Scenario-based Training: The Best Case for Preventing the Worst

Issue 4 and Volume 110.

By Terry Cooper, FM Global

When one domino falls, others usually follow. Consider the following sequence of events, which occurred at an AmerenUE power plant in August of 2000.

5:54 p.m. All six power plant units are operating as usual.
5:55 p.m. A lube oil line ruptures in one unit, sparking a fire.
6:10 p.m. Operators take all units off-line.
6:15 p.m. Switchgear and DC power to the plant and switchyard fail (meanwhile, the fire spreads to other areas of the plant).
6:15 – 8:00 p.m. Transformers begin failing as a result of the fire.
8:00 p.m. All power to the plant and substation is dead.

Luckily, all 24 employees escaped (only one or two minor injuries) and no major environmental damage occurred. AmerenUE, however, did suffer tens of millions of dollars in major equipment damage, cleanup and restoration costs.

In the fire’s immediate aftermath, thousands of customers were left without electricity. A nearby bridge on a major road was closed, snarling traffic in both directions. Hundreds of area residents were evacuated. Federal emergency management crews were called to the scene. And, of course, local news coverage was extensive.

When one domino falls, others could follow…unless you stop them.

The idea behind scenario-based training has been around for a while. The premise is simple: think of a disaster scenario at your facility and how your employees would react to it, and then analyze how you could improve that process to avert further catastrophes.

Scenario-based training is popular in the chemical industry, yet new to the power generation industry.

“What may seem like common sense is not always common practice, often because the various disaster scenarios that could occur at power plants are not necessarily common knowledge, even among the most experienced employees,” explained Dimitrios Karydas, a senior account engineer for FM Global, a business property insurer and loss prevention advisor. “It may be difficult to conceive of a crisis if you’ve never seen, heard or read about it before.”

“The ultimate goal is to prevent property losses,” he continued, “but when they do occur, the potentially devastating results must, and can, be mitigated – a challenging, but not impossible task for power companies.”

A power plant is a complex operation. Thanks in part to advances in automation, a facility today might require only half the staff of a decade ago. The same risks remain, however, and those risks must now be handled by fewer employees, whose main concern is the generation of power. If equipment fails, they’re responsible for fixing or replacing it immediately to produce power for their customers.

Chances are, most power plant workers have dealt with small incidents, but have never witnessed a disaster. One or two employees may know what to do, but such large-scale events often happen overnight when fewer people are around. Besides, automated equipment isn’t designed to deal with every conceivable crisis.

When disasters happen, those untrained to react may not be mentally prepared to do so. While procedures (several thousand in some cases) may be in place to cover normal and abnormal conditions, when faced with a stressful situation that offers only minutes – even seconds – to react, people are forced to make fast decisions, and not always the right ones.

They can’t reasonably be expected to refer to a thousand procedures, none of which may address the particular incident that’s happening at the time. That’s where scenario-based training can help.

These exercises are designed to simulate real-life conditions. This includes training power plant employees not only to think fast, and in a diagnostic, interpretive way, to assess the situation and make the right decisions, but also to help them develop the courage to make those decisions under stress.

How It’s Typically Done

  1. Select a disaster scenario.
  2. Use a graphic or video representation of scenario events.
  3. Identify weak points in your reaction process.
  4. Correct those weak points.

“When you look at major crises, like Three Mile Island or even AmerenUE’s fire,” Karydas noted, “there wasn’t just one event, but a sequence of events that occurred. And during that sequence, if those responding had done something different, the disaster might have been prevented, or at least lessened to a great extent.”

Refer back to the timeline of events at the beginning of this article. You could use this to create a scenario-based training exercise to determine how you and your employees would have reacted if this were to happen at your facility.

For instance, when the initiating event (the lube oil line rupture) occurred and the fire started, it likely set off countless alarm signals in the facility. At that point, would your plant employees have been well-enough prepared to remain calm and address the following questions:

  • What is the problem(s) facing us?
  • What level of priority should we give this?
  • What’s the diagnosis?
  • What other problems could this cause, and what steps can we take to prevent them from happening?

But making that initial diagnosis of the problem correctly is of utmost importance. Once that determination has been made, step back, assess the situation, and modify the response, if necessary, to avoid further damage.

“While many power companies could conduct scenario-based training exercises on their own, most don’t because it may not have occurred to them,” Karydas observed. “Plus, they may not be aware of how best to respond to all the potentially devastating scenarios that could affect their facilities.”

Consider contacting a scenario-based training expert to help you get started. For the most part, personnel and consultant time will be your only cost. There’s usually no additional capital expenditure. You might start by training your high-level operators. They, in turn, could train the rest of your staff (four hours, on average, are all that’s needed if the leader of the group is trained well enough).


Terry Cooper is an assistant vice president at FM Global, a leading insurer of the world’s largest businesses. He has 31 years’ experience in the power generation industry working for a power generation utility, as a consultant and with FM Global.