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Fortunately, larger emergencies do not happen on a regular basis.  The downside is that there are few opportunities to rehearse disaster response.  Exercises are a creative solution to this problem. Exercises are one way to take written plans and put them into action, testing their functionality before needing to use the plan during an emergency.  Exercises are also a way to take procedures for rare emergencies, such as tornadoes, active shooters, and more, and practice more frequently than real-world events occur.  Developing and hosting exercises are common activities for emergency managers, however every organization and business could benefit from a routine exercise schedule.  From simple tabletop discussions to more complicated full-scale exercises, there are many ways to enhance your disaster preparedness through practice.

Tabletop Exercises

If your organization has developed a new emergency plan, testing it with a tabletop exercise is a great place to start.  Tabletop exercises are a form of exercise where you talk through the disaster response.  Usually these involve a facilitator, who describes the scenario and then moderates discussion, and participants who have to respond with what they would do.  The facilitator may stop the scenario at key points to discuss certain stages of the disaster in detail, or add interjections and changes to the original scenario. Tabletops are more of a mental exercise, giving participants practice on making decisions in an emergency without the time or expenses of actually performing the operations.  The only downside to tabletop scenarios is that since they are discussion-based, it may be easy to “go through the motions”.  A good facilitator would encourage all participants to be honest about what they would do and their capacities to perform.

Functional Exercises

Functional exercises are a step up from tabletop exercises, as they ask the participants to have the same sort of discussions that occur in a tabletop, but with some simulated practice.   Usually these are designed to focus on one core capability, like communication or using a specific piece of equipment.  This core capability will be practiced like it is a real scenario, while other details will merely be simulated or talked through, like a tabletop.  This type of exercise can be very helpful for rehearsing phone communication chains or other multi-step procedures that require coordination.


Full-scale exercise are the most complicated type of exercise.  These require performing all of the emergency operations as if it were a real scenario.  This may mean using real equipment and performing tasks in real time.  It may require inviting many more participants than you would for tabletop or functional exercises, as you will want the full amount of personnel that would respond to the emergency, and depending on the scenario, extra volunteers to act as “victims” or bystanders.  These sorts of exercises are much more labor intensive but worth the effort to get an accurate representation of how the emergency plan works.

The “Hot Wash”

Exercise activities come in a variety of sizes, but all have the goal of practicing plans and finding potential gaps in performance.  It is important that all participants come to the exercise ready to learn and possibly adapt better procedures for future use.  The end of an exercise, typically called a “hot wash”, gives all participants the time to reflect on what was learned through the activity.  Findings during this discussion can be used to create new plans and procedures, ones you might want to bring to the next exercise.  There is no “failing” an exercise, just opportunities to grow and improve for next time.

Resources for Planning Your Exercise