Emergency response exercises go virtual during the pandemic

Millions of Canadians rely on CEPA members to safely deliver the oil and gas products they need… 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

We use oil and gas products in almost everything we do – from going to the supermarket to watching our favourite TV shows. So, the pipeline companies that deliver those vital products have a huge responsibility to prevent service interruptions. And that’s why they must plan, prepare, and practice for all kinds of potential emergencies.

This week’s blog post looks at how one CEPA member, Trans-Northern Pipeline Inc. (TNPI), kept their emergency response exercises going during the global pandemic.


CEPA members held 393 emergency response exercises in 2019


Emergency response exercises are vital for pipeline safety and reliability. They allow everyone involved to practice and learn, so that, in the rare case of an emergency, pipeline companies are well prepared. These exercises also test the companies’ emergency response plans and can identify areas of needed improvement.

Exercises range from full-scale simulations to tabletop sessions. A full-scale simulation mimics a real emergency. It involves all relevant stakeholders – first responders, multiple agencies and jurisdictions, contractors, response organizations, and consultants, as well as any neighbouring First Nation communities. And the company also mobilizes its personnel and equipment.

A less complex, but equally important, emergency response activity is the tabletop exercise. Those exercises are essential to helping participants understand and plan for different emergency scenarios.

TNPI’s remote tabletop exercises – applying lessons learned to build engagement


TNPI operates pipelines that transport refined petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel. They conduct multiple tabletop exercises annually in each province where they operate. It’s one segment of a larger emergency management program that includes a comprehensive range of exercises, all the way to full-scale simulations. Because those exercises are important to the overall safety of pipeline systems, TNPI has been delivering them remotely throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

TNPI’s Manager of Security, Environment and Emergency Management, Alain Boulanger, shared some of the learnings they had while conducting tabletop exercises remotely.

“We typically conduct tabletop exercises in a large boardroom with all participants around the table,” says Boulanger. “So, in the pandemic, we’ve had to think differently and use different communication platforms to run the scenarios and keep people engaged.”

Boulanger admits remote delivery had its challenges in the beginning. The biggest challenge was finding ways to keep people engaged in the online exercises. “We found some people were less comfortable speaking up, especially with sessions that can go for two to three hours. After our first online session, we learned pretty quickly that we had to make changes to keep people engaged and focused.”

Tools they used to keep people engaged during these virtual exercises included communication software with live polls, quizzes, word clouds, and Q&As. “Once participants got comfortable with the online tools, they were able to seamlessly play their assigned roles in an incident,” says Boulanger.


Can remote activation work for real emergencies?


Learning to manage potential crises remotely became standard practice for the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning with activation of crisis management teams at the start of the pandemic. Could this be a new way of managing emergencies?

“We’re getting used to managing training through webinars, and we know we can manage exercises and real emergencies remotely,” says TNPI’s Boulanger. “We will always need certain key roles at the scene of an incident – such as the Incident Commander, Operations, and Safety Officer, as well as supporting functions for repair and clean-up.  But we now know that we can effectively activate some members of the Incident Command System (ICS) team virtually.”

CEPA members deliver the natural gas and oil Canada and the world need in the safest, most responsible way. They do this by making safety the highest priority through an ingrained safety culture, exhaustive emergency planning… and frequent emergency response exercises.

About Pipelines thanks Alain Boulanger for his participation in this blog.

Learn more about how the industry prepares for emergencies: