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Providing information and resources to help emergency risk communicators prepare and effectively respond in the event of a crisis.

Elements of a Successful Exercise: Functional vs Tabletop and Beyond


Over and over, we hear the importance of training and exercising a risk communication plan. In the wake of recent public health emergencies such as hurricanes, floods, and food-borne disease outbreaks, as well as acts of terrorism, it is critical to be prepared and have a realistic, practiced, and actionable risk communication plan in place; these components can ensure your plan meets those criteria. What follows is a detailed explanation of what your agency needs to train and exercise your plan to ensure maximum readiness and appropriate response to whatever public health emergency you face next.

Training the Plan

Risk communicators play a major role during public health emergencies, just as competent risk communication is critical to emergency responses. Yet, communicators are often embedded within a large-scale, event-specific exercise and rarely engage in exercising the communication plan alone. Once a communication plan has been written and approved by your agency’s leadership, all persons who are responsible for executing the plan should receive adequate training about it prior to participating in an exercise. Moreover, it is imperative that all trainees have a thorough understanding of the plan’s Concept of Operations as well as the resources and tools available to implement it. During the training some of the topics may include:

  • The role of risk communication during a public health emergency.
  • Using a Risk Communication Principles checklist.
  • Persons on the communication team (internal and external).
  • Spokesperson(s) for the agency—may vary depending on the crisis.
  • Methods of communication (public and secured).
  • How to solicit feedback and information from the target audience(s), and how that information will affect message development.
  • Have a directory of persons responsible for creating risk communication materials before, during, and after the event.
  • Call roster.
  • Media outlets in your area.
  • Web site content/information, including how to post new information.
  • Transparency guidelines and decision-making processes.

In addition, the training should address the importance of developing effective and efficient messaging during a public health emergency. This will help ensure communicators have a clear understanding of what the message(s) should include. Below is a list of five key components for developing effective risk communication messages:

  • Reduce Uncertainty—provide information about the outbreak/event.
  • Increase Feelings of Control—provide information on how the public can protect themselves, their families, and the community.
  • Build Trust—address specific public worries and concerns.
  • Communicate Transparently—describe the next steps in the response and how decisions are being made.
  • Meet the Cognitive Needs of People Under Stress—use simple, nontechnical language.

Exercising the Plan

After the plan has been trained, your agency should design an exercise(s) that will test procedures to identify strengths and weaknesses to enhance the plan, as well as better prepare communication staff for real events. After each exercise, revise the plan to reflect lessons learned and keep your communications operations realistic and appropriate.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP), the exercises should occur in the following order:
  • Tabletop Exercise (TTX)—stimulates discussion of various issues regarding a hypothetical situation. This exercise can be used to assess plans, policies, and procedures. Tabletops can be conducted as one large group or split into groups based upon functional areas.
  • Functional Exercises (FE)—designed to test and evaluate individual capabilities, multiple functions or activities within a function, or interdependent groups of functions.
  • Full-scale Exercise (FSE)—multiagency, multijurisdictional exercise that tests many facets of the response, including communications. An FSE focuses on implementing and analyzing the plans, policies, and procedures developed in previous discussion-based exercises, such as the TTX and FE.

Each of the exercises listed above requires full participation from an exercise planning team working together to develop objectives and goals that will serve as the framework for the scenario. It is important to develop a reasonable scenario that limits the number of objectives and develop “injects” that will drive the objectives. Keeping objectives and injects limited in number and scope will allow adequate time to successfully complete the exercise.tabletop

It may be beneficial for your agency to conduct an internal tabletop exercise to ensure that the plan is well-developed, as well as identify strengths, gaps, and/or challenges that can be addressed prior to a public health emergency. Since many public health agencies have very small communication staff and are unable to conduct an exercise independently, other options might include:

  • Working with neighboring public information officers (PIO)/risk communicators to conduct an exercise with a scenario that would affect multiple jurisdictions.
  • Designing an exercise to test JIC Operations, using Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with your city or county PIO.
  • Conducting a small tabletop exercise and then doing a brief assessment of the exercises versus a recent response effort.

For more information about training and exercise planning, please see


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