Active Shooter

In an era where the safety of educational environments is increasingly scrutinized, universities bear a significant responsibility in preparing for potential crisis scenarios.

Active shooter incidents, though rare, are devastating realities that educational institutions must be ready to address. The complexity of university settings, with their diverse populations, expansive campuses, and varied facilities, presents unique challenges in crisis management and response. In this context, tabletop exercises emerge as an essential component of campus safety strategies. These exercises not only prepare the community for active shooter scenarios but also foster a culture of readiness and resilience. This guide aims to provide an in-depth understanding of active shooter tabletop exercises, tailored specifically for the needs and nuances of university environments. 

Understanding Tabletop Exercises  

At their core, tabletop exercises are simulated discussions designed to test and refine an organization’s emergency response plans. These exercises involve key personnel discussing their roles and responses to a particular emergency scenario in a classroom-style setting. The primary goal is to identify strengths and weaknesses in emergency plans and improve coordination among various stakeholders. For universities, these exercises are particularly valuable as they can be tailored to address the unique challenges posed by their environment. By engaging in these simulations, university staff and students can better understand their roles during an emergency, leading to more effective and coordinated responses. Moreover, these exercises can be conducted with minimal disruption to daily activities, making them a practical choice for busy academic settings. 

Active Assailant Scenarios in Universities  

When considering active assailant scenarios in a university setting, it’s essential to contemplate a range of possibilities. These scenarios could include a lone individual with a firearm on campus, a hostage situation, or even a terror-related attack involving multiple assailants and complex tactics. The diversity of university campuses – which often include open spaces, multiple buildings, residential areas, and large event venues – requires comprehensive planning for a variety of potential incidents. Exercises should take into account factors such as the time of day, the presence of visitors on campus, and the need for lockdown procedures in various types of buildings. Designing scenarios that reflect these diverse possibilities ensures that university personnel can develop flexible and robust response plans. 

Related: Preparing Organizations for Active Shooter Situations – An Interview with Scott Hemingway

Conducting an Active Shooter Tabletop Exercise  

The process of conducting an active shooter tabletop exercise in a university involves several key steps. Initially, it is crucial to establish clear goals and objectives for the exercise. These objectives could range from testing communication channels to assessing coordination between campus security and local law enforcement. Developing realistic scenarios that reflect the specific context of the university is the next crucial step. Facilitators should lead the exercise, guiding participants through the scenario and encouraging active discussion and problem-solving. A successful exercise should not only evaluate current response plans but also encourage participants to think creatively and proactively about potential scenarios. Feedback and evaluation are integral components of the exercise, helping to refine and improve emergency plans. 

Key Components of a University Tabletop Exercise  

For a university tabletop exercise to be effective, several key components should be included: 

  1. Detailed Scenario Development: The scenarios should be realistic and challenging, reflecting the specific threats and logistical considerations of the university campus. This could include factors like building layouts, student population, event schedules, and nearby resources. 
  1. Comprehensive Response Strategies: Exercises should test a range of response strategies, including lockdown procedures, evacuation plans, communication with law enforcement, and crisis communication with the university community and the public. 
  1. Post-Exercise Analysis and Feedback: A thorough debriefing session is crucial after the exercise. This session should involve discussing what worked well, identifying areas for improvement, and making concrete plans for implementing changes to the emergency response strategy. 

Incorporating these elements ensures the exercise is not only a theoretical discussion but also a practical, actionable tool in enhancing campus safety and preparedness. 

Involving University Personnel  

The success of a tabletop exercise is heavily reliant on the involvement of a diverse group of university personnel. This should include campus security, administrative staff, faculty, representatives from student organizations, and possibly even local law enforcement and first responders. Each group offers a unique perspective and understanding of the campus, contributing to a more comprehensive emergency response plan. Additionally, engaging a wide range of participants fosters a sense of community and shared responsibility in campus safety, which is vital in ensuring an effective response during an actual crisis. 

Utilizing External Resources  

To further enhance the effectiveness of tabletop exercises, universities can leverage external resources and expertise. PreparedEx, a leader in crisis management and preparedness, offers specialized tabletop exercises tailored for various organizations, including higher education institutions. Their expertise in crisis simulation and response can provide invaluable insights and guidance in developing and conducting effective exercises. Their tabletop exercise services can be a vital resource in crafting scenarios that are both realistic and challenging. Additionally, PreparedEx’s FirstLook service offers an innovative approach to crisis simulations, providing a unique perspective on emergency preparedness and response. Utilizing such resources ensures that the university’s tabletop exercises are grounded in best practices and the latest in crisis management strategies. 

Resource: Principles of Simulation Exercises – Online Training


In conclusion, active shooter tabletop exercises are a critical component of a comprehensive safety and preparedness strategy for universities. These exercises provide a unique opportunity to test and improve emergency response plans in a controlled, collaborative environment. By involving a wide range of university personnel and incorporating external expertise, these exercises can significantly enhance the preparedness and resilience of the university community. Regularly conducting tabletop exercises ensures that all members of the campus community are better equipped to respond effectively to active shooter situations, ultimately contributing to a safer and more secure learning environment. 

Rob Burton
Rob Burton

Rob is a Principal at PreparedEx where he manages a team of crisis preparedness professionals and has over 20 years of experience preparing for and responding to crises. Part of his leadership role includes assisting PreparedEx clients in designing, implementing and evaluating crisis, emergency, security and business continuity management programs. During his career Rob has worked for the US State Department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program, as a crisis management consultant in Pakistan and Afghanistan where he negotiated with the UN and Pashtun tribal warlords and he served with the United Kingdom Special Forces where he operated internationally under hazardous covert and confidential conditions. Rob was also part of a disciplined and prestigious unit The Grenadier Guards where he served Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Palaces in London. Rob was a highly trained and experienced infantryman serving in Desert Storm and commanded covert operational teams and was a sniper. Rob has keynoted disaster recovery conferences and participated in live debates on FOX News regarding complex security requirements and terrorism. Rob has a Queen’s Commendation for Bravery.