What is an exercise?

If you are involved in any form of business continuity, resilience building or emergency planning, then you are likely to be involved in an exercise at some point in the process. From the outside looking in, exercises can seem bewildering and baffling in equal measure. Here at Black Dog Crisis Management, we like to keep things as simple as possible. So here is our guide to the who, what, where and why of exercises.


What is an exercise?

In the context of building resilience, an exercise is any event that seeks to assess the readiness of an organisation, its people, and its emergency plans.

Exercises can range considerably in complexity. On the one hand they can be as simple as getting the key people round a table to verbally run through their role in an emergency plan, and on the other a full scale rehearsal of an emergency response simulating the real life impacts of an incident.

The military and emergency services have been using exercises for many years as a way of testing their to respond to different scenarios, identifying any improvements or changes that need to be made along the way. This same principle applies to any organisation exercising an emergency plan.

Exercises though, are not the be all and end all of resilience planning, they are not even the best starting point! In an ideal world, exercising falls in the middle of a cyclical process of preparing to manage the impacts of an emergency. This process begins with risk assessment, which leads to the development of emergency plans, which leads to exercising, which leads to the refinement of plans, which leads to further risk assessment and so on.

That said though, many successful exercises take place outside of that cycle, and provide lots of benefits to the organisations involved because they allow the time and space for people to test out their crisis management skills and knowledge, and get a sense of what they might need to do in a real emergency.


How do exercises work?

No matter how large, or how complex, exercises all have the following four features:

  • Objectives - these are the things that you want to test during the exercise, for example - “does our team know how to access our backup IT system”. Everyone involved in the exercise should be made aware of these objectives so they can prepare to do their bit. A clear set of objectives provides the foundation of a good exercise as they set the scope of the exercise and identify what is being tested and what is not.


  • Scenario - this is the ‘emergency’ that the exercise is going to simulate, it could be a power cut, a flood, a disease outbreak or any number of weird and wonderful scenarios you can come up with (zombie invasion anyone?). The key thing here is that the scenario you have chosen would produce in real life the impacts that will require you to put in place the plans you want to test (e.g. the need to work off-site, or use back up power). Of course, you are not going to actually create the emergency scenario for real (unless you are the emergency services - a great example being London Fire Brigade’s recent exercise, Unified Response).


  • Injects - these are the nuts and bolts of all exercises. An ‘inject’ is a piece of information that is revealed to the people involved in the exercise over a set period of time to get them to take the action they need to test the response to an emergency as set out in the objectives. For example - in the first few minutes of an exercise, participants might be told that their building is at risk of flooding. An hour in, the flood water might be within thirty minutes of the basement level, which may be the trigger to activate their evacuation plan. An exercise could have many thousands of injects, but many work just fine with only a few.


  • Evaluation - in many ways, this is the most important part of an exercise and runs in tandem with the exercise scenario. People not directly involved in playing out the emergency response observe what is happening and note down what is working and what could be improved. After the exercise, those directly involved are usually debriefed to find out what they thought too. These findings are drawn together, analysed against the exercise objectives and then presented as a series of recommendations about what the organisation needs to do to improve its ability to respond to an emergency.


How much do they cost?

Exercises can be costly, the largest and most complex can involve many hundreds of participants and cost millions of pounds to run. The good news is that any organisation can run an exercise as part of their resilience building for relatively little cost, except the time of the planners and participants, and, unless you are lucky enough to have the skills in house, some advice from a crisis management professional to help set you on the right track.


We believe that exercises are vital to building resilience, no matter how big or small your organisation. Your plans get exercised, your people’s skills are enhanced and your organisation’s ability to survive the impact of a real emergency increases.

Rob Doran is the Owner and Director of Black Dog Crisis Management, working with businesses, the emergency services and the voluntary sector to build resilience capability. If you liked what you read, why not sign up for our occasional newsletter below - and get £100  off the cost of any work you ask us to carry out.