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Effective Tabletop Exercises

Effective Tabletop Exercises  
(Originally posted February 20, 2006) 
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.

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