How Tabletop Exercises Can Help Prepare for Emergencies

By February 20, 2019 September 10th, 2019 Communications, Emergency Management
tabletop exercise

Preparing a business for the unknown requires a series of important steps to protect your employees and your operations. For many business owners, this foundation starts with an emergency plan and grows to include a business continuity plan, an inclement weather policy, and perhaps even a lone worker policy to keep employees safe.

So, you’ve made your emergency plans and identified the best people to lead your teams through each phase. Now, it’s time to practice with the low-cost but high-impact emergency planning event known as a tabletop exercise.

What is a tabletop exercise?

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

Is a tabletop exercise the same thing as a drill?

Nope! A tabletop is more than just a drill. 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


Use a walkthrough for basic training for your team 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 discussions in which team members get together and 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, most can be completed in a few hours.

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 the failure of a critical business system. 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, as a municipal government worker or as an employee at a healthcare organization. With this type of exercise, the more “real,” the better. Local businesses, law enforcement agencies, and news organizations are also 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.


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!

Other tips include “going with the flow.” Perhaps you think that another scenario would be a better choice. Try to accept the limits on the chosen scenario. Speak up if your role confuses you or something doesn’t make sense.


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.


Evaluators should report on the strengths they observed and what areas can be improved next time.


If you invite observers, make sure they know they can answer questions or give feedback as appropriate when prompted by the larger group.

Pro and Cons of Tabletop Exercises


Here are some of the reasons tabletop exercises are great:

  • Tabletop exercises are a helpful low-cost method for evaluating emergency plans, responses, and roles in a stress-free environment.
  • It’s also a great way to calmly work out issues with the collaboration of a larger group.
  • Given current technology, remote participants can participate through calling in to the meeting.


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

  • Tabletop exercises lack a sense of urgency, so they aren’t a real test of what your team can do operationally.
  • In addition, it might lull some participants into thinking emergency planning and emergency response are always simple and straightforward.
  • They won’t strain resources like a true 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

Condensed Exercise Time Frame

Participants should expect that the exercise will proceed in a condensed time frame, so events will unfold rapidly (not real time). 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 when the storm arrives, can wreak havoc in mere minutes.

Scenario Information

Leaders should prepare detailed scenario information ahead of time with position-specific events that can 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 a tool such as Event Pages from AlertMedia to simulate a communication exercise during the tabletop.

Communicating with Employees During Emergencies

We recommend using a mass notification system such as AlertMedia that allows organizations 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.

Tabletop exercises are a useful tool for emergency planners everywhere. With some preparation and foresight, this low-cost method can help your organization better prepare for an emergency. This way, when the going gets tough, your organization will know what to do. Good luck with your emergency preparation. If we can help, please reach out.

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