Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Going Virtual: Conducting Complex Exercises and Workshops Virtually

Public organizations have adjusted to the “new normal” of operating in an environment with COVID-19. Typical, preparedness operations such as trainings and exercises, often conducted in-person, are increasingly being delivered virtually to account for social distancing. This is especially challenging in the world of Complex-Coordinated Terrorist Attack (CCTA) preparedness which thrives on complex exercises simulating attacks, response tactics, and procedures.

Considering client and employee safety amid COVID-19, Hagerty has had to leverage virtual technologies to create engaging and valuable exercises for clients.

This blog post discusses one of these recent success stories working in support of the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC). MARC is an association for local governments in the Kansas City metropolitan area comprised of nine counties and 119 cities spanning Missouri and Kansas. Hagerty’s continued work with MARC has often stressed the importance of regional coordination especially when agencies are communicating and coordinating across county and state boundaries.

A Successful Case Study: MARC Joint Information Systems Functional Exercise

Hagerty was originally scheduled to conduct a year-long series of CCTA exercises starting in the summer of 2019. After the initial impacts of COVID-19, the exercise planning was paused before resuming in late summer 2020. One of the first activities planned was a Joint Information System (JIS) functional-exercise (FE). As the exercise was initially planned to be in-person, it needed to be adapted to a virtual environment. The project team worked with MARC to ensure the shift in delivery of this exercise still provided a high level of engagement and value for participants using nothing but their computer screens and phones.

The objectives of the JIS FE were to establish and develop a coordinated information collection, sharing, and dissemination processes through the establishment of a JIS or Joint Information Center (JIC) in response to four simulated attacks within the region.

FEMA defines a JIS as a structure that integrates incident information and public affairs into a cohesive organization designed to provide consistent, coordinated, accurate, accessible, timely, and complete information during crisis or incident operations. Additionally, a JIC is a location where public information functions such as crisis communications and public affairs are coordinated.

After exploring the many virtual platforms that Hagerty has used prior to and during the pandemic, the project team determined to execute FE through Zoom. The following describes some of the key exercise design features the project team used to replicate a complex FE in a virtual setting which would still meet the target exercise objectives.

  • Meeting Rooms: The exercise utilized a combination of large and small meeting rooms which allowed all participants to collaborate in one group or in smaller breakout groups. Larger briefings such as the player briefing, module brief-outs, exercise hot wash, and context setting presentations from the 2-1-1-United Way of Greater Kansas City and the Kansas City Police Department were conducted with the full group of participants. Three smaller breakout rooms were utilized during three modules of exercise play. Each room had approximately 10 to 15 players and three to five exercises staff including exercise controllers and simulators.

Screenshot of Exercise Play

  • Simulation: Exercise simulation plays an integral role in the execution of a FE. During this type of exercise, many real-world procedures and communications are simulated rather than acted out. The project team strived to create engaging and robust exercise simulation using a simulation cell (simcell), a group of exercise control staff who simulate entities during the exercise to provide realism and context. Each breakout group in the exercise were assigned two to three simulators who would interact with participants through multiple avenues such as phone calls or chat messages to send mock emails and messages for participants to respond to. During an in-person exercise, a simcell may be sharing a room where exercise tracking, challenges, and questions are coordinated by the simcell lead. During this exercise, the simcell maintained communication through text and phone calls to make sure communications were delivered promptly and any potential issues in exercise delivery were addressed. In addition, the simcell lead was able to easily cycle through the breakout rooms to monitor exercise simulation.
  • Social Media Environment: Hagerty leveraged its proprietary social media tool EM Social Simulation to provide exercise participants a no-fault simulated social media environment to review and make posts related to the exercise scenario. As the scenario was unfolding, mock organizational Facebook and Twitter pages from participants were receiving posts from concerned and affected citizens. They then used these posts to gather incident information and push official public messaging. Adding this additional environment provided exercise participants an additional avenue for engagement and realism in a virtual exercise.

Screenshot of Hagerty’s EM Social Simulation Tool

  • Platform Features: Multiple functions of Zoom were used for materials delivery, exercise facilitation, and coordination between participants. These include:
    • Screen Sharing: Presenters shared content such as briefing materials, agendas, and discussion questions with participants. Players also used screen sharing to collaborate and share planning documentation.
    • Chat: The chat feature allowed for private or group conversations between participants and provided them an avenue post a public messaging for review. In addition, participants were able to use the chat feature to flag messages they would like to save and share files.
    • Recording: The FE was recorded using the platforms native recording function. Recording the exercise allowed both Hagerty and MARC to review exercise conduct to inform after-action reporting and future virtual and in-person exercise conduct and delivery.


The JIS FE was attended by 38 participants across 30 agencies including local, state, and federal first responders, emergency managements, and nonprofit partners. Despite participants conducting an exercise in an unfamiliar virtual environment, feedback was overwhelmingly positive. MARC felt that this delivery method allowed them to meet their exercise objectives and is confident in the continued transition to virtual methods of training and exercise delivery.

As the impacts of COVID-19 continue and organizations begin resume planning or training efforts in this unique environment, Hagerty is committed to work with clients to leverage virtual technologies and continue to create engaging emergency management trainings, exercises, and meetings this firm is known for.

Stay tuned!

Later this week, we will provide another case study examining how Hagerty has leveraged additional online platforms to execute successful training and exercises as part of a Virtual Exercise Blog Series.

Hagerty Can Help

Whether you are designing a new exercise or want to convert an existing one into a virtual environment our team at Hagerty looks forward to supporting your needs. Hagerty’s Exercise Planning Team is comprised of HSEEP-certified personnel and Master Exercise Practitioners (MEPs) that understand the importance of a thorough planning process, including read-ahead and logistics handouts with instructions for navigating the event. Our team will work with you to determine the best exercise solution given your desired objectives, outcomes, and resources.

To learn more about Hagerty’s services and how we can support your exercise needs with a customized approach, please contact us at development@hagertyconsulting.com.

Additional Resources

The following exercise and training resources are intended to support your organization in the search for a new normal.

About the Author

Tylor Headrick, CEM supports Hagerty’s exercise portfolio using simulation tools. He manages Hagerty’s EMSS platform and coordinates its inclusion in exercises. In addition, he has developed interactive mapping simulation tools for exercise scenarios and planning meetings. Tylor also develops planning documentation for clients and supports their implementation through tabletop exercise facilitation.

Tylor previously worked at the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management as a planner, WebEOC administrator, and GIS technician. He has participated in emergency response and recovery deployments supporting mapping in his time in Santa Barbara and Hagerty.