Exercises play a vital role in community preparedness and resilience by enabling whole community stakeholders to test and validate plans and capabilities, and identify both capability gaps and areas for improvement. A well-designed exercise provides a low-risk environment to test capabilities, familiarize personnel with roles and responsibilities, and foster meaningful interaction and communication across organizations. Exercises bring together and strengthen the whole community in its efforts to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from all hazards. Overall, exercises are cost-effective and useful tools that help the nation practice and refine our collective capacity to achieve the core capabilities in the National Preparedness Goal.
Seminars generally orient participants to, or provide an overview of, authorities, strategies, plans, policies, procedures, protocols, resources, concepts, and ideas. As a discussion-based exercise, seminars can be valuable for entities that are developing or making major changes to existing plans or procedures. Seminars can be similarly helpful when attempting to assess or gain awareness of the capabilities of interagency or inter-jurisdictional operations.
Although similar to seminars, workshops differ in two important aspects: participant interaction is increased, and the focus is placed on achieving or building a product. Effective workshops entail the broadest attendance by relevant stakeholders.
Products produced from a workshop can include new standard operating procedures (SOPs), emergency operations plans, continuity of operations plans, or mutual aid agreements. To be effective, workshops should have clearly defined objectives, products, or goals, and should focus on a specific issue.
A Tabletop Exercise is intended to generate discussion of various issues regarding a hypothetical, simulated emergency. They can be used to enhance general awareness, validate plans and procedures, rehearse concepts, and/or assess the types of systems needed to guide the prevention of, protection from, mitigation of, response to, and recovery from a defined incident. Generally, they are aimed at facilitating conceptual understanding, identifying strengths and areas for improvement, and/or achieving changes in perceptions.
During a Tabletop Exercise, players are encouraged to discuss issues in depth, collaboratively examining areas of concern and solving problems. The effectiveness is derived from the energetic involvement of participants and their assessment of recommended revisions to current policies, procedures, and plans.
Tabletop Exercises can range from basic to complex. In a basic Tabletop (such as a Facilitated Discussion), the scenario is presented and remains constant—it describes an emergency and brings discussion participants up to the simulated present time. Players apply their knowledge and skills to a list of problems presented by the facilitator; problems are discussed as a group; and resolution is reached and documented for later analysis.
In a more advanced Tabletop, play advances as players receive pre-scripted messages that alter the original scenario. A facilitator usually introduces problems one at a time in the form of a written message, simulated telephone call, videotape, or other means. Players discuss the issues raised by each problem, referencing established authorities, plans, and procedures for guidance. Player decisions are incorporated as the scenario continues to unfold.
During a Tabletop Exercise, all participants should be encouraged to contribute to the discussion and be reminded that they are making decisions in a no-fault environment. Effective facilitation is critical to keeping participants focused on exercise objectives and associated capability targets.
A game is a simulation of operations that often involves two or more teams, usually in a competitive environment, using rules, data, and procedures designed to depict an actual or hypothetical situation. Games explore the consequences of player decisions and actions. They are useful tools for validating plans and procedures or evaluating resource requirements.
During game play, decision-making may be either slow and deliberate or rapid and more stressful, depending on the exercise design and objectives. The open, decision-based format of a game can incorporate “what if” questions that expand exercise benefits. Depending on the game’s design, the consequences of player actions can be either pre-scripted or decided dynamically. Identifying critical decision-making points is a major factor in the success of evaluating a game.
A drill is a coordinated, supervised activity usually employed to validate a specific function or capability in a single agency or organization. Drills are commonly used to provide training on new equipment, validate procedures, or practice and maintain current skills. For example, drills may be appropriate for establishing a community-designated disaster receiving center or shelter. Drills can also be used to determine if plans can be executed as designed, to assess whether more training is required, or to reinforce best practices. A drill is useful as a stand-alone tool, but a series of drills can be used to prepare several organizations to collaborate in an FSE.
For every drill, clearly defined plans, procedures, and protocols need to be in place. Personnel need to be familiar with those plans and trained in the processes and procedures to be drilled.
Functional Exercises are designed to validate and evaluate capabilities, multiple functions and/or sub-functions, or interdependent groups of functions. They are typically focused on exercising plans, policies, procedures, and staff members involved in management, direction, command, and control functions. In Functional Exercises, events are projected through an exercise scenario with event updates that drive activity typically at the management level. Functional Exercises are conducted in a realistic, real-time environment; however, movement of personnel and equipment is usually simulated.
Controllers typically use a Master Scenario Events List (MSEL) to ensure participant activity remains within predefined boundaries and ensure exercise objectives are accomplished. Simulators in a Simulation Cell (SimCell) can inject scenario elements to simulate real events.
Full-Scale Exercises are typically the most complex and resource-intensive type of exercise. They involve multiple agencies, organizations, and jurisdictions and validate many facets of preparedness. Full-Scale Exercises often include many players operating under cooperative systems such as the Incident Command System (ICS) or Unified Command.
In an Full-Scale Exercise, events are projected through an exercise scenario with event updates that drive activity at the operational level. They are usually conducted in a real-time, stressful environment that is intended to mirror a real incident. Personnel and resources may be mobilized and deployed to the scene, where actions are performed as if a real incident had occurred. The Full-Scale Exercise simulates reality by presenting complex and realistic problems that require critical thinking, rapid problem solving, and effective responses by trained personnel.
The level of support needed to conduct a Full-Scale Exercise is greater than that needed for other types of exercises. The exercise site is usually large, and site logistics require close monitoring. Safety issues, particularly regarding the use of props and special effects, must be monitored. Throughout the duration of the exercise, many activities occur simultaneously.