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Exercising as a tool for training

From a pedagogical perspective, the term exercising can be used to describe a form of practical training that addresses a learner’s preference for active and experience-centered learning.

They can give opportunities for a more inductive or guided discovery learning approach with scope for the incorporation of error-based learning that must be otherwise avoided in real emergency response (Chen 2013: 387). They provide a platform for participants to develop a more detailed understanding of individual participants and agency groups’ response culture, including decision criteria, processes, cultures, formal and informal communication structures (Ford and Schmidt 2000).

Exercises have been used widely in emergency services to facilitate the knowledge and skills needed to respond to potential disasters. An exercise for emergency response aims to provide participants with a simulated environment to develop their skills and knowledge regarding their response to actual crises or emergencies. As such, exercises normally simulate abnormal and uncertain situations requiring individuals, teams and organisations to build up adaptive, flexible and effective skills to respond to these complex conditions (Borodzicz 2005).

Emergency service personnel are be expected to confront many challenges, including:

  • Ill-structured events

  • Dynamic environments

  • Shifting or competing goals

  • Time stress

  • High stakes

(Skryabina 2017, McCreight 2011).

These problems prevent decision-makers from communicating and disseminating decisions, as well as coordinating effectively with other agencies. Therefore, skills and competencies such as flexibility, adaptability, accuracy, effectiveness and leadership require exercising as they will be required to provide a timely and co-ordinated response and to manage the wider impacts of an emergency.

Pedagogically, exercises integrate individual, team and organisational learning.

Individual learning

From the individual learning perspective, it is believed that exercises can improve mental models of the world. A mental model being:

A representation of an individual’s perception of the world and ways of using this knowledge through techniques such as interpretation, communication, and behaviour.

(Pengelly et al 2001).

Team learning

The individual perspective does not necessarily reflect the most essential learning requirement the team or group has. Therefore, it has gradually replaced the individual as the essential learning unit (Power 2018).

Through exercising to improve team mental models, which are comprised of shared mental and team situational models, it is easier to understand other people’s tasks and their responsibilities. This helps multiple emergency teams manage their interdependencies more effectively.

Organisational learning

The focus of organisational learning is on the nature or process of learning in an organisation, how it is managed and organised. For this reason, it tends to be more descriptive and analytical. Organisational learning aims to improve adaptability to changing environments and improve efficiencies (Power 2018). This can be achieved through analysis of exercise outcomes, with an aim to ensure that lessons learned by individuals and teams are retained and disseminated throughout an organisation.

Your task

Have you ever participated in an exercise? What did you learn?

Thinking back to last week, do you think exercises benefit all learners or situations?


Chen, Y. (2013) Evaluation of Strategic Emergency Response Training On An OLIVE Platform. Simulation & Gaming 45 (6), 732-751

Skryabina, E., Reedy, G., Amot, R.; Jaye, P., Riley, P. (2017) What is the Value of Health Emergency Preparedness Exercises? A Scoping Review Study. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 21: 274-283.

McCreight, R. (2011). An Introduction to Emergency Exercise Design and Evaluation. Plymouth: Government Institutes.

Ford, J.K., Schmidt, A.M. (2000). Emergency Response Training: Strategies for Enhancing Real-World Performance. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 75(2), 195–215.

Cannon-Bowers, J. A. & Bell, H. H. (1997). ‘Training Decision Makers for Complex Environments: Implications of the Naturalistic Decision Making Perspective’. in Naturalistic decision-making ed. by Zsambok, C., and Klein, G. 99-110. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Borodzicz, E. (2005) Risk, Crisis & Security Management. Chichester: John Willey & Sons, Ltd.

Lagadec, P. (1997). Learning Processes for Crisis Management in Complex Organisations. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 5(1), 24-31.

Dobson, M. W., Pengelly, M., Sime, J. A., Albaladejo, S. A., Garcia, E. V., Gonzales, F., & Maseda, J. M. (2001). Situated learning with co-operative agent simulations in team training. Computers in human behavior, 17(5-6), 547-573.

Power, N. (2018) Extreme Teams: Toward a Greater Understanding of Multiagency Teamwork During Major Emergencies and Disasters. American Psychology 73(4): 478-490.

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This article is from the free online course:

Emergency and Disaster Training and Exercising: An Introduction

Coventry University