The Scenario Doesn't Matter

Updated: Jan 24

There are near-endless possibilities for emergency and disaster scenarios that can impact your organization, each with thousands of variations (our ExDecks products have over a billion of them). Unless you're a tactical operator with only a very specific response task, focusing your preparedness and training efforts on a single scenario at a time is inefficient, futile, and, frankly, unhelpful. Yet even still, most organizations that we come across spend the bulk of their exercise planning efforts on drafting the scenario before and above all else. Yes the scenario is the fun part, but we advocate for a better approach.


My goal with this article is to convince you to move past the scenario when planning your training exercises and demonstrate the merits of a capabilities-based approach. It's challenging to distill the entire continuum down to a single blog post, but here we go!


What is the "capabilities-based approach" to training exercises?

Before you begin to plan your training exercise, there are several steps that you take. Ideally you have already completed a risk assessment (i.e. THIRA, TVRA, or other) and have actively used this risk assessment to craft your emergency management framework and associated plans, documents, and tasks. In creating such plans, you would have considered the core capabilities that your organization needs to possess in order to successfully prepare for, respond to, and recover from an incident. As you consider those capabilities, those goals cascade down to the specific tasks that must be achieved in order to fulfill that capability. These are your capability targets.

Here's an example from FEMA on what that looks like:

Core Capability: Operational Coordination

Capability Statement: Establish and maintain a unified and coordinated operational structure and process that appropriately integrates all critical stakeholders and supports the execution of core capabilities. (this is your goal)

Associated Capability Target: Establish and maintain partnership structures among Protection elements to support networking, planning, and coordination. (this is a task required to meet the goal)

So in this example, the capability (goal) is to coordinate operations with all stakeholders and one of the activities/tasks required to achieve that capability (goal) is to establish partnerships.

This is also explained in more detail within the National Preparedness Goal (NPG) which you can download directly from FEMA here.

We also have a free 3-page resource guide titled "5 Considerations for a Successful Training Exercise" available for download on our resources page here which you may find helpful.

Your exercise should also be a part of a cohesive Multiyear Training and Exercise Plan (MYTEP), be evaluated by a neutral third party, and be followed with an After Action Report and Improvement Plan (AAR/IP), which then influences your preparedness efforts and any future exercises. All participants should also be trained on the subject matter prior to the exercise. We want to set them up for success, not try to catch them in a "gotcha" moment, which would do far more harm for the program than good.

With me so far?

If not, the simplest form of this approach is essentially this:

"What tasks do you want your team to be able to accomplish as a result of this exercise?"

If you are with me, then usually the next thing that comes up is: "Do I really need to go through all of this?"

My answer to that is yes. And here's why: It is important to build or sustain the ability to perform critical tasks while preparing for, preventing/mitigating against, responding to, and recovering from an emergency or crisis situation. By focusing on a capability or small set of capabilities, organizations will be better prepared to respond to a myriad of situations, not just the exact scenario they prepared for.

What does this look like in practice? (An Example)

The good news is, this all sounds way more complicated than it actually is. Let's say that you operate a large professional sports venue like an arena.

There are likely several unique and specific scenarios that you would like to prepare for; however, instead of focusing on the incident scenario, we're first going to focus on the tasks that we need the staff to be able to achieve in an emergency situation (identified by your risk assessment and developed through your planning processes).

I would argue that in such a setting, out of all the possible scenarios, the initial response actions for 99% of them involve either 1) evacuating or 2) sheltering in place. With 20,000 people in a sports arena, does it really matter why we're evacuating? Yes there could be some unique factors to consider that change one detail or another, and yes there is a lot of conversation to be had about what triggers such an action and who has the authority to initiate it; but at the core of it all and for our training exercise purposes, the why isn't the important part. What matters in this case is that the staff can achieve this goal (evacuation of 20,000 people) safely and timely. Practicing the "why" doesn't help us achieve this goal any better.

So with that, what are the critical tasks that the staff needs to achieve in order to successfully evacuate the facility? The answers may vary greatly depending on a number of factors and the uniquenesses of the program but for this article I'm going to select Communication ("operational communication", Coordination ("operational coordination"), and Situational Awareness. In more plain language, "how are we going to communicate?", "how will we coordinate our efforts?", and "how will everyone stay apprised of the situation and our progress?"

By focusing our exercise planning efforts on these questions and their answers, we can create a training exercise that assesses our capabilities to meet the tasks required to achieve success. Arguably, if we (the responders) can communicate well, coordinate our operations, and stay aware of the evolving situation (whatever that is), we are likely to achieve success regardless of the exact scenario. We do need a scenario to help make the exercise more tangible and realistic for the participants but that shouldn't be our focus.

Once we have these capabilities identified, we will write out our Exercise Evaluation Guides (EEGs). Think of these documents like a scoring rubric. Here we will identify what our capabilities and their associated target tasks are. These details will be dependent on your established plans and procedures. For our arena evacuation example, let's say that one of the capability targets for the "Coordination" capability (as defined by your plans and procedures) is to establish an Incident Command Post. This task would be listed on your EEG as a task that the exercise participants need to perform in order to achieve success. You would then build out a few tasks for each capability. There's no exact formula for this and it depends on your resources/ability to evaluate the exercise but generally we would recommend no more than 3 capabilities per exercise and 5 or so tasks for each capability (maybe less depending on complexity of your targets). Each task should be clearly defined using the SMART objective framework if possible.

(Note: if you're not formally evaluating your exercise against a pre-established rubric for exercise success with clear objectives to be met, OR if you're not doing anything with your evaluation materials (such as an actionable Improvement Plan), you're not holding an exercise, you're just having a fun conversation.)

Finally, at long last, the scenario!

Now that we know what our goals are and what our team needs to do in order to achieve those goals, we can craft a scenario that provides the context for us to assess our capabilities, resources, plans, and procedures. The scenario helps make it all "real" for everyone and should provide sufficient detail for the participants to meet their capability targets, provide a fair learning environment, and be applicable to the organization's operations. Some scenarios will be more relevant than others. For example, if you're based in Florida, a hurricane scenario probably isn't a bad idea. All I ask is that you don't start with and base your whole exercise on the premise of "let's hold a hurricane exercise!" While commendable that you want to prepare for a likely, high-consequence scenario (more to come on this in a future post about risk assessment), the better approach is to consider, "what are the specific tasks that we need to achieve when responding to/recovering from a hurricane?" The answers to that question become the focus for your exercise. The fun details come later.


I encourage you to check out FEMA's full core capability list and various resources available for free on their website here. We have also put together a one-sheeter on the capabilities-based approach which you can also access for free here.


What are your thoughts on the capabilities-based approach to training exercises? Drop them in the comments below.


ABOUT US - Continuum Preparedness is an emergency preparedness advisory firm headquartered in Denver, Colorado. Continuum was founded in 2016 with the simple mission of providing quality, affordable, and easy-to-use emergency preparedness and crisis response solutions for organizations of any type or size. Since our inception in 2016, we have prided ourselves on helping clients in a variety of industries across 17 states build more resilient safety programs. Using our genuine partnership approach, our team has developed plans, procedures, training, and exercises for university campuses, medical facilities, outdoor venues, arenas, stadiums, government agencies at the local, state, and federal level, contract security firms, non-profit institutions, and a variety of others. To learn more, visit