Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Exercises 2.0: Virtual Tabletops as Part of the “New Normal”

Over the next several weeks and months, our communities will begin to emerge from this first wave of COVID-19 infections with a new reality that is focused on preventing the spread of illness, finding ways to mitigate future waves of infection, all the while returning to some sense of normal. It will likely take time for people to feel confident and comfortable with in-person meetings and large gatherings. Furthermore, during the ongoing response to the pandemic, there are still after-action reports (AARs) to complete, plans to be written, standard operating procedures (SOPs) to update, grant requirements to meet, and training and exercises to conduct. The emergency management community needs to find ways to adapt to and overcome these challenges to continue performing our important work for the communities we serve.

At Hagerty Consulting, Inc. (Hagerty) we have been helping our clients to implement new ways of doing business to support sustained preparedness efforts. One method is designing and executing virtual tabletop exercises (TTX) and workshops to accommodate social distancing requirements, while still making progress on training and exercise program objectives. 

We realize the concept of a virtual exercise may be new. Below are a few comments and frequently asked questions to help explain:

What is a Virtual Exercise? 

A virtual exercise is a method of conducting an exercise or workshop in an online format rather than in person. The exercise and its supporting documentation were developed and designed to follow Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) principles, just as they would for an in-person experience. The key difference is that participants are able to join from anywhere with an internet connection using their device of choice. Tools and techniques are used to facilitate meaningful discussions, solicit feedback, and present the scenario materials on the participant’s screen. The exact style and manner of conducting a virtual exercise should be adapted to your individual needs and circumstances, such as funding requirements, timelines for completion, and available tools and technology.

  • Is this a proven practice? Yes! FEMA’s EMI training division has been conducting virtual tabletop exercises with great success since 2012. The format that FEMA follows is one of many ways a virtual tabletop exercise can be effectively designed and delivered. The success of their program serves as a good example for the sound concept of virtual exercises. Recently, many other industries have also adopted the practice of leading multi-person events in a virtual capacity. All of these experiences tip the dialog for ’just how virtual’ we as a population can be.
  • Are they efficient? Yes, virtual TTX and workshops are a convenient and efficient method to accomplish your goals. Responding to and recovering from real world events has taken precedence and created a work backlog for a number of people. Virtual TTX allows participants to maximize their time by eliminating the need to travel and dedicating only the required amount of time to engage. The virtual format also offers the ability to extend invitations to outside partner agencies by removing exposure to the virus from the equation.
  • Are they effective?  Yes, even if it may not be possible to physically gather all of your stakeholders in the same location, virtual TTX and workshops offer an effective way to maintain the momentum and integrity of your planning, training, and exercise programs.  No matter where your stakeholders are located, these events can be the bridge to focus your audience’s attention on the topics you need to cover. The resulting conversations and feedback are useful to collect the input needed to test, validate, and update your emergency plans and procedures.

Hagerty’s Strategies for Designing and Delivering Virtual Exercises

Hagerty recommends the following course of action to increase the resiliency of your exercise program.

Review your objectives:

When considering if a virtual format is the right fit for your organization, first consider what your objectives are for the event. Chances are, most objectives for a discussion-based exercise can be achieved with a virtual TTX or workshop. In some instances, the virtual format may encourage greater participation than the in-person environment.

Understand strengths and limitations:

All exercise programs and funding sources are not created equal. Hagerty is working with several clients to help meet grant deadlines, adapt formats, and customize solutions to meet specific needs. We understand that each of your programs are unique and welcome the opportunity to help decide if the virtual format is right for you, and how it may be implemented to achieve your goals and reduce the chance of losing funding.

Decide on the proper forum:

Hagerty is working with several clients to convert plans for in-person functional and full-scale exercises into virtual events and/or events which conform to social distancing. Whether your exercise is designed from the ground up to be held in the virtual environment, or you need to convert an existing plan, there are a number of forums that can be used to help you accomplish your goals. Hagerty welcomes any opportunity to help consider your options and find the best format for your program.

Performing many of our duties during the COVID-19 pandemic will require flexibility, adaptation, and innovation. Curating safe, effective alternatives to the traditional way of doing business will allow your agency or organization to experience a more seamless transition to this new normal. Virtual TTX should be considered as one of the tools that can increase the resiliency and efficiency of your program by maintaining the ability to assess and test plans, policies, and procedures, while also navigating the challenges of COVID-19 and preparing for additional disasters to come.

View the Virtual Exercises Publication

Amanda Wight is the Lead for Hagerty’s Exercise Portfolio and Deputy Lead for Hagerty’s Active Threat Portfolio. She supports communities nationwide on developing, delivering, and assessing exercises on a wide range of subject matter, varying in size and complexity. She has expertise in the development and execution of large, multi-site, multi-jurisdictional, multi-discipline exercises. 

Jim McIntosh is Hagerty’s Deputy Lead for our exercise service line. He also supports our infrastructure service line with a special focus on transit preparedness. Jim brings more than 20 years of industry experience to our clients, having served as a first responder and emergency manager for both county and transit agencies, and as an emergency management consultant that has supported local, state, federal, and private sector clients. Jim is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM).

Thea Credle is an experienced public health professional with a background in emergency management. With a demonstrated history of program development in all aspects of preparedness and national security, her background includes risk management, preparedness, homeland security, facilitation, as well as training and exercises. Thea is a Master Exercise Practitioner (MEP) 

For more information on how Hagerty can support your exercise efforts, please contact us at development@hagertyconsulting.com.