Bolstering Campus Safety with Tabletop Exercises

Role playing with school stakeholders is the first step to ensuring your emergency plans and procedures are effective.

Most schools and universities have emergency plans but can go for years without using them. On any give day, the chances of a particular K-12 or institution of higher education being struck by a tornado, levelled by an earthquake or attacked by an active shooter is very, very small, so campus personnel might not believe they need to test their emergency plans to determine if they will actually work.

But when an emergency does happen, will your plan be good enough and will your campus respond appropriately? The time to discover whether or not your plans and procedures work is not during a real disaster.

That’s why practicing your response to various emergencies is so important. Conducting a full-scale exercise, however, might be overwhelming for a campus that has not conducted one recently or ever. Additionally, the expense of a full-scale exercise can pose a challenge for any organization.

The good news is that there is a middle ground between not practicing at all and conducting a resource-intensive full-scale exercise. That middle ground is a tabletop exercise.

“A tabletop exercise is a really great get-your-feet-wet kind of way to practice,” says Paul Timm, vice president of RETA Security, a division of Facility Engineering Associates. “It is where we can gather the relevant stakeholders around a table and then throw out a scenario and ask those stakeholders to tell us how they would respond given that scenario. It causes people to think without having to be in a real situation where it might be too late.”

Because tabletop exercises are so helpful, all three of this summer’s Campus Safety Conferences will be conducting train-the-trainer workshops where attendees will be able to participate in tabletop exercises. Timm, who is a nationally recognized school safety expert, will be conducting the workshops.

In this exclusive interview with CS, he discusses what the workshops will cover, who should attend and how participants will be able to apply what they learn to their jobs.

CS: At Campus Safety Conference Texas, East and West this summer, what types of scenarios will you be covering?

Timm: There are generally two kinds of scenarios I like to cover because you can categorize most emergencies in two buckets. One of them is environmental emergencies. You might have a severe weather incident, whether it’s tornado, hurricane, earthquake or whatever.

The other bucket that emergencies fall into would be emergencies involving violence. What comes to mind for most people is an active shooter incident. I should say almost all violent emergencies come under the fairly new term of “active assailant.” It could involve a shooting, stabbing, or as we’re seeing in Europe.

CS: Environmental also covers things like HAZMAT or maybe a flood or water main burst, right?

Timm: Exactly right. All of those types of incidents come under environmental.

CS: Who should participate in these exercises?

Timm: Everyone. Nobody can put together an effective emergency plan alone. We must have stakeholder input. Let’s face it; emergencies don’t wait until the person who’s in charge is ready and present. Many emergencies are happening after hours, and so what we’re doing in the tabletop exercises is putting people in this situation and equipping them to take it back to their own entity.

They can gather their own internal and external stakeholders and talk about these kinds of scenarios, where it counts most, and that’s at home.

But in ours, it doesn’t matter to me if the person is in facilities, or they’re an administrator, some kind of support staff or an emergency responder. All of those people have parts to play. The way to think about it is if you think of the Incident Command System (ICS), which is part of NIMS 100, which is the National Incident Management System. ICS is something all entities should have in place to be able to effectively manage an emergency.

It sounds complicated, but it’s not. It’s just a one-page sheet with probably eight functional roles, all the way from who will be the incident commander, to who will be the media coordinator or public information officer, to who will be in charge of operations. It’s really filling in those blanks.

What the government wants is not just for campuses to fill in who will have those primary positions, but there must be a backup for that person in case they’re not there. And there must be another backup for the sake of redundancy.

The beauty of what we’re doing at this summer’s Campus Safety Conferences is everyone who attends will be put into a group. They will be assigned a role, even if it’s something as simple as scribing, someone writing and recording what’s happening. Everyone will be assigned a role, and we will throw out a scenario and read it, so everybody can see it and hear it. And then we will take it off the board, and put in probably three-to-five relevant questions, like “What will you do first; what’s your primary concern?” Those kinds of questions.

It will be very time bounded. The participants will have just a few minutes to discuss their answers. They will feel the reality of time passing by as we call in 30-second increments. That’s a level of stress that is not exactly what would happen in an emergency, but it takes you beyond theoretical.

Then once they answer those questions and we hear their answers from the spokesperson from the group, we will update the scenario to include additional circumstances or developments. That’s how we’ll move through this emergency together.

CS: What will participants learn from your workshop, and how will they be able to apply what they’ve learned to their jobs?

Timm: An emergency plan is just a document until you have to use it. Campuses may have practiced an evacuation. They may have practiced a shelter-in-place, but what we’re going to do is have them – instead of bringing out a manual and saying, “This is what we do,” we’ll have them specifically answer questions like, “Where will we set up our incident command center?” Questions like, “Concerned friends and family are coming to this incident; what is your response to that?”

They will have to think on their feet. They will have to draw from emergency plans. And that will highlight gaps they have in their system. They’ll go back with homework of things they have to address. I think what they’ll really benefit from is the time boundedness, as I mentioned before. The fact that they will be in a situation where they have to give answers in a certain amount of time shows them their ability to handle stress.

By the way, no one will leave here with a heart attack. That’s not what we’re doing, but they will leave with a sense of urgency that maybe they had never been exposed to before.

CS: Can what they learn be applied to other scenarios not covered in the exercises? You mentioned two buckets, but does a HAZMAT incident have similarities to a tornado incident? Will they be able to interchange those responses?

Timm: The answer is definitely yes. What we’re not giving them is a magic wand that fixes everything. But what we are giving them is a p
ractice exercise where they can say, “Wow! I had no idea how much we’ll rely on our facility manager during an emergency. I had no idea what would happen when police and fire came on the scene, and where incident command winds up if there’s a number of response agencies.”

If we’re an internal stakeholder like an administrator or facilities person, we’re going to learn a lot about the resources at our disposal that we may not have known about.

And the emergency responders are going to get a window into how administrators think. It’s interesting because responders aren’t generally thinking about liability issues, but administrators are. Those are the kinds of things that will be really helpful. Second of all, we will encounter gaps in our plan that we thought was tight. We’ll be able to go back and address those specific things.

Just as an example, if we had an active assailant incident, we might send out a mass notification message. But what workshop participants will learn in this tabletop exercise is that getting a mass notification message to the internal stakeholders may not be enough. We might need to let the entity down the road and a half-mile away know as well. They’re going to go back with all kinds of nuts and bolts; all kinds of assignments on things they can address to tighten up their plans.

Timm’s Role Playing Emergency Tabletop Exercise workshops will be held on the following dates:

To register, visit


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About the Author

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Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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