• A seminar orients participants to authorities, strategies, plans, policies, procedures, protocols, resources, concepts and ideas. Seminars are a great way to begin the building block approach.
• A workshop is similar to a seminar, but workshops involve more participant interaction and focus on achieving or building a product, such as a plan or policy.
• A tabletop exercise stimulates discussion of various issues regarding a hypothetical situation. It can be used to assess plans, policies and procedures, or to assess types of systems needed to guide the prevention, response to or recovery from a defined incident. Tabletops are generally low-stress, and actions and decisions do not take place in real time.
• A functional exercise can be either a single or multi-agency activity designed to evaluate capabilities and multiple functions using a simulated response. A main characteristic of a functional exercise is the simulated deployment of resources, rapid problem solving and a high stress environment.
• A full-scale exercise is a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional exercise that tests many facets of an emergency response. This involves the deployment of real resources, rapid problem solving and a high stress environment.
The building block approach is exceptionally useful when trying to tackle a multitude of target capabilities. Say, for example, your jurisdiction wants to test its ability to provide medical care to prehospital patients exposed to a chemical agent. A good building block approach would be to have a seminar on chemical agents and treatment, followed by a workshop to develop a standard operating guideline, then a tabletop to discuss a response and ending with a full-scale exercise to test those guidelines.
When choosing which exercise type is best for you, it’s important to take into account time and budget. A tabletop exercise takes about a month to effectively plan and can be somewhat inexpensive. Conversely, a full-scale exercise can take up a year to plan and can be very expensive. How much an exercise will cost is hard to gauge in the initial planning stages. But remember someone will have to pay for salaries, overtime, fuel, food, supplies and simulation aids. And don’t forget administrative costs, such as printing and copying.
Now that you’ve decided what you want to test and what type of exercise you want to run, it’s time to determine your objectives. Just like when developing incident objectives under the incident command system, you want your objectives to be SMART: specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time sensitive.
• Specific: You want your objective to relate to a specific target capability.
• Measurable: You have to be able to evaluate whether that objective was achieved.
• Action-oriented: There must be something happening within this exercise for you to be able to evaluate. If it’s a discussion-based tabletop exercise, you need to make sure that objective is covered in the discussion.
• Realistic: You must be able to realistically test that capability within the confines of your scenario. Also, you must realistically have that capability to test. In other words, you can’t test your ability to rapidly detect and decontaminate victims of a chemical agent when your agency does not have the ability to detect or decontaminate to begin with.
• Time sensitive: You must be able to test that capability within the time frame of the exercise you are running.
There should be at least one objective for each target capability you plan to test. Similar to managing a large incident, the fewer objectives you have to evaluate, the easier it is for you to manage the exercise.
Now it’s time to have some real fun—the scenario. Designing a scenario can be interesting and challenging, but it’s important to remember to keep it simple! Look at what can realistically occur in your area, what occurs frequently and has the highest impact on your area, or what could provide a realistic scenario to test your target capabilities. We can’t tell you how many meetings we’ve been in where someone will say, “So, should we have a terrorist attack on top of the hurricane landfall?” Seriously? Why? When did al-Qaeda develop a weather machine? Your exercise will be challenging enough without extraneous complications. Remain flexible with your scenario, as the storyline may need to change throughout the planning process.