Drills: keeping it real

This is a drill, this is a drill” – the words often inspire apprehension and boredom in equal measure
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By Dustin Eno

“This is a drill, this is a drill” – the words often inspire apprehension and boredom in equal measure in the offices of many ship owners and managers.

Mounting regulation and increasing transparency in our industry have combined to ensure that undertaking drills has become an increasingly integral part of the daily workload for seafarers and operations staff ashore.

Having a plan for potential emergencies is often a legal requirement and an important responsibility. In some jurisdictions the holding of drills is a compulsory requirement as in provisions contained in the Oil Pollution Act 1990 (OPA90) in the US.

But our research and market feedback shows that all too often drills are carried out in a perfunctory manner by companies which should be using the drill process to improve skill sets, increase team bonding and generally make participants aware of the need to ‘practise’ for when the worst happens.

Navigate Response and our colleagues at Witt O’Brien’s take part in hundreds of drills each year involving owners and managers large and small.
Some drills are purely internal and involve office staff and are aimed at testing shoreside emergency response. Other drills can involve vessels and third parties such as P&I clubs, hull insurers and flag state.

Based on our experience, here we offer some suggestions to make sure your drills are a learning experience and that your company’s response becomes more efficient and resilient.

Drills should not be a laborious tick box exercise but a process via which all participants can improve their performance as well as their knowledge and skills.

One of the key decisions when deciding upon a drill is choosing a time and duration period and then sticking to it. We’ve been involved in too many drills scenarios which get cancelled late in the day because something ‘more important’ has cropped up in the office or on board the vessel.

Once a drill start time and duration has been fixed, stick to it and plan for the entirety of the drill, not just the start.

Regardless of the frequency, make sure that drills are scheduled at semi-regular intervals to have updated, current emergency plans.

A drill schedule should not be so regular that employees know exactly when to expect the drill (for example, every second Tuesday of the month). A surprise element should be an essential component in any drill scenario.

That said, planned emergency drills — the ones that are expected by employees — are usually easier and quicker than unplanned ones, which can make them appealing for managers.

Announcing the drills ahead of time may also be better for workplace productivity, because the drills won’t interrupt any important meetings or your employees’ workflow.

But these types of expected drills are less effective at improving on board safety and emergency crisis management procedures in the office.

As the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt, and this is the moment when drills start to become a meaningless exercise.

We believe there must be a culture of openness within a team when a live drill takes place. That is because we know in real emergencies, mistakes occur, things go wrong, there is miscommunication and there will be unexpected outcomes.

Too often we see drills which run far too smoothly for them to be ‘realistic’; everyone gets a ‘tick’ on their work and things move on. But the most effective drills are ones which truly test capabilities, stress test individuals and systems and catch people out.

No one should ever be penalised for getting things wrong in a drill – far better than getting it all wrong during a real incident.

We believe the most effective drills are ones which have an element of supervision or at least observation by third parties.

With drills, like so many other procedural tests, active participants sometimes fail to ‘see the wood from the trees’.

So involve outside players in major drills such as your QI (Qualified Individual) company or media response company and ensure they give independent advice on performance.

And as media handlers, we argue the best drills are ones which have a media inject with the reality of social media attack, role play media and media statements being produced.

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