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Lesson 10 - Common Exercise Elements

New vocabulary for this lesson:

  • Situation Reports (Sit Reps)

In Lessons 7, 8 and 9, we introduced you to the Building Block Approach to an Exercise Program, the types of exercises and their key characteristics, and how to conduct these exercises.  But, we did not yet discuss some other elements to think about when you plan and run an exercise.  Some of these elements are more relevant to complex exercises - whether discussion-based or operations-based. Others are common to all, from the simplest to the most complex.  We introduce them here so that you can think for yourself how they might apply to an exercise.

Public Information

The exercise planning group will need to decide whether there should be any prior publicity. It may be a good idea to issue prior public information to members of the public in the vicinity of the exercise to prevent any undue alarm, particularly for exercises at hazardous sites. However, since this may attract a crowd of uninvited spectators,  "Exercise in progress" signs may be strategically positioned. This can detract from the realism but reassures the public or uninvolved organizations. While public information is more likely to be a consideration in Operations-based Exercises, it can also be necessary in high-profile Discussion-based exercises, such as for an advanced tabletop exercises.

A caution for you to consider: If public information is issued, the participants may also find out about the exercise and this could affect realism. The planning team may consider issuing information by letter, to the public on the day of the exercise. Details for the media could be held until the day of the exercise.


Communications - both equipment and process - plays a key role in the success of exercises. An agreed channel of communication needs to be set up between controllers, simulators, and evaluators so that they can be kept aware of any developments or changes. As an example, in live exercises, the agreed communications used by controllers, simulators, and evaluators must be separate to those being used by players.

One element of your exercise may be to test inter-organizational communications. Don’t forget to prefix all your messages with an agreed codeword so that everyone involved is aware that they relate to the exercise and not to a real incident. All control rooms need to be aware in advance of the agreed codewords.

It’s seems redundant to mention it, but since this is a problem in many exercises, it’s important to stress this.  To be sure that communications equipment works during an exercise, test it before the exercise.  Communications need to be in place in case the exercise needs to be stopped due to a real incident occurring.

An Exercise Tale……

Don’t just rely on old communications technology.”  The exercise media network took far too long to transmit news releases to media outlets.  It altered the chronology of news releases – release #5 was released prior to #3.  Attempts to bypass the media network using fax machines were hampered by busy signals at some key locations.  Some of these difficulties could be offset by using portable media.

An Exercise Tale……

Sorry, wrong number?”  All groups experienced problems in the transfer of message by telephone due to incorrect phone numbers.  Incoming phone calls were often misdirected within the organization.

Media Participation

Dealing with the media is a major part of responding to any incident and for that reason should be practiced as often as possible. While exercise planners could use student journalists or reporters from local papers to test the different organizations’ response to the media, for major exercises, a representative from the national media should be invited to attend. Exercise press conferences and interviews can be used to test the knowledge of the combined response.

An Exercise Tale……

Let the media help you.” The members of the Operations Control Group often neglected the contributions of the media to the situation, particularly in the evacuation phase.  Tip: Continually update the Media Coordinator, as the press usually obtain the information simultaneously from their representative at the site.

Media Coverage

The media might arrive – unplanned - to cover the exercise and arrangements need to be in place for this possibility. Public relations staff should be allocated to keep the media informed during the exercise. Designate a good viewing point and useful locations for photo-opportunities.

An Exercise Tale……

Anticipate questions.”  The information officers did not anticipate media questions.  This is something one should always keep in mind when dealing with them.

Logging and Recording

Logging and recording activities are important parts of conducting an exercise.  There is a fine line between too much and too little information, and what type of information needs to be recorded.  While documentation is the subject of a subsequent lesson, we note in this lesson that records and logs are an important means of communication, particularly after a real incident. These can be vital at subsequent public enquiries. In an exercise, those taking part need to understand the importance of keeping an accurate log of actions and decisions. Don’t assume that participants will bring their organizations' logging practices to the event.

What is a Situation Report (Sit Rep)?  Thisis a report on the current situation in a simulated emergency during an exercise.

Situation Reports

In a real life situation, frequent updates are needed.  This gives the coordination team members a chance to pool their information and see if they are making decisions based on current data.  One method for giving updates is through a Situation Report, or Sit Rep.  This report is informal and gives a snapshot of the current situation.

One of the difficulties you’ll find with a Situation Report as you encounter it in either real life or in an exercise is a lack of understanding that the report should:

  • Note the current situation.
  • Be concise.
  • Be clear.
  • Be timely.
  • Be informal.
  • State the facts and decisions taken without any embellishments.

A Situation Report does not need to be given on a particular type of report, with a specific font, and does not need to be signed by everyone from the Deputy Minister or Chairman of the Board down before being reported on. The nature of an emergency is that it is fluid and withholding a report until all facts are “verified” can mean that important information is withheld until it is too late.

As well, providing a Situation Report that includes all previous facts and decisions is counter productive.  In a real life emergency, an update on the current situation is needed, not past history – the previous Situation Reports are available for reference.

An exercise tale……

Don’t waste everyone’s time with a rehash.”  The briefings were unfocused and rambling.  New and significant information was often lost in a rehash of old information.

Situation Reports should be written clearly and concisely, noting names and the corresponding functions, events, dates and times, decisions made, actions taken, and be acronym and abbreviation free. Situation Reports are used as evidence of events and decisions in after action reports, and in public inquiries.

An Exercise Tale…………..

Secret language…” The use of acronyms in situation reports and other correspondence creates misunderstandings and delays.  Acronyms should be avoided wherever possible.


Briefings are common to all types of exercises.  A briefing should be held immediately before the start time of the exercise and include:

  • A statement and discussion of the general exercise objectives.
  • The time period in which the exercise is to be conducted.
  • A description of the environment.
  • Recording requirements.
  • An outline of the procedures and ground rules to be used. The outline of procedures should clearly specify the participating organizations, and the internal and external non-participating organizations.

The type of briefings you need to use will depend on the exercise's goal. As a general principle it’s a good idea for each organization's representative on the exercise planning group to take responsibility for briefing his/her staff who are involved in the exercise. Further briefing may be required on arrival at the place the exercise takes place. Particular attention needs to be paid to volunteers.

Further briefings are needed for additional exercise controllers, evaluators, simulators, and observers. Don’t forget to give these briefings before the exercise begins.

Here are a few real life stories of what can happen when you aren’t properly prepared…

An Exercise Tale……

Don’t let the coroner arrive unprepared!” No information on the nature of or extent of the disaster was relayed to the Coroner’s Office when the request to attend was made.  Coroners arrived on the scene “cold”.  Information on the nature and extent of a disaster is important so that attending coroner can prepare a mindset, and for the Coroner’s Office to estimate how many coroners may be needed.

An exercise tale……

A map is always helpful.”  Towards the end of the day someone thought to take a map into the media briefing room.  It should have been one of the first things to think of, and to mark the affected areas clearly.


After an exercise, a review of the responses to the exercise by participants and responding organizations is essential. This is an opportunity to evaluate efficiency, to learn from experience gained and offers a source of information to assist in future planning, training and exercising.

This is best achieved by a series of debriefings at all levels within all organizations involved and concluding with a multi-organization debrief. Hot-washes (those which take place immediately after the event) are a useful way of capturing instant reaction which may not be revealed by the cold-wash (that which takes place after an interval).  All actions identified in the debrief should be taken forward by a nominated person/organization and put into an After Action Report (AAR).

Organizations may want to appoint a neutral debrief coordinator. It’s important to create a non-threatening atmosphere so that people are not afraid of being honest about their experiences and problems.

Single Organization Debriefing

The methods of debriefing personnel involved in an exercise may vary within each individual organization. It will, however, be beneficial to the debriefing if the following occurs:

  • Debrief as soon after the exercise as is practicable.
  • Everyone involved, including personnel remote from the area of operations (such as control room staff) is given an opportunity to contribute to debriefing at some stage.
  • Have additional debriefing sessions for personnel involved in specific or specialist operations.

Recordings made at the exercise, particularly video recordings and photographs, along with written reports can be useful in debriefings.

An Exercise Tale……

It’s like herding cats!”  Responders tended to disperse after the exercise, for lack of anything better to do.  Arrange a final roundup so responders can meet and unwind.

Multi-Organizational Debriefing

The debriefing process should end in a multi-organizational forum which includes all organizations which may have been involved in the exercise. It’s important that each organization is represented by personnel actually involved in the exercise, as it will be necessary to give first hand accounts of events.

Facts emerging from the debriefings should be documented and problems identified. Lessons learned should be shared with all who may be required to respond to major incidents even if they did not participate. Training needs - individual, organizational and multi-organizational- should be identified.


Codewords have their place in the language of exercises.  Just as you would have a codeword that lets participants know that a real situation has occurred and the exercise play has stopped, you’ll find that codewords are useful in other parts of the exercise.

Each exercise needs a codename which is then mandatory as a prefix to all messages - verbal or written - during the exercise. The codeword chosen must:

  • Be phonetically distinct from other key words that are used in communications, and
  • Not be used for other purposes in emergency response operations.

Using codewords lets everyone involved in an exercise know that they are part of the exercise and not in a real incident. Control Rooms and Emergency Operations Centres (EOCs) of all participating organizations need to know the codename, before the exercise begins.

A codeword, which can be used to identify that a real incident has occurred and is not part of the exercise, should also be selected and circulated to all participants prior to the event. This could also be used if there are real casualties during the exercise.

We’ve now discussed briefly the common elements in an exercise, and in previous lessons we’ve discussed the five phases of an exercise.  By now, you are probably wondering just what is involved in the actual design of an exercise.  That’s the subject of our next lesson - the eight steps in exercise design.

  • Date modified: 2017-03-22