Fire & Life Safety

Being Prepared

I have participated in many fire incident debrief sessions. The good news they happen infrequently because they don’t have many fires. The bad news is that they almost always identify activities that could have been handled better if they had conducted tabletop exercises prior to the event.

The point of a tabletop exercise is to facilitate a discussion about what your school would do in response to a disaster. Participants are lead through a simulated scenario and are prompted to examine the plans, policies and procedures prior to an event.

The goals for fire tabletop exercises are to:

  1. Assess your ability to respond using current plans, policies, capabilities and resources.
  2. 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.

Start by writing an exercise overview. Simulate an actual event from the past. Tabletop exercises begin with an initial scenario and then add two or three scenario updates. Each step of the event should include discussion questions to allow those participating to focus on a problem and find solutions in a low-stress, consequence-free setting. Exercises are not meant to review individual performance, but rather an opportunity to identify and resolve problems and better prepare to respond. A campus will also improve safety in the process.

These exercises should have several objectives to help your school 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 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?
  • Emergency Responders: What information do they need to better respond to the scenario?
  • 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 school agrees to hold a tabletop exercise, plan to spend two to three hours. A facilitator will help lead the discussion, keep it focused and lead it to a conclusion for the timeframe selected.

You will also need to select a lead planner. The planner is responsible for the overall tabletop exercise. He or she will help the administration select participants and develop the scenario and questions. The planner will also deal with the logistics issues and be the primary point of contact for participants.

It is important to include representatives from across the district. Key decision makers and experts from departments must be included.

To truly benefit from the tabletop, the scenario should not be shared. You want the tabletop 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 role 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 of the tabletop.
  • Note-takers: record and summarize the main points.

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 certainly 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 issue of .

About the Author

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.