Build a Smart Exercise and Respond to the Unexpected

A few days ago I caught a documentary on NatGeo called Inside: 21st Century Warship. The documentary was produced in 2013 and told of the cutting-edge design of the USS Freedom and USS Independence. One segment of the documentary captured an exercise the USS Freedom engaged in, with the objective of testing the ship’s firepower to destroy several remote-controlled fast attack boats in open seas. The Captain, well experienced in my opinion, was able to neutralize the boats through the massive wake created by the ship’s sizeable turbines. EndEx.

The lead controller was clearly upset with this. The objective of the exercise, after all, was to test the ship’s guns, which were not fired in this exercise. The controller vented his frustration with the Captain, needing to reemphasize the parameters of the exercise.

Who was at fault in this? Was the objective of the exercise communicated to the Captain? That wasn’t made clear in the documentary. If it was, perhaps it wasn’t made clear that use of the ship’s guns was the only means by which the Captain could engage the attacking boats. I do applaud the Captain’s initial defensive methods, which is perhaps what he was trained to do, though that obviously circumvented the intent of the exercise. Either way, there was a miscommunication or misunderstanding as to the intent and parameters of the exercise.

While this is a military example, the portability to emergency management and homeland security is pretty direct. How do we mitigate against this type of miscommunication or misunderstanding? It starts with a well-defined concept and objectives for our exercise. Those build the foundation from which the rest of the exercise is constructed. Part of exercise design is anticipating how players may respond to the information they are provided and the situations which they will face. This constant analysis helps us to ensure a well-designed exercise, especially in regard to reducing any and all ambiguity, particularly as information relates to the objectives of the exercise and the ‘rules of the game’. It helps us to craft clear injects and even contingency injects in the event players don’t respond the way in which we expect them. Finally, when it comes to deployment of the exercise, an effective player briefing is very important.

Can things still go wrong? Sure they can. That’s why it helps to have a well experienced Exercise Director and/or Lead Controller, and a proficient SimCell Manager (if you are using a SimCell). They can help get the exercise out of a rut. I’ve seen and performed all manner of intervention… most often it’s some ad-hoc development of contingency injects to help steer them down the right path. I’ve also engaged chief executives, who sometimes weren’t expected to participate in the exercise, to make a call, functioning in their own capacity but working for me as an actor, with clear direction to poke, prod, inquire, or otherwise re-direct to get players back into my sandbox. If necessary, it’s a conversation directly with the ‘leader’ of the players, pulling them out of the exercise for a moment and letting them know what they can or can’t be doing. If you have to call a time out and reset something, do it, but do it quickly.

It may be cliché but expect the unexpected. Sometimes players will do something you don’t anticipate. While this may be the circumstance, however, it could very well be on you. Either you didn’t communicate the rules or communicate them well enough. Ensure understanding in this communication. Certainly, ensure that during the exercise, there is good communication between controllers and the SimCell to identify when, if, and how players might be straying a bit. If it’s caught early enough, it will usually just take a gentle nudge to get them back on track. It’s important to recognize and address it as soon as possible – otherwise you will quickly lose your exercise, wasting time and money, and certainly frustrating the players.

Have you had an exercise go off the rails? How did you correct it?

©2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Improving the HSEEP Templates

For years it has bothered me that the templates provided for the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) are lacking.  The way the documents are formatted and the lack of some important content areas simply don’t do us any favors.  These templates go back to the origination of HSEEP in the early 2000s and they have seen little change since then.  It gives me concern that the people who developed these have struggled with concepts of document structuring and don’t understand the utility of these documents. 

I firmly believe that the documents we use in exercise design, conduct, and evaluation should be standardized.  Many of the benefits of standardization that we (should) practice in the Incident Command System (ICS) certainly apply to the world of exercises, especially when we have a variety of different people involved in each of these key phases of exercises and entering at different times.  Much like an incident, some people develop documents while others are users.  Both should count on a measure of standardization so they don’t have to figure out what they are looking at and how to navigate it before actually diving into the content.  That doesn’t mean, however, that standards can’t evolve to increase utility and function. 

I’ve written in the past about the dangers of templates.  While they are great guides and reminders of certain information that is needed and give us an established, consistent format in which to organize it, I still see too many people not applying some thinking to templates.  They get lost in plugging their information into the highlighted text areas and lose all sense of practicality about why the document is being developed, who the target audience for the document is, and the information they need to convey. 

Some of my bigger gripes…

  • Larger documents, such as ExPlans, SitMans, Controller/Evaluator Handbooks, and After-Action Reports MUST have a table of contents.  These documents can get lengthy and a TOC simply saves time in finding the section you are looking for. 
  • Some exercises are complex and nuanced.  As such, key documents such as ExPlans, SitMans, and Controller/Evaluation Handbooks must have designated space for identifying and explaining those situations.  This could be matters of multiple exercise sites and site-specific information such as different scopes of play for those sites, limited scopes of participation for some agencies, statements on the flow and execution of the exercise, and others.
  • Recognize that the first section of an EEG (Objective, Core Capability, Capability Target, Critical Tasks, and sources) is the only beneficial part of that document.  The next section for ‘observation notes’ is crap.  Evaluators should be writing up observation statements, an analysis of each observation, and recommendations associated with each observation.  The information provided by evaluators should be easily moved into the AAR.  The EEG simply does not facilitate capturing this information or transmitting it to whomever is writing the AAR. 
  • The AAR template, specifically, is riddled with issues. The structure of the document and hierarchy of headings is horrible.  The template only calls for documenting observations associated with observed strengths.  That doesn’t fly with me.  There should similarly be an analysis of each observed strength, as well as recommendations.  Yes, strengths can still be improved upon, or at least sustained.  Big missed opportunity to not include recommendations for strengths.  Further, the narrative space for areas of improvement don’t include space for recommendations.  I think a narrative of corrective actions is incredibly important, especially given the very limited space in the improvement plan; plus the improvement plan is simply intended to be an implementation tool of the AAR, so if recommendations aren’t included in the body of the AAR, a lot is missing for those who want to take a deeper dive and see specifically what recommendations correlate to which observations and with an analysis to support them. 

Fortunately, strict adherence to the HSEEP templates is not required, so some people do make modifications to accommodate greater function.  So long as the intent of each document and general organization remains the same, I applaud the effort.  We can achieve better execution while also staying reasonably close to the standardization of the templates.  But why settle for sub-par templates?  I’m hopeful that FEMA’s National Exercise Division will soon take a look at these valuable documents and obtain insight from benchmark practitioners on how to improve them.  Fundamentally, these are good templates and they have helped further standardization and quality implementation of exercises across the nation.  We should never get so comfortable, though, as to let tools such as these become stagnant, as obsolesce is a regular concern. 

I’m interested in hearing what you have done to increase the value and utility of HSEEP templates.  How would you improve these?  What are your pet peeves? 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 9: Conducting an Exercise

This post is part of a 10-part series on Managing an Exercise Program. In this series I provide some of my own lessons learned in the program and project management aspects of managing, designing, conducting, and evaluating Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) exercises. Your feedback is appreciated!

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 1

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 2: Develop a Preparedness Strategy

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 3: Identify Program Resources and Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 4: Conduct an Annual Training & Exercise Planning Workshop.

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 5: Securing Project Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 6: Conducting Exercise Planning Conferences

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 7: Develop Exercise Documentation

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 8: Preparing Support, Personnel, & Logistical Requirements

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 9: Conducting an Exercise

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 10: Evaluation and Improvement Planning


Since writing Part 8, the new HSEEP guidance (April 2013) was published. Thankfully this update didn’t dictate wholesale changes in the process we’ve all come to be familiar with. There were some subtle changes, such as changing ‘planning conferences’ to ‘planning meetings’, and stressing the involvement of elected officials in the exercise planning process. Similarly, I’m thankful that certain changes weren’t made – one of which was the proposed elimination of terminology of ‘discussion based exercises’ and ‘operations based exercises’. These general identifiers have become commonplace amongst exercise designers for decades. Upon having the opportunity to review a draft version of the new HSEEP guidance, I was quite opposed to that change.

Obviously conducting the exercise is the most exciting part of the process. It’s where all of your hard work comes together. That said, this is where it can all fall apart if you haven’t prepared property in the first eight parts and if you don’t pay attention to detail. I’m breaking exercise conduct down into four smaller parts: Set up, briefings, play, debrief. Remember that my intent with these postings is not to be fully comprehensive, but to emphasize areas where I have learned or have seen others struggle. In all facets of emergency management we need to continue a culture of sharing if we are to be successful.

Set up

The preparations for your exercise should have been finalized in Part 8 where you addressed logistical requirements. You should know where your exercise venue is, how people will be seated/where they will be working, the location and support for a SimCell (if you’re having one), and even matters such as parking, food, restrooms, and audiovisual equipment. Additionally, set up includes having print material available for all participants. When setting up, consider the flow of people, quite literally from the road to the parking lot, from the parking lot to the facility, into the facility through security, sign in, and to their first location for the exercise (this may be their only destination or it may be a large briefing room). Having conducted exercises in locations not familiar to some participants as well as these exercises being larger than the facility’s parking lot can handle, you must ensure that invitation packages have specific directions on how to get to the parking area and how to get from the parking area to the venue. Be sure that signage is prominently displayed. It may even help to have staff directing people. Be sure to also let them know what manner of identification is required to enter the facility. Again, signage is often necessary to get people from the building entrance to check in location and then to the meeting location. Signage for the refreshment area and restrooms may also be needed.

Have everything set up for people before they arrive. Use table tents, if needed, to help identify seating, and have copies of all necessary materials at their seating location. Materials like SitMans and ExPlans have a lot of content, so it’s nice to have these materials available for the early-comers to being reading through.

Be sure to set up early and test EVERYTHING. Make sure AV equipment and communications equipment are tested.


Depending on the type of exercise you are conducting, there can be a number of briefings needed to take place before the exercise begins. Some of these briefings may need to take place well in advance, even a day or more before the exercise, depending on availability of audiences for each of them.

The new HSEEP guidance includes a specific briefing for elected and appointed officials. This is something to usually conduct well in advance of the actual exercise to outline the agenda/timeline of the exercise and what will be expected of them. They will likely want to interface with any media and should know what to say about the exercise. They may also want to ‘kick off’ the exercise at the player briefing.

Controllers, evaluators, and SimCell personnel should receive a briefing to ensure they are familiar with the exercise and their rolls. They all need to know what is expected of them and of the players, how and when to interact with the players, and what may need to be reported to their respective leaders and/or to the exercise director. Evaluators will need to become familiar with their assigned EEGs and what the expectations are for evaluating. Additional time will need to be spent with SimCell personnel to familiarize them with the equipment being used, how the MSEL is structured, and how injects will be delivered. If any actors are being used, they will also need to be briefed on their rolls and what their expectations are. Ensure that everyone is familiar with the safety word in the event of the necessity to immediately stop the exercise.

If observers are expected at the exercise, have a briefing ready for them. I suggest treating them like VIPs when possible (most of them usually are). Don’t just let them walk around to figure things out for themselves. Give them tour guides who can take them throughout the venue and talk about what is happening. Schedule their arrival when possible, and consider having an elected or appointed official there to greet them. Keep in mind that some observers will be very high tier VIPs. Vigilant Guard exercises are often visited by the head of the National Guard Bureau – a four star General. These visits are fantastic and very much emphasize the importance of the exercise, but they can also be a little disruptive. These high-tier VIPs will often come with their own entourage and/or security. They will want a brief tour and will stop often to shake hands and have pictures taken. They may even want a break in the exercise to speak. Try to be aware of these expectations up front if at all possible. If not, just go with the flow and be flexible.

The media is another form of observer. All media should be scheduled. Be sure to make it worth their while, where they can catch some video/picture footage of interesting activities. Maps and wall displays make for great footage as well. Remember operational security! If something is sensitive or classified, it should not be anywhere where it can be seen. The media should also be provided a tour and an opportunity to get a statement from the elected and/or appointed officials. They may also want to interview players. I generally don’t allow this without preparation of the specific player to ensure that the right messages are delivered. Also, be sure to let players know during the player brief that there will be observers and media coming through and what is expected of them.

Lastly, the player briefing. This briefing will introduce players to the purpose of the exercise, the ground rules, the facility, timeline, controllers and evaluators, and expectations. Players should be briefed on how and when to interact with the SimCell if you have one. It should always be reinforced that the exercise is ‘no fault’, and that they, individually, are not being evaluated, rather it is the plans, policies, and procedures they are using that are being evaluated. Lastly, players are briefed on the scenario. Be sure that the ExPlan/SitMan has the detailed scenario for their reference.

Exercise Play

Finally the moment of truth arrives! Remember that the purpose of the exercise is to accomplish the objectives, however, know that you may not accomplish all the objectives in the timeframe you have. Being flexible, and knowing you have to be flexible, are two very important aspects of running an exercise. Regardless of how well we think we’ve written an exercise, the responses to our prompts are entirely up to the players. They may accomplish the objectives faster or slower than you expected. Likewise, they may struggle a bit. This is where good exercise control comes in. Controllers/facilitators should observe the tempo of the exercise. Is everyone engaged? Are they needlessly overwhelmed and frustrated? Are they bored? Are they not following through on activities? All these observations should be reported back to the exercise director and SimCell so the tempo can be moderated.

Be sure to have contingencies in the event that players do or request the unexpected. Additional injects that are held back are always a good idea. You may need them to prompt certain activities in the event that players do not take the initiative to do so. Players may also ask questions or make requests of the SimCell that aren’t expected. While we can’t anticipate every need, we can be prepared for them. Have copies of plans, policies, procedures, and maps available to the SimCell. They may have to take some time to research and come up with an answer then get back to the individual. The SimCell manager should be smart when situations like this arise, however. They should always consider if a potentially inaccurate but reasonable answer is acceptable or if the answer must be completely accurate… or even if the answer is required for exercise play at all. There is no sense having SimCell personnel research an answer if the answer doesn’t much matter within the scope of the exercise.

Multi-day exercises may require the exercise staff to meet at the end of every day for a mini hotwash and to evaluate how the exercise is progressing. Where are the players in respect to where you expected them to be in your design of the exercise? Do you need to retool anything in the MSEL?

On large exercises, it helps for the exercise director to have an aide-de-camp, or assistant. Just like any individual in charge of a large operation, the exercise director is having their attention pulled in many directions and may simply not have the time to address everything, especially in large or multi-venue exercises. Having an assistant is also a great way to train up and coming exercise staff. Certainly consider the use of portable radios to help facilitate communication as well. The exercise director will spend most of their time managing and trouble shooting. They may also have to address some VIP concerns. Be sure to walk around to get a good sense for the exercise as a whole. Are evaluators properly positioned? Are controllers present and visible? Is the SimCell responding to questions adequately? Are players engaged and challenged? Perhaps most importantly, is the boss (the elected/appointed official) happy?

Evaluation is such an important aspect of exercise that I will cover it in its own section – Part 10.


Two significant debriefing activities should take place immediately following the exercise: 1) a player hotwash, 2) an exercise staff debriefing. Players should be led through a facilitated hotwash, reviewing the objectives of the exercise, with evaluators capturing their responses to if/how the objectives were accomplished. Encourage and capture responses both in the positive and the negative: i.e. what did we do well and what do we need to improve upon?

After the player hotwash, a similar process should take place with all exercise staff – controllers, evaluators, and SimCell. I like to not only capture their impressions of if/how objectives were accomplished, but I also like to discuss the conduct of the exercise, again capturing what went well and what needed to be improved upon.