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Emergency Management Training for Your Library: The Joys of Tabletopping

By: , Posted on: July 28, 2017

Through emergency management training programs that include tabletop exercises, libraries are preparing their employees to survive the worst, and to resume operations quickly.

Who says emergency management (EM) training is dull?

Before 9/11 and the ongoing fears of terrorist activities, EM trainers often struggled to interest audiences in risk mitigation and preparedness, disaster response, and business resumption. Libraries went for years without fire drills. Safety committees met infrequently to discuss ways of grabbing the attention of employees who were more interested in hockey pools and holidays. Even hurricanes and severe winter weather failed to jar people out of their complacency for long.

“We didn’t worry so much about emergencies,” says Darren, a public librarian in Metro Toronto. “We left it up to City Hall to take care of things, and we took an enormous amount for granted. We actually turned down training opportunities because we didn’t think they’d be useful.”

To be fair, much EM training was slick but superficial. PowerPoint presentations were often vague and soporific, and trainers concentrated on theoretical issues rather than practical concerns. Some trainers relied on motivational speaking to convey notions of organizational preparedness. Others provided mammoth three-ring binders crammed with information, along with workbooks, brochures, pamphlets, and videos.

Some library managers felt obliged to review these materials, but their time was limited, and there was so much to learn. Besides, seminars interrupted normal routines and contributed to backlogs.

On Shaky Ground

EM training was often based on unrealistic assumptions and scenarios. For example, libraries on the Prairies busied themselves with orientation sessions that focused on major earthquakes, while a group of Vancouver special librarians spent several weeks making plans to survive the return of the Ice Age. In Calgary, a team of academic librarians pondered the implications of meteorites and crop circles. In Regina, a committee considered the effects of landslides and avalanches on Saskatchewan’s urban communities. Of course, a risk assessment should comprise all possible threats and their impact on specific sites and operations. But we must be realistic. An earthquake on the Prairies is as unlikely as an Ice Age in Vancouver, and the Great Regina Landslide is beyond science fiction.

“In some libraries, there was a feeling that we should be more serious about training,” says Elsa, a college librarian in Vancouver. “But for a variety of reasons in the 1980s and ‘90s, there wasn’t a sense of urgency. I’ve heard that people at a library in the U.S. held a training session about what staff members should do if they were threatened with alien abduction. Maybe that’s not true—nothing more than an urban legend. But it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that before 9/11, some librarians were more worried about close encounters of the third kind rather than garden-variety threats like fires and storms.”

Winter Weather

Increasingly after 9/11, and in light of such disasters as Hurricane Katrina and the Lac-Mégantic train derailment, EM training has become more practical. Trainers have the full attention of their library audiences, which expect comprehensive programs on disasters at specific branches and other sites. Customized presentations are in demand. Trainers know that Toronto libraries must have effective procedures to respond to severe weather, particularly in winter. Methods of dealing with post-disaster transportation problems and emergency communications are essential, along with media management strategies and business-resumption plans.

But what’s best for Toronto is not necessarily appropriate for audiences in other cities. In Vancouver, earthquake orientation is popular, with an emphasis on protecting library employees and resuming business in post-disaster conditions. On the Prairies, training sessions focus on correct responses to tornadoes, winter storms, and other forms of severe weather. Libraries in Atlantic Canada prefer workshops that cover ways to deal with the full spectrum of natural and technological risks, including power outages and data loss. Owing to concerns about security, a number of libraries have combined security orientation and disaster-response training. Across Canada, library EM trainers have revised their curricula to cover bomb threats, electronic intrusions, and workplace violence.

While few librarians anticipate sabotage or terrorist attacks at their sites, none will rule out the possibility of these threats in the future. Hence, trainers hear numerous questions about site evacuation, arson, and handling suspicious envelopes and packages.

Snow Days

EM training sessions take different forms. Orientation sessions can include a lecture and video presentation covering risks prevailing in a particular community.

While libraries offer these sessions to employees from all departments, a growing trend is to provide specific departments with customized training. For example, a school library in BC recently offered staff a seminar on business-resumption techniques following winter storms that result in school closures. The trainer reviewed the effects of storms and low temperatures, discussed the subsequent power outage, and outlined ways to communicate with colleagues and students during severe weather. At the conclusion, there were numerous questions about IT problems and the disruption of schedules. Attendees agreed that they were better prepared for winter risks, and urged other departments in their school to take similar training.

“There’s no doubt that freak winter storms are more common these days,” says Rhonda, an environmental researcher and librarian at a Winnipeg engineering firm. “Low temperatures can continue for lengthy periods, and cause considerable downtime and operational disruption. Librarians have to concentrate on the risks that prevail at their sites, and not be too concerned about what happens in other regions. In a time of climate change, we need to attend to our own specific needs.”

Hands-on EM programs are always popular. Sessions introduce employees to tasks such as site evacuation, emergency first aid and triage, working with firefighters and other first responders, and working with civil authorities to inspect a damaged building. Trainers often cover the uses of emergency equipment and participate in test evacuations. In the past, getting everyone to leave a building could be difficult, as some people didn’t take drills and alarms seriously. Now, however, most employees are eager to get involved in any training that enhances their safety. More than a decade after 9/11, the image of the burning World Trade Center remains clear in most minds.

Practical Concerns

Librarians worry, however, that hands-on training does not always lead to sustainable preparedness for emergencies. A library can offer a series of springtime sessions on evacuation techniques, but by the end of summer many employees have forgotten the basics. Some employees have retired or moved to different jobs, while newly hired people can be completely unfamiliar with office emergency measures. Refresher courses can be expensive, and managers might complain about disruptions in their departmental schedules.

The answer in many libraries is the tabletop exercise, in which the trainer draws up a disaster scenario and gives it to a group of employees. Often the scenario is kept secret until the exercise takes place, so that participants are forced to deal with the element of surprise and to think on their feet. To make the exercise more challenging, the trainer can set strict time limits. A tabletop exercise can take a day, or an hour, or even the twenty minutes of a coffee break.

Tabletop exercises can have intentionally vague objectives or specific goals. A trainer might ask a group of library staff members what they would do after a fire breaks out in their building and damages a large number of hardcopy and digital items. The group can then discuss damage-assessment procedures, “bibliotriage,” and the replacement of lost items. Or the group might determine that many items were obsolete and that there was no need to replace them. The results of such exercises can be illuminating as well as surprising.

Essential Questions

An exercise involving specific goals could begin with a brief scenario followed by a request for particular information. In this case, the trainer suggests to a library’s technical services department that an ice storm will hit Southern Ontario next December. What is the first message that the department should send to employees? What form will the message take? What message would the department compose for a 1-800 line or a website? Members of the department can have anywhere from half a day to answer one of these questions, or twenty minutes to answer all of them. Groups with extensive tabletop experience can work at great speed and produce excellent results.

“Tabletopping” can serve a variety of purposes. It can provide inexpensive EM orientation to a large number of employees in a short time. Some companies use tabletop exercises for team-building; others use them as a way to introduce new employees to the organizational culture and priorities. Exercises can expose weaknesses in a library’s disaster plans, and demonstrate better ways of dealing with practical problems. Tabletop exercises can also reveal opportunities for new efficiencies. For example, a tabletop scenario for a corporate library includes the loss of several stand-alone workstations during a fire. At first, exercise participants are aghast. How will they survive without those workstations, which contained so much vital data!

It turns out, however, that almost all of the data in the lost workstations have been duplicated on the corporate network. Some data are obsolete. In fact, none of the lost data are needed for the department to resume business. At the conclusion of the exercise, the library asks the corporate IT group to remove the unnecessary workstations.

“It’s easy to understand why librarians like tabletop exercises,” says Jim, a retired firefighter and emergency management trainer in Vancouver. “Tabletops are easy to organize. They deliver useful results. They’re fast and inexpensive. And they can be developed with a library’s specific risks and problems in mind. I don’t know of a better all-round training tool than the tabletop exercise.”

Libraries that decide to mount tabletopping programs should remember to save all exercise results for future reference. Senior management and auditors can use them to ascertain a specific department’s level of emergency preparedness, or an entire library’s need for better post-disaster communications with patrons. Here it is essential to remember that nobody “fails” a tabletop exercise. Almost all results are valid and useful in some way, and when libraries use them to enhance employee safety, everybody gets top marks.

See below for a sample tabletop exercise: A burst pipe causes flooding.

About the Author

guy robertson

Guy Robertson is an Instructor at Langara College and the Justice Institute of British Columbia, Canada. Guy is noted for his research into book and manuscript theft, data loss and protection, and financial fraud and forgery. He has delivered keynote speeches, seminars, and workshops at conferences and has published several books and papers including Disaster Planning for Libraries (2015) and Robertson on Library Security and Disaster Planning (2016). He is in the process of writing the book, Disaster Planning for Special Libraries.

robertson on library security and disaster planning   disaster planning for libraries

If you are interested in purchasing one of Guy Robertson’s books, visit the Elsevier Store. His books are also available online via ScienceDirect.

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