Lesson 8 Discussion Based Exercises

New vocabulary for this lesson:

  • Seminar
  • Workshop
  • Tabletop Exercise
  • Game

Building Block Approach

Discussion-based exercises:

Operations-based exercises:

  • Seminars
  • Drills
  • Workshops
  • Functional Exercise
  • Tabletop Exercises
  • Full Scale Exercise
  • Games

Remember our definition of Discussion-Based Exercises?

These are exercises that familiarize participants with current plans, policies, agreements and procedures.  They are also used to develop new plans, policies, agreements, and procedures.

Discussion-based exercises include seminars, workshops, tabletop exercises (TTX), and games. In the building block approach to an exercise program, they are the starting point. But they have a place at any point in your exercise cycle.

What would you use a discussion-based exercise for? Discussion-based exercises focus on strategic, policy-oriented issues.  For example, you could use such an exercise to highlight existing plans, policies, mutual aid and assistance agreements, and procedures. For these uses, discussion-based exercises are exceptional tools for familiarizing organizations and personnel with current or expected capabilities. Facilitators and/or presenters lead the discussion, keeping participants focused on meeting the objectives of the exercise. 


What is a Seminar? Thisis an informal discussion exercise, designed to orient the participants to new or updated plans, policies, or procedures. 

Seminars are used for orientation or discussion purposes.  They can help orient participants to, or provide an overview of, authorities, strategies, plans, policies, procedures, protocols, response resources, concepts and ideas. Seminars provide a good starting point for organizations that are developing or making major changes to their plans and procedures.

Some characteristics of seminars are:

  • They are less expensive to run than other types of exercises.
  • They are a low-stress environment using a number of instruction techniques such as lectures, multimedia presentations, panel discussions, case study discussions, expert testimony, and decision support tools.
  • They are informal discussions led by a seminar leader.
  • There are fewer time constraints than in a real-time portrayal of events.
  • They can be effective with both small and large groups. 


What is a Workshop? It’s an exercise that resembles a seminar, but is used to build specific products, such as a draft plan or policy.


Workshops differ from seminars in two important aspects:

  1. Participant interaction is increased.
  2. The focus is on achieving or building a product (such as a plan or a policy).

Workshops are an ideal way to:

  • Collect or share information.
  • Get new or different perspectives.
  • Evaluate new ideas, processes, or procedures.
  • Train groups in coordinated activities.
  • Problem solving of complex issues.
  • Obtain consensus.
  • Team building.
  • Produce new emergency procedures.
  • Produce mutual aid and assistance agreements.
  • Develop multi-year exercise programs.
  • Develop a Corrective Action Plan (CAP)/Improvement Plan (IP).

Tip You can also use a workshop for helping to develop your exercise program by focusing on specific components of exercise design such as:

  • Determining your program or exercise objectives.
  • Developing your exercise scenario and key events listings.
  • Determining evaluation elements and standards of performance.

Some characteristics of workshops are:

  • It’s a low-stress environment.
  • It’s a no-fault forum (or should be!).
  • Information is provided by using various instructional techniques.
  • A workshop is facilitated, with breakout sessions.  
  • Full group discussions are led by a workshop leader.
  • Goals are oriented toward an identifiable product.
  • It’s effective with both small and large groups. 

TIP: To be effective, workshops must be highly focused on a specific issue and the desired outcome or goal clearly defined

Table Exercises (TTX)

What is a Tabletop Exercise?It’s an activity in which key staff or other emergency management personnel are gathered together informally and without time constraints, usually in a conference room setting, to discuss various simulated emergency situations. The focus is on examination and discussion of problems with resolution.  

Tabletop exercises are used for validation, especially in testing for weaknesses in procedures.  Tabletop exercises (TTX) use simulations, and, in case you are wondering, are not necessarily around a table top. A tabletop exercise uses a realistic scenario and a time line, which may be real time or may use a timeline that is fast forwarded. Usually, tabletops are run in a single room, or in a series of rooms to simulate the divisions between those responders who need to communicate and those who need to be coordinated. For example, if you are a player testing an emergency plan, you would be expected to know the emergency plan before the tabletop begins, so that you can test how the plan works as the scenario you are given unfolds.

Tabletop exercises can involve senior staff, elected or appointed officials, or other key personnel in an informal setting, discussing simulated situations. This type of exercise is intended to stimulate discussion of various issues regarding a hypothetical situation.

A tabletop exercise may last from 2 – 4 hours or longer, depending on the issues to be discussed.

Some characteristics of Tabletop exercises are:

  • They are relatively cheap to run, if you don’t count staff time.
  • They demand careful preparation.
  • They allow you to practice group problem solving.
  • They familiarize senior officials with a situation.
  • They can be used to conduct a specific case study.
  • They can be used to examine personnel contingencies (for example, think of a pandemic planning scenario: how many people can keep your organization going and for how long?).
  • They can be used to test group message interpretation.
  • They help you and your group to participate in information sharing.
  • They help in assessing inter-organizational coordination.
  • They can be used to achieve limited or specific objectives.
  • They can be used to assess plans, policies, and procedures, or to assess the type of systems needed to guide the prevention of, mitigation of, response to, and recovery from a defined event.
  • They help to understand concepts, identify strengths and shortfalls, and sometimes are used to help change attitudes.
  • They help you and your group to discuss issues in depth.


What is a Game?It’s an exercise that explores the way decisions are made, and the consequences of those decisions in a simulated situation. In a game, the same situation can be examined from various angles by changing the variables that guide participants’ actions.  It often involves two or more teams, usually in a competitive environment, using rules, data, and procedures designed to depict an actual or assumed real-life situation.

Did you ever play video games?  Board games?  Active games like hide and seek?  If so, then you may have an idea of what games are!  They have a role in emergency management training as well. 

A game is a simulation of operations that often involves two or more teams, usually in a competitive environment, using rules, data, and procedures designed to depict an actual or assumed real-life situation.

Games don’t use actual resources, and the sequence of events is affected by the decisions made by the players. How does it work?  Participants are commonly presented with scenarios and asked to perform a task related to the scenario episode. As each episode moves to the next level of complexity, it takes into account participants’ earlier decisions.  In other words, the decisions that participants make will determine the flow of the game.

A game explores the way decisions are made, and the consequences of those decisions. In a game, the same situation can be examined from various angles by changing the variables that guide participants’ actions.

Computer-generated scenarios and simulations can provide more realistic and time-sensitive ways of introducing situations to analyze. Decisions made can be entered into the computer to show the effects of those decisions.

Distributed games (available via the Internet) can save participants’ time and travel away from their workplace. A distributed game is a game that can be run on different computers, but which can communicate with each other so that two or more players at different computers can play together.  

Games are excellent for:

  • Gaining policy or process consensus.
  • Conducting “what-if” analyses of existing plans.
  • Developing new plans. 

Conducting Discussion-Based Exercises

Now let's take a look at seminars, workshops, and tabletops, with suggestions on how to: begin the activity, conduct, and sustain action.

Conducting Seminars and Workshops

Beginning a seminar or workshop is like any other regularly scheduled meeting: attendees arrive and introductory comments on the purpose and expected actions are made.

Methods vary widely for familiarizing participants to a plan, procedure, or idea. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • A lecture, if given by the plan developer, an official, or an industrial expert, can effectively get the message across.
  • Films, slides, or videotapesmay be available from various organizations. Some organizations have videotaped past experiences that might be useful to review.
  • Well-planned panel discussions with diverse viewpoints are effective and stimulating.
  • A Talk-through is a chronological discussion of roles and responsibilities in a plan, or set of procedures. Personnel from the organization with a part to play in the plan or procedure are brought together. Then, with the plan in front of them, the talk-through begins with the initiation of the plan.

One by one, participants describe a) the steps they take to implement the plan, and b) the organizations they contact during implementation. Other participants follow along and interject comments, for example, when they feel they should have been contacted, or when they have a resource that is useful. From beginning to end, a talk-through offers the chance to identify gaps, overlaps, and inconsistencies while developing some personal familiarity among the participants.

  • Brainstormingis similar to the techniques used in problem resolution. Brainstorming requires everyone to enter into “idea getting” rather than “idea evaluating.” The purpose is to come up with a solution in a free thinking format of total involvement by all participants. The process requires everyone to join in by suggesting any idea related to solving the problem. Any judgment about the value of the idea is suspended. If it is a good idea, others will “hitchhike,” adding to it and expanding it. If it’s an inappropriate suggestion, the group simply doesn’t follow up. There is no criticism. There is no justification or explanation.

The problem passes from one participant to another with everyone throwing out ideas that are new, or additions to previous ideas. The goal is to explore all possible alternatives, rather than restrict the focus by expanding on any single idea or direction.

  • A case study discussion differs from brainstorming and talk-throughs as it deals with an actual emergency incident. The purpose is to seek lessons learned applicable to the organization. The case is reviewed by a moderator or read individually by participants. Questions are then raised for discussion about the actions taken in the case, or perhaps the actions participants would take if faced with a similar incident.

Cases are available from many sources, ranging from those you could construct from newspaper accounts to after-action reports of organizations.

Sustaining action is largely the responsibility of the leader or moderator.

  • In a lecture, the leader needs to keep the lecturer from going on too long.
  • In a panel, the moderator needs to keep things crisp and to the point.
  • Films or slides need to be reviewed and used selectively if parts are inappropriate.
  • Variety is also useful in sustaining action. Visual aids provide variety, as do question and answer periods.
  • Combining lecture and panel discussion also results in a varied and stimulating format.

Conducting Tabletop Exercises

It’s useful to begin a tabletop exercise with an exercise briefing period to let the participants become familiar with the exercise. One way to do this is to give participants a player handbook, which would include the purpose of the exercise, a summary of the general objectives, ground rules, expectations, forms or documents and their use.  The scenario narrative, prepared by the exercise design team, may be in the player handbook or presented by the exercise controller.

The exercise controller begins the exercise by introducing the first problem to the participants.

There are two types of tabletops: basic and advanced. Basic tabletops seek to solve problems in a group. Advanced tabletops introduce messages.

In a basic tabletop to solve problems, the scene set by the scenario materials describes an event or emergency incident, and brings the participants up to the simulated present time. The materials either provide all the details about the imaginary organization involved or allow participants to use their knowledge of local resources as the context. Participants then apply their knowledge and skills to a list of problems that appear either at the end of the narrative, or that are verbally presented one at a time by the seminar leader. Problems can be discussed as a group and resolution generally agreed on and summarized by the leader.

In the advanced tabletop exercise, play revolves around delivery of pre-scripted messages to participants. There are two variations of advanced tabletop exercises.

Variation 1:  All participants evaluate the same message and announce their actions or decisions at the conclusion of a “round.” Discussion might then take place or another message could be given.

Variation 2: A second technique treats participants individually. Each gets the messages intended for the organization he or she represents and makes a decision. When a decision is made, another message is handled. Participants are left alone to individually seek out information and coordinate decisions with other participants.

The exercise controller introduces problems one at a time in the form of a written message.  Participants discuss the issues raised by the problem, using the appropriate plan for guidance and direction. Participants then take action on the problem. Action can be in the form of a written directive or an indication to the controller that the appropriate organizational plan does not supply adequate guidance or direction for them to follow in resolving the problem.

The controller monitors the participant discussion and assists in guiding the discussion, if necessary. Each problem has a recommended time frame for participant action. If the controller sees excessive time is being used on a problem situation, discussion may be terminated and the participants move on to another problem. Alternatively, the exercise controller may determine that time should be extended.

At the completion of participant action on a given problem (or while participants await a response on an inquiry to a previous problem), the controller introduces another problem. A good suggestion is to let participants work on only one problem at a time.  The controller and simulators (if used) will make appropriate notations concerning the participant actions, the adequacy of the plan to provide participants with guidance and direction, and any other problems which come up during the exercise.

A tabletop exercise is better suited to exercising single emergency management functions or very few functions. Training in decision-making and resource allocation are good uses of the tabletop.

Sustaining action is important – or people get bored and distracted. The tabletop is basically low-stress, with emphasis on discussion and controlling action. It is low-key training, not testing. Here are a few ideas:

  • The scenario narrative or case can be developed in event stages. For example, the initial narrative may involve a warning.  A later one could deal with search and rescue. In this way, more than one narrative is used to sustain action.
  • The progression of problems that participants deal with is a natural way to modify or improve the flow of action in the seminar. Problems can be added or deleted to alter the speed in which “events” happen.

Sustaining action in a basic tabletop is an important function of the leader or moderator. In an advanced tabletop exercise, it gets a bit more complicated.  While the moderator continues to play an important role, sustaining action in a basic tabletop is an important function of the leader or moderator largely depends on message flow. Sending multiple messages can increase the pace, while delaying messages decreases the pace. In general, spontaneous messages are used in a tabletop when free play results in events or actions developing in the exercise that were not anticipated by the designers. You must be careful to control free play so that it supports the objectives of the exercise. Do not hesitate to control the exercise tightly.

Knowing when to suspend action is as useful as knowing how to sustain action. The controller or leader needs to watch carefully for signs of frustration among participants. If difficulty arises, messages back up, or a problem causes conflict among players, stop the exercise. The controller then lets players talk about their situation, encouraging them to solve the problems.

If possible, using an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) for exercises is useful because it provides a realistic setting.  The various plans, displays, and maps are available on the premises. However, any conference facility that comfortably accommodates the participants in a face-to-face setting is adequate.

Copies of the appropriate emergency plan(s) must be available for reference, as should maps and other displays that would typically be available in the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) and that may be necessary for reference during discussion periods. An evaluator should be present to document the actions taken by the participants. These recorded actions will serve as a reference for the exercise evaluation.

In the next lesson we'll take a look at Operations-Based exercises, and following that, we'll briefly discuss some of the other aspects of an exercise that are common to both Discussion-Based and Operations-Based exercises.

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