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Tabletop Exercises for Effective Training

Do you remember Hurricane Pam? Despite having dumped 20 inches of rain with sustained winds of 120 mph and causing a storm surge that crumbled levees in New Orleans, virtually no one remembers Hurricane Pam despite the unfortunate fact that Pam has an eerie resemblance to Hurricane Katrina. How about the Dark Winter of 2002? That Dark Winter resulted in over three-million cases of smallpox and caused at least one-million deaths as the disease spread around the globe.

If you’ve ever wondered how your agency would respond under the most difficult of situations a tabletop exercise (TTX) is for you!
Chances are you’ve never heard of either of these disasters. You haven’t heard of them because they never happened…Hurricane Pam and Dark Winter were tabletop exercises designed to promote emergency and disaster preparedness.

If you’ve ever wondered how your agency would respond under the most difficult of situations, with new leadership, working with a recently written or updated response plan, a tabletop exercise (TTX) is for you!

A tabletop exercise simulates an emergency situation in an informal, stress-free environment. The participants can be either people on a decision-making level, veterans of the organization, or new members, who gather around a table to discuss general problems and procedures in the context of an emergency scenario. The focus is on training and familiarization with roles, procedures, or responsibilities. No plan? No tools? No problem! A TTX is also a great way to build a response plan based on input from the exercise and can be accomplished with some basic preparation (just like a lesson plan) and without any special equipment.

The tabletop is largely a discussion guided by a facilitator (or sometimes two facilitators who share responsibilities). Its purpose is to solve problems as a group. There are no simulators and no attempts to arrange elaborate facilities or communications. One or two evaluators may be selected to observe proceedings and progress toward the objectives.

The success of a tabletop exercise is determined by feedback from participants and the impact this feedback has on the evaluation and revision of policies, plans, and procedures. In many respects, a tabletop exercise is like a problem-solving or brainstorming session where problems are tackled one at a time and talked through without stress.

Problems and Messages

A tabletop is not tightly structured, so problem statements can be handled in various ways. The facilitator or controller directs the flow of the TTX by adjusting time frames and messages. Messages or injects as they are often referred to, are statements used by the facilitator to simulate an event within the scenario, add a problem or situation, or put the TTX back on track as needed. A majority of messages or injects are created in advance and are built upon the scenario itself.

The purpose of tabletop exercises is usually resolving problems or making plans as a group. That means going after real solutions not superficialities.
The facilitator can verbally present general problems, which are then discussed one at a time by the group. Problems can be verbally addressed to individuals first and then opened to the group. Written detailed events (problems) and related discussion questions can be given to individuals to answer from the perspective of their own organization and role, and then discussed in the group.

Another approach is to deliver pre-scripted messages to players. The facilitator presents them, one at a time, to individual participants. The group then discusses the issues raised by the message, using the EOP or other operating plan for guidance. The group determines what, if any, additional information is needed and requests that information. They may take some action if appropriate.

Occasionally, players receiving messages handle them individually, making a decision for the organization they represent. Players then work together, seeking out information and coordinating decisions with each other.

Some facilitators like to combine approaches, beginning the exercise with general problems directed to key individuals and then passing out messages one at a time to the other players.

Group Problem Solving

The purpose of tabletop exercises is usually resolving problems or making plans as a group. That means going after real solutions not superficialities.

Some facilitators make the mistake of trying to move too fast through the scenario, believing that they have to meet all of the objectives and get through all of the messages. However, that is not a good approach if nothing gets settled.

Remember: If you spend all the time on one big problem, maintain interest among players, and reach consensus, then the tabletop is a success! Push the players past superficial solutions. A few carefully chosen, open-ended questions can keep the discussion going to its logical conclusion.

Designing a TTX is Simple!

There are eight simple steps you can use to design a TTX:

  1. Assess your needs
  2. Define the scope
  3. Write a statement of purpose
  4. Define TTX objectives
  5. Compose a narrative
  6. Write major and detailed messages
  7. List expected actions
  8. Prepare messages

Applying the Design Steps

The Narrative: The tabletop narrative is sometimes short. It is nearly always given to the players in printed form, although it can be presented on TV or radio. When the purpose of the tabletop is to discuss general responses, the narrative can be presented in parts, with a discussion of problems after each part.

Events: The events should be closely related to the objectives of the exercise. Most tabletop exercises require only a few major or detailed events, which then can easily be turned into problem statements.

Expected actions: A list of expected actions is useful for developing both problem statements and messages. It is always important to be clear about what you want people to do. However, in a tabletop, sometimes the “expected action” will be a discussion that will eventually result in consensus or ideas for change.

Messages: A tabletop can succeed with just a few carefully written messages or problem statements. As always, messages should be closely tied to objectives and should be planned to give all participants the opportunity to take part.
The messages might relate to a large problem (almost like an announcement of a major event) or a smaller problem, depending on the purpose of the exercise. Usually they are directed to a single person or organization, although others may be invited to join in the discussion.


  1. TTX are a good tool to use after a disaster plan has been developed in writing and need additional tweaking to see what does and does not work. Then it should be done in realistic training.

    TTX are NOT the total answer.

    I bring forth two cases in 2005 in Rochester, the MMRS Drill and the Jet Blue Drill at the GRIA. In both cases, we had the chance to test disaster plans to see how agencies and the plans work. The MMRS drill might have been too big, but at least it was tried. There are many areas of that drill that need more work, by that I mean training.

    The Jet Blue drill was a great chance to train, but was water down, because it was for Jet Blue not the agencies in Monroe County to test our reactions and resources.

    How are we to see how plans on paper might work? Not just from TTX, we need hands on realsitic drills to test us all. But will it happen? Another question for debate.

  2. Jim - Thanks for chiming in on this important training issue. You’re absolutely correct in the thought that “TTX(s) are NOT the total answer”. Simply put; there is no one exercise designed as such. That is to say there is no single “total” answer. Tabletop exercises are only one of the elements in an Exercise Program; including Orientation Seminars, Drills, Tabletops, Functional Exercises (FE), and Full-Scale Exercises (FSE). Each component has a specific function and purpose within an agency exercise program.

    I’d like to disagree with your statement about TTX being a good tool after a [disaster] plan has been developed. Actually, the TTX can help you build a plan [for anything, not just a disaster situation], test a plan, review material, and build relationships on and off your team.

    You’ve mentioned the Jet Blue drill as a less positive activity. Unfortunately, many Full Scale exercises return sub-stellar results despite tremendous efforts in planning and participation. I would suggest that testing a scenario in an Orientation, Drill, and TTX setting before moving to a FE or FSE would yield better results. It comes back to the walk before you enter the Boston Marathon theory. Often times the progression from one form of training exercise to the next is skipped as a factor of time, participation, dollars, or any number of issues.

    Your point on the need for realistic hands-on-training in on target…and the TTX is a fine way to start!

    Join me at STEP and we’ll work on this more! Thanks for playing the home game, Jim!

  3. Rick,

    Maybe I did not explain myself fully about Jet Blue drill, actually we had a great chance to test the plan, but was not allowed to.
    The drill actaully had a full size plane to work off, not a bus. On the end of a runway, in hot weather, lots of "victims" and agencies. BUT, it was more of a "show and tell" drill.

    The disaster plan was not tested to see what it could take. What a shame. The right chance at the right time, and held back.

    Even the Jet Blue Alert 2 last year when the plane had "multiple systems" failure. Talk about potental realistic scenario. Agenices geared up, resources activated, hospitals notified, etc. BUT thank god, the plane landed safely.

    No critique of this incident, I believe this was a great testing of the plan. But no follow up to ask and answer what we should do differently.

    The last time there was an Alert 3 was the American Eagle a few years back, talk about luck that night. The PILOT was the real hero in the way he landed the plane without any nose gear.

    Lat year, the MMRS drill, the biggest drill in a couple of years and no critique, WHY???

    Look at some of the other reviews or major drills around the country and what they are saying. I read last fall, Boston, MA had a huge WMD drill and had "issues", at least they acknowledge them and hopefully they are working on them.

    We cannot believe that we are ready for any disaster wether manmade or natural. Katrina, the wildland fires, etc should be a wake up to all, that the resources are not ready and might be stretched too thin?

    Also, let me clarify about TTX and disaster planning. TTX are step two of disaster planning. A "draft" plan is developed on paper, then a TTX to see how it might work. Then more tweaking on paper, then maybe a realistic hands on test. That is waht I meant, sorry for the confusion


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