Planning Your Next Table Top Exercise
Dr. Roger Mason – LECMgt
Table top exercises can be a cost effective tool to improve disaster, security, and emergency management skills. Table top exercises can provide a realistic training format where participants can make real world decisions in a consequence free environment. There are four things which should be included in a table top exercise: decision making, realism, consequences, and time.
Focus on Decision Making
The focal point of a table top exercise should be decision making. This means that every person participating should be presented with a series of decision options. These can be presented in two ways. The first is in the initial briefing where the scenario is presented. The initial decisions are based on the situation as presented to the decision maker. Additional decision points should be designed into the exercise. These are places where the simulated event has a set of unique circumstances that require some type of decision or response.
Many table top exercises are based on fanciful hopes for how things will turn out during a real crucial event. Military, public safety, security and emergency management professionals will tell you that during a real crisis things often do not work as planned. I have attended numerous table tops where the evacuation was seamless, the response was flawless, information was complete, and communications were unbroken.
When analyzing the simulated organizations or agencies during exercise planning evaluate what is realistic. If the radio system in your real world setting has blank spots do not allow the participants to have perfect communications. If day to day personnel levels are at a minimum do not factor 100% personnel in the exercise. Avoid the Star Trek approach of warp speed and the ability to teleport equipment to any place simulated in the exercise. In the real world things take time to collect and for people to respond.
A closely related issue to realism is ensuring the exercise is consequence based. The facilitator of the exercise must ensure that decision based consequences are included. If someone orders an evacuation onto the same street that is serving as a staging area there should be a consequence within the play of the exercise. This can be accomplished by limiting successive decisions or assets that are part of the exercise.
(Ex: Your evacuation path has filled the street with pedestrians so your responders are temporarily blocked in their staging area.)
I have attended many table top exercises where an intersection is the incident command post, the staging area, and the triage center. By ensuring there are realistic consequences for decisions the exercise players gain real understanding and not an unrealistic assessment of their capabilities and resources. This does not mean the facilitator should be hyper critical of every decision but not allow players to take actions without consequences that would be encountered in the real world.
Time is an important factor during any critical incident. Decisions must be made when information is incomplete. Resources needed for a course of action may be temporarily unavailable. Time plays into each of these real world problems. When designing your exercise you should establish what period of real world time this exercise will represent.
There are several ways to introduce the challenges of time management into your tabletop. The first is to divide the exercise into a series of decision points. A decision point is a place where the exercise team must announce their decisions. During many exercises a solution can often be developed if the players have unlimited time to work on it. One approach is to announce the players will have a set period of time for discussions and decision making. At the end of the period they must make a decision or forfeit their opportunity.
This can put a great deal of increasing stress of the players. If the facilitators sit quietly for most of the decision period and suddenly announces you have two minutes left the stress levels related to decision making increases substantially. The person who claims this is not fair should be reminded that they knew how much time they had and during a real emergency they may not have the luxury of established periods of decision making.
The second approach to including time is by setting approximate time estimates for actions they can take of resources they can request. If the exercise is the first 90 minutes of a terrorist incident and your real world response time for a bomb squad is two hours then the bomb squad option is off the table. This does not mean you count simulated seconds in deciding what should be involved but this should serve as a general guideline to keep the exercise realistic.
Taking it to the Next Level
There are several approaches that can take a table top to the next level. One of the best is the use of maps during the exercise. A map can provide a visual focus for the players and help track the action and decisions. Many tabletops involve a group of people sitting around a table imaging a certain type of emergency and musing about what they would do.
The map should be simple. Architectural drawings and construction floor plans can often add so much visual clutter and details that they can be cumbersome to manipulate. The map should include the physical details that are important to your exercise. If the exercise involves a building evacuation the maps should show each floor and the hallways and stairway/exits. Details like closets or furniture should be omitted. Too much detail can bog the players down.
People say that planning and facilitating tabletop is easy. This is true if you are not interested in optimizing your training opportunities. Designing an effective tabletop does not have to be over complex but it should be thorough. The parameters of what actions the players can take and how long they can take them should be representative of the real world conditions you are simulating.
Every player in the exercise should have opportunities to make decisions. What they decide to do and how they will do it should be based on the real world situation. The decisions they make should be associated with realistic consequences. Time should be limited. All of these limitations serve to keep your tabletop realistic and will help to optimize the training value for your team.