Central Alabama Electric Cooperative conducted a comprehensive tabletop exercise last week of its emergency response plan, which entailed having the co-op's emergency management team respond to a series of vandalisms at crucial substations, the effects of a widespread avian influenza pandemic (which affected 40% of its workforce, including much of the senior management team) and the accidental discharge of a USAF Electromagnetic Pulse Weapons Test from Maxwell Air Force Base.

"This was a very important exercise for our response team to go through," Tom Stackhouse, CEO of Central Alabama Electric Cooperative, said. "The scenarios were designed in such a way as to challenge our Emergency Management Team to focus on the circumstances and the elements that were produced instead of the details of the impending action that caused them."

The exercise employed the use of the Cooperative Strategy Lab, a mobile computer application provided by Cooperative Consultants, and powered by the GroupSystems ThinkTank software, that facilitates open discussions, more effective group collaborations, and the benefit of dramatically increasing the amount of information presented, discussed, and resolved in one meeting.

"It was very important for us to test as many different aspects of our plan as possible during this exercise," Stackhouse said. "There is no doubt that without the Cooperative Strategy Lab we would not have been able to completely deal with three scenarios, as well as discuss the strengths, gaps, and changes the plan needed."

This is the second year the tabletop exercise has been required by the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) for all borrowers to complete on an annual basis. The original intent was to test its current plan and help identify any gaps that may exist before the chaos of an actual emergency or disaster situation. The majority of electric co-ops that perform this exercise are finding that it is crucial in training the Emergency Management Team in developing the right mindset and focusing on the problems, not necessarily the event that led to that particular situation.

"In designing these exercises, we take the approach that this is not just a time for a co-op to test its plan, but is the perfect opportunity to train its key employees on the specifics of what's in the plan, both individually in their own roles and responsibilities, as well as collectively as a team," Kevin Bullock, CEO of Cooperative Consultants, said. "Since the Cooperative Strategy Lab completely eliminates the dominant personality that controls most meetings, and removes the fear factor of negative consequences present in the majority of all meetings, the exercise becomes not only a comprehensive test of the specifics of the ERP, but also serves as an in-depth training opportunity allowing employees to apply their responsibilities in many different situations they may have never dealt with, or even considered, before."

"This was our second year exercising our plan, and we had dealt with the bird-flu scenario last year as well," Julie Young, CAEC's vice president of Consumer Services and Business Development said. "Even though we were more familiar in responding to the end elements from last year, we were still somewhat surprised and thrown for a loop when we learned all the TamiFlu that we purchased for preventative measures was ineffective with the new migrated form of the virus. It really made us think on our feet."

While RUS requires that any borrower test their ERP on an annual basis, Stackhouse said he uses it as an efficient way to allow his team to put themselves in a particular environment and log the steps they would take to remedy the situation.

"It's especially useful for any type of overwhelming scenario in which most people would not know what to do, and the specifics of the event may not be spelled out in the ERP," Stackhouse said. "An exercise designed and carried out in this way helps to train our team to respond to the catastrophic or damaging results of the disaster, which only serves to improve the accuracy of the ERP in detailing steps to take if 'ABC' has occurred instead of steps after a specific event, such as a tornado or vandalistic act."

"I have to commend the team from Cooperative Consultants," Jimmy Gray, vice president of CAEC , said. "When the electromagnetic pulse scenario was first introduced, people were wondering about the likelihood of such an event taking place, but the Cooperative Consultants team used it as a way to provide an almost exact duplicate of the Katrina situation, with the inability to use any electronic, telecommunications, or radio equipment."

CAEC did have one member of the EMT that was caught in the Katrina disaster who commented, "this is exactly what is was like during the Katrina aftermath - not knowing what has happened, inability to call anyone or receive updates from news or radio stations."

"From a cost-savings standpoint, there's simply no accurate way to measure how much a detailed tabletop exercise can save a cooperative," Bullock said. "But just finding one small crack or gap in a plan, or training a team member on an aspect of the plan he or she was unaware of, that alone could result in the savings of millions of dollars in time and resources during a disaster."

"It was very important for us to do more than just the minimum to comply with RUS," Stackhouse said. "Businesses that conduct in-depth, comprehensive training and testing tabletop exercises, such as this, help their employees, and ultimately, their consumers in a tremendous way because just knowing the company's response plan is not enough. It takes practice."

Stackhouse and Bullock presented a case study of the 2006 exercise at the 2007 TechAdvantage Conference, in Las Vegas, Nevada held just prior to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) Annual Meeting this past March. Both parties received high praise for the creativity and enterprising approach to testing a utility's ERP in an effective and highly efficient manner.