Exercise Design Steps

Tabletop exercises are based on a design process that includes the following:

1. Assess Needs

Prior to developing an exercise, an organization should first conduct a needs assessment to assist in defining the problems, establishing the need for the exercise, and identifying the functions that need to be exercised.  Areas to consider during the assessment process may include the following:

  • Likely hazards your organization may face
  • Areas of vulnerability
  • Functions in need of rehearsal
  • Areas for improvement identified in past exercises

2. Define the Scope

In order to provide better focus for your exercise, it is important to identify the boundaries in which your exercise will take place.  Elements that should be considered when determining the scope of the exercise include:

  • Type of emergency: Identify a specific hazard that will provide the best scenario for achieving exercise goals.
  • Location: Identify the location where the simulated event will occur.
  • Functions: Determine what type of functions the participants should be practicing during the exercise.
  • Participants: Narrow the list of participating organizations/individuals based on the functions to be tested.

3. Develop a Purpose Statement

A purpose statement is a broad statement of the exercise goal that focuses and controls the whole exercise.  The purpose statement facilitates the selection of objectives and clarifies why the exercise is being conducted.  In order to develop a purpose statement, formulate the scope elements into a single statement.

Sample Purpose Statement: The purpose of the XXX exercise is to coordinate the alert and warning and evacuation activities of government, volunteer groups, and the private sector in their response to an earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area.

4. Define Objectives

Well-defined objectives provide a framework for scenario development, guide individual organizations’ objective development, inform exercise evaluation criteria, and synchronize various agencies’ efforts towards common goals to prevent duplication of effort and focus support on exercise priorities.

Write objectives that are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-framed. See attachment: Developing SMART Objectives

Generally, planners should limit the number of exercise objectives to enable timely exercise conduct, facilitate reasonable scenario design, and support successful completion of exercise goals. Capabilities, tasks, and objectives are initially prepared during a Concept and Objectives (C&O) Meeting or Initial Planning Meeting (IPM).

5. Build the Scenario Foundation

A scenario is an outline or a model of the simulated sequence of events for the exercise which provides the backdrop that drives participant discussion. It can be written as a narrative or depicted by an event timeline. For a tabletop exercise, the scenario is contained in a Situation Manual (SitMan).

Exercise planners should develop scenarios that enable an exercise to meet its objectives. Your scenario should be realistic, plausible, and challenging; however, you must ensure the scenario is not so complicated that it overwhelms players.

A scenario consists of three basic elements: (1) the general context or comprehensive story; (2) the conditions that allow players to demonstrate their ability to meeting the exercise objectives; and (3) the technical details necessary to accurately depict scenario conditions and events (such as date and time of event, specific information about damage resulting from the event, etc.).

The exercise planning team must ensure that the design process is not characterized by a fixation on scenario development—rather, the scenario facilitates achievement of exercise objectives, which are the foundation of exercise design.

For all scenarios, the date and time affect exercise play. Many communities have different population demographics on weekdays, weekends, and holidays, as well as at night and during special events. These changes may affect players’ expected actions and can be incorporated into the scenario. For example, when a major sporting event is held at a stadium, it may temporarily increase a community’s population and change traffic patterns—evacuation routes or response times may be affected. In fact, exercise planners may consider conducting an exercise on a weekend or during night hours to test off-hour resource levels and to minimize disruption to traffic and ongoing operations.

6. Determine Major and Detailed Scenario Events

Major and detailed events are occurrences, both large and small, that take place after and as a result of the emergency described in the scenario. The goal in developing these events is to provide a structure that will link the simulated event to the actions that you want exercise players to take. 

Major events are big problems resulting from the event.  They should be likely events that call realistic action.  To arrive at a list of major events, it is important to first identify several major occurrences that might follow the event, and second, to decide which of these events might generate situations that would test the objectives.  When this has been determined, focus on those activities that will best support the exercise objectives.

Detailed events are specific problem situations to which personnel must respond.  Each detailed event should be designed to prompt one or more expected actions for one or more organizations that are participating in the exercise.

7. Develop Discussion Questions

Based on the major and detailed events that have been identified, develop discussion questions that can be presented at the tabletop exercise.  Discussion questions should prompt players to address specific problems or issues that link back to the exercise objectives.  Depending on the length, scope, and complexity of your exercise scenario and major/detailed events, the exercise scenario and associated questions may be presented to players in one, two, or three distinct time modules to allow for in-depth discussion for different phases of the event response.