Lesson 7 Building Block Approach

New vocabulary for this lesson:

  • Building Block Approach
  • Prevention
  • Mitigation
  • Preparedness
  • Response
  • Recovery

Most organizations design exercises based on how they would respond to an emergency, forgetting that response is only one part of an emergency management program.  A good exercise program incorporates all of the emergency management elements: mitigation/prevention, preparedness, and recovery, in addition to response.  But of course you can’t run before you can walk!  

What is a Building Block Approach?  There is a focus on exposing participants to a cycle of training and exercises that escalates in complexity, with each exercise designed to build upon the last, in terms of scale and subject matter. For example, a building-block series of exercises may include a seminar, which leads to a tabletop exercise (TTX), which leads to a full-scale exercise (FSE).

One recommendation is to take a building block approach, which recognizes that an exercise program is progressive.  What do we mean by a building block approach?  It means that you start with basic exercises to test specific elements and then go on to occasionally use exercises that take greater resources and time, and are more complex. 

The building block approach to exercising includes:

1. Discussion-based exercises:

  • Seminars
  • Workshops
  • Table Top Exercises
  • Games
2. Operations-based exercises:
  • Drills
  • Functional Exercise
  • Full Scale Exercise

We'll discuss Discussion-based and Operations-based exercises in more detail in the next three lessons.  It's important to become familiar with the different exercises as a building block approach can provide your organization with an exercise program that helps you build your preparedness capacity in exercising. As each step is completed in the building block approach, lessons learned from the previous exercise activity are incorporated into plans and procedures. 

Take a look at the chart that follows.  It helps illustrate the trap that you can easily fall into as your organization begins work on an exercise program.  The temptation to start with a big exercise, involving a lot of players, is understandable.  It gets everyone’s interest, and you feel like you’re getting the biggest number of participants for your training dollars.  But this is why it’s a trap. Unless you’ve begun in a modest way, with each of your players understanding their roles, responsibilities and duties in an emergency, understand your emergency plan, and your partners in an emergency and their roles, you’ll find that your large scale exercise may be a failure. 

Another trap you can fall into is in thinking that once you’ve done a seminar or a drill, you should only do operations-based exercises.  An exercise should be chosen to suit what is being tested.  No matter how experienced your organization gets, don’t underestimate the value of a simple drill exercises, or a table-top discussion, or a seminar.


Before we get into an in-depth discussion of the various exercises, let’s look at a few examples of where they might fit into your exercise and emergency management program.  For example, if you have identified a need to train new personnel, a drill may be the most appropriate exercise type, depending on what needs to be trained.  Take a look at the chart below for more ideas.

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As you saw from the chart above, once your organization understands what it needs to test, the next challenge is deciding which exercise or combination of exercises is best.  Before we go further into the lessons on Discussion-based and Operations-based exercises, let’s take a look at how exercises test emergency management functions.

How exercises test emergency management functions

We’ve briefly discussed the two types of exercises and, at the beginning of this guide; we mentioned the functions of emergency management.  Have you been wondering what kinds of exercises would test each of the emergency management functions? 

We explained earlier that exercises fall under the Preparedness function, but what about the other three functions?  Here are a few examples:

Mitigation/Prevention: A mitigation/prevention exercise focuses on the review and identification of existing hazards and the steps and resources needed to reduce the potential impactof those hazards if an emergency or disaster occurs.

Preparedness:All exercises prepare you and your organization for an emergency.

Response: A response exercise focuses on those critical and immediatemeasures necessary to save lives and protect property during an emergency. Examples of such measures can include emergency medical services, fire, law enforcement, public works, search and rescue, debris removal, restoration of utilities, evacuation and shelter, public information, and other critical functions and public services.

Recovery: A recovery exercise focuses on the non-critical, longer termactivities needed to return the disaster area as closely as possible to its original condition. Recovery differs from response in that response activities concentrate on immediate, critical functions to save lives and property, while recovery activities take days, weeks, months, or even years to complete. Examples of recovery activities include restoration of public facilities, streets, roads, bridges, debris removal and disposal from public and private lands.

You now have an idea of the building block approach to an exercise program, have seen some of the reasons to conduct an exercise, and how exercises test various emergency management functions.  In the next two lessons, we’ll learn more about Discussion-based and Operations-based exercises, and how they are conducted.

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