Unit 5: The Tabletop
Now that you have the “big picture” of the exercise process and the steps
in designing an exercise, you’re ready to take a closer look at specific
kinds of exercises. This unit focuses on the tabletop exercise.
First, we’ll review how a tabletop exercise works and the role of the
facilitator. At some point you will probably be called upon to serve in this
role, so we will discuss some guidelines for successfully facilitating a
tabletop exercise. Finally, we’ll examine how the design steps you
learned in the previous unit are applied to this type of exercise.
Unit 5 Objectives
After completing this unit, you should be able to:
? Describe the purposes and characteristics of a tabletop exercise.
? Describe the steps in facilitating a tabletop exercise.
Characteristics of the Tabletop Exercise
As learned in Unit 2, a tabletop exercise simulates an emergency situation in an
informal, stress-free environment. The participants ?usually people on a
decision-making level?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.
Exercise Design Page 5.1
Characteristics of the Tabletop Exercise (Continued)
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.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The tabletop exercise is a very useful training tool that has both advantages
and disadvantages, as summarized in the following table.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Tabletop Exercises
Advantages ? Requires only a modest commitment in terms of time, cost,
? Is an effective method for reviewing plans, procedures, and
? Is a good way to acquaint key personnel with emergency
responsibilities, procedures, and one another
Disadvantages ? Lacks realism and thus does not provide a true test of an
emergency management system’s capabilities
? Provides only a superficial exercise of plans, procedures, and staff
? Does not provide a practical way to demonstrate system
Exercise Design Page 5.2
How a Tabletop Works
In many respects, a tabletop exercise is like a problem-solving or
brainstorming session. Unlike a functional exercise, problems are tackled
one at a time and talked through without stress.
Problem Statements and Messages
A tabletop is not tightly structured, so problem statements can be handled in
? 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, then discussed in the group.
? Another approach is to deliver prescripted 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.
Handling Problems: It is usually wise to take the time to resolve
problems, rather than hurry from one problem or message to the next,
even though players sometimes will want to bypass the tough problems.
Exercise Design Page 5.3
How a Tabletop Works (Continued)
Facilities and Materials
It is recommended that the EOC or other operations center be used for
the tabletop exercise, for two reasons:
? It provides the most realistic setting.
? Needed plans, displays, and maps are available on the premises.
However, any conference facility that will comfortably accommodate the
expected number of participants in a face-to-face setting will be adequate.
The number of participants and the scenario will determine the number and arrangement of tables for the exercise. Some facilitators like to arrange small
groups around separate tables. Others prefer a U-shaped layout.
Provided reference materials should include emergency plans, maps, and other
reference materials that would normally be available in the EOC.
Facilitating a Tabletop Exercise
A tabletop exercise provides a relaxed environment of team problem
solving. Whereas functional and full-scale exercises are interactive, a
tabletop is managed by a facilitator. The facilitator has a number of
? Introducing the narrative.
? Facilitating the problem solving.
? Controlling the pace and flow of the exercise.
? Distributing messages.
? Stimulating discussion and drawing answers and solutions from the
group (rather than supplying them).
Exercise Design Page 5.4
Facilitating a Tabletop Exercise (Continued)
The facilitator must have good communication skills and be well informed
on local plans and organizational responsibilities. Although the facilitator
can be thought of as a discussion leader, the role can be much more. What
follows are some guidelines for facilitating a tabletop exercise.
Setting the Stage
The opening remarks and activities influence the whole experience. Players need
to know what will happen and to feel comfortable about being there. Below are
some guidelines for setting the stage for a successful tabletop exercise.
Guidelines for Setting the Stage
? Welcome. Begin by sincerely welcoming participants and putting
them at ease.
? Briefing. Brief the participants about what will happen. This
includes a clear explanation of:
? Purposes and objectives.
? Ground rules.
? Narrative. Start the exercise by reading (or having someone read)
the narrative and introducing the first problem or message.
? Ice Breaker. Try breaking the ice by beginning with a general
question directed at one or two high-ranking officials or to the group
as a whole. Later, other problem statements or messages can be
addressed to other individuals or organizations.
Exercise Design Page 5.5
Facilitating a Tabletop Exercise (Continued)
It is important that everyone participates and that no one person or organization
dominates the discussion. Tips for involving all of the participants are
Ways to Involve All of the Participants
? Organize the messages so that all organizations must deal with a
question or problem.
? Give extra encouragement to those who are a little reticent.
? Avoid the temptation to jump in with the right solutions when players
are struggling. This will often hamper the discussion. Instead, try to
draw out the answers from the players. They will be more likely to
participate if they feel people are listening intently and
? Model and encourage the behaviors you want from the participants:
? Give eye contact.
? Acknowledge comments in a positive manner.
In-Depth Problem Solving
The purpose of tabletop exercises is usually resolving problems or making
plans as a group. That means going after real solutions?not
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.
Exercise Design Page 5.6
Facilitating a Tabletop Exercise (Continued)
Controlling and Sustaining Action
To maintain a high level of interest and keep everyone involved, the facilitator
needs to control and sustain the action. There are several ways to do this.
Ways to Control and Sustain Action
? Use multiple event stages. Develop the scenario narrative in event
stages. (For example, the initial narrative may involve warning. A
later one could deal with search and rescue.) Then, as discussion
begins to fade on one issue, introduce the next segment.
? Vary the pace. Add or delete problem statements and messages to
alter the speed of the action. Occasionally give two messages at the
same time to increase pace and interest.
? Maintain a balance. Maintain a balance between overly talking
about a problem to death and moving along so fast that nothing gets
settled. Don’t hesitate to control the exercise tightly!
? Watch for signs of frustration or conflict. Always remember that
the tabletop is basically training, not testing. People may come with
fragile egos and little exercise experience. If you see mounting
frustration or conflict, stop the exercise. Reach into your experience
as a discussion leader to help the players resolve conflicts and feel
? Keep it low-key. Avoid a bad experience by keeping in mind the
low-key nature of the tabletop.
Exercise Design Page 5.7
Activity: Your Ideas for Facilitating a Tabletop Activity
You have read about many techniques for facilitating a tabletop exercise. But
group facilitation styles and techniques are as varied as the facilitators who use
them, and you may have some additional ideas about group techniques that
would help you facilitate a successful tabletop exercise. Jot your ideas below.
Setting the Stage:
In-Depth Problem Solving:
Controlling and Sustaining Action:
Exercise Design Page 5.8
Designing a Tabletop Exercise
The eight-step process outlined in Unit 4 is used to design a tabletop
1. Assess needs.
2. Define the scope.
3. Write a purpose statement.
4. Define objectives.
5. Compose a narrative.
6. Write major and detailed events.
7. List expected actions.
8. Prepare messages.
You can use the job aids provided in Unit 4. For a tabletop exercise, however,
the process can be somewhat simplified. Because a tabletop is only partially
simulated, it requires little scripting. The only roles are the facilitator, the
participants (who respond in their real-life roles), and one or two recorders. Recorders take minutes and record decisions and usually do not need formal
Applying the Design Steps
The first four steps are handled just as described in Unit 4. The remaining steps
can be simplified as follows:
? Narrative: The tabletop narrative is sometimes shorter. 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.
Exercise Design Page 5.9