Fire & Life Safety (Focus on Preparation and Prevention)
The Value of Tabletop Practice
- By Mike Halligan
- November 1st, 2016
I have participated in many fire
incident debrief sessions. The good news
is, they happen infrequently. The bad news
is that they almost always identify activities
that could have been handled better if tabletop
exercises had been conducted prior to the event.
The point of a tabletop exercise is to facilitate
a discussion about what your campus would do
in response to a fire or other disaster. Participants are led through
a simulated scenario and are prompted to examine their fire plan,
policies and procedures. The goals for fire tabletop exercises are to
assess your campus’ ability to respond using current plans, policies,
capabilities and resources; and to help identify improvements that
could make a difference in keeping students, staff and faculty safe
and returning to normal operations as rapidly as possible.
How to Begin
Start by writing an exercise overview. Simulate an actual past
event. Tabletop exercises should begin with an initial scenario; then
add two or three scenario updates. Each step of the event should
include discussion questions to allow participants to focus on a
problem and find solutions in a low-stress, consequence-free setting.
Exercises are not meant to review individual performance.
Fire scenario tabletop exercises should have several objectives.
Each will help your campus identify strengths and weaknesses in
the following areas:
- Staff performance: How is staff notified of a fire, procedures
or actions to follow? What is the process to notify on-campus
departments that respond to the event? Is it the most effective
method, and what are backup notification procedures?
- Facilities: Is the location of the event ready to perform? Will
passive and active fire safety components work as intended?
- Emergency responders: What information do they need?
- Emergency operations plan: Does the response follow current
planning assumptions? Is there guidance in the plan that identifies
steps to take to protect critical assets?
Once your campus agrees to hold a tabletop exercise, plan to
spend two to three hours, depending on the amount of discussion
that you want. A facilitator will help lead the discussion; keep it
focused and lead it to a conclusion for the timeframe selected.
Your campus will also need to select a lead planner. The planner
is responsible for the overall exercise. He or she will help the
administration select participants and develop the scenario and
questions to use during the tabletop. The planner will also deal
with logistics issues and be the primary point of contact.
It is important to include representatives from across campus.
Fire Prevention, Health and Safety, Facilities, Public Information,
Human Resources, Security and local emergency responders must
all be invited to participate.
To truly benefit from the tabletop, the scenario should not be
shared. You want the event to be a spontaneous discussion and as
realistic as possible. Sharing the scenario with invited participants
will result in a skewed exercise.
It is important that all roles are filled within the exercise. The
lead planner will decide which role each participant is assigned.
- Participants: Actively participate, answer questions and “respond”
to the tabletop scenario.
- Observers: Attend the exercise because their roles may include
implementing recommendations identified during the tabletop.
The do not need to participate, but are encouraged to take notes
and provide feedback at the end.
- Note-takers: Record the discussion during the tabletop and
summarize the main points of the event.
The facilitator will begin the tabletop with introductions and
an overview of the objectives. This will be followed by the exercise
and discussion of the scenario(s) and questions to be answered.
Lastly, the facilitator will conduct a debrief, identify follow-up
plans and next steps. By the end of the exercise the following items
related to the fire plan should be identified:
- What weaknesses in the plan were exposed?
- What unanticipated issues did the exercise identify?
- What gaps were identified?
- What high-priority issues should be addressed?
- What are new ideas and recommendations for improvement?
- Were the tabletop objectives met?
Individuals on campus can fill all the roles from planner,
facilitator and participants. You may also want to reach out to
third parties to fill the roles of facilitator and planner. They can
provide new perspectives and ask the hard questions that on-campus
individuals may not want to ask.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.
Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.