5 musts for emergency preparedness drills

Having a protocol on paper or just going through the motions is not enough. Follow these steps to hone your response to disaster.


“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

This quote, attributed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, applies appropriately to those of us in health care public relations responsible for responding to crises.

No matter how many articles you’ve read, conferences you’ve attended, online courses you’ve aced, and crisis communications plans you’ve put together, there’s nothing quite like going through a crisis itself—either a drill or the real thing—to prepare for the next emergency.

That’s why, although they might not be the most fun part of your job, participating in organized readiness events is crucial to success. After taking part in two such simulations in the past six weeks alone, I’ve come up with five tips to help you make the most of emergency preparedness drills:

  1. Insist on having a seat at the table. If you’ve never been invited to participate in a simulated response at your hospital, ask with your safety officer or patient safety director whether your hospital, community, or Emergency Medical Services (EMS) region is planning one anytime soon. Chances are good that one is coming up. Perhaps your supervisor or a colleague typically responds to these incidents alone; ask to tag along next time to sharpen your skills.

  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Many hospitals, including mine, follow the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS) protocol. This protocol assigns people to specific roles; those of us in PR typically assume the role of public information officer (PIO). For the PIO role, HICS lays out a basic, easy-to-follow checklist with tasks such as, “Establish a designated media staging and media briefing area,” and, “Assess the need to activate a staff hotline for recorded information concerning the incident.” Follow these checklists to make sure you’re not forgetting anything.

  3. Rally your team early in the process. If you get a heads up about an upcoming drill, inform your colleagues so they can plan accordingly. You don’t want your team’s response, or your own, to be calculated; you do want to set aside other projects so your full attention is on the scenario. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

  4. Treat the drill as if it were a true event. This might seem obvious, but it can be too easy to brush over important actions on your to-do list when your mindset is, “This is just a simulation.” Even if you decide it’s not worth the effort to set up your branded backdrop for a press conference that isn’t going to happen, mentally walk through how you would carry out that task. Better yet, write down the steps you would take and email those details to yourself. Don’t cheat yourself out of participating in all aspects of the exercise.

  5. The “hot wash” is essential. Typically, after the exercise, the incident commander or safety officer should gather the key players for a final debriefing, also known as a hot wash, to get feedback and learn from one another. It is just as important as—if not more so than—the exercise itself. This is typically your best opportunity to hear, for example, from frontline staff and leaders who were in the trenches responding to the emergency. Did they receive all the updates they needed to make their jobs easier? How could the communications processes be improved?

An emergency preparedness drill is a learning experience. Don’t just go through the motions; engage in the exercise. Afterward, reflect on what you would have done differently. Share your experiences with your team and others who participated. Next time, you’ll feel better prepared and even more capable of handling the next crisis.

A former newspaper journalist, Lisa Parro is director of public affairs and marketing at Advocate Health Care, Central Region. She has been in hospital public relations since 2008.

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