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Exercise Design: Eight Steps

Exercise Design: Eight Steps

Exercise Design is somewhat of an art, but then again, not really.  You really don't have to love planning, and you don't have to have the world's greatest imagination.  Planning an exercise can be simple, if you plan it out right and use the 8 Steps to Exercise Design.  I learned this in a course from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and it is one of the most useful tools you could possibly have in your tool belt.  The 8 Steps are like a blueprint for your whole exercise.  Sometimes, the larger ones do get to be rather chaotic, but if you're using the 8 Steps, you will still be on track and headed on the right path to a great exercise.  Below is a quick overview of the 8 Steps. 


1.  Assess needs.  Establishes the reason(s) or need(s) to do an exercise.

2.  Define scope.  This defines the parameters for the exercise.  It helps to identify those areas of highest priority that can be realistically tested and evaluated in an exercise and assists in determining who should be involved.

3.  Write a statement of purpose.  A broad-based statement that can be shared to gain buy-in from high level officials or used during media interviews.

4.  Define objectives.  Objectives are used to evaluate participants' exercise performance.  Objectives should tell What Should Be Done, Under What Conditions, and How Well it is to be done. Objectives should also be written in a clear, measurable, and observable format like the SMART objectives:

  • Simple:  A good objective is simply phrased.  It is brief and easy to understand.
  • Measurable:  A good objective sets the level of performance, so the results are observable and everyone can agree on whether or not the objectives are achieved.
  • Achievable:  A good objective should not be too difficult or impossible to achieve.
  • Realistic:  A good objective should present a realistic expectation for the exercise.
  • Task Oriented:  A good objective should focus on behavior or procedure.

5.  Compose a narrative.  The narrative is a brief "story" of events that has occurred up until the exercise has begun.  The exercise narrative should include:

  • Type and Time of event
  • Location/where the event occurred
  • Where the event is going
  • What has already happened
  • What may happen
  • Weather conditions

6.  Write major and minor events:

  • Major events:  These are big problems resulting from the disaster situation.  These should be likely events, which will call for realistic action.
  • Minor events:  Oftentimes called detailed events, these are those situations that may cause other events to happen.

7.  List expected actions.  This list is the actions or decisions that you want participants to carry out in order to demonstrate exercise objectives.  It is necessary to identify expected actions in order to write messages and to determine what should be evaluated.

8.  Prepare messages.  This is the actual preparation and method of the messages.  Messages are used to communicate detailed events to exercise participants.  One message may represent an event, or several messages may be needed to notify the participants of the event.  Messages serve one purpose:  To evoke a response that is, to cause exercise participants to make decisions and take actions that meet the exercise objectives.

Don't fret!  Now, you have these 8 Steps to guide the design of your exercise.  For more information or helpful tools, go to FEMA's National Preparedness Cycle - Exercise or IS139-Unit 4:  Exercise Design Steps.
Tsoetsy Harris, MPH, MEP

Tsoetsy Harris, MPH, MEP


Independent Consultant

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