Training, Drilling, and Exercising Toolkit

3.0 Exercising in Schools

An exercise is an instrument to train for, assess, practice, and improve performance in mitigation, prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery in a risk-free environment. Exercises tend to be more complex than drills. It is important districts conduct exercises that match their level of experience and capabilities. It is highly recommended to begin with discussion-based exercises and gradually work up to operation-based exercises. Discussion-based exercises include seminar exercises, tabletop exercises, and workshop exercises. Operation-based exercises include functional exercises and full-scale exercises.

Exercises can be used for:

  1. testing and validating policies, plans, procedures, training, equipment, and interagency agreements
  2. clarifying and training personnel in roles and responsibilities
  3. improving interagency coordination and communications
  4. identifying gaps in resources
  5. improving individual performance
  6. identifying opportunities for improvement

There are two categories of exercises:

Discussion-based: a forum for discussing and developing plans; used to familiarize participants with current plans, policies, agreements, and procedures; may be used to draft new plans, policies, agreements, and/or procedures; focus on strategic, policy-based issues; do not involve the deployment of resources (e.g., tabletop exercises, seminars, and workshops)

Operations-based: involve the actual deployment or use of resources and an actual reaction to a simulated scenario; focus on action-oriented activities that validate plans, policies, agreements, and procedures (e.g., functional exercises and full-scale exercises)

chart illustrating the 7 types of exercises

As indicated in the chart above, there are six recognized types of exercises, varying in complexity and depth of planning and capability:

Seminar: A discussion-based exercise designed to orient participants to new or updated plans, policies, or procedures through informal discussions. Seminars are often utilized to impart new information and formulate new ideas.

Workshop: A type of discussion-based exercise focused on increased participant interaction and focusing on achieving or building a product (e.g., plans, policies). A workshop is typically used to test new ideas, processes, or procedures; train groups in coordinated activities; and obtain consensus. Workshops often use breakout sessions to explore parts of an issue with smaller groups.

Drills: Drills are a set of procedures that test a single, specific operation or function. Drills are commonly used to provide training on new equipment, develop or test new policies or procedures, or practice and maintain current skills. Often drills appear to be separate from exercises, such as when referring to both drills and exercises; however, a drill is an exercise. Additional information on drills can be found in Section 2 of this toolkit.

Sections 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3 will define and give examples of the remaining types of exercises: tabletop, functional, and full-scale.

Listed below are best practices to effectively execute any type of exercise:

  • Determine the most appropriate type of exercise based on your objectives; including what you are trying to accomplish, who you are training, costs, resources and other factors.
  • Include community partners, such as first responders (law enforcement, EMS, and fire department personnel) and local emergency management staff
  • Communicate information in advance to avoid confusion and concern
  • Exercise under different and non-ideal conditions (e.g., times of day, weather conditions, points in the academic calendar, absence of key personnel, and various school events)
  • Be consistent with common emergency management terminology
  • Debrief and develop an after-action report that evaluates results, identifies gaps/shortfalls, and documents lessons learned
  • Discuss how the school emergency operations plan and procedures will be modified, if needed, and specify who has the responsibility for modifying the plan

Careful consideration should be given to the stated objectives of the exercise, costs, and resource allocation as well as to the frequency and type of exercise to be implemented. Although a tabletop exercise may be less costly and less time-consuming, it is limited to discussions. An operations-based exercise may provide more context to test execution of current protocol. This should be decided in setting the goals and objectives and the selection of the appropriate exercise(s). Planning teams should also consider the age of the student population, as well as the inclusion of parents or other stakeholders in an exercise. While frequent exercise of the plan is important, the quality and effectiveness of the exercise is critical to achieving the stated objectives and obtaining feedback for improvements.