Make Tabletop Exercises Realistic

Sooner or later in your career, you will have to represent your department in some shape or fashion at a "tabletop exercise." It could be for hurricane preparation, severe storm week, major event planning, tactical operations, or whatever the flavor of the month is--matters not; you are going to endure this one way or the other. These pre-planning events do provide a strategic opportunity to fine-tune your emergency response plan. However, these tabletops are often put on by quasi-professionals who oftentimes just don't "get it" in my book. The idea is to test the system. Let me give you some ideas in case you have to put on the training exercise (TX).

Today's batting order is what we are going to work with! All too often, the participants choose to play with a perfect department that day--this is not reality. When the various agencies walk in to the TX, have them produce the number of personnel that are working today, on this shift. The sick, vacation, off-on-training, and those off to court count as missing in action as well. How many cars are in the garage, broke, and out of service--today's fleet count is what you deal with today. You want them to put into play today what available resources they have now--not make believe. No counting the kiddies in the police academy and the cars that will be delivered next week. By the way, ask for a full staffing report for a given day--no, the SWAT team just happened to be training the day the storm hit.

Today's shift rotation is working and those on command will be the players. No switching, going to the bullpen and making believe that another shift is working. We want this to be real-time and real-life. This should apply to all emergency agencies that you are overseeing in the operation. Often EMS may switch their Advanced Life Support with Basic Life Support teams on certain days and weekends in certain areas due to call load experience. They go with what the day of the week is as well--we all know some days' staffing is better than others. Catastrophe knows no time schedules.

Get a stop watch for decision making. In some TXs I have seen and monitored, the players get several minutes to have group discussion to make decisions. Some decisions that need to be made are to be made within seconds--you have shots fired at your position: do you take cover, or call in and make a group decision on what is best cover or concealment? And if it is concealment, is tiger stripe camo out of fashion, or should the team wear black? I want a decision now! You have five seconds to make this call. Then your next action plan is--what?

Put reasonable time limits on the decision making skills. I have personally observed some TXs that gave 10-15 minutes of decision making time for what should have been rudimentary basic skills and snap command decisions. They were wandering around looking for coffee and wasting time.

Watch out for eavesdropping. Get your responses from each participant, but try to avoid them blaring out their answers. Their ideas could be brilliant or flawed. It is not always who yells the loudest that is correct, either. Have the decisions routed through normal channels; it is important that others adjust to your response. In a real evolving situation (before we arrive to unified incident command), we only respond to what a dispatcher informs you or that your officers encounter. Now, once we enter into the "big smoke-filled room" stage of the scenario--the Emergency Operations Center--then we exchange thoughts and strategies.

Come dressed to work and not pretending that you would be working. I love it when the command staff walks in with trousers and polo shirt; maybe they have a golf match after the TX. If you normally work in uniform, then wear it--train as you work here. These casual, academic affairs will lull you into a make believe world-- "Welcome, here is the continental breakfast, we will be taking breaks on the hour..." You might as well bring in a massage therapist and a cruise director.

Train hard and train smart, for those of us who have been bunkered in an EOC for days or worked unified command know that on some days there are no breaks, no sleep, and bad coffee. Training should be realistic; put some stress on the commanders! You are training to make real-life, life and death decisions. Train and prepare now, while you can, without fatal mistakes.