A Few Simple Gadgets for Your Exercise Toolbox ― They Hold the Key to Your Exercise Success!
Planning & Management
Written by Regina Phelps   
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Exercises are the “bread and butter” of emergency management. they are the way we train our staff, validate our plans, and prove that we can recover our company, organization or agency.

What I have observed in my years of professional practice is that although many companies hold exercises – and the organizers may be emergency response subject matter experts – the organizers don’t necessarily excel in the discipline of conducting the actual exercises, which means the company simply doesn’t get the best results out of the effort. With a bit of careful planning, creativity and vision, you can develop not just a good exercise, but a great exercise that will really help you develop your program, build your plans, and mature your team.

The Exercise Toolkit

What do you want to have in your exercise toolkit? I highly recommend these four “gadgets” to ensure your exercise success:

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    The Right Question
  2. The “Secret Weapon”
  3. The Right Type of Exercise
  4. The Simulation Team


The Right Question

The first important tool in your toolkit is a question. It’s one question you will want to ask yourself, your colleagues, your Design Team, and others having a role in the exercise over and over again during the design process. This question will help you stay on track and keep your vision from start to finish. The question? “Why are we doing this exercise?” Don’t be turned off by the simplicity of that question; the answer holds the key to your exercise.

Years ago, as a result of one such exercise design process deteriorating into a participant’s personal agenda, I came up with the idea of asking, “Why are we doing this exercise?” as a regular part of the planning process. When it seems like the exercise is heading in the wrong direction, I just ask this simple question. The discussion that inevitably follows helps to realign the energy and makes sure we deliver on the exercise objectives.

In addition, when embarking on the design process, this simple question can help:

  • Determine what type of exercise will likely deliver the best results.
  • Develop the exercise goal, scope and objectives.
  • Determine which narrative will yield those results.
  • Keep you and the Design Team on track.


The Secret Weapon

Now that you know the simple, and yet powerful, question, you need to learn about the secret weapon in exercise design: the Design Team. Many emergency management professionals tell me they design their exercises by themselves. I don’t care how smart you are, how long you have been at the organization, or how many exercises you have done in the past; you can’t know or think of everything. What makes an exercise hit home and really sizzle is a narrative and highly specific injects (additional problems) tailored to your company. You can’t do that alone; you need some help. Your Design Team has two main jobs – to validate the narrative and to develop the injects.

It also turns out that in addition to helping you validate the narrative and develop the injects, there are great side benefits to having a Design Team:

The design process is a great way to bring more people “into the fold” and into your program. The Design Team members become believers, and they share their belief with others.

The Design Team learns so much when they are involved in designing an exercise. They learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the processes and the plans.

The insight that the Design Team gains by being part of the exercise design process can help build awareness in their sphere of influence, along with engaging and exciting others to make the plans and the program better.

Who Should Be on the Design Team?

A top-notch Design Team member will have several qualities:

  • They will have a good basic knowledge of the overall business.
  • They will have been with the company for a year or more in order to know some of the ins and outs of the place.
  • They will be a subject matter expert in an area you will likely be touching on in the narrative.

A typical Design Team will include members from the following departments:

  • Facilities (critical if doing a “hard incident”1).
  • IT (essential if impacting any technology).
  • Security (often knows lots of interesting tidbits).
  • Human Resources (especially if there are lots of “human capital” issues).
  • Representatives from the affected key departments or key lines of business (to help you develop highly specific injects).

Note that the departments listed above are typical to Design Teams. Your organization may benefit from having team members representing a different “slice” of your business.

Here’s an example to illustrate why it’s important to have all the right players. I once did an exercise where the client wanted the exercise narrative to be a fire. I thought that wasn’t an effective narrative; after all, they were in a contemporary high-rise building with full sprinkler fire protection. He still was very eager to have a fire scenario. After pondering a bit, I suggested we first introduce a water main failure. This would disrupt water delivery to the building for 24 hours while it was being repaired. Then the fire could occur, maybe even be considered “suspicious.”

I asked the client if the building had a fire cistern. (These are reliable water sources for fire-fighting efforts; it is a common high-rise back-up water supply for just such an occasion.) When he said “no,” I insisted we get a Facilities person on the Design Team to validate that, along with other building assumptions we were making. Sure enough, our Facilities rep. confirmed they had a cistern with 25,000 gallons of water avaiable at a moment’s notice. By calling in additional “brain power” to the design process, we learned that a fire scenario simply wouldn’t have worked for this exercise.

This is a good example of why you need a Design Team, and who to consider being part of that team. If you launch a narrative or insert an inject into your exercise that is incorrect or poorly vetted, your exercise can go flat and you lose credibility. Your Design Team will help ensure that the information is accurate.

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What Makes a Good Exercise Design Team Member?

As you are reading this section, you might be getting an idea of who would make a good team member. When picking Design Team members, look for the following skills:

  • Creativity
  • Meets or exceeds deadlines
  • Detail-oriented
  • Can think on their own
  • Can keep a secret
  • Are not on the exercise team


The Right Type of Exercise

Selecting the right type of exercise is also an important tool for your success. I always ask myself three questions to help me decide which type is the best:

  • The first question is always, “Why are we doing this?”
  • Second question: “What is the maturity of the program and the plan?”
  • Third question: “What is the experience level of the team being exercised?”

Once you have the answers to those questions, you should be able to determine which exercise type will yield the best results:

  • Orientation
  • Drill
  • Tabletop (basic or advanced)
  • Functional
  • Full-scale

Exercises are iterative in nature. You always start a team with the most basic – orientation – and then progress them through the other styles. Most planners conduct tabletop exercises the majority of the time, so my comments will focus on that style.

Tabletop Exercises – Basic or Advanced?

That question might sound like the refrain you hear at the grocery check-out line (“Paper or plastic?”), but it requires more thought to answer. There are significant differences between the two types of tabletops.

Basic Tabletop Exercises are, by far, the most commonly held exercise. A Tabletop – even a Basic Tabletop – is a bit more realistic than an Orientation Exercise and is highly malleable. It can also be “spiced up” a bit by turning it into the Advanced Tabletop version (which has the Simulation Team present in the room). There are several different ways to construct and deliver a tabletop – it all goes back to our favorite question, “Why are we doing this exercise?”

  • Basic Tabletop:
    • Straightforward narrative
    • Several injects
    • Discussion-based
  • Advanced Tabletop:
    • More detailed narrative
    • More injects (delivered on a Message Center form for a bit more realism)
    • A Simulation Team in the room, acting as “the outside world”


The Simulation Team

In an Advanced Tabletop, a Simulation Team (or Sim Team) is used to interact with the players. They play two roles: (1) They act as the outside world; and (2) They are there to react to the players when the players are responding to exercise injects. The biggest benefit of the Sim Team is that it gives the players someone to talk to! If there is no Sim Team, the typical player will simply snap their fingers when challenged with a resource request and magically get everything that they want. As an exercise designer, I just can’t have that! If they always get everything they want, they will never grow and develop as a team or really develop their plans.

What are some exercise suggestions you can give to your Sim Team to enhance their performance?

  • For a scenario where you are the only disaster in town, when they are asked for resources by the players, I advise them to give only 80–90% of what is being requested, but never everything they want. Simply handing over every resource they asked for doesn’t help the teams mature or grow their thinking.
  • If the scenario is a massive regional event, like an earthquake, give them no more than 25% of what the players ask for. In a real-world situation like this, supplies will be in critically short supply. The players need to feel that shortage to really understand their planning needs.


Fill Your Toolkit

Fill your exercise toolkit with these powerful tools to mature and deepen your plans and your teams. In no time, you will be a master exercise designer!


About the Author
Regina Phelps is an internationally recognized expert in the field of emergency management and contingency planning. She is the founder of Emergency Management & Safety Solutions and has provided consultation and speaking services to clients in four continents since 1982. Phelps is the author of Emergency Management Exercises: From Response to Recovery — Everything You Need to Know to Design a Great Exercise, just released from Chandi Media. She can be reached at Regina@ems-solutionsinc.com, www.ems-solutionsinc.com

1 A hard incident is an event with a physical impact – something you can see or feel. A fire, earthquake, tornado or hurricane are all examples of hard incidents.