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Virtual tabletop exercise: Public safety leaders demonstrate importance of interagency training

From “armadillos to zombies,” unified command tabletop exercises prepare public safety personnel for real-life mass casualty incidents

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A tabletop exercise, whether held virtually or face-to-face, provides tremendous value by allowing participants to learn how others will respond to a major incident.

Photo/Brian Hupp

Four leaders, representing law enforcement, fire, EMS and emergency management, responded to a mass casualty incident tabletop exercise to stress-test their knowledge of implementing the incident command system, utilizing incident command and strengthening their relationships for future co-response. The virtual tabletop exercise, presented by Police1, began with a motor vehicle collision, volatile chemical spill and two robbery suspects fleeing the scene.

What will you do?

The first 15 minutes of disaster: Creating order from chaos” began with host Rob Lawrence setting the scene of the incident with a description and map. Once the participants, W. Michael Phibbs, Brian Hupp, David Pulliam and Anna McRay, received the initial briefing they were asked to explain their immediate response actions and resource requests.

Phibbs, representing law enforcement, quickly outlined for the 500+ live viewers of the virtual tabletop exercise the expectations of first arriving police officers to establish a perimeter, identify risks, and request assistance from fire and EMS. Phibbs emphasized the importance of working collaboratively with co-responders immediately: “If you’re not cooperating, you’re siloed.”

Lawrence continued to add information about the incident as he solicited response actions and resource requests from Pulliam, Hupp and McRay. This experienced group of leaders capably demonstrated the importance of their previous training on ICS, unified command and MCI response.

The importance of working together was stressed throughout the virtual tabletop exercise and many viewers commented on the value of building relationships to improve interagency communication and collaboration on the scene of an MCI. Mike Regan, retired director of training for the New York State Police and now a part-time deputy and police officer, was an active attendee in the real-time discussion with the webinar panelists. Regan believes law enforcement leaders need to lead by example and participate in tabletop exercises. “If they do not participate, they are letting first-line personnel know that this is not important,” Regan said.

How will you work together?

While the importance of interagency training was stressed throughout the virtual tabletop, it is relatively rare for police, fire and EMS to train together. Police1 asked readers in a recent poll, “Has your agency conducted interagency mass casualty incident response training in the past year?” Only 22% of respondents to the Police1 poll said yes. Just 19% of FireRescue1 readers said yes to the same question.

A tabletop exercise, whether held virtually or face-to-face, provides tremendous value by allowing participants to learn how others will respond to a major incident and understand the operational priorities of other agencies. “Relationships matter,” Regan said. “Working with people you already know and have already clarified how you will interact with will enable better service to the public.”

Even more fundamentally, a tabletop exercise is a chance to create a shared understanding of definitions, terminology and jargon. For example, Hupp, representing EMS, described how paramedics are equipped with “job action sheets,” which explain the roles and responsibilities of the triage officer, treatment officer and transportation officer. It’s much better to pause during a tabletop exercise to say, “tell me more about the responsibilities of your personnel”, than during the stress of an actual incident.

Hupp also described EMS actions that happen in the “warm zone” and the “cold zone.” Again, creating a shared understanding with fire and law enforcement about EMS activities can improve real-world response.

McRay generated several attendee questions when she explained that as an emergency manager she wants “sea salt reports” from the field. Sea salt is actually the C-SALTT acronym for Capability, Size, Amount, Location, Time and Type. Without this experience, many attendees would not be familiar with the C-SALTT acronym and know that is the information the emergency operations center needs to best support the current and ongoing incident response.

What will go wrong?

A tabletop exercise is also an opportunity to anticipate problems and discuss solutions before they are needed. The panel spent several minutes discussing the location for staging, if staging should be unified – meaning a shared staging location for police, fire and EMS – and how to make sure ingress and egress to the staging area is maintained throughout the incident. Other topics with high potential for problems or challenges, like setting up a perimeter, changing the perimeter, communicating between disciplines and documentation, were also discussed by the panel.

A theme the panel kept coming back to was the importance of the Incident Command System (ICS) and Unified Command. “ICS is going to be key,” Pulliam said when describing how the responding fire apparatus will receive information from first-on-scene law enforcement.

Can the agencies in our jurisdiction do this?

All the panelists emphasized that interagency MCI training not only should be done but can be done regularly with all response partners.

“You can do this too. Get together with your counterparts.” Lawrence said when explaining the joint-training exercises conducted by police, fire, EMS and emergency management in Richmond, Virginia. “Don’t be siloed.”

Exercises prepare personnel for real-world events. “The key is empowering, training and directing people to make decisions once they get on scene,” Hupp said.

A tabletop exercise or series of exercises likely represents the culmination of interagency relationship building and planning. McRay said the process can begin over a cup of coffee. “Talk through any given scenario – from armadillos to zombies” to begin the process of interagency MCI training.

Next steps

“Knowing how others will respond, that’s what will make you successful,” Phibbs said in his closing remarks. Knowledge and repetition, through regular training, will make it possible for successful implementation of unified command at the next major incident in your jurisdiction.

Watch the on-demand recording of the virtual tabletop for ideas and inspiration to conduct a similar exercise in your community.

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on Police1, FireRescue1, Corrections1, EMS1 and Gov1. Greg has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, paramedic and runner. Greg is a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Ask questions or submit article ideas to Greg by emailing him at and connect with him on LinkedIn.