Fire & Life Safety (Focus on Preparation and Prevention)

The Value of Tabletop Practice

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 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.

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