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Port Security Issues

Like many of you, I have my doubts about port security. My concerns have been heightened by the recent disclosure that a company owned by the Untied Arab Emirates (UAE) have been given management authority over several major United States ports.

I do, however, wish to keep and open mind and to that end am doing some research on the topic. There will be a opinion posted here soon. In the meantime, I'd like to hear from you. Please take the Port Security Servey at

If you have trouble with the survey, please email me directly. Feel free to forward the survey as well as Mitigation Journal to others who may be interested.


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.

Ex-FEMA Chief Makes the Case for the All-Hazards Approach

Michael Brown was the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Was; that is, in the past. You’ll recall seeing him in front of cameras from CNN, NBC, ABC, FOX, CBS pleading his case about how “we (FEMA) are doing everything we can” to rescue the City of New Orleans. With the continual video footage of New Orleans residents stranded on rooftops, stories of emergency services breaking down, and chaos at the Superdome; we sat and wondered how this all got that bad.

And in the middle of it all Michael Brown was sent home to D.C. with his tail firmly between his legs. A few days later he resigned as FEMA’s Director.

The Congressional hearings and fact-finding started back in December of 2005 and Michael Brown came out swinging. His words should be the wake-up call for dumping the wasteland “terrorism preparedness” and “WMD training” have become. These terms and many others like them indicate the national focus of Homeland Security (another moronic term) and inappropriately shifted our focus away from big-picture preparedness; the All-Hazards Approach.

You see, as Brown stated in his testimony “if we’d confirmed that a terrorist had blown up the levee, then everybody would have jumped all over it trying to do everything they could” we are waiting for a terrorist to bring destruction to us. We’ve forgotten the Rule of Outcomes that states that certain commonalities exist among emergencies of small and large-scale and that those commonalities can be successfully planned for, trained for, and mitigated if the all-hazards approach is taken.

Brown suggests what I believe to be true; the current fixation on anti-terrorism played a major role in the outcome of Hurricane Katrina. Our over concentration on terrorism has made preparedness for disasters and emergencies other than terrorist events has made preparing for natural disasters, power failures, storms, floods, earthquakes, and more to become the forgotten stepchild of the Department of Homeland Security. The same terrorism blinded approach will continue to hamper efforts in warning, rescue, response, mitigation, and recovery of future events as well.

The Department of Homeland Security has done exactly what their name implies…worked on security. Unfortunately, security is only one piece of the all-hazards puzzle. Security is not synonymous with preparedness. The culture and mindset of a security force cannot embrace the inherent needs of preparing for emergencies and disasters whatever the cause.

Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of others. The storm caused physical damage with estimates in the tens of billions. Katrina’s visit nearly destroyed the City of New Orleans. A chemical or radiological attack on New Orleans could easily result in similar outcomes and response needs. Would there have been thousands stranded in New Orleans waiting for help after a chemical attack? Would there have been chaos and shortages at shelters after a nuclear event in New Orleans? Generically speaking, why would we mitigate differently?