Skip To Content

Lesson 9 - Operations-Based Exercises

New vocabulary for this lesson:

  • Drill
  • Functional Exercise
  • Full Scale Exercise

Building Block Approach

Discussion-based exercises:

Operations-based exercises:

  • Seminars
  • Drills
  • Workshops
  • Functional Exercise
  • Tabletop Exercises
  • Full Scale Exercise
  • Games

Operations-based exercises are more complex. Here, the participants must resolve the scenario by actually act­ing out their responses, as opposed to talking about how they would respond. For example, simulated wounds are treated, personal protective equipment is donned, medical casualties are placed on stretchers, ambulances arrive at participating hospitals, and security teams apprehend and detain perpetrators – just like would happen in a real life emergency.

Operations-based exercises are used to validate the plans, policies, agreements, and procedures you’ve tested in discussion-based exercises. Examples of operations-based exercises are:

  • Drills
  • Functional exercises (FE)
  • Full-scale exercises (FSE)

What can Operations-based exercises test?  They can:

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities.
  • Identify gaps in resources needed to implement plans and procedures.
  • Improve individual and team performance.

An exercise tale……

Don’t try to do it yourself!”  The Emergency Coordination Centre (ECC) was staffed by only the Airport Manager and two scribes/helpers. No police or airline representatives were located in the ECC except for a very short period at the start of the exercise.

Some characteristics of Operations-based exercises are:

  • Actual response.
  • Use of equipment and resources.
  • Commitment of personnel, usually over an extended period of time.


What is a Drill?It’s a coordinated, supervised activity and is usually used to test a single, specific operation or function within a single entity.

Drills are used to provide training on new equipment, to develop or test new policies or procedures, and to practice and maintain current skills. Don’t discount the value of drills!  Many errors and delays occur in an emergency due to lack of familiarity with a piece of equipment, a policy, or procedure.

Characteristics of drills include:

  • They have a narrow focus, measured against established standards.
  • Instant feedback is provided.
  • Testing is done in a realistic environment.
  • Can be performed separately from other tasks.

Functional Exercise

What is a Functional Exercise?It’s anexercise designed to test or evaluate the capability of individual or multiple emergency functions, with time constraints, and normally in the emergency operations centre.

A Functional exercise is designed to test and evaluate, in a simulated real time environment:

  • Capabilities.
  • Multiple functions or activities within a function.
  • Interdependent groups of functions.

This exercise involves:

  • Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) personnel who carry out actions and provide coordination as though the incident were real.
  • A team of controllers and simulators who track exercise events and assessments by evaluators and simulate the responders who are not actually participating in the exercise.
  • A team of evaluators who assess operational capabilities based on the criteria identified for successful performance, which in turn is based on the emergency management plan.

Functional Exercises tend to be focused on exercising plans, policies, procedures, and the staff that would be involved in your incident management system (IMS). They help participants to simulate a response to a scenario, including decision-making skills, and usually in a time-sensitive environment.

How does a functional exercise work?  Generally, during an exercise scenario, events drive activity to the management level. Movement of personnel and equipment is simulated.   The scenario gives complex and realistic problems that require rapid and effective responses by trained personnel in a highly stressful environment. The more realistic the scenario, the more realistic the response tends to be.

Here are some examples of what a functional exercise can be used for:

  • To evaluate functions.
  • To evaluate Emergency Operations Centres (EOC), headquarters, and staff working in both areas.
  • To reinforce established policies and procedures.
  • To measure adequacy of resources available.
  • To examine inter-jurisdictional relationships.

A functional exercise can last 2 – 8 hours, or longer, depending on the objectives and functions to be tested.

An exercise tale……

Proactive vs. reactive.” The federal and provincial operations centres did not pro-actively consult, but rather responded to each other’s request for information.  There was no joint planning and no concerted effort to co-ordinate emergency response activities.  Although very responsive to provincial requests for assistance, the federal operations centre was exclusively reactive, and did not attempt to anticipate provincial requests.

Full Scale Exercise

What is a Full-Scale Exercise?It’s an exercise that evaluates the capability of emergency management systems over a period of time, by testing the major portions of an emergency operations plan and the organization itself, while under the stress of an emergency.

The Full-Scale Exercise (FSE) is the most complex and expensive step in the exercise cycle, and not for the faint of heart! Full-scale exercises are multi-organizational, multi-jurisdictional exercises that test and evaluate many parts of emergency response and recovery in an interactive manner. This includes many emergency responders that work under one or more incident management system (IMS) to effectively and efficiently respond to, and recover from, an incident.

The focus of a full scale exercise is on implementing and analyzing the plans, policies, and procedures developed in discussion-based exercises and tested in previous, smaller, operations-based exercises. Events unfold in a scripted exercise scenario that has enough built-in flexibility to let updates drive activity. The exercise occurs in a real-time, stressful environment that closely mirrors a real event. First responders and resources are mobilized and deployed to the scene where they conduct their actions as if a real incident had occurred (with minor exceptions).

A full scale exercise presents complex and realistic problems that require critical thinking, rapid problem solving, and effective responses, by trained personnel in a highly stressful environment.  You can test how well your plans, procedures, and cooperative (such as mutual aid and assistance) agreements work in response to a simulated live “emergency”.

A full scale exercise allows you to:

  • Assess organizational and individual performance.
  • Demonstrate inter-organizational cooperation.
  • Allocate resources and personnel.
  • Assess equipment capabilities.
  • Activate personnel and equipment.
  • Assess inter-jurisdictional cooperation.
  • Exercise emergency information systems.
  • Test communications, telecommunications systems and evaluate procedures.
  • Analyze memorandums of understanding (MOU), plans, policies, and procedures.

The level of support you’ll need to conduct a full scale exercise is greater than needed during other types of exercises. The exercise site is usually extensive with complex site logistics. Food and water are needed for participants and volunteers. Safety issues, including those concerning the use of props and special effects, are monitored.  A full scale exercise will last from 2 – 8 hours, or longer.

To get a flavour of the complexity of this type of exercise, take a look at the Exercise Tale below and take note of some of the issues that have come up in full scale exercises:

An exercise tale……

Emergency responses can run 24/7.” There were insufficient personnel- principally support personnel- for even a single shift, working hours only operation.  Finding enough personnel of all types to meet the challenges of what would necessarily be a 24/7 operation is not easy.

Controllers in a functional exercise are responsible for ensuring that the way participants behave stays within predefined limits. Simulation Cell (SIMCELL) controllers continuously inject scenario inputs to simulate real events.  Meanwhile, evaluators observe behaviour and compare them against established plans, policies, procedures, and standard practices (if applicable). Safety officers make sure that all activity occurs in a safe environment.  And, don’t forget that although the exercise on site may be completed, other elements of the exercise may need to continue for some time, e.g. control rooms, reception centres, emergency rooms, media etc.

A summary of the key tasks for running a full scale exercise includes:

  • Brief participants prior to the exercise.
  • Set the scene with victims, if applicable.
  • Brief your observers, have them in position, and readily identifiable.
  • Brief your exercise controllers and facilitators, have them in position, and readily identifiable.
  • Have the first aid support (if necessary) in place and clearly identifiable.
  • Brief your outside organizations and have them in place.
  • Have arrangements in place for food, refreshments, and temporary toilets.
  • Make media arrangements.
  • Complete communication checks.
  • Have a guarantee that the focus for the exercise is available for participation - e.g. a ship, building, and highway - and prepare an alternative scenario, just in case you need one.

TIP:  Don’t forget to get agreement on: how the exercise will start, who will start it, and how the exercise will progress to different phases, if relevant. And also get agreement on how you will end the exercise.

Conducting Operations-Based Exercises

How you begin an operations-based exercise will depend on its objectives. As an example, if your objective is to test the notification system, then that needs to be established for that part of the exercise.

The success of an operations-based exercise depends largely on the participants having a clear and consistent understanding of what is expected of them.  As with the tabletop exercises, a player handbook is an essential tool for the functional exercise.

Many exercises fail because the ground rules or simulation techniques to be used during the exercise are inadequately explained. Don’t fall into that trap.  Make sure participants are briefed before the start of the exercise to ensure that all exercise objectives and procedures are understood.  Let's look at an example of how to conduct a drill.

Conducting Drills

Drills are repetitive actions designed to train participants to act or respond in a certain way.  Beginning a drill will depend on the type of drill being conducted. For example, a command post drill would require the personnel of the emergency service that are participants in the drill to report to the designated drill site. There, a “visual narrative” is displayed before them in the form of a mock emergency to which they would respond. Command post equipment such as vans, command boards, and other needed supplies should be available.

Methods vary widely from the practice of simple operational procedures to more elaborate communication and command post drills. The drill designer would:

  • Give a general briefing.
  • Set the scene.
  • Review the purpose and objectives of the drill.
  • Review operational procedures if they are to be tested.
  • Consider safety precautions and review with the participants.

In some drills, the scene is set using films or slides. Sustaining action includes both planned and spontaneous messages based on the actions of the participants. In most cases, such as when procedures are being tested, little or no communication from the drill designers is needed. In more advanced drills, interaction between the drill designers and the participants may be necessary.

TIP: In designing how an exercise will be conducted, ask at every opportunity: “Will this distract from the atmosphere of a real emergency?” Avoid everything that does.

Methods that you use in an operations-based exercise are exclusively those of delivery and reaction to simulated messages that represent the emergency created by the exercise designers. Messages can arrive in a number of ways, including on paper, by email, by telephone, radio, fax, written, or verbally. They are directed specifically to the individuals or organizations responsible for coordinating any responses with other participants.

How valuable your exercise is depends on how successful the participants are in carrying out their functions as if the exercise was a real emergency. Encourage exercise participants to think of each message inject as an actual event, and act accordingly.

Participants should be encouraged to treat simulated communication outages, damages, failure of equipment, logistical limitations, and personnel losses as if they were actually occurring. These types of situations, which cause a degraded environment, have a particular value because they place added stress on the system and will more effectively test its ability to cope in times of emergencies.

Operations-based exercises use two methods of message delivery: pre-scripted and spontaneous messages, developed by simulators or controllers. Where applicable, a simulation room has a considerable advantage over a tabletop exercise as messages can be dynamically modified to suit the evolving nature of the exercise. In a tabletop, with few or no simulators and limited control manpower, this is not possible. But with several simulators, this method becomes an exciting way to constantly modify the exercise to suit the needs and skills of the participants.

The simulation controller is responsible for monitoring message traffic, by keeping track of what messages are delivered to players. He/she may choose to keep track of messages by listing the numbers on a board (dry erase or chalkboard) and checking them off (example: messages 1-5 & 7, 9, & 11 are in, and other messages will then be checked off as they are entered.) He/she may also develop a message board by functional area, again using the message numbers noted under each functional area. (Example: Fire = 1, 3; Police = 2, 4, 6; EMS = 5, 7; etc.)

The simulation controller will quickly see the gaps and overloads in the message flow.

Conducting Full-Scale Exercises

A full-scale exercise begins exactly as it does in an operations-based exercise. A player briefing for Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) personnel, using the player handbook, should be done. In addition, however, the personnel of the emergency organizations that are conducting the field component proceed to the assigned location. There, a “visual narrative” is displayed before them in the form of a mock scene to which they respond.

Methods used for a full-scale exercise include all those occurring at the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) or emergency site command centre. Added to these are:

  • On-scene mock emergency use of simulated “victims”.
  • Search and rescue requirements.
  • Equipment deployment.
  • Actual resource allocation.

In general, the resources used at the scene relate to the simulation taking place at the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). Keep in mind, however, that medical plans, hospitals, emergency medical systems, fire service deployment, and other localized emergency operations usually require centralized incident management, with a link to the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) and require coordination with officials at the command centre.

Emergency Call-Off Procedures

In any exercise, a real emergency might occur. Especially in a full-scale exercise, you must always keep in reserve sufficient personnel to handle routine problems—from a fire to ordinary telephone calls to the emergency office. As well, every exercise should have a planned call-off procedure that will result in the prompt return of personnel and equipment to full duty status. This procedure should consist of a codeword e.g. No Duff, from the exercise controller that the exercise has been terminated and that personnel should report to their regular duty positions. All radio traffic, as well, will return to normal. These procedures should also be tested.

An Exercise Tale…..

“When is it over?” There was no STAND DOWN announcement, keeping the exercise going longer than necessary.

In the next lesson, we’ll discuss some of the common elements of both discussion-based and operations-based exercises.  These include communications, media participation, briefings, and debriefings.

  • Date modified: 2017-03-22