Using Layered Exercises to Add Value to an Exercise Initiative

Over the last several years, I have had the opportunity, and the pleasure, to lead and participate in some very significant exercises. For some of these larger exercises (mostly functional) we were more interested in testing objectives associated with activities which would occur 72 or 96 hours into the incident (i.e. well after the initial response phase). I’ve made the mistake of scripting (assuming) what would be accomplished in those first few operational periods in an effort to set up the players sufficiently for play starting a few days into the incident. Despite my experience, the input of others, and some dedicated writing it would be rather heavily criticized (i.e. “We would never do that!”). The end result was not only some disgruntled participants, but also skewed results. What we needed was the players to write that part of the exercise for us.

So that’s exactly what they did – or rather, they told us what to write. We accomplished this by conducting a table top exercise with the agencies who would be most heavily involved in the response for those first several operational periods. Through careful structure and injects we were able to walk away with the data we needed to create an Incident Action Plan and a detailed briefing which could be provided to the players for the functional component of the exercise. We had to allow ourselves a few weeks between the TTX and the FE to create a detailed and workable IAP (all based on the actions of the agencies at the TTX) along with the supporting information and materials they needed to help get up to speed – this document we called a ‘Ground Truth’. This methodology resulted in a far better functional exercise, allowed us to bring in first responder agencies for the table top exercise (who where actually happy getting to discuss a response beyond the first operational period), and got us a lot of bang for our buck.

The planning of these types of undertakings is a bit more complicated than just planning one exercise. First of all, you truly are planning two exercises at the same time. While obviously the functional exercise is the most complex, don’t leave planning for the TTX until the last minute as so much actually hinges on the outcome of the TTX. That said, there is still plenty of work that can be done to prepare for the fuctional exercise before the TTX occurs. Much of the MSEL can be developed, but it will need some tweaking based on the information that comes out of the TTX. Be sure to have plenty of evaluators and note takers (I know – this isn’t an official HSEEP function) on hand at the TTX to capture their discussion and actions.

I’ve led a few ‘layered’ exercises such as this and will be evaluating another at the end of this month. I’d encourage you to consider the potential value in this approach for your next exercise.

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