Mock Crisis Exercises: Don't Put the Cart Before the Horse

Many schools across the country have conducted mock crisis exercises to increase their readiness for crisis situations. While it is good that the staff members in these schools recognize the need to conduct these exercises, they are often done prematurely. School mock crisis exercises should be scheduled later in the crisis planning process to avoid the potential pitfalls that can occur and to obtain the optimum benefit possible.

One of the most common and significant problems with school crisis exercises is that they are often conducted before the school emergency operations plan has been completed and all personnel trained on their role in a crisis. When this occurs, the exercise results in the testing of untrained people rather than the testing of the operations plan.

Mock crisis exercises are conducted to ensure that plans will work well in a real crisis. The best way to test plans is through a properly designed and thoughtfully developed series of exercises. Valid exercises can be conducted by following methods that have been developed over decades by the emergency management community.

Testing of the plan can begin once the emergency operations plan and training of personnel have been completed. Plans should be developed with input from all responding agencies. Local, state and federal emergency management agencies provide valuable expertise in selecting, developing and coordinating appropriate and viable exercises. While available assistance will vary from one region of the country to another, a little research can determine which agencies can provide assistance.

Many agencies can provide guidance by helping school administrators understand the concepts of proper crisis exercises. Under the emergency management structure, local agencies are often required to complete exercises periodically. Schools may receive the benefit of this expertise at little or no cost by partnering with their local emergency management agency.

Exercise Types and Their Functions

A number of exercise types best serve certain functions and have specific objectives. The following is an abbreviated description of the standard exercise types and their functions taken from the Federal Emergency Management Agency Exercise Design Course Student Manual:

Orientation seminar — This is a low-stress, informal group discussion, used to help participants from all involved agencies understand roles, plans and equipment that would come into play during a crisis. It serves as an opportunity to resolve coordination issues, and to make sure that responsibilities are assigned. This type of exercise is useful to review new procedures, plans or policies, and it is an excellent first step in preparing for more complex exercises.

Drill — Schools routinely conduct fire drills, severe weather drills and the like. A drill is simply a coordinated and supervised activity, designed to check out a specific operation or function in one agency, such as a school or a police department. Drills are useful, because they allow personnel to get familiar with new equipment and procedures. They may also allow people to practice and maintain current skills. Drills are an excellent way to test specific new concepts in an emergency operations plan, to see how they would work in a crisis.

Tabletop exercise — These exercises should be used much more often in the school setting. They provide an opportunity for all relevant agencies to test their ability to implement emergency operation plans with low stress, low cost and less chance of the public embarrassment that would occur if they were to execute a poorly planned full-scale exercise. A tabletop exercise involves the simulation of a crisis situation, in an informal and stress-free setting. The participants talk through issues and work together toward solutions of problems that are posed by the scenario. It is a low-key means to identify areas that need improvement and also allows agencies that will need to function together during a crisis the opportunity to build working relationships.

Functional exercise — These fully simulated interactive exercises occur in real-time sequence with a high degree of stress and realism. They are the most realistic type of multi-agency exercise, short of the full-scale type. Functional exercises can be used to test a component of the emergency operations plan, such as the family re-unification process, or to prepare for a full-scale crisis exercise of challenging proportions. Functional exercises are normally conducted in an emergency-operations-center setting, using written messages that are delivered to role players by other personnel acting in the capacity of simulators. By using a well-designed functional exercise, oversights can be identified and corrected before conducting a full-scale exercise.

Full-scale exercise — A properly designed full-scale exercise is the closest possible simulation of a real disaster. Often, it will take 12 months of preparation, using combinations of the types of exercises described previously, to conduct a well-run, full-scale exercise. An adequate full-scale exercise is a very time-consuming and expensive activity, due to the number of resources that must be committed to test the communities’ response to a crisis. These exercises are normally conducted after other basic issues have been thoroughly addressed. As I said earlier, it is tempting to jump immediately into this phase of disaster preparation, but that can be counterproductive.

School crisis exercises can be an excellent way of testing emergency operations plans and providing valuable training to key players. If the concepts that have been painstakingly developed by the emergency management discipline are followed, they can be extremely beneficial for any school.

Michael Dorn is a school safety specialist with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is also the former Chief of Police for the Bibb County (Ga.) Public School System, which is widely used as an international model for school safety.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at