Credit union leaders need a plan for a possible pandemic. A tabletop session is a good way to start.
With the recent and significant uptick in global cases of the coronavirus (also known as COVID-19), and the virus now prevalent in the U.S., credit union executives and their leadership teams are assessing how this could impact their business operations. If you are not preparing already, you should start now.
When analyzing preparedness organization-wide, multiple areas need to be addressed to ensure that your pandemic plan will mitigate the impact on your credit union headquarters and branch operations. It is important to take a holistic approach to your plan and consider the domino effects that can occur when certain pieces of your plan fall apart. Otherwise, your credit union could face significant exposure if the threat of COVID-19 becomes a reality.
Start With a Tabletop Session
The best way to accurately gauge your pandemic plan—and by extension, your CU’s emergency action plan—is through a tabletop session with your leadership team and personnel from headquarters and branch locations. This type of exercise uses escalating scenarios to challenge your current policies and procedures and is a valuable tool to highlight areas of your plan that need to be modified.
Through this forum, you can verify that key personnel are aware of their roles throughout the emergency and can troubleshoot areas of responsibility that are not being properly filled. Tabletop sessions will often expose issues with plans that previously sounded good on paper but that, when put to the test, fail with the variables that inevitably occur in these types of threat events.
Consider the following escalating scenario:
COVID-19 infections have spiked in the United States and there are numerous cases in your region. Your CEO is hospitalized with severe pneumonia symptoms just days after returning from an event that he attended with several other members of your leadership team. Many key personnel in your organization are over the age of 50, making them more susceptible to the disease. The proximity from the event makes it likely that the others were exposed. Unfortunately, the CEO and others had spent time at headquarters and several local branches prior to becoming symptomatic.
Does your credit union’s current emergency plan cover this scenario? If not, what changes should you make to the plan to account for something like this happening at your credit union?
Be Prepared to Cash in on Your Emergency Action Plan
Using your emergency action plan and pandemic plan, how will you handle the next steps? Many emergency action plans quickly hit a roadblock when key personnel are no longer able to perform their roles and responsibilities. For this reason, it is essential that communication trees and decision-making hierarchies have redundancy or back-up plans. Decisions will also need to be made about quarantines, having your employees work from home, and the impact of each on critical operations for your credit union. These are just a few examples of the valuable discussions that come out of a tabletop session.
The above scenario is an example of a tabletop exercise that has risen through several levels of escalation. When planning for your session to assess your pandemic preparedness, you want to start with the lowest risk level and then ramp up the threat as you proceed.
Create your first scenario based on what we currently know about COVID-19 and the threat that it poses to your credit union:
- What should you do NOW to prepare?
- Do you need to call your insurance provider yet?
- Does your insurance provide the pandemic and business interruption coverage that you need and will infections that occur from exposure at work fall under workers’ compensation requirements? (A large insurance brokerage we spoke to recently seemed largely unprepared to handle the potential needs of their clients if this reaches pandemic status.)
- What communications should be sent to employees and members, if any?
- Will your credit union have a policy for employees who have been exposed to the virus outside of work, such as through a family member or friend, to follow?
- Will your IT safety protocols allow for employees to work from home? What risk does your headquarters face versus your branches?
- Are your branches prepared to handle an influx of members concerned about their finances and investments?
These are some of the questions that should be asked at each level of your scenario to ensure that you take proper action at every stage of the pandemic, should it occur.
Your COVID-19 pandemic plan scenarios will escalate from this current threat level through the potential evolution of the emergency. The next level may have more cases in the U.S. Then there will be infections reported in your state and city. You need a plan now for how you will handle interactions with the public in your branches.
There are concerns that the virus lives on surfaces for multiple days and China has even gone to the extent of burning currency that may be contaminated. How will you handle the money that you receive as part of transactions? How will you handle need for increased and more frequent cleaning and disinfecting of branch and office surfaces, ATMs, kiosks and drive-through canisters?
The highest levels of your tabletop session will navigate the issues you may face if numbers of employees are infected, hospitalized or unable to work—and the potential death of key personnel. With one in five infection cases resulting in severe symptoms, it would be likely that a percentage of your infected employees would be seriously impacted by the disease.
The Value of Third-Party Expertise
We strongly advise that you employ the expertise of a third-party professional who can consult with you on your emergency action plan and pandemic plan and create these scenarios for you. That professional should be able to guide the discussion, ask questions that you may not think of, and provide expert advice as you expose weaknesses in your procedures. Without the aid of a subject matter expert, you may be successful in identifying where you need to improve but remain unclear on how to fix the issues.
As with many other areas of safety preparedness, working with a professional will often save confusion and lost time. An outside expert also has the benefit of being a neutral party who can critique variables without bias. Running your own tabletop can create fear of exposing areas where your credit union is struggling. If your hired partner does things properly, they will be able to navigate these situations without bias and without embarrassing the participants.
While it may currently seem unlikely that the high-level scenarios will happen, it is essential to prepare for any conceivable direction that this COVID-19 outbreak may take. By being willing to talk about the uncomfortable situations now, you will make them significantly less uncomfortable if they were to happen. Proper preparation for a coronavirus pandemic will improve the likelihood of survival for your employees, your members and your credit union. It is time to take this seriously and a tabletop session is the best place to start.
Jason Perry is president/CEO of Trident Shield, Earlysville, Virginia, which offers security consulting services, emergency preparedness consulting and active shooter training for businesses, including credit unions.