Making Command Post Exercises as realistic as possible

Mar 7, 2015

This week I have been looking at the news and there was nothing which inspired me to write in my blog, and actually the news even seemed more depressing than normal. Missing teenager’s body parts found and child abuse scandals don’t seem to be natural issues to write a business continuity blog on.

So instead I thought I would write about exercises and more specifically on how to put injects into an exercise to try and create maximum realism. This is very much at the front of my mind as I am down in the Midlands doing some last minute planning on Exercise Saturn, which is taking place tomorrow. The exercise is a ‘command post exercise,’ so during the exercise we will have the Incident Management Team in the room they would use during a real incident, responding to a series of injects which will drive the exercise, so training to make the exercise as realistic to real life to the team as possible. The injects will tell the team what is happing during the incident, will update them on the latest events, give them decisions to make and actions to be carried out.

Having done a number of command post exercises, I have learned a number of lessons on the delivery of the exercise and how to add realism, which I thought I would share with you this week.

 1. One of the simplest ways to put injects into the team is by telephone. You have a facilitator or a scenario cell that would work to an MEL (main events list) and phone in pretending to be various stakeholders. They can either feed in information, ask questions that the team has to solve or give the team a number of problems which the team have to provide answers to. If there is an ‘exercise director’ or an umpire watching the team, if the team takes certain actions then they can develop extra injects ‘on the fly’ which can be input by the scenario cell which can then keep the exercise on track, highlight problems or issues the team has not thought of or have failed to address. The way we have set up this exercise there are two phones within the incident room and two phones in the scenario cell. These are the only phone numbers the exercise players can ring. If they want to ring the regulator or another person outside the organisation, they ring one of the two numbers in the scenario cell and then ask for whom they would like to speak to. For example “I would like to speak to Mr Smith from the Financial Conduct Authority ” and then someone in the scenario cell will assume the role of Mr Smith. In this exercise the players cannot telephone within the organisation but only phone the scenario cell. This will ensure that all telephone calls are recorded and that there is no chance of telephoning someone who is not aware of the exercise taking place and then them thinking it is a real incident.

 2. Email is another easy way of inputting injects. In the past I have used paper emails. So those sending the email will write the to and from plus the message they want to send on a piece of paper. The scenario cell runner then has to convey the ‘email’ to its recipient, another player in the exercise. The advantage of playing emails in this way is that again there is no chance of an exercise email getting sent to the wrong person and them thinking it is a real incident. For this week’s exercise we have an exercise email exercise_saturn@…… and all those taking part will email this exercise with the name of the person they would be sending it to in the subject line. It feels more realistic than paper emails but we will see tomorrow how effective it is a way of delivering injects.

 3. Media input into the exercise especially at the strategic or tactical levels is again key to providing realism. Journalists can telephone into the incident room and ask questions or request a senior manager to interview. The interview can then either be done down the telephone line with someone pretending to be a journalist or you can conduct the interview face to face with a real journalist, and to add extra realism use a film crew. Asking questions down the phone line can probably be done by “amateurs’ without journalist training but I personally feel that if you are going to have a face to face interview it is best to hire in a real journalist and film crew. If your film crew and journalist are reasonably skilled they can edit the piece and play it back to the incident team as a news clip, putting their own spin on the answers from the interview. This can be used to achieve realism as it gives your communications department some realistic media issues to develop responses to.

 4. As we all know, social media is adding a new dimension to the response to an incident, and is extremely fast. Corporate communications teams are given the minimum of time to respond and if they respond too slowly their organisation can be seen as slow to react, incompetent or to be trying to cover up the incident. Social media is therefore becoming a key part of responding to a crisis. Even if the organisation does not use social media it does not mean the exercise is not being talked about on social media. I first started playing social media in exercises by putting tweets on post-its on a social media board in the incident room and the response was to write another ‘tweet” on a post-it. This worked all right but didn’t look very professional. During tomorrow’s exercise we are trialling our M.I.T.S (Media Incident Training Simulator), which is basically a site where all players can log on and see the “exercise media”. On it we have the ability to simulate twitter, TV, radio, exercise maps and very importantly the client’s website. Often I have heard corporate communications departments saying in exercises “I will put something on the website”. Within MITS there is the opportunity for the team to put the actual text and then there is the opportunity for tweets, telephone calls and emails from people commenting on the content in the website. It hopefully will give the corporate communications team a full role in the exercise and practice responding to the media and customers with a feedback loop on the communications they put out. The site is password protected so again the information contained within it cannot be stumbled across by a member of the public.

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