COSTEP MA is organizing a Tabletop Exercise this fall. We hope you might join us! Some potential participants from Massachusetts archives, museums, and libraries have asked us for a bit more information. Here is some additional general information about what they are, what to expect, and if they’re a good fit to enhance your institutional preparedness.

What is a Tabletop Exercise?

Tabletop exercises (TTX or TTE) are discussion-based sessions where team members meet in an informal, classroom setting to discuss their roles during an emergency and their responses to a particular emergency situation. A facilitator guides participants through a discussion of one or more scenarios.

It involves key personnel discussing simulated scenarios in an informal setting. TTXs can be used to assess plans, policies, and procedures.

What to expect?

A facilitator guides participants through a discussion of one or more hypothetical disaster or crisis scenarios. The duration of a tabletop exercise depends on the audience, the topic being exercised and the exercise objectives. Many tabletop exercises can be conducted in a few hours, so they are cost-effective tools to validate plans and capabilities.

If you’ve never completed a TTX, the process can be a little intimidating. However, it’s important to remember that a TTX creates a “no-fault” environment and should be informal and stress-free. While you want participants to take the process seriously, the exercise should be thought of as a collaborative learning experience — not a test.

To begin, it’s helpful to to consider your objectives and possible goals in the exercise, which can be broad or narrow in scope, depending on your organization.

The facilitator will present a hypothetical disaster or crisis scenario. The facilitator may begin by announcing a hurricane is about to make landfall, and your organization is in the direct line of impact. If there’s flooding and staff can’t get to work, what would everyone do? This prompts discussion with the group and the facilitator will then guide participants through specific questions designed to reflect the unique situation of your facility.

Throughout the scenario, the facilitator will present new challenges to escalate the situation. This will help identify important issues that may arise and might not be planned for, as well as evaluate the response and strength of the plan. For instance, if the scenario started with a hurricane and flood risks, an escalation may be a power outage or road closures. As the exercise comes to a close, the facilitator will lead participants through a debriefing, or “Hot Wash,” to discuss what worked well and where improvements can be made.

To conclude the TTE, the facilitator leads discussion and sums up the exercise, which includes lessons learned and important information highlighted during the discussion. Participants may expect to leave with an itemized list of actions for improvement.

Is this right for me?

For a Tabletop Exercises to be most beneficial, participants should prepare in a couple of ways.

  • Have an existing disaster/ emergency/ or communication plan of some sort. Emergency Response Plans are living documents and this is an excellent opportunity to revive ones that might be outdated or unused! Basic plans are ok – but for this exercise you shouldn’t be starting your plans from scratch.
  • Have some institutional buy-in to improve your disaster response. This is meant to be a precautionary learning exercise that can really improve your institution’s preparedness. The commitment is minimal, and there is no need to be nervous. Ideally, representatives from every key department in your library, museum, or archive can attend. More than just your directors, the session will provide the best results if participants include your managers of facilities and security, communications department, IT, patron support, registrars, and collections management staff. Have all participants read over the same emergency action plans before the event, paying particularly close attention to any department-specific plans.