Using Tabletop Exercises to Evaluate Your Organization’s Emergency Preparedness by Sharon P. Dawson

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For businesses and organizations who are searching for a cost-effective approach to evaluating their emergency preparedness without having to experience an actual disaster, tabletop exercises are among the most powerful tools you can use. These exercises help validate your current plans, policies and procedures, team roles and responsibilities, improve understanding of how the organization will manage the situations, enhance relationships between team members, and highlight potential gaps in current response and recovery capabilities. 

How to get started

There are a number of excellent resources and tools available to help you design your exercises to meet the needs of your organization. We recommend starting with the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP), located on the Federal Emergency Management Website ( in their media library. Additionally, Googling “HSEEP exercise documentation templates” will also provide access to a number of tools you can use as a starting point, which can be edited and tailored to your needs. Bear in mind that when initiating this task and doing the research to determine the best options for getting started, it is easy for someone with limited experience to become quickly overwhelmed.

Rely on skill and experience

Contingency Management Consulting Group (CMCG) has been developing exercises for 30+ years. We have conducted well-over 100 tabletop exercises with varied scenarios such as active shooter, mass casualty, Hazardous Material releases, natural disasters, cyberattacks and physical threats. Our clients include both government and private sector entities, including schools and universities, manufacturers, Energy providers, associations and others.

Should your organization find that creating your own tabletop exercises is yielding uncertainty, frustration, or overwhelm, it’s important to reach out to experienced emergency preparedness professionals who can immediately apply their years of skill and experience to help you quickly and correctly develop the an exercise plan to meet the goals of your organization.

Understanding the three phases

Principal exercise activities fall into one of three phases—Design & Development, Exercise Conduct and Evaluation/Improvement Planning. Below, we provide guidance on some of the most important elements to consider when planning your tabletop exercises.

  • Know who will be participating in your exercises—a particular team (e.g., your crisis communications team or human resources Team) or a cross-functional group that brings all the major components of your emergency response organization together.
  • Keep participation limited to no more than 40 people at a time.
  • Make certain decision makers and operations personnel are included.
  • Depending on how mature your organization is, or what it is you are hoping to achieve, you may also want to include external partners such as emergency responders, local and state officials, or even vendors.
  • Think about why you are having an exercise and what you hope to achieve.
  • Clearly define your objectives to be sure they are easily measured and evaluated.
  • This approach will assist you with developing an After-Action report that includes hands-on tasks to help the teams improve their capabilities.
Exercise Date, Venue and Logistics
  • Set a date to conduct your exercise and create a project plan/timeline.
  • Inform all participants of the date, time and location of the exercise, and consider renting a space, if needed.
  • Be strategic with your room set up to ensure adequate space for attendees and the ability to easily interact with one another.
  • Make sure everyone will be able to see and hear the lead facilitator, even if it means providing microphones and speakers.
  • If you are planning an exercise that is 4-6 hours long, refreshments and snacks or a light meal should be considered.
Create a solid, believable scenario
  • Keep the scope of your proposed scenario plausible and realistic for optimal engagement.
  • The scenario should be detailed enough to be engaging, but not so detailed that it causes you to lose time focusing on things that just don’t matter.
  • Focus on designing thought-provoking questions to engage your participants in an interactive dialogue.
  • You may want to segregate your scenario into a series of time-based moves
  • The first move and corresponding questions should provide background, focus decisions and actions that take place almost immediately.
  • The moves that follow and corresponding questions should focus on sustained, longer-term (e.g., recovery) activities.
Exercise Materials
  • Have a sign-in sheet for the day of the exercise in order to document who participated.
  • Create a slide deck that your exercise facilitator can use in order to guide the participants through the scenario and questions.
  • Participant Situation Manuals (SitMans) should also be produced and provided for participants to follow along, take notes, and refer back to once the exercise has concluded.
  • Use participant evaluation forms to elicit feedback which should be considered during the exercise wrap-up session to inform your After-Action Report.


Conduct Organization
  • At minimum you should have one experienced facilitator to lead the discussions, and up to two evaluators who will be responsible for observing the discussions, taking notes and who will lead the efforts for developing the After-Action Report.
Participant Guidelines
  • Prior to kicking off the exercise, establish a level of openness and comfort and trust among your participants to encourage discussion through designation of a “no-fault” environment.
  • Provide clear guidelines for engaging in the exercise, and stress that the activity and resulting questions are designed to encourage free and creative-thinking to consider potential solutions and that everyone’s opinions, questions and inputs are equally important.
  • Your facilitator should engage all participants by helping them think through the series of decisions and actions that will promote the best outcome.
An Experienced Facilitator is key!
  • Your facilitator should be intimately familiar with the organizational response structure, available emergency plans, and your operational environment.
  • A good facilitator is flexible, understands how to guide the questions, and has the knowledge to determine whether an issue has been properly addressed or if follow-up questions are necessary.
  • This individual should have the capability to become part of the conversation so as to not come off as too intimidating or authoritative, which may cause participants to feel insecure about speaking up.
Documenting key, issues, gaps, and lessons learned
  • Evaluators should listen closely to the discussions to capture pertinent information.
  • Evaluators should be very familiar with the organization’s operations, and team emergency response plans to determine where there are areas for improvement.
  • Evaluators should document areas where the teams demonstrate strength and capability, or where they may be more advanced than others in their industry.


Next Steps – Focus on Improvements!
Prepare an After-Action Report The After-Action Report (AAR) document should be clearly written so that it is usable and readable.

Do not get hung up on content, instead focus on substance.

Ensure the AAR clearly documents observation of issues of lessons learned and provides guidance, best practices, or recommended steps for improving.

Develop an Improvement Plan
  • Once team leaders have had an opportunity to review the AAR, schedule a meeting to develop an Improvement Plan.
  • Using the recommended actions outlined in the AAR, prioritize them and assign responsibility for completing the actions.
  • Start with the practical, low-hanging improvements and build from there.
Maintain Capabilities
  • The information you gain from tabletop exercises must have a plan for implementation, and accountability to do so.
  • Consider other ways you can leverage what was learned during the exercise, such as using the same scenario to train other teams, selecting topics from the evaluation report for further discussion and contemplation at team meetings, or encouraging individuals to reach across different functions to discuss how they might improve their support, communication, and coordination in an emergency situation.

The success of your exercise depends on a lot of moving parts, but don’t lose sight of your end goals. As you begin designing your exercise, keep the items described above in mind—Participants, Date, Objectives, Venue and Logistics, Scenario and Exercise Conduct Team. Be sure to use an experienced facilitator and maximize the time set aside for discussion. Lastly, follow up with recommendations that are actionable.

If your organization is contemplating holding a tabletop exercise and would like some assistance, we strongly recommend reaching out to our team of experienced emergency management professionals at CMCG! We are happy to work with you to define and tailor an approach that fits your organizational needs and budget.

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