I’ve spent most of the last five years working on Continuity of Operations (COOP) plans for a government entity. While my focus has been mainly integrating the COOP initiative into Strohl/Sungard LDRPS, I’ve provided a substantial amount of input into the COOP program including the facilitation of regular COOP users’ group meetings. Of the people I’ve worked with a number of them have considerable experience in disaster response and event management but most of the planners were pretty new to continuity planning. As we discussed what I’ll term near-COOP events at our users group meetings I sensed a need to conduct a mock tabletop exercise for the planners. Using members of our steering committee, we scripted the entire exercise for a fictional agency in a fictional location to illustrate:
- How to conduct a tabletop exercise
- How a COOP is activated
- How a tabletop exercise (TTX) is used to improve a COOP Plan
On their website, FEMA provides a methodology for developing, exercising, and improving emergency response plans. The program is called the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP). While HSEEP is designed for emergency responders, it can be adapted to continuity planning fairly easily. HSEEP covers several types of activities in its exercise program: orientation seminars, drills, tabletop exercises, functional exercises, and full-scale exercises. I’m going to discuss our implementation of a tabletop exercise based on HSEEP methodology.We set the stage for our audience by providing a brief explanation of our fictional agency and introducing our characters. Each member of our steering committee played a character who worked for the fictional department. Our exercise facilitator set the scenario:
· A Tuesday in March
· An old single floor structure
· Cold snowy winter with substantial snow and ice buildup on the roof
· Snow over night turns to rain in the morning
· A partial roof collapse impacts the work area and the data center
We used a presentation program to provide the audience with graphics including a floor plan, a depiction of the area where the collapse occurred, a satellite view of the building and assembly location across the street from the disaster site.
The starting point for our exercise had the characters meeting in a café across the street immediately after the building was evacuated. The COOP coordinator for the fictional agency asked for an initial assessment, each character provided an assessment and a recommendation was made. Characters would take actions based on their plans and the exercise facilitator would provide results. For example:
A character “called” the recovery location to advise them an event had occurred and the COOP was being activated. The exercise facilitator informed the character that the alternate site would not be available for several hours because no one was onsite.
The facilitator also provided an occasional inject such as, “A TV news crew has arrived and would like an interview.”
The mock exercise was well-received and I believe it provided many of our continuity planners with a solid understanding of how plans would be activated. While we didn’t test an actual plan the benefits of conducting this fictional exercise were very real.Our steering committee had some discussion as to whether or not our mock exercise was a tabletop exercise or a functional exercise. In some ways it fit the HSEEP definitions of both types. Here is how tabletop and functional exercises are described in volume I of the HSEEP guidance documentation:
Tabletop Exercise – TTXs involve key personnel discussing hypothetical scenarios in an informal setting. This type of exercise can be used to assess plans, policies, and procedures or to assess the systems needed to guide the prevention of, response to, and recovery from a defined incident. TTXs typically are aimed at facilitating understanding of concepts, identifying strengths and shortfalls, and achieving changes in the approach to a particular situation.
Functional Exercise – An FE is designed to validate and evaluate individual capabilities, multiple functions, activities within a function, or interdependent groups of functions. Events are projected through an exercise scenario with event updates that drive activity at the management level. An FE simulates the reality of operations in a functional area by presenting complex and realistic problems that require rapid and effective responses by trained personnel in a highly stressful, time-constrained environment.
I considered our exercise a tabletop but when I thought about some of the emergency response tabletops I’ve observed, I can see where some might consider what we did closer to a functional exercise. In the exercises I observed, the facilitator would put the scenario out to the group and participants discussed the actions they would take. They were more like general discussions about specific events rather than walking through plans. I don’t mean that to sound disparaging in any way. No doubt they are valuable, especially in getting various emergency response organizations on the same page. They are likely more practical for meetings involving agencies from various jurisdictions as well as private sector entities. They were just different from what we did.
In continuity planning I tend to think of a functional exercise as an exercise that demonstrates a capability to re-establish a particular function or process after an interruption. For example, a company has a collections department. To me, a functional exercise would be to take someone from collections to an alternate site and demonstrate that the necessary resources could be put in place to allow them to perform their job from that site. A full scale exercise would include representatives from all or nearly all departments (at a given site). In our tabletop exercise we just assembled personnel, gave them a scenario, and had them play out events.
I would like to get thoughts from BCP and COOP planners on this. What do you consider a functional exercise when it comes to continuity planning? What about a tabletop? Is there a difference in the definitions of tabletop and functional exercises for first responders versus tabletop and functional exercises for continuity planners?