How to Test Your Contingency Plan: Run a Crisis Simulation

In the modern age, an apathetic attitude to disaster and crisis management is not uncommon. In fact, it’s an all too familiar occurrence. Organisations regularly allow their contingency plan to gather dust on a shelf somewhere – never to be reviewed in line with changing requirements, regulations and environments. But, this approach is fundamentally flawed; a contingency plan only has value when it is kept up-to-date and is worthless unless tested regularly. While the virtual testing of your contingency plan can be valuable, in reality, initiating a crisis management simulation is the only true means of testing viability. 

What is a Crisis Management Simulation?

A crisis management simulation is an exercise that enables contingency plan deficiencies to be identified and addressed.

A simulation not only provides a safe environment for you to determine whether your contingency plan works, it also provides your crisis team with insight into their responsibilities during a response situation and gives you a chance to see how the prescribed policies might work in practice.

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How do you Run a Crisis Management Simulation?

When you perform an effective crisis management simulation, you must keep in mind these four key steps:

1. Define Your Objectives

The first step of any simulation procedure is to define and validate your objectives. To begin with, this entails setting basic and achievable goals, such as: checking contingency plan viability, uncovering weaknesses, or ensuring you've accounted for all likely scenarios. But, in future simulations, these objectives can be made more challenging, incorporating target-specific goals such as mobilising your crisis team within 30 minutes.

Objective-setting is important to your strategic planning as it allows you to set measurable targets. These will help you make tangible improvements to your contingency plan and minimise the fallout in the event of a real crisis. 

2. Plan Your Crisis Simulation

Once you've finalised your crisis management goals, the second stage is to plan a scenario exercise that’s adapted both to the business context and the objectives set.

The potential scenarios you can choose from are numerous and can vary greatly depending on whether you need to replicate an internal or external crisis and whether it impacts your organisation economically, technically, or structurally.

Scenarios can include:

  • Natural disasters
  • Acts of terrorism
  • Cyber-attacks
  • Fraudulent behaviour
  • Epidemics
  • Multiple injuries
  • Loss of life and many more.

No matter which scenario you choose the parameters must be clearly defined and effectively communicated for the simulation to be beneficial. You need to make each aspect of the overall simulation relevant to the business context, but the most important aspect is the communication of this with participants and the crisis team. Only with all the relevant information to hand can your team perform the roles they’ve been assigned and make the testing procedure realistic and valuable.

3. Perform Your Crisis Simulation

With planning complete, it's now time to go ahead and conduct the exercise.

Your choice of scenario will dictate many elements, such as: how much information your crisis team is privy to, how you’ll schedule your information releases, and what channels you’ll use to do so (email, social media, screenshots).

For many people taking part, this will be their first experience of a crisis simulation, and some may feel nervous or have pressing work they feel is more important. To relieve these tensions, leadership skills are needed. You must maintain control over the situation with a friendly and approachable style. Once more, crisis communication must be emphasised, this will ensure the simulation is as clear, coherent, company-specific and engaging as possible.

While the simulation must be lifelike, it’s also critical to ensure that no information leaves the domain of the crisis exercise. This helps to prevent a “real” crisis breaking out  exercise information leaking to the press who mistake it for the real thing  which could be disparaging or embarrassing for your organisation.

4. Review Your Crisis Simulation

The most critical part of any crisis management simulation is the review stage. Debriefing post-exercise enables the crisis team and participants to comment on how they felt the simulation went and discuss whether it achieved its objectives.

These observations enable you to identify potential vulnerabilities in the contingency plan as well as in the organisation as a whole, and provide you with a means of establishing, implementing and monitoring a plan of action for rectifying them.

Once this has happened, you must continue to test the effectiveness and robustness of the, now re-drafted, contingency plan in future exercises. There's always room for improvement, and even in those situations where your contingency plan worked seamlessly, requirements, regulations and environments are always changing.

Contingency Plan Testing

A contingency plan is not a static document. Once developed, many organisations tend to view it as "out of sight, out of mind." However, C-level executives must invest time in preparing for a crisis.

A contingency plan is only valuable when it works. Not only will regular testing ensure that deficiencies are identified and addressed, but it will also help to minimise the risks of ill-prepared employees, poor emergency management, and lack of legal compliance.

If you’d like to learn more about what your contingency plan should contain, including a step-by-step guide to preparation, content, and implementation, download our free e-guide now.

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By Andrew Carvell

Andy is the Managing Director of One Voice’s international business, based in London and has worked with incident and crisis management solutions since 2010. He has a particular focus on the aviation and energy sectors and works closely with One Voice’s partner Control Risks to broaden the service offering of both parties. Andy has a degree in law from the University of Nottingham and outside of work, enjoys rugby, golf and outdoor pursuits.

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