In 2020 alone, severe weather in the U.S. accounted for $99 billion in economic losses, with a record number of billion-dollar weather events. Severe weather is one of the biggest disruptors to business operations and financial performance, impacting 70% of businesses worldwide, and it is only expected to increase due to climate change.

While it is not possible to avoid severe weather, how an organization responds before, during and after each event will determine the overall impacts of an event, including the safety of employees, protection of physical assets and whether the business is able to maintain operations. While each business has specific needs, one key tool all businesses should implement is the tabletop drill.

What is a tabletop drill?

A tabletop drill is where all staff run through their company’s response plan for a hypothetical event or incident, including severe weather such as hurricanes, major freeze events or other regionally likely scenarios. This is a great way to evaluate a company’s emergency preparedness and allows staff to identify any major gaps or areas that can be improved upon. The experience gained from running a tabletop drill is the best way to prepare teams to respond effectively in real-life emergencies. 

Every business’ emergency response plan will look different, but there’s one structure that works best when planning for severe weather. A time-phased response with multiple steps and decision points helps businesses safely shut down or dial back operations to protect personnel and assets.

What type of drill is best for your business?

There are many different drills and exercises that can help evaluate the strength of a business’ continuity plan and procedures. Tabletop drills are discussion-based, where team members meet in an informal setting to discuss their roles and actions in an emergency scenario. Other types of exercises include walkthroughs, workshops and functional and full-scale exercises. 

Walkthroughs or workshops are designed to familiarize team members with the principles of emergency preparedness and response, as well as how the business continuity plan outlines their role. Functional and full-scale exercises allow personnel to test their readiness and validate procedures by performing in a simulated operational environment, sometimes on location, to create a scenario that is as close to real-life as possible. In any exercise, an exercise facilitator, often the incident commander, guides staff through the exercise scenario and leads the discussion.

How to conduct a tabletop drill

Use the following steps when conducting a tabletop drill:

  1. Establish your objectives and any ground rules for the drill. 
  2. Review your staff’s roles and responsibilities with them so that each team member is aware of expectations.
  3. During the drill, walk through each decision that will need to be made throughout the hypothetical event. Make sure someone is tasked with taking good notes — it’s easier to think of things to do in peace times than it is in the middle of an actual event. 
  4. Incorporate any action items and plan improvements after the exercise to strengthen procedures and implement corrective actions.

When preparing for any crisis response, a company must first designate an internal Incident Management Team (IMT). This team is made up of the incident commander, typically a senior member with decision-making authority, supporting command staff, including a safety officer, public information officer and liaison officer, and general staff, including an operations section chief, planning section chief, finance/administration and logistics section chief. Executive management serve alongside the incident commander and report to executive leadership, however, primary authority over the incident is given to the incident commander. Depending on the complexity of the drill, participants should include members of the IMT and any staff that play a critical role in the response. 

Severe weather response best practices

The best way to determine which types of weather to prepare for is to conduct a risk assessment to identify potential hazards and vulnerabilities. Getting access to climatological studies that determine the frequency of hurricanes, tornadoes, flash flooding, winter weather and hard freezes can help organizations better understand the risks in their area.

Getting the timing right when activating a security response before a weather event can be tricky. Initiating a response too early can result in unnecessary downtime and lost opportunity if the event doesn’t yet affect operations. Alternatively, responding too late can put personnel and assets at risk and cause further business disruption if necessary actions are not completed in time. Having location-specific forecasts with your business’ needs in mind can help with this.

Lastly, having a hardened facility designed to withstand catastrophic events and power interruption as a backup may be necessary if your organization cannot tolerate downtime. The general workforce is much more dispersed, meaning organizations must be flexible in their preparedness planning.

Additional decision points may also need to be added to the response plans, such as when to recall staff to the hardened facility. Tabletop drills are an important step to ensure that all key employees know how to respond to severe weather to mitigate the risks and minimize disruption.