Managing an Exercise Program – Part 9: Conducting an Exercise

After over a year hiatus from my series on Managing an Exercise Program, I’d like to pick up where I left off to discuss Conducting an Exercise. Despite being away from the series for a while, it still seems to have some viewing popularity – much appreciated! If you’d like to reference the first eight parts of the series, links are provided below:

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 1

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 2: Develop a Preparedness Strategy

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 3: Identify Program Resources and Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 4: Conduct an Annual Training & Exercise Planning Workshop.

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 5: Securing Project Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 6: Conducting Exercise Planning Conferences

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 7: Develop Exercise Documentation

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 8: Preparing Support, Personnel, & Logistical Requirements


Since writing Part 8, the new HSEEP guidance (April 2013) was published. Thankfully this update didn’t dictate wholesale changes in the process we’ve all come to be familiar with. There were some subtle changes, such as changing ‘planning conferences’ to ‘planning meetings’, and stressing the involvement of elected officials in the exercise planning process. Similarly, I’m thankful that certain changes weren’t made – one of which was the proposed elimination of terminology of ‘discussion based exercises’ and ‘operations based exercises’. These general identifiers have become commonplace amongst exercise designers for decades. Upon having the opportunity to review a draft version of the new HSEEP guidance, I was quite opposed to that change.

Obviously conducting the exercise is the most exciting part of the process. It’s where all of your hard work comes together. That said, this is where it can all fall apart if you haven’t prepared property in the first eight parts and if you don’t pay attention to detail. I’m breaking exercise conduct down into four smaller parts: Set up, briefings, play, debrief. Remember that my intent with these postings is not to be fully comprehensive, but to emphasize areas where I have learned or have seen others struggle. In all facets of emergency management we need to continue a culture of sharing if we are to be successful.

Set up

The preparations for your exercise should have been finalized in Part 8 where you addressed logistical requirements. You should know where your exercise venue is, how people will be seated/where they will be working, the location and support for a SimCell (if you’re having one), and even matters such as parking, food, restrooms, and audiovisual equipment. Additionally, set up includes having print material available for all participants. When setting up, consider the flow of people, quite literally from the road to the parking lot, from the parking lot to the facility, into the facility through security, sign in, and to their first location for the exercise (this may be their only destination or it may be a large briefing room). Having conducted exercises in locations not familiar to some participants as well as these exercises being larger than the facility’s parking lot can handle, you must ensure that invitation packages have specific directions on how to get to the parking area and how to get from the parking area to the venue. Be sure that signage is prominently displayed. It may even help to have staff directing people. Be sure to also let them know what manner of identification is required to enter the facility. Again, signage is often necessary to get people from the building entrance to check in location and then to the meeting location. Signage for the refreshment area and restrooms may also be needed.

Have everything set up for people before they arrive. Use table tents, if needed, to help identify seating, and have copies of all necessary materials at their seating location. Materials like SitMans and ExPlans have a lot of content, so it’s nice to have these materials available for the early-comers to being reading through.

Be sure to set up early and test EVERYTHING. Make sure AV equipment and communications equipment are tested.


Depending on the type of exercise you are conducting, there can be a number of briefings needed to take place before the exercise begins. Some of these briefings may need to take place well in advance, even a day or more before the exercise, depending on availability of audiences for each of them.

The new HSEEP guidance includes a specific briefing for elected and appointed officials. This is something to usually conduct well in advance of the actual exercise to outline the agenda/timeline of the exercise and what will be expected of them. They will likely want to interface with any media and should know what to say about the exercise. They may also want to ‘kick off’ the exercise at the player briefing.

Controllers, evaluators, and SimCell personnel should receive a briefing to ensure they are familiar with the exercise and their rolls. They all need to know what is expected of them and of the players, how and when to interact with the players, and what may need to be reported to their respective leaders and/or to the exercise director. Evaluators will need to become familiar with their assigned EEGs and what the expectations are for evaluating. Additional time will need to be spent with SimCell personnel to familiarize them with the equipment being used, how the MSEL is structured, and how injects will be delivered. If any actors are being used, they will also need to be briefed on their rolls and what their expectations are. Ensure that everyone is familiar with the safety word in the event of the necessity to immediately stop the exercise.

If observers are expected at the exercise, have a briefing ready for them. I suggest treating them like VIPs when possible (most of them usually are). Don’t just let them walk around to figure things out for themselves. Give them tour guides who can take them throughout the venue and talk about what is happening. Schedule their arrival when possible, and consider having an elected or appointed official there to greet them. Keep in mind that some observers will be very high tier VIPs. Vigilant Guard exercises are often visited by the head of the National Guard Bureau – a four star General. These visits are fantastic and very much emphasize the importance of the exercise, but they can also be a little disruptive. These high-tier VIPs will often come with their own entourage and/or security. They will want a brief tour and will stop often to shake hands and have pictures taken. They may even want a break in the exercise to speak. Try to be aware of these expectations up front if at all possible. If not, just go with the flow and be flexible.

The media is another form of observer. All media should be scheduled. Be sure to make it worth their while, where they can catch some video/picture footage of interesting activities. Maps and wall displays make for great footage as well. Remember operational security! If something is sensitive or classified, it should not be anywhere where it can be seen. The media should also be provided a tour and an opportunity to get a statement from the elected and/or appointed officials. They may also want to interview players. I generally don’t allow this without preparation of the specific player to ensure that the right messages are delivered. Also, be sure to let players know during the player brief that there will be observers and media coming through and what is expected of them.

Lastly, the player briefing. This briefing will introduce players to the purpose of the exercise, the ground rules, the facility, timeline, controllers and evaluators, and expectations. Players should be briefed on how and when to interact with the SimCell if you have one. It should always be reinforced that the exercise is ‘no fault’, and that they, individually, are not being evaluated, rather it is the plans, policies, and procedures they are using that are being evaluated. Lastly, players are briefed on the scenario. Be sure that the ExPlan/SitMan has the detailed scenario for their reference.

Exercise Play

Finally the moment of truth arrives! Remember that the purpose of the exercise is to accomplish the objectives, however, know that you may not accomplish all the objectives in the timeframe you have. Being flexible, and knowing you have to be flexible, are two very important aspects of running an exercise. Regardless of how well we think we’ve written an exercise, the responses to our prompts are entirely up to the players. They may accomplish the objectives faster or slower than you expected. Likewise, they may struggle a bit. This is where good exercise control comes in. Controllers/facilitators should observe the tempo of the exercise. Is everyone engaged? Are they needlessly overwhelmed and frustrated? Are they bored? Are they not following through on activities? All these observations should be reported back to the exercise director and SimCell so the tempo can be moderated.

Be sure to have contingencies in the event that players do or request the unexpected. Additional injects that are held back are always a good idea. You may need them to prompt certain activities in the event that players do not take the initiative to do so. Players may also ask questions or make requests of the SimCell that aren’t expected. While we can’t anticipate every need, we can be prepared for them. Have copies of plans, policies, procedures, and maps available to the SimCell. They may have to take some time to research and come up with an answer then get back to the individual. The SimCell manager should be smart when situations like this arise, however. They should always consider if a potentially inaccurate but reasonable answer is acceptable or if the answer must be completely accurate… or even if the answer is required for exercise play at all. There is no sense having SimCell personnel research an answer if the answer doesn’t much matter within the scope of the exercise.

Multi-day exercises may require the exercise staff to meet at the end of every day for a mini hotwash and to evaluate how the exercise is progressing. Where are the players in respect to where you expected them to be in your design of the exercise? Do you need to retool anything in the MSEL?

On large exercises, it helps for the exercise director to have an aide-de-camp, or assistant. Just like any individual in charge of a large operation, the exercise director is having their attention pulled in many directions and may simply not have the time to address everything, especially in large or multi-venue exercises. Having an assistant is also a great way to train up and coming exercise staff. Certainly consider the use of portable radios to help facilitate communication as well. The exercise director will spend most of their time managing and trouble shooting. They may also have to address some VIP concerns. Be sure to walk around to get a good sense for the exercise as a whole. Are evaluators properly positioned? Are controllers present and visible? Is the SimCell responding to questions adequately? Are players engaged and challenged? Perhaps most importantly, is the boss (the elected/appointed official) happy?

Evaluation is such an important aspect of exercise that I will cover it in its own section – Part 10.


Two significant debriefing activities should take place immediately following the exercise: 1) a player hotwash, 2) an exercise staff debriefing. Players should be led through a facilitated hotwash, reviewing the objectives of the exercise, with evaluators capturing their responses to if/how the objectives were accomplished. Encourage and capture responses both in the positive and the negative: i.e. what did we do well and what do we need to improve upon?

After the player hotwash, a similar process should take place with all exercise staff – controllers, evaluators, and SimCell. I like to not only capture their impressions of if/how objectives were accomplished, but I also like to discuss the conduct of the exercise, again capturing what went well and what needed to be improved upon.


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Familiarizing Elected Officials with their Emergency Management Programs

Back in October of 2013, in an article in Emergency Management Magazine, David Silverberg discussed the issue of elected officials rarely being educated about emergencies.  Just last month, David Maack published an article in Emergency Management Magazine about how elected officials can prepare for and respond to emergencies.  Silverberg’s article not only identified the issue, but also pointed out strategies used in some places around the country to help orient elected officials to the world of emergency management. 

The premise of both articles is that this familiarization is obviously lacking, and it’s quite imperative that elected officials are familiar with the concepts of emergency management; the hazards, capabilities, and plans of their jurisdiction; gaps and needed improvements; how to support their emergency manager; and state laws governing emergency management where they are.  I’m a firm believer that elected officials do, in fact, need to support their emergency management programs and their emergency manager.  Not only on a day to day basis, but certainly during a disaster.  The emergency manager is a subject matter expert, and while they take direction from the elected official, the elected official needs to take cues from the emergency manager.  The emergency manager needs to be very clear with their boss about what expectations they have, as well.  Maack’s article includes a great list of steps that emergency managers should reference when giving an orientation to their elected officials.  Obviously it all needs to be put in the proper context for each jurisdiction.

Here in New York State, the regional office of the State’s Office of Emergency Management works with the county/local emergency manager to conduct a Public Officials’ Conference.  These sessions, usually conducted in an evening, are intended to not only familiarize elected and appointed officials of a jurisdiction, but to also communicate what is expected of them and to strengthen the role of the emergency manager as a coordinator and subject matter expert.  While there are some usual content areas in these briefings, such as NIMS, a briefing on the local emergency plan, etc., it is flexible based on the needs identified by the emergency manager.  These sessions, through the years of conducting them, are generally very well received.  One of the most important messages is the flow of emergency management.  People need to know how the system works and who is responsible for what. 

Several years back, when teaching an ICS Basic (I-200) course, one of my participants introduced himself as “the town supervisor – you know, the one who would be the incident commander during an incident”.  I made certain, during the course, to point out that elected officials are generally not the incident commander, rather they are the incident commander’s boss.  I then spent some time pointing out what the roles and responsibilities were of this ‘agency administrator’. 

What thoughts do you have on familiarizing elected officials with emergency management?

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Situational Awareness – supporting the CEO’s critical decision-making in a crisis

Timothy (Tim) Riecker:

Great post on situational awareness with many applications for emergency management.

Originally posted on Steelhenge Crisis Thinking:

By Dominic Cockram

Situational awarenessThis blog is the second in a series that looks at the challenges of managing information in a crisis and how to ensure the top team gets the information it needs. The first looked at “Managing the Upward Flow of Information in a Crisis – What Matters Most?” Here managing information to build situational awareness is under the spotlight – how to pull together that cohesive and informative picture that gives the boss just what he needs and no more.

It is a fact that almost all crisis teams find information management one of the greatest challenges in responding to an incident. Why does this matter? It matters because effective information management is the bedrock that allows the critical decision-making by the strategic crisis management team that will lead an organisation out of a crisis.

Unlocking the Challenge of Information Management

The key steps to unlock the…

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Infographic on Organizational Continuity

Timothy (Tim) Riecker:

Great infographic from!

Originally posted on Recovery Diva:

From — Can Your Organization Survive a Natural Disaster; an Infogram re Business Preparedness for Disasters.  You can browse it online or printed it off as a poster, in 6 pages. Apparently the source is Boston University’s School of Management.

This makes a nice companion to the infographic on business continuitythat I cited last fall.

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Are you Planning for All Hazards?


While I’m amazed by the number of jurisdictions and businesses that don’t have any emergency plans at all, I’m almost nearly amazed by those who only have isolated, single hazard plans. I’ve seen plenty of entities with only fire plans or flood plans.

How does this happen? Many small towns may ask their local fire chief to write an emergency plan for the town – this plan often times outlines the fire response structure but ignores other hazards. Sometimes this myopic view of planning takes place because of a focus or near panic over one particular hazard. These situations are generally not the fault of the people who wrote them. Just because someone is in public safety doesn’t mean they know every facet of it. Emergency planning is as much of a niche as pump operations in the fire service or special tactics in law enforcement. It requires a certain set of knowledge, skills, and experience to be successful and effective.

While it’s logical that a larger jurisdiction will have a more complex emergency plan than a smaller jurisdiction, there are still foundational elements that are common to all. Perhaps the most critical of these is the necessity to plan for all hazards. All hazards planning, if you’re not familiar with the concept, is a process beginning with the identification of the hazards which can impact a community, the impacts associated with each hazard (also known as vulnerability), and the probability of each hazard impacting the community (also known as risk). This is called a Hazard Vulnerability Analysis (HVA). By rating the vulnerability and risk factors for each hazard, a fairly simple algorithm can be used to provide an overall ranking for each hazard. Additional information, such as the availability of resources to respond to each hazard can be included as well.

Obviously there is a lot of context that needs to go into such an assessment, which is best conducted by a planning team to gain the most amount of input. Comprehensive Preparedness Guide (CPG) 101, published by FEMA/DHS, provides much more information on the planning process as a whole. Historical disaster information should be referenced, but not to the extent of outweighing other inputs. Fluctuations over time in population, topography and development, and climate change are all leading to, as the investment world states it, historical information not necessarily being indicative of future performance.

Scientific data should also be examined, such as flood maps and wild fire risk. Communities should be sure to reference information on hazardous materials, which is required reporting by industry per the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986 (also known as SARA Title III). Once you have identified and ranked all the hazards, you know what ones to focus on. Perhaps it is the top 8, or maybe the top 12 that indicate a high enough vulnerability and/or high enough risk to incorporate into your planning efforts. Once these are identified, you continue through the CPG 101 planning process to create a comprehensive plan. A comprehensive plan incorporates all elements needed to address the responses to these incidents. Given that the majority of responses are largely similar, regardless of the hazard, one concept of operations will address this in the plan. Separate plans, written as annexes or appendices, then can be created for hazards with very specific issues, such as a pandemic, or to address specific functions, such as evacuation and sheltering.

Is it possible to anticipate every disaster that could possible impact your community? Can your community possibly predict being trampled by a giant man of marshmallow or having busses tossed aside by fire breathing dinosaurs from Japan? No? Then don’t spend much time on these things. Be realistic. That said, a Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP) – which is a plan that considers all hazards, all resources, and the whole community – can even help account for hazards you didn’t identify. Do you think Chelyabinsk, Russia had a plan for meteor strikes? Not likely. However, consider how the components of a CEMP could have addressed critical areas of response: mass casualty, search and rescue, debris management, sheltering.

I recall a number of years ago, prior to the 2013 occurrence in Chelyabinsk, where there was a bit of media frenzy over near earth objects (NEOs) such as meteors. The public information officer (PIO) for the state’s emergency management agency received a call from a media outlet inquiring if the state had a plan for meteor strike. The PIO answered ‘yes’, qualifying that with a statement about the value of comprehensive planning. Was there a specific plan for meteor strikes? No. The likelihood is so slim that it’s not worth putting effort toward (although I’m sure someone has). Does the CEMP cover all the necessary response components? Absolutely.

Author’s note: Unfortunately I don’t recall where I got the picture from, so I’m unable to give proper credit. If anyone knows or claims it, I’ll gladly give credit or pull it down.


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Rethinking Slides: The Purpose of PowerPoint

Timothy (Tim) Riecker:

Alex does a great job of identifying how most presenters use software like PowerPoint incorrectly. Consider how you should change your presentation aids to make them more graphic and more memorable.

Originally posted on Creating Communication:

Last night, my professor gave our class directions for next week’s group presentations on a specific communication theory.  He said he wanted us to focus on clarity of ideas as opposed to presentation “glitz,” and he asked that we keep things simple and avoid a whirling, swirling Prezi .  When my group came together to discuss our theory and how we might present it to our classmates, I asked, “Can we NOT use a PowerPoint?”  By the reaction I got, you would have thought I asked my group members to put their hands into a wood chipper.

Undeterred by a little pushback, I suggested we avoid going the death-by-PowerPoint route and stick to a handout instead.  It took me getting approval from the professor before the group agreed.  I thought to myself… Since when did “PowerPoint” become synonymous with “presentation?”  And since when did suggesting we ditch the slideshow software become an outlandish…

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Emergency Managers as Curators

The training and development industry, championed by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), suggested a couple of years ago that trainer are curators of information. This suggestion caught like wildfire in the training and development community. The ASTD compares a trainer to the curator of a museum who organizes and selects specific items or collections for an exhibit; similar to how trainers draw upon knowledge and information, organizing and selecting certain pieces for training purposes. As a trainer myself, I appreciate the meaning of the analogy and considered that the same analogy could certainly be applied to other professions, particularly Emergency Management.

Do we curate in Emergency Management? Emergency Management is certainly a unique profession. It is highly dependent on a broad set of knowledge, much of which is applied to nearly all activities but some applied very specifically. A county emergency manager could be participating in a nuclear power plant exercise one day and giving a presentation on flood preparedness to local communities the next. Both have to do with preparedness, but each require separate and specific applications of technical knowledge. Emergency managers are often jacks of many trades, perhaps specializing in one or two areas, but typically being reasonably well versed in many other topics. In the event that more knowledge is needed, emergency managers know who to reach out to.

Emergency managers coordinate to a higher degree than most other professions – So much so that the profession is actually dependent upon it. No emergency manager in any community can be successful without coordinating with and having cooperation from other community stakeholders. This premise is applied not only to response, but to all phases of emergency management. At present I’m working on a plan for a community that requires some very specific public health expertise. I can write a plan, but the plan won’t have maximum effectiveness without the input of certain subject matter experts.

Similar to trainers, most emergency managers I know have collections of books and reference materials. Many are from courses or seminars they have attended, text books, trade periodicals, and an extensive collection of electronic files. Lessons Learned Information Sharing (LLIS) is an excellent living library of reference materials from contributors all over the nation which I go to often to review best practices.

So what do you think about emergency managers being curators?

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