How to Conduct an Emergency Tabletop Exercise

When a crisis can happen at any moment, being confident your company has the correct emergency management protocol in place is essential. Conducting regular full-scale exercises could give you and your employees peace of mind if a crisis does occur.

A tabletop exercise is a discussion and walkthrough in which co-workers get together to discuss emergency plans and how they might react in various scenarios. Walkthroughs use a facilitator to guide and sharpen group problem-solving under pressure and increase your company’s level of preparedness.

A tabletop exercise needs to be adequately planned, carefully conducted, and thoroughly evaluated. Although no tabletop exercise can precisely simulate an emergency scenario, it does help planners determine what works and what changes may be needed.

Assigning Roles and Responsibilities

Proper planning is essential to ensuring a tabletop exercise adequately evaluates your company’s crisis management and crisis communications program. Goals should be created to evaluate potential areas of improvement in the company’s emergency response protocol and determine realistic goals and expectations for the tabletop exercise. It’s important to decide what you hope to improve upon during the exercise.

Determine participants by assembling a group of employees that consist of observers, reviewers, and a facilitator. Observers should be employees and key decision-makers who are critical to the company’s business continuity process. These participants should contribute and add new ideas to the discussion. Reviewers should be those that watch the exercise and take notes, to be reviewed afterward in deciding what changes need to be made. The facilitator presides over the meeting and conducts the exercise. A facilitator is a neutral third party who is knowledgeable of the planning and helps group participants by walking them through the process.

Functional Exercise

A realistic scenario is essential for a tabletop exercise to be effective; it should discuss as much of the potential emergency as possible. The facilitator should conduct a tabletop exercise that keeps the observers engaged. The reviewers should carefully monitor and recording the crisis plan’s effectiveness, the crisis-related communications produced, and everything else that occurs during the exercise.

Once a realistic scenario is determined, the facilitator can begin conducting the exercise. Follow the script, but be flexible and allow group members to participate in an interactive dialogue with one another. The facilitator should engage all participants with probing questions to gain insight and help them think through the key issues to achieve the best possible outcome.

Develop several scenarios that cause disruptions to the emergency planning or response should use the discussion to capture operational problems, gaps, and possible solutions. The primary focus of the tabletop exercise is to evaluate how participants would react in an emergency scenario and to fine-tune corporate crisis management and emergency protocol. Allowing for an open discussion that helps participants think through the scenario provides an opportunity for the best results.

Evaluate the Results

Tabletop exercises uncover issues before they happen. It takes walking through an evolving crisis to divulge a crisis plan’s gaps and weaknesses. You want to make the mistakes happen during the tabletop exercise so that if a real scenario does take place, you will be prepared.

Remember, the main reason to conduct a tabletop exercise is to make sure that in the case of an actual emergency, there is a plan in place that works and employees understand. For an emergency response plan to be effective, the information gathered by reviewers and participants during the exercise should be evaluated and used to make any necessary changes or corrections.

Follow up with concrete actions, review key points, and verify the goals that were achieved. Use the information and insights to incorporate recommended changes and as a guide for future exercises. Tabletop exercises should be part of an ongoing strategy to increase your company’s preparedness.

Because organizations are always changing with new personnel, new products, new situations and new potential kinds of crises, tabletop exercises should be conducted at least once or twice a year to ensure optimal preparedness.

A report that documents suggestions for improvement should be made immediately after the exercise. Copies should be distributed and discussed with senior management and other key stakeholders. Ideas for improvement should be addressed through the organization’s corrective action program.