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Electronic Tabletop Training: A Revolution in Emergency Preparedness

By Joseph J. Pangaro, CPM, CSO

A flood, an active shooter, a tornado, civil unrest or a train derailment are all disasters no matter their origin; man created, or nature created. The danger these disaster scenarios bring is counted in lives lost and millions of dollars in property and infrastructure damage. In a world where risk is something we try to manage we have to ask ourselves - “How can I prepare my community to respond to an emergency event so we can we reduce or eliminate the loss of life or damage to property”.

Emergency Preparedness

It has been said that experience is the greatest teacher. Once we do something or in the case of a disaster, once we live through something there are always lessons to be learned to guide us the next time. We can conduct an after action report following an event and look for mistakes and gaps in our original plans in how we prepared for or handled an emergency and then update our protocols, personnel, and resources so we are better prepared in the future.

In the calm light of day this seems like a reasonable course of action. Unfortunately, what’s missing from that is the reality that experiencing a disaster comes with it the pain that the loss of life, any life, and the destruction of infrastructure which can be devastating to a community. And while its great to learn lessons from the event you survive, it would be much better to pro-actively, and realistically prepare for emergency situations by conducting high value training drills that can help you define your responses, develop your people, and create emergency plans that will work in the real world.

This is where the traditional “Tabletop” training concept has come in handy for many organizations, including municipal government agencies. Tabletop training for those who aren’t familiar with it works like this:

You create a particular emergency situation you are concerned about such as a natural disaster, public health crisis, terror attack, cyber attack, or anything else that might take place in your community. Then your response team and other exercise participants gather to discuss ways to address the crisis and deal with the possibilities that could arise during the event.

This type of training has great value because it allows all the members of your team to pool their expertise and experience in a stress-free environment to brainstorm options they could use during the emergency, this makes them more prepared to face the real thing without putting them in any real danger. Your team can refer to your emergency plan, if you have one, to help guide their decision-making process and bring the scenario to a successful conclusion.

The downside to this type of training is that it doesn’t provide any realism, stress, or timeline for your team or key personnel to make decisions within. If they hit a roadblock in this type of exercise they can take as long as they need to talk out a course of action and make a decision.

While this is great if your goal is to come to a consensus on how to respond to a problem, or add a new protocol to your plan, a workshop setting doesn’t actually prepare or train your people to act in the real world, under the stress, pressure, and confusion of a real event. Until now that kind of training - realistic training - was only available by conducting a costly, disruptive full-scale exercise or by responding to an actual real world event.

Modern Exercise Design

This is where technology comes in. There is now “Electronic Tabletop training software” that has taken emergency response planning and training to the next level. For emergency managers, it has changed the game, and serves as an excellent facilitator of realistic emergency management training.

Electronic Tabletop training software creates functional exercises by digitizing your scenario and combining a real simulated ticking timeline to your training exercise. As the scenario progresses it injects multimedia such as news clips, radio reports, phone calls, emails, texts, and other communications and notifications into the training. This creates a sense of reality and urgency for exercise participants, and helps evaluators better understand and address their team's response to realistic stressors, unknowns, and dynamic situations. The timeline moves as a real event might, with unforeseen events popping up as they would in real life. This challenges your team to make real time decisions as the scenario progresses and possible goals shift. They can’t wait to discuss options for endless amounts of time, they must act in time with the unfolding events. This adds the element of stress to the training that makes it feel real, providing actionable value.

The addition of built-in analytics that examine your initial plans as well as your expected responses and actual responses before and after the scenario exercise, provides you with an extraordinary amount of information you might not have available any other way that can help to update, modify or change existing preparedness plans following an extensive debriefing.

Some of the things the analytics look at includes:

Original Plan Review

  • Before the scenario begins the analytics reviews your existing plans and plots out the expected responses of your team members to emergencies, no matter what the emergency and creates a graphical display of the stress each member of your team will be under based on your existing plan. This allows you to see if your plan is actually viable, because what looks good on paper, may not work well in the real world. Knowing that a team member will be overwhelmed with responsibilities can help you update your plan or incident command system to address this problem. After the exercise, a display will show you how much stress each team member actually experienced. This can help you adjust responsibilities, so no one is overwhelmed during a real event.

Graphic Displays

  • Graphic Displays also make clear who is expected to be the driving force of your plan. This might be the mayor, police chief, or OEM coordinator. However, at the conclusion of the scenario, the analytics will show who actually coordinated the response. This sensitive information can help you decide if that is appropriate or not. If the person with the most influence is not who you expected it to be, then you can update your plans or change the responsibilities of your team to reflect how you want the response authority to operate.

Word Mapping

  • A Word map shows what your responders were talking about by highlighting the most commonly used words during the exercise. This can help you focus you plans and response on this area of concern.

Pop-Up Challenges

  • A Pop-Up questionnaire feature allows pre-placed questions to pop up during the scenario exercise at specific points that the team members answer in real time. This allows you to understand your team's thought processes, understanding of policy or protocol, or decision-making processes. A real time graphic display charts participants' responses to the questions so you can see what each member answered, helping you focus training or clear up a policy or protocol misunderstanding.

Debriefing & Planning

  • Since many organizations don’t have formal emergency plans for every situation, you can run a scenario and then, based on how the team responded to the action, you can create a policy by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the team’s response.

Electronic Tabletop exercise software provides high-value, realistic, training that engages and challenges your team and makes them better. I have been teaching about emergency response for over 20 years, this training is exactly what every organization and local government needs to improve their planning and response. Old fashioned Tabletop talk training has its place, but interactive Electronic Tabletop training software is the future of emergency response training.

Of course by deploying prevention and mitigation measures against all types of potential threats we hope to never have a need to respond to emergency situations, but we know that is unfortunately unrealistic. As community leaders we must prepare for future eventualities of all kinds, and do all we can to provide our emergency responder teams with the best practices, equipment, and training so they can keep our communities safe should the worst happen. Proactive thinking and frequent training coupled with the use of best-in-class technology will ultimately be what saves lives.

If you have questions about this kind of electronic tabletop training please reach out, I would be happy to provide further information and guidance.


Joseph Pangaro is the Chief Security Officer and Director of Global Training for the True Security Design company, and is a member of GovPilot's Advisory Board.

True Security Design


Tags: Cybersecurity, Digital Transformation, Blog, Contributor, Emergency Management