GOING VIRTUAL: LESSONS LEARNED TRANSITIONING AN IN-PERSON EXERCISE ONLINE
In the Summer of 2020, Hagerty Consulting was developing an in-person continuity of operations (COOP) tabletop exercise (TTX) with Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA). This exercise was designed to evaluate and prepare the organization’s executives for an emergency incident. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, halfway through the exercise planning process, LAWA decided to transition the TTX to a virtual environment to ensure the safety of facilitators and participants.
The original exercise design planned for two groups of executives participating in separate rooms and communicating via video conference; whereas the new, virtual exercise design included a small group of three facilitators and participants co-located in a conference room while the remaining participants and facilitators joined via Zoom videoconferencing. Facilitators presented the exercise overview to all participants in a single Zoom conference room before separating participants into two Zoom breakout rooms to conduct the exercise modules. At the end of the exercise, participants returned to the primary Zoom conference room to conduct a group debrief and discuss lessons learned. The transition to an almost entirely virtual TTX required the following considerations:
- Understanding that a virtual exercise may require more staff than a traditional, in-person one. In each breakout room, there is a need for designated notetakers, chat monitors, and facilitators. During the LAWA COOP TTX, Hagerty deployed additional staff to support with facilitation, observation, and note taking for each breakout room to ensure no critical information was missed.
- Ensuring exercise documentation is in an optimal format for a virtual environment. Before a virtual exercise begins, it is important to convert all relevant exercise documents into formats that are readily consumable in a virtual environment. Prior to the LAWA exercise, Hagerty converted the relevant TTX materials into PowerPoint presentations for exercise participants to view.
Example of Exercise Materials Formatted for Zoom
Ensuring Preparedness for a Virtual Exercise
While the steps above were crucial for a successful transition to a virtual TTX, the largest adjustment was preparing the participants to ensure a successful exercise experience. The key to success, especially in a virtual setting, was to prepare for and examine all possible points of failure during the exercise. This is especially critical because the options for problem solving during exercise play are more limited in a virtual environment.
While preparing for the exercise, it is important to consider the experience of a participant. Review the thought process of a participant as they attempt to access the exercise and the materials associated with the event. First, consider the general demographic of the participants. If the exercise is for a group of Information Technology professionals, they will likely need little assistance or guidance accessing virtual exercise platforms. If it is for a group of individuals with varying backgrounds, like the LAWA COOP TTX, they may not feel as comfortable with virtual meeting platforms. Also, adjust the preparation activities to meet these unique needs. If the participants need additional guidance to access a virtual platform, below are some key steps to ensure a smooth user experience.
- Pre-Exercise Checklist: Send an email to participants before the exercise with logistics information and documentation. Include a pre-exercise checklist for the participants to accomplish prior to the start of the TTX. This checklist may include reminders to download any necessary software and ensure exercise documentation is open on their desktop prior to the start of the exercise.
- Technology User Guides: Create a user guide for participants that explains how to download and operate any of the programs being used in the virtual exercise. This could include the exercise platform program (e.g., Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Adobe Connect), polling software, or any other type of software being utilized during the exercise. Include details such as how-to login, turn on the user’s camera, and how to unmute a microphone. Include as many graphics and photo guides as possible.
- Participant Reference Sheet: Personal introductions can be difficult on a virtual platform, and exercise participants might not be familiar with each other’s titles and roles. A handout with photographs, names, and titles could serve as a helpful reference tool during the exercise for both facilitators and participants.
- Designated Technology Point Person: Despite having prepared participants as thoroughly as possible prior to the exercise, issues arise with technology. Assign an exercise staff member to take phone calls if participants have any technical issues prior to or during the exercise. This individual should be from the exercise design team and confident in the intricacies of the platform being used.
Due to the everchanging environment during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hagerty understands that our clients need exercise planning processes to be adaptable. Hagerty is taking the time to think through those changes and address the possible stress points in our exercises. This effort ensures our clients experience a smooth transition into this new virtual exercise environment and remain focused on preparing for future incidents.
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). 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
The following exercise and training resources are intended to support your organization in the search for a new normal.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Amanda Wight is the Lead for Hagerty’s Exercise Portfolio and Lead for Hagerty’s Active Threat Portfolio. Amanda has supported communities nationwide on developing, delivering, and assessing exercises on a wide range of subject matters. Having conducted more than 35 exercises in the past five years that 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 the Deputy Lead for Hagerty’s Exercise service line and supports the Infrastructure service line with a special focus on Transit preparedness. Jim brings more than 20 years of industry experience 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.
Katie Tampke is an Emergency management professional with experience in exercise design and incident response. Katie has helped design and execute multiple exercises across the local, state, federal, nonprofit, and private sectors with focus areas in active threat, transit, and public health emergencies.