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What is a Tabletop Exercise?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A tabletop exercise is an exercise which is designed to test the theoretical ability of a group to respond to a situation. Emergency services are especially fond of using tabletop exercises to practice for things like natural disasters, and these exercises can be used in a variety of other ways as well. One of the big advantages of a tabletop exercise is that it can allow people to test a hypothetical situation without causing disruption in the community, as for instance when police officers want to practice their response to a bomb threat.

The concept of the tabletop exercise will be familiar to anyone who has engaged in board games and tabletop role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. A facilitator lays out the terms of the scenario, and then the “players” around the table vocalize their responses to the scenario, with the scenario changing in response to their actions and random factors which may be determined by rolling dice or drawing cards. The participants may be from a single group or agency, or they may be a diverse group of people, with the exercise testing cooperation in addition to readiness to respond.

For example, if a city government wanted to hold a tabletop exercise to practice hurricane preparedness, the players would probably include law enforcement agencies and representatives of the public health department, along with heads of city agencies and hospitals, and perhaps representatives from large regional employers, transportation companies, and so forth. The facilitator would say “a category five hurricane is forecast to strike in 24 hours,” and the participants would proceed to play out their responses. As the “situation” unfolded, the facilitator would provide additional information, such as “the hurricane is 12 hours out, still at a category five, and currently causing damage in a neighboring nation.”

Tabletop exercises can be used to identify weak points which need to be addressed so that in the event that the scenario comes to life, agencies will be ready to respond. They are also used to promote cooperative thinking, and to allow people to practice so that they are more prepared for emergency situations when they actually arise. While tabletop exercises are not the same as a live-action practice scenario or the real thing, they can help people learn to work together, and they can familiarize people with the technology they might be using, the agencies they might be interacting with, and the protocol for disaster situations.

In addition to being used by governments to test disaster readiness, tabletop exercises can also be utilized by businesses and even families so that people know what to do in an emergency. For example, a school might hold a tabletop exercise with teachers to prepare them for a school lock down, or a family might have a tabletop exercise so that everyone knows how to respond to an evacuation order.

Several companies make packaged tabletop exercises, and it is also sometimes possible to obtain disaster scenarios from government agencies. People, agencies, and companies can also devise their own.

TheHealthBoard is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By reader888 — On Jan 26, 2011

@elizabeth2- While it is not fun to talk with your children about bad things that could happen, it is important that they are prepared and know what to do if any of those situations do occur. Some other situations for a family table top exercise could be what to do if a stranger approaches you, what to do if you get lost, or what to do if a caregiver has a medical emergency, such as falling and losing consciousness.

By elizabeth2 — On Jan 25, 2011

This sounds similar to the talks I have with my children about what they should do if the house were to catch on fire. However, this sounds like a better, more detailed way to go about it. I think I will try planning exercises like these with my family. What are some other scenarios that may be good to use a table top exercise for?

By claire24 — On Jan 25, 2011

I had never heard of a tabletop exercise before reading this article, but I am very happy to know that these exercises take place. It is relieving to know that emergency tabletop exercises are being conducted for a variety of situations, so that emergency forces are ready and know what to do if disaster strikes, big or small.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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