Post-incident critiques often confirm that experience gained during exercises was the best way to prepare teams to respond effectively to an emergency. Exercises should be designed to engage team members and get them working together to manage the response to a hypothetical incident. Exercises enhance knowledge of plans, allow members to improve their own performance and identify opportunities to improve capabilities to respond to real events.
Exercises are a great method to:
- Evaluate the preparedness program
- Identify planning and procedural deficiencies
- Test or validate recently changed procedures or plans
- Clarify roles and responsibilities
- Obtain participant feedback and recommendations for program improvement
- Measure improvement compared to performance objectives
- Improve coordination between internal and external teams, organizations and entities
- Validate training and education
- Increase awareness and understanding of hazards and the potential impacts of hazards.
- Assess the capabilities of existing resources and identify needed resources
Types of Exercises
There are different types of exercises that can be used to evaluate program plans, procedures and capabilities.
- Walkthroughs, workshops or orientation seminars
- Tabletop exercises
- Functional exercises
- Full-scale exercises
Walkthroughs, workshops and orientation seminars are basic training for team members. They are designed to familiarize team members with emergency response, business continuity and crisis communications plans and their roles and responsibilities as defined in the plans.
Tabletop exercises are discussion-based sessions where team members meet in an informal, classroom setting to discuss their roles during an emergency and their responses to a particular emergency situation. A facilitator guides participants through a discussion of one or more scenarios. The duration of a tabletop exercise depends on the audience, the topic being exercised and the exercise objectives. Many tabletop exercises can be conducted in a few hours, so they are cost-effective tools to validate plans and capabilities.
Functional exercises allow personnel to validate plans and readiness by performing their duties in a simulated operational environment. Activities for a functional exercise are scenario-driven, such as the failure of a critical business function or a specific hazard scenario. Functional exercises are designed to exercise specific team members, procedures and resources (e.g. communications, warning, notifications and equipment set-up).
A full-scale exercise is as close to the real thing as possible. It is a lengthy exercise which takes place on location using, as much as possible, the equipment and personnel that would be called upon in a real event. Full-scale exercises are conducted by public agencies. They often include participation from local businesses.
Developing an Exercise Program
Develop an exercise program beginning with an assessment of needs and current capabilities. Review the risk assessment and program performance objectives. Conduct a walkthrough or orientation session to familiarize team members with the preparedness plans. Review roles and responsibilities and ensure everyone is familiar with incident management. Identify probable scenarios for emergencies and business disruption. Use these scenarios as the basis for tabletop exercises. As the program matures, consider holding a functional exercise. Contact local emergency management officials to determine if there is an opportunity to participate in a full-scale exercise within your community.
Exercises should be evaluated to determine whether exercise objectives were met and to identify opportunities for program improvement. A facilitated “hot wash” discussion held at the end of an exercise is a great way to solicit feedback and identify suggestions for improvement. Evaluation forms are another way for participants to provide comments and suggestions. An after-action report that documents suggestions for improvement should be compiled following the exercise and copies should be distributed to management and others. Suggestions for improvement should be addressed through the organization’s corrective action program.
Resources for Exercises
- Emergency Planning Exercises for Your Organization - Federal Emergency Management Agency
- Homeland Security Exercise, and Evaluation Program - U.S. Department of Homeland Security
- IS-139 Exercise Design - Emergency Management Institute Independent Study Program
- A Guide for the Conduct of Emergency Management Tabletop Activities - Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education
- Guide to Test, Training, and Exercise Programs for IT Plans and Capabilities - Recommendations of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Special Publication 800-84