Tabletop Exercise Guide: How-To and Sample Scenarios
Tabletop exercises can help prepare your company for big emergencies on a small budget and be modified to fit any scenario. Learn how to run your own alongside our guided template.
Planning for an unknown future can be overwhelming. We’ve all found ourselves in an unfortunate situation due to a lack of foresight and planning. But one tried-and-true method for mitigating the unknown is the tabletop exercise.
Designing your organization’s reaction to any future incident requires significant forethought and an organized effort to take proactive steps and minimize risks. For many businesses, this type of focused preparation starts with creating an emergency plan. Over time, organizations may develop a more comprehensive business continuity plan for specific scenarios—each intended to document and provide detailed instructions on how the organization will respond if/when an emergency occurs.
But how can you feel confident that your emergency operations or business continuity plans are sufficient before you need to put them into action? Thankfully, tabletop exercises are a great tool that provides employee safety and business continuity leaders with a low-cost but high-impact way of determining emergency preparedness before a crisis occurs.
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What Is a Tabletop Exercise?
A tabletop exercise is a simulated, interactive exercise that tests an organization’s risk management and response procedures. They help train key personnel for any emergency by allowing you to assess your protection and preparation tactics, practice your response plans, and improve your recovery capabilities in a risk-free environment.
Tabletop exercises can also help ensure that critical equipment and tools work as intended and all responsible parties know what to do when a critical event occurs.
How do tabletop exercises work?
During a tabletop exercise, key personnel with emergency management roles and responsibilities gather to discuss various simulated tabletop exercise scenarios. Because the environment of a tabletop exercise is non-threatening, exercise participants can calmly rehearse their roles, ask questions, and troubleshoot problem areas.
For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—which coordinates emergency response following federally declared disasters—regularly uses tabletop exercises to test and validate policies, current plans, procedures, equipment, and more. FEMA also relies on tabletop exercises to clarify roles and responsibilities to ensure interagency coordination and improve communication when responding to natural disasters and other emergency situations.
How long should a tabletop exercise last?
A tabletop exercise’s duration depends on the scenario being rehearsed, the number of participants involved, and the objectives established ahead of time. Often, these exercises can be completed in a few hours; however, it is common for government agencies and large organizations to dedicate multiple days every quarter to testing response plans for large-scale scenarios.
What are the benefits of tabletop exercises?
Beyond providing a low-cost, low-risk, and highly effective way to assess emergency response plans in advance—well-designed tabletop exercises help individuals across the organization better understand their roles in an emergency, providing a safe space to think critically about potential scenarios that could impact normal operations.
For leaders, tabletop exercises also provide peace of mind and confidence that key personnel are adequately trained and prepared for critical events, which can drastically improve response times, potentially saving lives and protecting the business from significant losses.
These exercises can also be tailored specifically to any situation. For example, a tabletop exercise for cyberthreats will be very different from one meant to test hurricane response tactics. However, they are always hypothetical and discussion-based activities, as opposed to other types of preparedness activities.
Tabletop Exercises vs. Drills
Nearly every student and employee has experienced a fire drill, tornado drill, or some other scenario-based activity designed to improve situational awareness and coordinated response in the event of a disaster. These are typically activities meant to test a specific procedure or set of desired actions under a safety officer or other personnel’s direct supervision. A tabletop exercise is distinct from an emergency drill, however.
According to the Homeland Security Exercise Evaluation Program (HSEEP), a tabletop exercise is just one of four different types of exercises that are used to evaluate emergency plans and procedures:
- Tabletop exercises
- Functional exercises
- Full-scale exercises
Use a walkthrough for basic team training so they can begin to familiarize themselves with their roles and responsibilities. During a walkthrough, team members observe or perform the role/activity in question as a way to understand how the organization’s business continuity plans will unfold. A walkthrough can also be a useful tool to ensure everyone understands the crisis communication and escalation process.
Tabletop exercises (TTX)
As mentioned above, tabletop exercises (also commonly referred to as a TTX) are coordinated discussions for team members to review their roles during an emergency and how they might react in various scenarios. A facilitator guides the conversation and captures lessons learned. Depending on the tabletop exercise’s objectives and scope, they may require a few hours or multiple days.
A functional exercise enables emergency team members to perform their duties in a simulated environment. For this type of exercise, a scenario is given, such as a specific hazard or a critical business system’s failure. With a functional exercise, participants are seeking to “try out” particular procedures and resources.
You may have participated in a full-scale exercise while serving in the military, in a government job, or as an employee at a healthcare organization. With this type of exercise, the more “real” the experience can be for participants, the better. Ahead of full-scale exercises, local businesses, law enforcement agencies, and news organizations are typically notified and often given roles to play as well.
Who Is Involved in a Tabletop Exercise?
When planning a tabletop exercise, identify which stakeholders should be involved. Below are the four most common roles assigned to individuals at the table.
Tabletop exercises are not passive events. Participants should be willing to jump into the conversation as needed. The exercise will be most successful if everyone embraces the objectives of the scenario at hand.
Tips for participants: Perhaps you think another scenario would be a better choice or feel your role is less vital to the discussion than others in the room. Instead of derailing the exercise, stay engaged and try to accept the limits of the chosen scenario. Speak up if your role confuses you or if something doesn’t make sense.
Facilitators should control the pace and flow of the exercise. When conducting tabletop exercises, a facilitator’s most important responsibility is to move the discussion forward and, if needed, engage participants who may hang back from expressing their thoughts.
Tips for facilitators: Focus on drawing out solutions from the group. Ask stakeholders questions to encourage deeper thinking about potential issues that might arise.
Evaluators play an essential role in documenting the outcomes of the tabletop exercise, highlighting both positive actions taken during the scenario and areas for improvement. Evaluators are also often involved in developing an after-action report detailing lessons learned and recommendations for future planning, training, and exercises.
A tabletop exercise observer is typically in the room to passively follow the proceedings and provide an additional perspective about topics outside your participants’ direct purview or expertise. If you invite observers, make sure they know they can answer questions or give feedback as appropriate when prompted by the larger group.
How to Conduct a Tabletop Exercise in Three Steps
Now that you know what tabletop exercises are and why they’re useful, here’s a quick rundown on how to go about actually performing one:
Step #1: Design the exercise
Determine the scenario your exercise is dealing with, identify your participants and their roles, and create an outline of your team’s plan that you’ll put to use in the session.
Step #2: Run the experiment
Imagine what would happen if this particular emergency/incident occurred in real life. Have your team act out the scenario and go through every step of your plan. Be sure to maintain a relaxed, open environment so everyone feels comfortable asking questions.
Step #3: Reflect
Once you’ve put your plan to the test, look back on what went well, what went wrong, and what you’d like to change for next time. Ask discussion questions to spark conversation. An after-action report can help you structure your retrospection. Return to the plan you created in the first step and update it based on what you learned.
Pros and Cons of Tabletop Exercises
If it’s not evident already, we strongly recommend tabletop exercises and believe that—when used effectively—they can dramatically improve any organization’s emergency preparedness and response plans. However, like most tools, they are a better fit for some jobs than others. Here are some of the most cited advantages and disadvantages of tabletop exercises.
- Tabletop exercises are a low-cost yet highly effective method for evaluating emergency plans, responses, and roles in a stress-free environment.
- Tabletop exercise participants also find that the low-stress environment is a great way to calmly work out issues, clarify roles and responsibilities, and document best practices with a larger group’s collaboration.
- With current technology, remote participants—including remote employees and external partners—can participate in tabletop exercises without the organization incurring excessive travel expenses or lost productivity.
Of course, not every method is perfect. Here are some drawbacks of tabletop exercises:
- Tabletop exercises can’t perfectly replicate the sense of real-time urgency your team will experience in an emergency, so they aren’t a true test of what your team can do operationally in the heat of the moment. Sometimes the response team you put together for an exercise won’t be available during an actual incident.
- Their typically formal structure may lull some participants into thinking emergency planning and emergency response are always simple and straightforward, which is especially dangerous when dealing with cyberattacks that prey on unsuspecting employees.
- They won’t strain resources and reveal unexpected challenges to the extent that an actual event or rehearsal would. For example, if a stairwell’s small size would hinder an evacuation, this might be overlooked in a simple tabletop exercise.
- Finally, tabletop exercises are entirely imaginary and often don’t provide measurable data upon which to act.
Additional Considerations for Effective Tabletop Exercises
Leaders should prepare detailed scenario information ahead of time with position-specific waypoints to guide everyone through what they are supposed to do during the emergency. Make sure your team has access to this packet ahead of time. Consider leveraging a modern emergency communication solution with event pages to simulate a communication exercise during the tabletop.
Sample TTX scenarios to get you started
Tabletop exercises can be used to practice any kind of emergency response. Here are some ideas that might play out at your organization:
Ransomware, phishing attacks, malware, system vulnerabilities, and other digital issues can lead to data breaches and devastate your security posture. However, you can mitigate their impacts with an incident response plan, which you can effectively practice with an incident response tabletop exercise.
As we were all reminded in 2020, viral pandemics are still a real-world concern not relegated to history books. Experts contend that another pandemic is likely, given enough time. Use tabletop exercises to make sure your company isn’t caught off guard again.
Workplace and residential fires are some of the most common causes of injury and death, but you can nail down your fire evacuation plan with thoughtful exercise planning. Be sure to test your fire recovery plans as well as your evacuation plans during this TTX so you can get back on your feet ASAP after a fire.
While relatively rare, the sad reality is that instances of workplace violence, from the healthcare industry to retail, are becoming more common. Worker-on-worker violence, belligerent patients or customers, and active shooters make the news every day now. Every organization needs a workplace violence prevention plan, and a tabletop exercise can help you determine your readiness.
Communicate with employees during emergencies
We recommend using a mass notification system from a provider such as AlertMedia to reach employees on any device through various channels. Options such as app push notifications, text, voice, email, and social media ensure maximum deliverability. Two-way messaging ensures employers can stay in touch with employees and that employees can share their own information with safety leaders.
Stay on top of events as they happen
Of course, you’ll also need to document your processes for reporting emergencies, unplanned business disruptions, and other critical events. Combining analyst-verified threat intelligence with location data for your people, facilities, and assets will help you identify incidents faster and minimize response times as you implement your plans.
The Swiss Army Knife of Preparedness
Tabletop exercises are a flexible tool for emergency planners everywhere, for any potential situation. With some preparation and foresight, this low-cost planning tool can help your organization better prepare for any emergency, communicate faster during critical events, and take action with confidence.