How to Conduct EMS Exercises and Drills

Properly preplanning your exercises increases preparedness and yields valuable data


For many of us in EMS, exercising often seems like a tedious, repetitive process that can potentially feel like a waste of time and resources. However, the threat of natural and manmade disasters remains as strong as ever.

Last year marked a record for the United States with at least 12 disasters causing $1 billion in damages, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Therefore it’s essential for all EMS agencies to continue emphasizing training and exercise as a means to prepare for tomorrow’s next challenge. It’s also important for exercise planners to understand the fundamentals of planning an effective exercise, as well as identify innovative means to make those exercises more cost-effective and—dare we say it—fun.

Exercise planning takes patience, consistency, flexibility and—the word not many people like to hear—time. Anyone who has attended a few exercises as a player can tell you the difference between those exercises that were planned well and those that weren’t.

To help with planning effective exercises, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has developed a standardized methodology to exercise planning and evaluation. The Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) can be an exercise designer’s best friend, as it provides a standardized methodology and terminology for exercise design, development, conduct, evaluation and improvement planning. The following is a crash course in the HSEEP method of exercise planning.

Define Your Goals

Contrary to what many people think, the first step in designing an exercise is not coming up with a scenario. Rather, the most important first step is determining what you actually wish to test.

To assist with this, DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have identified 37 target capabilities, or universal capabilities emergency responders will likely need when responding to a disaster. These capabilities are broken up into five categories, or mission areas: common targets, prevention, protection, response and recovery.

It’s highly advisable for you to conduct a needs assessment of your agency or jurisdiction before choosing which target capabilities to exercise. To assess your needs, first look at those capabilities you use often, then ask yourself honestly, “Is there room for improvement?” If you feel comfortable with these capabilities, move on to some of the other capabilities you might not use as often.

Planning and conducting an exercise can be time consuming and expensive. Try to maximize the benefit of that investment and exercise those areas that are of particular concern to your jurisdiction. When choosing your target capabilities, avoid choosing more than five whenever possible. These capabilities are what you will be evaluating, so you do not want to overload your team.

Understanding Exercises

Once you decide what you want to test, you can begin to determine how you want to test it. You may decide that a low-stress, discussion-based exercise would be an excellent first step. There are a few exercises to choose from and the step is determining which one(s) best suit your needs.

HSEEP defines the following types of exercises:

This content continues onto the next page...