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Communications Mar 02, 2021

How Tabletop Exercises Can Help Your Business Prepare for Emergencies

Tabletop exercises are a low-cost yet highly impactful part of emergency preparedness. This guide will show you how to conduct a tabletop exercise at your organization effectively.

Preparing your organization for the unknown requires significant planning, forethought, and an organized effort to identify potential threats and take proactive steps to 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 different scenarios—each intended to document and provide detailed instructions concerning how the organization will respond if/when an emergency occurs.

But, how can you know whether your emergency response or business continuity plan is sufficient before you need to put it in action? Thankfully, tabletop exercises are a great tool that provides employee safety and business continuity leaders a low-cost but high-impact way of determining emergency preparedness before a crisis occurs.

What Is a Tabletop Exercise?

A tabletop exercise (TTX) is a simulated, interactive exercise that tests an organization’s emergency response procedures. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines tabletop exercises as “an instrument to train for, assess, practice, and improve performance in prevention, protection, response, and recovery capabilities in a risk-free environment.” For example, the agency—which coordinates emergency response following federally-declared disasters—regularly leverages tabletop exercises to test and validate policies, plans, procedures, equipment, and more. FEMA also relies on tabletop exercises to clarify roles and responsibilities to ensure interagency coordination and improve communication.

In tabletop exercises, key personnel with emergency management roles and responsibilities gather together to discuss various simulated emergency situations. Because the environment of a TTX is non-threatening (i.e., a “real” emergency is not happening), exercise participants can calmly rehearse their roles, ask questions, and troubleshoot problem areas.

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 they can be completed in as little as 2-4 hours; however, it is common for government agencies and large organizations to dedicate multiple days every quarter to testing response plans to 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 before they are needed, well-designed tabletop exercises help individuals across the organization better understand their role in an emergency, providing a safe space to think critically about potential scenarios that could impact normal operations.
For safety and business continuity 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.

Download our tabletop exercises guide to learn how to diagnose and address critical gaps in your emergency plan.

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 more than just a drill, however.

According to the Homeland Security Exercise Evaluation Program (HSEEP), a tabletop fits into four different types of exercises that organizations use to evaluate their emergency plans and procedures:

  • Walkthroughs, workshops, or orientation seminars
  • Tabletop exercises
  • Functional exercises
  • Full-scale exercises

Walkthroughs

Use a walkthrough for basic team training so they can begin to familiarize themselves with their roles and responsibilities. During a walkthrough, team members will come to understand the various emergency responses they can expect along with how the organization’s business continuity plans will unfold. Finally, a walkthrough is a useful time to make sure everyone understands the communication process.

Tabletop exercises

As mentioned above, tabletop exercises are coordinated discussions for team members to talk about their roles during an emergency and how they might react in various scenarios. Most walkthroughs will use a facilitator to guide the discussion. Depending on the tabletop exercise’s objectives and scope, they may require a few hours or multiple days.

Functional exercises

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.

Full-scale exercises

You may have participated in a full-scale exercise as part of the military, municipal 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.

Tabletop Exercise Participants

When planning a tabletop exercise, it helps to let participants know what is expected of them. Below are the most common roles assigned to individuals in the room.

Participant

Tabletop exercises are not passive events. Participants should be willing to jump into the conversation as needed. Be pleasant—remember that everyone wants to find solutions for emergencies, and the best time to do that is while the “emergency” doesn’t exist! It’s also important that participants go with the flow and embrace the objectives of the scenario at hand. Perhaps you think that 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.

Facilitator

Facilitators should control the pace and flow of the exercise. They should nudge the discussion along if needed and look for participants who may hang back from expressing their thoughts. Focus on drawing out solutions from the group. Ask questions to encourage deeper thinking about potential issues that may be encountered.

Evaluator

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 the After Action Report (AAR), which details lessons learned and recommendations for future planning, training, and exercises.

Observer

A tabletop exercise observer is typically in the room to passively follow the proceedings and provide an additional perspective about topics that fall 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.

Pros and Cons of Tabletop Exercises

If it’s not evident already, we strongly recommend tabletop exercises and believe that—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 commonly cited advantages and disadvantages of tabletop exercises.

Advantages

  • 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.
  • Given 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.

Disadvantages

Of course, not every method is perfect. Here are some drawbacks of tabletop exercises:

  • Tabletop exercises can’t perfectly replicate the sense of urgency your team will experience in a real emergency, so they aren’t a true test of what your team can do operationally in the heat of the moment.
  • Also, given tabletop exercises’ somewhat formal structure may lull some participants into thinking emergency planning and emergency response are always simple and straightforward (which often is not the case).
  • They won’t strain resources to the extent that an actual event or rehearsal would. For example, if a stairwell’s size would hinder an evacuation, this might be overlooked in a simple tabletop exercise.

Additional Considerations for Effective Tabletop Exercises

Condensed exercise time frame

Participants should expect that the exercise will proceed in a condensed time frame, so events will unfold rapidly—not necessarily how they would in the real world. Remind the team that a real emergency will require flexible time management skills. For instance, a slow-moving weather system may give the team days to prepare, but it can wreak havoc in mere minutes when the storm arrives.

Scenario information

Leaders should prepare detailed scenario information ahead of time with position-specific events 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.

Communicating with employees during emergencies

We recommend using a mass notification system 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, even in emergency situations.

Stay on top of critical 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.

Final Thoughts

Tabletop exercises are a useful tool for emergency planners everywhere. With some preparation and foresight, this low-cost planning tool can help your organization better prepare for an emergency, communicate faster during critical events, and take action with confidence.

Tabletop Exercise Guide

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