Full-Scale Exercises

Full-scale exercises evaluate the operational capability of emergency management systems in a highly stressful environment that simulates actual conditions. Full-scale exercises test and evaluate most functions of the emergency response-operational plan, including the mobilization of emergency personnel, equipment and resources.

To design and conduct full-scale exercises, districts collaborate with local public safety agencies. Administrators choose a scenario that is most likely to occur in the community and thereby involve all community stakeholders. Facilitators conduct a postincident critique and develop an after-action report to identify issues for correction.

Why Exercise?

In 2000, Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Task Forces participated in two major exercises. One was an earthquake-based scenario staged at Ames/Moffett Airfield in California. The other took advantage of the planned demolition of a sports arena in Denver, Colorado, by running a building collapse scenario. Of the latter exercise, a Denver Fire Department captain said, “We’re preparing for the event we hope never happens.”   Ironically, that was exactly the case. In 2001, some of the same US&R Task Forces that participated in these exercises were sent to New York City to search for victims after the terrorist attack that resulted in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

Many communities across the nation have had similar experiences that show the value of previous exercise training. Research has shown that people generally respond to an emergency in the way that they have trained. It only makes sense for government, volunteer, and private organizations to exercise their plans and procedures so that they are better prepared to respond to and recover from an emergency.

Reasons to Exercise

The goal in exercise design is to establish a comprehensive exercise program — one based on a long-term, carefully constructed plan. In a comprehensive program, exercises build upon one another to meet specific operational goals. The aim is to provide competence in all emergency functions.

There are two main benefits of an exercise program:

  • Individual training: Exercising enables people to practice their roles and gain experience in those roles.
  • System improvement: Exercising improves the organization’s system for managing emergencies.

These benefits arise not just from exercising, but from evaluating the exercise and acting upon the recommendations. An exercise has value only when it leads to improvement.

There are a number of reasons to perform exercises.  Through exercises, you can:

  • Test and evaluate plans, policies, and procedures.
  • Reveal planning weaknesses.
  • Reveal gaps in resources.
  • Improve organizational coordination and communications.
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities.
  • Train personnel in roles and responsibilities.
  • Improve individual performance.
  • Gain program recognition and support of officials.
  • Satisfy regulatory requirements.

The focus of an exercise should always be on locating and eliminating problems before an actual emergency occurs.  Corrective actions are an important part of exercise design, evaluation, and followup.


In planning exercises, the emphasis is on functions rather than on types of emergencies, because preparedness in those functions is common to all emergencies.  Functions are actions or operations required in emergency response or recovery.

FEMA defines 13 functions in its Emergency Management Exercise Reporting System:

  1. Alert Notification (Emergency Response)
  2. Warning (Public)
  3. Communications
  4. Coordination and Control
  5. Emergency Public Information
  6. Damage Assessment
  7. Health and Medical
  8. Individual/Family Assistance
  9. Public Safety
  10. Public Works/Engineering
  11. Transportation
  12. Resource Management
  13. Continuity of Government

Each of the functions listed above has a set of subfunctions related to it, and your school or district may focus on some of those.  For example, your emergency response focus may relate to efforts such as:

  • The management and distribution of donations.
  • The logistics of providing needed resources.
  • How to coordinate with other organizations to provide mass care.
  • How your staff members respond to an internal emergency.

The variations are, of course, endless.  The point is that your exercise program should identify the applicable functions and emphasize testing the operational procedures within those functions — regardless of the type of emergency.

Sources: Emergency Exercises: An Effective Way to Validate School Safety Plans (2006), U.S. Department of Education, and IS-139 Exercise Design (2010), Emergency Management Institute (see below)

IS-139 Exercise Design

Course Overview

Emergencies happen. Emergencies can be limited in scope or they can reach disaster proportions, sweeping through an entire community or multiple communities. Being prepared to respond to and recover from emergencies is everyone’s challenge. Whether your organization is a government agency tasked with a particular response role, a volunteer agency that responds to the community’s needs, or a private sector entity that may be faced with an emergency situation, you have an important role in that preparation. As an outcome of your community’s or organization’s emergency planning process, plans should be in place that specify how you prepare for emergencies, how you will respond if an emergency occurs, how you will mitigate the potential effects of emergencies, and how you will recover. Practice is an important aspect of the preparation process. Experience and data show that exercises are a practical, efficient, and cost-effective way for organizations in the government, nonprofit, and private sectors to prepare for emergency response and recovery.

This course is based on one important premise: Emergency exercises are worth the effort. Exercises identify areas that are proficient and those that need improvement. Lessons learned from exercises can be used to revise operational plans and provide a basis for training to improve proficiency in executing those plans. This course is designed to introduce you to the fundamentals of exercise design and to prepare you to design and conduct a small functional exercise for your organization. It addresses: The value of conducting exercises. The components of a comprehensive exercise program. The exercise development process ¾ development tasks, organization of the design team, exercise documentation, and the steps in designing an exercise.

This course will cover the purpose, characteristics, and requirements of three main types of exercises: Tabletop exercise Functional exercise Full-scale exercise In addition this course will cover: Exercise evaluation. Exercise enhancements. Designing a functional exercise.

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