Optimizing an organization’s crisis preparedness requires going beyond the often disjointed, conventional scope of emergency management practices. Optimal preparedness requires embracing a more holistic, or “full-scale,” approach to crisis simulation exercises.

In contrast to smaller “table-top” exercises or drills, a full-scale exercise is the closest thing to a real event. They incorporate all operational and communications functions of an organization, including the participation of senior leadership, often all the way up to the board level. Full-scale exercises can also involve external organizations, such as police and fire departments, outside subject matter experts, government agencies, etc. – parties sure to be part of your organization’s response to many kinds of emergencies.

Creating and conducting a full-scale exercise takes time and effort, but the benefits are well worth the investment. Full-scale simulations will uncover new opportunities for improving your crisis preparedness because they push exercise participants to realistically “experience” what could go right and what could go terribly wrong when responding to a crisis.

Clearly, a full-scale exercise is a major undertaking, and obviously you will need buy-in from all levels of your organization, particularly from the highest levels. For the exercise to achieve its objectives, senior management has to be able to see the value of the exercise and actively support it.

Getting Started: Create Your Full-Scale Exercise Objectives

Some companies are obligated from a regulatory standpoint to carry out full-scale exercises. Others simply want to maximize their crisis preparedness. Whatever your specific organizational needs are, it’s important to begin planning for a full-scale exercise by creating a set of clear and achievable objectives.

There are two overarching objectives for any full-scale exercise: You’ll want the exercise to 1. Test response team’s actions, and 2. Test your organization’s crisis plans. The exercise should reveal how well your crisis plan functions in directing the responses to the crisis and to what extent response team members know their roles and how to act during a crisis.

You’ll then want to focus on developing very specific objectives so your team members and stakeholders will know precisely what is expected from the exercise. The following are examples of high-level exercise objectives for organizations considering full scale exercises:

  1. Practice emergency response capabilities within your organization at multiple or specific locations
  2. Practice coordinating with external first responders or other agencies depending on your industry
  3. Bring together and exercise with other critical stakeholder groups that would support your organization’s response to a crisis, e.g., insurers, law enforcement
  4. Validate internal crisis plans, crisis communications plans, policies and procedures
  5. Measure the resources required for responding to a major emergency

With full-scale exercises you’ll want detailed objectives for each of the areas being evaluated. For instance, you’ll probably have operationally focused tactical objectives for the first responders in the field and more strategically focused objectives for senior managers and other groups that are supporting the field’s tactical components.

The Exercise Plan

An organization interested in developing and conducting a full-scale exercise should designate at least one person to be in charge of developing the exercise – the Emergency Preparedness Coordinator or EPC (typically someone with management experience).

The EPC’s next step is a big one – creating an action plan detailing how the exercise will be conducted. Having an overall exercise plan and timeline will help ensure everyone involved knows exactly what they need to accomplish throughout the process and when.

Your exercise planning will necessarily include designating experienced exercise evaluators. These people will observe and take copious notes during the exercise to help the organization pinpoint areas in need of improvement within each response function.

Think Outside of the Emergency Management Box

Keep in mind when developing full-scale simulation scenarios that not every exercise has to be a major, catastrophic emergency. Crippling crises can come in less cataclysmic but still very threatening forms: Product recalls; new mergers and acquisitions; leadership changes; or concerted attacks by activist groups. Of course, if your organization has high-risk operations that routinely expose workers to potentially dangerous environments that may lead to emergencies such as explosions and fires, then the focus should be on creating an exercise that relates to those specific conditions.  

How Much Time for the Exercise?

An important step in planning a full-scale exercise is to determine and control its duration. Some full-scale simulation exercises can be completed within four hours, while others may take several days. The purpose of your simulation will help guide this decision.

If, for example, you’re testing whether employees have practiced and know how to respond if there were an active shooter on site, then your simulation might take only a few hours. If, however, you were to make the scenario even more complex, e.g., coordinating your organization’s active shooter response with local law enforcement, then the planners should consider much more time for the exercise. 

Make It Realistic

Once your exercise objectives are in place and an over-all exercise plan underway you can get to work on creating simulation materials. Videos, mockups of news and social media coverage, recordings of voice mails relating to your scenario all create realism – crucial for fully engaging participants and making the exercise a success. Achieving realism could also mean including scenario components that reflect today’s increasingly threatening business environment — cybersecurity attacks, critical infrastructure failures, and a torrent of social media attacks.

Include Crisis Communicators

Most types of exercises require the participation of communications professionals who, during an actual crisis would be working round the clock to manage the wide range of stakeholder relations — with employees, customers, reporters, shareholders, regulators, elected officials, neighbors, etc.

At the very least, and before any full-scale exercise is held, your communications team should prepare a crisis communication playbook. It will include specific messaging developed for what’s been previously identified as the most likely/most damaging crises that could hit your organization. Those messages should be woven into a variety of communications vehicles – holding statements, video scripts, employee communications, shareholder communications, etc. These documents should be included in the crisis communications plan so that during an actual crisis they could be quickly finalized.

Related: 3 Reasons You Should Include Critical Stakeholders in Crisis Exercises

Utilize a Simulation Cell with Exercise Role Players

A SimCell (Simulation Cell) is a location, usually a room, where pre-designated people roleplay various stakeholders during exercise play. Here are some examples of roles that might be simulated during an exercise:

  • Media – A reporter or news channel looking for an update on the ongoing crisis
  • Regulators – Federal or other government representatives requesting to speak to someone about the emergency
  • Neighbor – A local member of the community that is concerned about what’s happening down the street at your facility
  • Concerned Family Member – An employee’s wife or husband calling in about the explosion that they heard about on social media
  • Clients/Customers – A client might call to find out if their next order might be impacted by the ongoing issue or how they could be victims of the incident

The list mentioned above is just a sample. Your SimCell role players will obviously depend on your specific exercise objectives and scenario.

Testing the Emergency Responders as Part of Your Full-Scale Exercise

Organizations that have Emergency Response Plans (ERPs) are typically businesses that have multiple employees working in industrial and manufacturing facilities or warehouses. A full-scale exercise is an excellent way to test your ERP and identify areas in need of improvement. If you have large groups of employees working in these types of environments, you have a care of duty to protect them. Full-scale exercises are the most effective way to meet that responsibility.


This blog has only scratched the surface. There’s obviously a lot that goes into conducting a full-scale simulation exercise. It’s a formidable project requiring time and care, but it’s their comprehensiveness that makes full-scale exercises essential for maximizing an organization’s crisis preparedness.

Are you interested in learning more about how we can help you prepare for a full-scale exercise? Contact us today!