7 Not-So-Obvious Benefits of Tabletop Exercises

Tabletop exercises are not only cost effective, they also help build relationships, bolster executive buy-in for campus safety programs, and more.

7 Not-So-Obvious Benefits of Tabletop Exercises

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Tabletop exercises are a familiar component within the emergency management preparedness phase. Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Homeland Security Emergency Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) defines a tabletop exercise as a discussion-based exercise in response to a scenario, intended to generate a dialogue of various issues to facilitate a conceptual understanding, identify strengths and areas for improvement, and/or achieve changes in perceptions about plans, policies, or procedures. The purpose of tabletop exercises is to generate discussion of various issues regarding an exercise scenario and to facilitate conceptual understanding, identify strengths and areas for improvement, and/or achieve changes in perceptions.

Finally, HSEEP’s goals for those participating in the tabletop exercise include:

  • Enhance general awareness
  • Enhance roles and responsibility understanding
  • Validate plans and procedures
  • Discuss concepts and/or assess types of systems in a defined incident

These benefits of conducting tabletop exercises are not new but perhaps serve as good reminders to everyone responsible for safety and security on campus. But, what about the not-so-obvious benefits of conducting tabletop exercises?

Here are seven hidden advantages of conducting this type of exercise.

Benefit 1: Tabletop Exercises Help Build Relationships

We all have heard that “Teamwork makes the dream work.” The same can be said for planning a tabletop exercise and responding to a future incident. In some occurrences, public safety officials just want to do an impromptu exercise without any planning or setting goals and objectives. It is critical for the exercise planning team to meet and then build out the situation manual. For an effective exercise, it is important to get input from internal and external stakeholders; everyone brings in a different perspective.

It is almost certain when attending a tabletop exercise that you will meet first responders with a common capability or resource. More often than not, many first responders take this for granted as a casual event, but you will see that person again seated next to you somewhere in the field.

All of us must continue to establish the (ships): partnerships, relationships, and friendships. We gravitate toward people we have met before or whose face looks familiar on the scene of an incident.

Benefit 2: Tabletop Exercises Are Cost Effective

Tabletop exercises being discussion-based are very cost-effective. Resources and equipment are not being utilized, which sometimes adds to the cost of an exercise. Department budgets may be strapped for funding, but tabletops still provide a way to exercise a special goal and objective by talking through your agencies’ responses and actions.

If your agency budget allows, food brings people to the table. Menus do not need to be lengthy, but just advertising that lunch will be served will ensure more participants will attend the exercise. This is what we want: bringing people together in a cost-effective manner.

Benefit 3: Tabletop Exercises Help with Resource Assessment

Although this may be an “obvious” benefit of a tabletop exercise as it relates to identifying gaps and resource needs, it can also be a gray area that needs further interpolation. Most of the time determining resource needs are obvious during a tabletop exercise, but a good notetaker should capture the not-so-obvious resource needs! 

Sometimes it comes down to semantics: “we need” (probably doesn’t have such a resource), “we could” (if available at any given day) and “we would, if” (likely not available). For example: “We could breach the entrance door if the patrol car with the breaching equipment was in service that day.It’s worth noting that resource assessment also means operational. For example: Does your generator actually start, and does it have fuel?

Finally, resource assessment is more than equipment. Tabletop exercises may illustrate that there are far more duties than people available to carry out those duties.

Benefit 4: Tabletop Exercises Help Train Your People

Tabletop exercises are great ways to train participants, including those who do not have an active role in the scenario response. With a multifaceted team approach, there will be participants without the traditional public safety background who will simply benefit from a situational awareness perspective.

We also often take for granted that everyone in our organization knows the basics of incident response. However, due to changing protocols and new personnel, we should always take advantage to ensure everyone understands the “standard” response, and their specific role. This is especially important with multiple jurisdictions, which is the case on most campuses, and special events.

Benefit 5: Tabletop Exercises Help Develop Your Staff

Having team members attend a tabletop exercise, we are improving and increasing their decision-making skills by role-playing in thoughts and through words. Some responses and actions may not be so obvious, so we all may learn from each other about capabilities, skill levels, available resources, and who is the go-to person to move things along.

But the best way to develop the staff is to first attend an exercise training course as a collective unit. Every discipline has some type of training for your team to rehearse and fine-tune your responses.

Equally important, tabletop exercises are excellent ways to teach and train less experienced emergency management staff on exercise development, as well as upfront presentation skills.   Asking a junior staff member to plan a tabletop exercise will also force them to research the scenario topics.

Benefit 6: Tabletop Exercises Incorporate the Need for Continuity Operations

Most tabletop exercises focus on the response role. Lessons learned from tabletop exercises primarily focus on tactical gaps in procedures and resources (equipment and personnel), which is likely due to the scope of the exercise itself. But, many shortfalls that are noted in the tabletop exercise becomes a continuity of operations concern.

Incorporating the need for continuity of operations shortfalls will strengthen the campus, district or organization beyond the response phase. Furthermore, addressing continuity of operation concerns will likely cross over to a wide range of emergency scenarios. These same continuity concerns, if addressed, may never be realized, until a large and sustained emergency – like a COVID pandemic.

Benefit 7: Tabletop Exercises Foster Executive Buy-in

The participation and support from administrators are crucial to the planning process and execution of the exercise. Department leaders will get to see firsthand how their staff and others are ready to respond. If gaps are present in the discussions, the leaders would take note.

Many times, this will serve as an opportunity to purchase equipment and/or request additional staffing for better incident response. In addition, they will better understand their role when (not if) that incident happens on campus.

Again, not so obvious, some roles will need to be tweaked and defined after the exercise is over. But this is why we exercise, right? The exercise cycle starts again as part of the development of the multi-year exercise program.

Not-So-Obvious Advantages Improve Overall Campus Safety

Participants should leave tabletop exercises with greater confidence and perhaps even with some specific follow-up lessons learned that will strengthen the team. Identifying gaps and resource needs provides emergency management with an operational perspective that enables plans to be simply more than words on paper. Plans that are actually read and followed.

Followed up lessons learned are incredibly important attributes of tabletop exercises, but equally important, tabletop exercises cost very little (if anything) and demonstrate the value of teamwork. Tabletop exercises are nothing new to emergency managers and other public safety personnel, but involving executive leadership serves not only to enlighten and teach important aspects of emergency preparedness, but enhances executive buy-in, and perhaps even additional funding.

Andy Altizer is the Emergency Manager at Westminster Schools in Atlanta. He previously served as the Director of Emergency Management at both Kennesaw State University and Georgia Tech, as well as the Critical Infrastructure Protection Program Manager at Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He also served over 10 years in the active and reserve component of the Army, including as an Observer Controller in an Exercise Division within the U.S. Army Reserves. 

Keith Sumas is the Emergency Management Coordinator at Atlanta Public Schools. He previously served as the Emergency Operations Manager, Associate Director, and Director of Emergency Management at Georgia State University. Keith was the Area School Safety Coordinator with the Georgia Emergency Management/Homeland Security Agency. He is a Certified Emergency Manager from the State of Georgia and the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM).

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