So, a tabletop exercise is a test of plans, policies, and procedures for an organization, a group of organizations, it can be an internal exercise, it can be a shared multi-agency exercise. Tabletop exercising differs from other kinds of exercising such as Delphic, discussion- based, control-post and live. It’s a very controlled environment, it’s a pre-prepared environment, so a Delphic exercise might be drawn over a long period of time with people sent questions back and forth until they reach an answer. A tabletop is more
immediate: you sit and you discuss questions in the moment. Tabletops tend not to happen in real time. They tend to be accelerated, you tend to discuss a situation and then jump forward in leaps of 30 minutes, an hour, five hours, a day, depending on the nature of what you’re exercising, you know. If you’re exercising an immediate response you might work in half-hour jumps, mirroring some of perhaps the silver huddle meetings that you get in a response. If you’re exercising a recovery scenario you might jump forward in terms of a day at a time, or a week at a time, every 20 minutes.
They differ from control-post exercises in that you don’t have access to the real facilities that you’ll be using, and also it puts a lot of responders in one place so they can immediately see each other. So you’re losing a lot of the communication difficulties from a technical perspective, but you’re also losing the communication difficulties because people can look at each other, smile, see each other, look each other in the eye, and deal with a lot of the relationship issues that come with communicating over distance. And obviously they’re very different to live exercises because you just don’t get the stress of the situation.
A live exercise can be as simple as cutting somebody out of a car, it can be as complex as dealing with a mass fatality train crash, and obviously a tabletop doesn’t bring that level of verisimilitude to a situation, so you don’t get stress in a tabletop. I work in live event management and prior to every big festival that I work at we have a tabletop exercise, where we get the leaders of different stages, engineering, sites, infrastructure, whatever that might be, and we get them to work together to solve problems. We might sit there, have a huge problem, and
think: “Well, we’re going to need heavy plant to fix this problem”, and someone
from site can go: “Well, I can have you three heavy plant drivers and anything you need awake with half an hour’s notice at any point during the day!”, so it enables people to prepare, to look at the resources they’ve got, to run through processes and procedures to see if they would notionally work, and to look at what they need in terms of facilities, be it phone lists, be it access to the Internet, be it keys to a vehicle, be it the ability to contact a certain team - whatever that might be can be run and talked through in this very structured environment.
The real benefits are that you can get to know people who you’ll be working with in a team. Making your first contact with somebody in the middle of a disaster is a really bad idea. It means that in the teeth of the crisis you’ve already got a relationship built; you’re ready to go. It’s a good way of familiarizing people with policy and process - people don’t tend to be fascinated by policy documents. The tabletop enables me to find out if you really have read the major incident plan, and it means you have to, so that you can participate fully.
They are starting to think about how they would manage a scenario, they’re introducing timelines to things they would need, they’re starting to see how they would develop some situational awareness, for example, what kind of communication they would need. But therein lie some of the problems with tabletops - because while it’s recommended that you use a non stressful situation, what you’re then getting is a non-stressful test of where you are. So people can feel very much more in control in a tabletop them perhaps they really would be in the real situation, so it can instill a false confidence that we will be able to manage this situation. That’s one of the first problems. The second is - a tabletop Is scenario-based.
the scenario which is, it’s 9:30 on a Monday morning, rush hour has finished, the wind is a light wind from the West, the sun is shining, the weather forecast is fine, and we progress our scenario from there with an inject, as they’re known - a piece of information that describes the situation. And then the
group is asked: “What do you need to know next, how are you going to tackle this, what are your first thoughts?”, and the scenario tends to progressively become worse and worse and worse until the situation is generally resolved. Real emergencies don’t play out like that. They’re not nice, they’re not tidy. They tend to leap in non sequiturs and present you with difficult challenges that you weren’t expecting; what we would call the “emerging properties of a disaster”. Tabletops tend only to look at external threats to the organization, be it the individual organization, the wider group of responders.
But actually if we look at the history of disasters, it’s the failure of response which has either caused or exacerbated the disaster in question. From Hillsborough all the way through, we see it in the Manchester Arena bombings where it’s the failure of blue light services, of Category 1 responders - through not necessarily any fault of their own - that has actually made the whole situation far worse. Now,
we’re not about to say in a tabletop exercise for an arena: “Right, you’re all here, thank you very much for coming, we’re going to play a scenario today - fire, could you go and sit in a cupboard because you’re not playing!”, whereas actually that’s effectively what happened in the Manchester response, fire wasn’t able to join the response, for a range of situations, not all of their making. I think there’s a really strong place for using tabletops, but they are on rails and they can give you a very false confidence if you’re not careful. It takes a skilled person to run a good tabletop, so you can push that scenario in strange directions.
You know they don’t all have to have happy endings!