A key tool in the creation of full-scale simulation exercises is the Exercise Plan.

Simulation exercises, especially those that are full scale, typically take months to plan and need to be well designed. Having an Exercise Plan will help you stay organized and on track as you make your way through this process. In this article we’ll discuss what goes into an exercise plan and why it’s a crucial part of any organization’s preparedness strategy.

Have an Executive Exercise Overview on the Front Page

The first thing to include in your exercise plan has nothing at all to do with planning or design, but it’s a great place to start. Since the front page of an exercise plan is often where people will look when they’re trying to find something specific, you can make their lives easier by including an overview statement on this page. You can write this overview statement in a few different ways, but one option is to simply put it at the top of your Exercise Overview section and call that section’s title “Overview.”

The first paragraph should be an introduction explaining what exercise you’re planning for and who its audience will be. The next three paragraphs should be more specific, talking about the purpose of the exercise and what you hope to achieve by using it. Other details on this page can include dates, locations and document versioning.

Add a Contents Page

Of course, you’ll also need to include a contents page so people can find what they’re looking for easily. You should add this at the very beginning of your document before you begin writing about any specific parts of your plan. To make things easier for readers and more consistent with how other documents are typically formatted, you should also consider adding a page break right before the contents page. This makes it look like there’s actually a physical distance between your table of contents and other sections in your exercise plan.

Show Full-Scale Exercise Objectives and Core Capabilities

You’ll also want to include the core capabilities that should be aligned with your exercise objectives. These are both important things that your audience will need to know before they can understand whether or not your simulation was successful. You should do this on a new page titled “Exercise Objectives” and another one labeled “Core Capabilities.”

Related: How to Conduct a Full-Scale Simulation Exercise for Your Company

Next Create Your Exercise Participant List and Roles and Responsibilities

One of the biggest components of your exercise plan will be who’s playing what role in the simulation. You’ll want to include a list of all participants and their roles so you can refer back to it as needed throughout this process. However, you should also write a separate section as well that explains the roles and responsibilities of each person or group. This will help everyone involved understand what needs to be done during your simulation so there are no surprises once it actually starts.

Define the Exercise Assumptions and any Artificialities

In any exercise, assumptions and artificialities may be necessary to complete play in the time allotted and/or account for logistical limitations. Exercise participants should accept that assumptions and artificialities are inherent in any exercise, and should not allow these considerations to negatively impact their participation. 

Assumptions constitute the implied factual foundation for the exercise and, as such, are assumed to be present before the exercise starts.  

During this exercise, the following artificiality applies:

  • Exercise communication and coordination is limited to participating exercise organizations, venues, and the SimCell.

Don’t Forget to Include the Full-Scale Exercise Logistics in your Plan

The last thing you’ll want to include in your exercise plan is the logistics that are required to run it. This includes everything from how many people will be attending, whether or not they need special equipment or clothing, when and where the event itself will take place, what needs to happen before participants actually arrive at their assigned locations, etc.

Related: Role of the Crisis Coordinator

Having a Safety Component to a Full-Scale Exercise is Essential

Additionally, you should also consider adding a safety component to your full-scale exercise plan. This will be especially important if the simulation includes any physical activities or potentially hazardous environments where people could get hurt and/or killed.

A Safety Controller or Officer is responsible for participant safety; any safety concerns must be immediately reported to the Safety Controller. The Safety Controller and Exercise Director will determine if a real-world emergency warrants a pause in exercise play and when exercise play can be resumed.  

Access the Site and Security and Safety Measures

If entry control is required for the exercise venue(s), the sponsor organization is responsible for arranging appropriate safety and security measures. To prevent interruption of the exercise, access to exercise sites and the (Control Cell and/or SimCell) is limited to exercise participants. Players should advise their venue’s controller or evaluator of any unauthorized persons.  

Stakeholder Observers and the Management of Them During Exercise Play

Stakeholders that you might want to invite as observers should be identified prior to the exercise and invited as an observer. Stakeholders should not participate in or influence any part of the exercise play unless they have been scheduled as a participant. Exercise players will receive notification if their participation is required for stakeholder observations only, and that no discussions between stakeholders and participants are allowed.

Have a Section within the Full-Scale Exercise Plan for Post-Exercise Activities


Post-exercise debriefings should aim to collect sufficient relevant data to support effective evaluation and improvement planning.

Hot Wash

At the conclusion of exercise play, controllers facilitate a Hot Wash to allow players to discuss strengths and areas for improvement, and evaluators to seek clarification regarding player actions and decision-making processes. All participants may attend; however, observers are not encouraged to attend the meeting. The Hot Wash should not exceed 30 minutes. 

Controller and Evaluator Debriefing

Controllers and evaluators attend a facilitated C&E debriefing immediately following the exercise. During this debriefing, controllers and evaluators provide an overview of their observed functional areas and discuss strengths and areas for improvement.

Participant Feedback Forms

Participant Feedback Forms provide players with the opportunity to comment candidly on exercise activities and exercise design.  Participant Feedback Forms should be collected at the conclusion of the Hot Wash.


Exercise Evaluation Guides

EEGs assist evaluators in collecting relevant exercise observations. EEGs document exercise objectives and aligned core capabilities, capability targets, and critical tasks.  Each EEG provides evaluators with information on what they should expect to see demonstrated in their functional area. The EEGs, coupled with Participant Feedback Forms and Hot Wash notes, are used to evaluate the exercise and compile the After-Action Report (AAR).

After-Action Report

The AAR summarizes key information related to evaluation. The AAR primarily focuses on the analysis of core capabilities, including capability performance, strengths, and areas for improvement. AARs also include basic exercise information, including the exercise name, type of exercise, dates, location, participating organizations, mission area(s), specific threat or hazard, a brief scenario description, and the name of the exercise sponsor and POC. 

Improvement Planning

Improvement planning is the process by which the observations recorded in the AAR are resolved through development of concrete corrective actions, which are prioritized and tracked as a part of a continuous corrective action program. One tool to support this is a Remediation Planning tool like the Benefit and Effort Matrix that is helpful to facilitate prioritization of actions to remediate identified gaps. Each action is evaluated for the benefit of closing the gap and the effort required to complete the action, and then plotted on the matrix.

Related: Crisis Exercise Simulations Strengthen Relationships and Confidence

After-Action Conference

The After-Action Conference (AAC) is a meeting held among decision and policy makers from the exercising organizations, as well as the lead evaluator and members of the Exercise Planning Team, to debrief the exercise and to review and refine the draft AAR and Improvement Plan (IP). The AAM should be an interactive session, providing attendees the opportunity to discuss and validate the observations and corrective actions in the draft AAR/IP.

Improvement Plan

The IP identifies specific corrective actions, assigns them to responsible parties, and establishes target dates for their completion. It is created by elected and appointed officials from the organizations participating in the exercise, and discussed and validated during the AAM. This is an integral part of the overall exercise process.

Participant Information and Guidance

Exercise Rules

The following general rules govern exercise play:

  1. Real-world emergency actions take priority over exercise actions.
  2. Exercise players will comply with real-world emergency procedures, unless otherwise directed by the control staff.
  3. All communications (including written, radio, telephone, e-mail or through crisis apps) during the exercise will begin and end with the statement [“This is an exercise.”]
  4. Exercise players who place telephone calls or initiate radio communication with the SimCell must identify the organization or individual with whom they wish to speak.

Players Instructions

Players should follow certain guidelines before, during, and after the exercise to ensure a safe and effective exercise.

Before the Exercise

  1. Review appropriate organizational plans, procedures, and exercise support documents.
  2. Be at the appropriate site at least 30 minutes before the exercise starts. Wear the appropriate uniform and/or identification item(s).
  3. Sign in when you arrive.
  4. If you gain knowledge of the scenario before the exercise, notify a controller so that appropriate actions can be taken to ensure a valid evaluation.
  5. [Read your Player Information Handout, which includes information on exercise safety.]

During the Exercise

  1. Respond to simulated exercise events and information as if the situation were real, unless otherwise directed by an exercise controller.
  2. Controllers will give you only information they are specifically directed to disseminate. You are expected to obtain other necessary information through existing emergency information channels.
  3. Do not engage in personal conversations with controllers, evaluators, observers, or media personnel. If you are asked an exercise-related question, give a short, concise answer. If you are busy and cannot immediately respond, indicate that, but report back with an answer as soon as possible.
  4. If you do not understand the scope of the exercise, or if you are uncertain about an organization’s participation in an exercise, ask a controller.
  5. Parts of the scenario may seem implausible. Recognize that the exercise has objectives to satisfy and may require incorporation of unrealistic aspects. Every effort has been made by the exercise’s trusted agents to balance realism with safety and to create an effective learning and evaluation environment.
  6. All exercise communications will begin and end with the statement [“Exercise Exercise Exercise.”] This precaution is taken so that anyone who overhears the conversation will not mistake exercise play for a real-world emergency.
  7. When you communicate with the SimCell, identify the organization or individual with whom you wish to speak.
  8. Speak when you take an action. This procedure will ensure that evaluators are aware of critical actions as they occur.
  9. Maintain a log of your activities. Many times, this log may include documentation of activities that were missed by a controller or evaluator.

Post Exercise Activities

  1. Participate in the Hot Wash (debrief) at your venue with controllers and evaluators.
  2. Complete the Participant Feedback Form. This form allows you to comment candidly on emergency response activities and exercise effectiveness. Provide the completed form to a controller or evaluator.
  3. Provide any notes or materials generated from the exercise to your controller or evaluator for review and inclusion in the AAR.

Simulation Guidelines

Because the exercise is of limited duration and scope, certain details will be simulated. The physical description of what would fully occur at the incident sites and surrounding areas will be relayed to players by simulators or controllers. A SimCell will simulate the roles and interactions of nonparticipating organizations or individuals. [Include any additional simulations to be used in the exercise.]

Additional Resources to Include in the Full-Scale Exercise Plan

  • Exercise Schedule
  • Exercise Participants
  • The Communications Plan
  • Site Maps
  • Acronyms

Do you need to conduct a full-scale exercise? If you do, and you require support, contact us today.