there’s someone who needs to be nudged to take action, so be it.

Now when it comes to the plethora of other emergencies that we could be facing, there’s going to be situations that require you to shelter in place.

You need to ask yourself what’s at stake? What’s it going to cost you if you have a failure? And what is it worth to you in terms of budget for exercises because every budget, whether it’s just a walkthrough or a live exercise, there’s a cost to it. And the more people that are involved in a live exercise, clearly, the greater the cost.

Danielle Ricci: So what role does feedback play in the process?

Bob Clark: You need to ask what went well? What went badly? What was a total disaster? Let’s go back and reexamine the plan and see what we need to do to avoid this happening again or make sure that never occurs again. So it’s a process of continual improvement.

It’s a learning exercise partly to make sure that everyone knows what they’re doing and partly to make sure that the plan – the general plan that you happen to be using – is fit for purpose. And obviously, there could be scenarios where it’s fit for purpose this year but in 12 months time something has occurred that means it’s no longer fit for purpose.

If you’re evacuating the building because there’s an active shooter and you instruct everyone to go and congregate in the parking lot, what have you done? You’ve created a mass of bodies, which is a target. So there are going to be variations. It may be a case of evacuate the building and scatter. Make yourself scarce.

Join Bob and Danielle as they help organizations learn emergency preparedness in a fun, engaging way in our new webinar, “Zombie Apocalypse! Bring Your Training Exercises To Life” at 11 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, Oct. 24.