Unit 5 The Tabletop Exercise

By Eva Reyes,2014-05-07 14:01
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Unit 5 The Tabletop Exercise

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,

    and resources

    ? 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

    various ways:

    ? 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

    responsibilities, including:

    ? 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.

    ? Procedures.

    ? 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)

     Involving Everyone

It is important that everyone participates and that no one person or organization

    dominates the discussion. Tips for involving all of the participants are

    summarized below.

     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:

Involving Everyone:

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

    evaluation forms.

     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

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