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Lesson 11 - Eight steps to exercise design

New vocabulary for this lesson:

  • Needs assessment

We’ve talked about exercises, you’ve seen some examples, and now it’s time to talk about the eight steps to exercise design.  Many people confuse the eight steps in designing an exercise with the five exercise phases.  The five phases of an exercise deal with the whole cycle of an exercise.  The eight steps to exercise design focus only on how to design an exercise – it does not deal with running an exercise or evaluating it.

Step 1 – Assess Needs

8 Steps To Exercise Design

Step 1

Assess needs.

Step 2

Define the scope.

Step 3

Write a statement of purpose.

Step 4

Define objectives.

Step 5

Compose a narrative.

Step 6

Write major and detailed events.

Step 7

List expected actions.

Step 8

Prepare messages.

What is a Needs Assessment?  It’s is a process of defining an organization’s inventory of problems or needs.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the first step in designing any exercise is to assess your organization’s needs.  This gives you valid reasons to do an exercise, helps you define problems you hope to solve, and identifies the functions to be exercised. If your organization has previously done exercises, then an evaluation of any past events or exercises are good primary sources of information.

One of the first steps in exercise program management is the needs assessment.  A needs assessment has three basic steps:

  1. Define problems.
  2. Establish the reasons to do an exercise.
  3. Identify the functions to be exercised.

After you’ve completed a needs assessment, it’s time to review your emergency management plan. The base document for all emergency management exercises is your current emergency operations plan.

Next, it’s time to review planned responses, resources available, personnel available, and procedures.  If you’re in a landlocked area with one road running in or out of town, a chemical plant on one end of town, and your road is a busy one with heavy transport trucks carrying goods and chemicals back and forth from one urban centre to another, then your needs assessment is going to be very different from an organization located in a large city built on a floodplain, surrounded by two rivers that tend to flood each year, and with a large viral research lab that’s come to the public’s attention due to contamination from labs in another country.

Step 2 - Define the Scope

“Defining the scope” means to put realistic limits on the areas addressed in the needs assessment. Not all hazards can be tested, not all exercise types used, and not all resources will be available. Your scope needs to be clear and defined.  The following five categories make up the scope:

a. Hazards—normally, one main hazard is identified in the scenario of the exercise, even though others may develop.

b. Geographic area—a defined location of the event is identified, such as an address, or specific site.

c. Functions— identify what emergency management functions will be tested, based on need.

d. Organizations and personnel—identify what organizations will be involved, and at what staffing levels.

e. Exercise type— identify what type of exercise is needed or authorized.

Step 3 - Write a Statement of Purpose

A statement of purpose is a general statement about an upcoming exercise activity.  Using this statement, your emergency management program can communicate the plan to exercise, the purpose of the exercise, and the exercise scope to all interested parties.

Example of a Statement of Purpose

The purpose of the proposed emergency management exercise is to improve the following emergency operations:

a. Flood stage monitoring

b. Evacuation warning

c. Relocation of school children and senior citizen home

d. Reception centre management

by involving the following agencies and personnel:

a. EMO

b. Fire Department

c. Public Works

d. Health Department

e. Red Cross and Salvation Army

f. Area Schools

g. Senior Citizen Homes in area in a functional exercise simulating a flood caused by riverbank overflowing at Queensway Bridge to Hwy 417 on October 20.

Step 4 - Define Objectives

Objectives can be classified into “general objectives” or “functional or specific” objectives.

General objectives are used to provide a general overall exercise objective of the organization. (Example: The town of “X” will respond to and recover from a train derailment event.)

Functional or specific objectives are the focal point of any exercise activity. They add to the purpose statement for the exercise, by describing the expected outcomes (performance) of the emergency management functions being tested.

The objectives for any exercise activity should provide a statement of the following:

a. Who is to perform the action? (Example: public information officer.)

b. What are they to do? (Example: distribute a press release to local media.)

c. Under what conditions? (Example: distribute the press release during the first phase of the evacuation.)

d. According to what standard? (Example: distribute within 15 minutes of the decision to evacuate the area.)

The number of objectives needed for an exercise activity will vary. An orientation exercise activity may only need two or three objectives, while a full-scale exercise may have several for each function involved in the exercise.

Good objectives need to be simple, measurable, achievable, realistic and task oriented (SMART) and use action words or verbs.

Simple Avoid making broad complex objectives. If an objective gets complex try to break it into two objectives.

Measurable Ensure evaluators can determine whether the objective was achieved. This is sometimes accomplished by adding a quantitative element    such as “within 30 minutes of arrival on scene.”

Achievable The objective should be achievable for the players within the scope and constraints of the exercise.

Realistic The objective should present a realistic expectation.

Task Oriented  The objective should relate back to a task or procedure that can be evaluated.

Good Examples of Objectives

1. At the time the evacuation notice is received, the EOC policy and coordination groups will examine the needs of schools and other special facilities, and organize notification according to standard operating procedures.

2. The EOC will identify and activate an alternate communication system within 30 minutes of the primary communication failure, as described in the emergency management plan.

Bad Examples of Objectives

1. To test the volunteer organizations.

2. To get agencies to improve their disaster operations.

Level of Play Matrix

Sometimes organizations would like to participate in an exercise, but when they review the scope and objectives they realize that they are unable to commit to full participation. A Level of Play Matrixlets organizations agree early on in the exercise planning process to a specified level of play.

Level Of Play Matrix





Full organizational participation



Full headquarters or EOC participation



Response cell participation



Partial response cell participation

a) Normal work hours (xx am to xx pm)

b) Normal work days (Mon-Fri)


Liaison only participation









Subject matter expert (SME)


Step 5 - Compose a Narrative

An exercise’s scenario narrative describes the events leading up to the time the exercise begins. It sets the scene for later events and also captures the attention of the participants. A scenario narrative is normally one to five paragraphs long, with short sentences and specific information. It gives answers to questions like these:

  • What is the event?
  • How fast, strong, deep, or dangerous is the emergency?
  • How was the information relayed?
  • What response has already been made?
  • What damages have been reported?
  • What is the sequence of events?
  • What time did it happen?
  • Was there any advanced warning?
  • Where does the event take place?
  • What are the weather conditions?
  • What other factors would influence emergency procedures?
  • What is predicted for the future?

The scenario narrative can be presented to the participants by reading it aloud, giving it in written form, or by pre-scripting a type of news video or radio news broadcast.

Sample Scenario Narrative: Air Crash

A Boeing 747, en route from Amsterdam to Toronto, is experiencing in-flight engine problems and will have to make an emergency landing. Plans have been made to land at Ottawa Airport.

However, the latest communications with the pilot indicates that the plane has lost engine power and is losing altitude too quickly to reach the airport in Ottawa. Instead, the plane will attempt to land at YOUR airport.

Conditions at your airport are clear, and the surrounding area is dry. Winds are from the north, steady, at 25 km per hour.  The main runway lies along a relatively unpopulated suburban area, but it is not designed for a 747. Therefore, there is concern as to how successful the pilot will be in landing the plane. The approach will pass over populated housing developments.

The airport control tower has alerted the airport’s Crash/Fire Rescue units and is requesting local emergency services to provide backup assistance in fire, medical, police, search and rescue, and welfare. 

It’s now 9 a.m. (The exercise begins.)

Step 6 - Write Major and Detailed Events

These events take place after, and as a result of, the disaster described in the narrative. Major events are problems that are likely to occur based on past events.  Normally, there will be several of these directly related to the narrative. They require certain emergency, management, and/or government related functions to be addressed. Let’s look at an example of major events, which are based on the previous narrative:

  • Fuselage breaks apart as it hits buildings on approach.
  • Debris and fuel ignite several fires to homes.
  • About 60 survivors are thought to be trapped in the front section of the plane.
  • Several bystanders on the ground are injured.
  • A crowd convenes around the crash site.
  • Family members of victims begin to gather at the crash site, as well as foreign embassy representatives who have been dispatched by their governments to find out information on behalf of family members in their countries.
  • Estimates of fatalities are 200-300.
  • News media are providing instant coverage, as well as speculating on causes of the crash.

The first event should trigger the damage assessment function, while the second calls for action from the fire department. The third and fourth events trigger fire, search and rescue, and paramedic and ambulance services. The fifth and sixth events deal with scene security, and the last event deals with mass fatality response.

In addition, Canada Border Services (CBSA), Canadian Immigration (CIC), Foreign Affairs (DFAIT) and RCMP are involved as this is an international flight, with family of passengers and crew, and foreign missions anticipated to be making inquiries. Canadian Transportation Safety Board (CTSB) and Transport Canada (TC) are involved as this is a transportation related incident.  There is also the possibility that the event is not caused by mechanical failure, but by terrorism.  News crews have converged on the scene.  Bystanders have already phoned in reports of a plane that is in trouble, and cell phone photo footage is being emailed to news organizations around the world.

Detailed or minor events are smaller problems of each major event that will still require action to be taken.  They are designed to prompt expected actions by the participants. Let’s continue on with our example:

Major Event

  • About 60 survivors trapped in the front section of the plane.

Detailed Events

  • Rescuers find survivors entangled in the wreckage.
  • Many of the trapped victims are found severely injured.
  • Passengers and/or onlookers get in the way of rescue efforts.
  • Government representatives begin their work, sometimes in apparent conflict of rescue operations.

News crews demand instant updates and cause of crash.

Step 7 - List Expected actions

These are the desired actions or decisions the players are expected to make. For each major or detailed event, exercise coordinators and planners anticipate that the players will perform actions that follow the emergency management plan, including Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and other applicable procedures.

Example: Objective and Expected Actions

Function:Coordination and communication among the airport and the jurisdiction’s emergency systems.

Objective: Upon notification that a crash is imminent, response units will stage within 3 minutes, according to SOPs.

Event:Landing of disabled aircraft is imminent.

Expected Actions:

Airport Control Tower:

  • Notify local police agency, fire, ambulance, medical personnel to proceed to airport.
  • Alert hospitals of potential mass casualty incident.

Dispatch Centre:

  • Alert police, fire, and medical supervisors.


  • Notify other medical facilities as appropriate.

Crash/Fire Rescue:

  • Initiate incident management system.
  • Notify dispatch of command post and staging locations.

As an example from the detailed events above:

  • Survivors entangled in wreckage—expected action: special extrication equipment brought in.
  • Trapped people found severely injured—expected action: paramedics establish emergency medical services branch within the incident management system structure being used.
  • Onlookers get in the way—expected action: law enforcement sets up perimeter and security.

Expected actions include:

  • Verify (information gathering).
  • Consider (discuss, negotiate, consult).
  • Defer (put action on priority list).
  • Decisions (deploy or deny resources).

Step 8 - Prepare Messages

Messages are the means by which the expected actions are brought about. They are communicated to the players by:

  • Telephone
  • Email
  • Radio
  • Delivered by hand
  • Whispered
  • Transmitted by fax

There are two kinds of messages: pre-scripted (developed prior to the exercise), and spontaneous (developed when players react in different ways). Spontaneous messages can also be “free play”, entered into the exercise by the controller or simulator to induce, create, or steer players to react.

Messages must come from a credible source, as if it actually happened, and be delivered to the proper parties. For example, a member of the public would not be able to report anything directly to the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), but he or she could make a report, through the communications system, a toll free information line, or by calling 911. This then would become a message into the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) from the dispatcher.

The standard message form used has several components:

  • Source: is it credible?
  • Method sent: phone, radio, fax, email, verbally.
  • Content: is there enough information being sent?
  • Recipient: who receives the message, and do they have the authority to act?
  • Contact Number: recorded by message controller.
  • Time: message was taken.
  • Action taken: summarized response of the player to the message (more detailed information may go on a situation log).


Emergency Management Exercise ___________________


TO:                     METHOD:                          FROM:

Contact Number:                             TIME:



In our next lesson we’ll briefly discuss some of the documentation used in an exercise.

  • Date modified: 2017-03-22