CPM West

Disaster Experience Emphasized Strategic Thinking, Safety & Communication

A blizzard… an unexplained communication failure... injured and missing employees… chemical spills… It is of such stuff that disasters are made. Participants in the Disaster Experience at CPM West 2005 faced a similar series of crises and took on the roles of decision-makers struggling to avoid disaster, reacting to each incident as it occurred.

“It was a very clever way to put yourself in the seat of someone making decisions,” said Roberta Kistner, VP & Director of Operations for Newport Beach-based Metropolitan West Capital Management, LLC, and a participant in the program. “You feel the pressure you’d be under in similar situations, and you find out what happens when you make the right or the wrong decision. It showed me that you have to be thinking of everything before it happens.”

The Disaster Experience session was developed and presented by Virginia-based Attainium Corp. “The simulation is designed to test participants’ crisis communications and decision-making skills,” said Bob Mellinger, Attainium president and CEO, “and to provide insight into how different incidents could affect any organization if they are not planned for. There is a lot of emphasis on working through potential disaster situations under very realistic conditions, including poor or incorrect information, media pressure, and the like.”

“You can read about a lot of things in publications, but this exercise made you think and search your resources,” said participant Bob Litchfield, manager of Business Continuity Planning for Vital Processing Services. “In the exercise, when things happened, you could assume you had plans in place to implement, but you can’t do that in real life. The simulation surfaced weaknesses and holes in the plan; it was definitely a valuable exercise.”

Working in teams, each group of participants took on various executive management roles - including CEO, facilities, finance & administration, human resources, information technology, etc. – and had to think through what to do and how to react to each incident as it arose. “We learned from each other in the course of the exercise,” Litchfield said. “Everyone had different experiences and backgrounds, which provided a rich knowledge base and many great ideas.”

“As the exercise unfolded,” said Gary Vunovich, Sr Network Administrator for DST Systems Inc., “you couldn’t take for granted that the peril you were facing was under control because there could always be something coming behind it. You had to think forward and backward; it kept you on your toes. The session did an outstanding job of teaching you not to assume anything and to always expect the unexpected.”

Cathy Marshall, IT Sr. Program Manager for Seagate Technology, agreed. “It got me to think about the need to stop reacting and reassess so you can proceed… if you just keep reacting, you’ve lost all your planning, and you may not think of alternate ways to respond.” Marshall, whose team was composed of all women, said that, when everything seemed to be falling apart, her group took time out to assess the situation (e.g., What happened? Do we have the right people?) and prioritize, a practice that helped them resolve many of the problems presented. “We did well, and I particularly learned a lot about how to conduct a drill and how to move through time during a drill, which is a huge walkaway for me.”

Kistner also thought the session really focused on people’s roles in a crisis situation. “You have to make sure employees know what to do… that was valuable learning.”

Everyone agreed that the hands-on, interactive approach used by Attainium was far superior to sessions composed of presentations only. “This format allotted time to let everyone work through the scenario without rushing, time to think and make the best decision… and get the full benefit,” Litchfield said.

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