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February 8, 2024

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emergency planning

The planning, conduct and evaluation of emergency exercises in rail transport

Dr Tony Cash, an independent chartered Engineer and International President of the Rail Industry Fire Association sets out top considerations for the planning, design and conduct of major emergency exercises in rail transport.

He highlights why it’s crucial to hold these fire safety exercises and the importance of effective command and control to bring incidents or accidents to a timely conclusion.

Emergency exercises

Dr Tony Cash

An emergency exercise is a simulation of an emergency situation, accident or incident.

Exercises have 3 main purposes:

  • to validate plans (validation)
  • to develop staff competencies and provide practice in carrying out specific roles in the plans (training)
  • to test well-established procedures (testing)

Why it is important to hold exercises?

Planning for emergencies cannot be considered reliable until it is exercised and has proved to be workable, especially since false confidence may be placed in the integrity of a written plan.

Generally, participants in exercises should have an awareness of their roles and be reasonably comfortable with them, before they are subject to the stresses of an exercise.

Exercising is not to catch people out. It tests procedures, not people. If staff are under-prepared, they may blame the plan, when they should blame their lack of preparation and training. An important aim of an exercise should be to make people feel more comfortable in their roles and to build morale.

Three main types of exercises

Discussion-based (Seminar style) exercises

Discussion-based exercises are cheapest to run and easiest to prepare. They can be used at the policy formulation stage as a ‘talk-through’ of how to finalise the plan. More often, they are based on a completed plan and are used to develop awareness about the plan through discussion. In this respect, they are often used for training purposes.

Table top exercises – also known as floor plan exercises

Table top exercises are based on simulation, not necessarily literally around a table top. Usually, they involve a realistic scenario and a time line, which may be real time or may speed time up.

Usually table tops are run in a single room, or in a series of linked rooms which simulate the divisions between responders who need to communicate and be co-ordinated. The players are expected to know the plan and they are invited to test how the plan works as the scenario unfolds.

This type of exercise is particularly useful for validation purposes, particularly for exploring weaknesses in procedures. Table-top exercises are relatively cheap to run, except in the use of staff time. They demand careful preparation.

Live exercises

Live exercises are a live rehearsal for implementing a plan. Such exercises are particularly useful for testing logistics, communications and physical capabilities.

They also make excellent training events from the point of view of experiential learning, helping participants develop confidence in their skills and providing experience of what it would be like to use the plan’s procedures in a real event. Where the latter purposes are, in fact, the main objective of the exercise, then it is essentially a training exercise or practice drill.

Live exercises are expensive to set up on the day and demand the most extensive preparation.

The expense of live exercises may be reduced by limiting the number of players and by scheduling them to fall within working hours to avoid overtime payments. It may also be possible to rearrange training to coincide with the exercise. However, some exercises have to be held outside normal hours for safety or commercial reasons.

For live exercises which involve large numbers, it may be possible to use some players to act as evacuees and hold a rest centre exercise thus providing training for a wider pool of agencies.

Emergency planning process

Exercises should be regarded as an integral part of the emergency planning process – not an isolated option.

It is important that emergency plans have been prepared and the appropriate staff trained in their roles before an exercise is planned. After any exercise, the plan should be reviewed and amended from lessons learned before the process starts again.

Further reading: ‘The fire service must enforce existing law’: Elspeth Grant on Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans

Exercise planning

Most exercises are time consuming and cannot be undertaken frequently. Therefore, every opportunity should be given to all appropriate agencies to take part when a plan is tested.

Managers, executives or chief officers etc. must be kept informed of plans and progress as their support is vital for success. The group needs to allocate sufficient time (which may mean several months prior to the event) to plan the exercise thoroughly.

Ideally, those involved in planning the exercise should not participate directly. They are better used as Umpires or Observers. If possible, and particularly for small organisations, help should be sought from neighbouring areas or organisations with similar operations.


The aim and objectives of the exercise, including clear outcomes, need to be established at the outset and should ideally be the first item on the planning group’s agenda.

The overall aim of the exercise should be agreed by the senior management of all participating agencies and be based around the question “what are we hoping to achieve by the exercise as a whole?”


The scenario needs to be realistic to ensure that participants will take the exercise seriously. The exercise should also have a realistic timescale.

The scenario should include:

  • day, date and time, and
  • nature of incident (consistent with exercise location).

Other considerations might be:

  • weather conditions including wind speed and direction, visibility,
    traffic conditions,
  • progression of incident (e.g. different phases), and people involved (e.g. young, elderly etc.).

Always remember, however, that planning based on detailed assumptions regarding a likely future scenario may be too inflexible to adapt to the unforeseen.  Adopt a willingness to be flexible.

Exercise location

Whatever type of exercise is to be held the planning group should visit the location – at a similar time/day as the exercise – to ensure that it is appropriate. They should also seek written permission from parties which have a claim to an area and inform any potential users that it may be out of bounds on a certain date.

The selection of a suitable site for an exercise is of crucial importance. For generic-type major disaster exercises e.g. air or rail crash, selecting a suitable site should be undertaken in the early stages of exercise planning.

As the site needs to be acceptable to all participating agencies, several options may need to be explored depending on the scenario. The location must be safe, secure and with a reasonable access for vehicles and personnel. Owners of the site (for example, possibly Network Rail or London Underground) should be fully aware of and, if possible, participate in the exercise.

Exercise base

The need for an “exercise base” arises for live exercises, sometimes for control post exercises, and is particularly helpful for large scale exercises. A suitable building, preferably in the ownership of one of the participating agencies, should be selected close to the exercise site. It can then act as an assembly point for “exercise directors”, observers etc. where briefing can be given and casualties, if used, can be made up. Ample car parking should be provided.

If the exercise base is further than walking distance from the site, then consider providing minibus transport. Bear in mind that live multi-agency exercises attract many vehicles and it would be helpful to ensure that non-essential vehicles at the site are kept to a minimum.

Safety at the exercise

The safety of personnel during a live exercise is of paramount importance. Exercise participants may not be familiar with the location and control may be needed to ensure that players are kept within the confines of the exercise area.

Before a live exercise, a safety audit should be completed to ensure that structures are safe and no unseen dangers are present on the site (e.g. asbestos in old buildings or transport). A safety officer must attend the exercise to ensure that all participants comply with the safety requirements and do not place themselves, or others, in danger.

At complex exercises, or where conditions are particularly hazardous, each participating organisation may need its own safety officer. The exercise must not be seen as a reason not to comply with health and safety requirements.


Consideration should be given to welfare arrangements during exercises. Welfare needs may vary depending on the type, timing and duration of the exercise. There will be a need to provide refreshments, changing, washing and toilet facilities before, during or after the event.

The use of casualties adds realism to exercises but their welfare needs to be taken into account. Exercise “casualties” should not be placed in unsuitable conditions e.g. cold, wet or hard surfaces without appropriate care. Invariably the length of time envisaged for the activity turns out to be much longer. An area which is warm and dry should be available.


Exercises may be given a codename which should then be mandatory as a prefix to all messages – verbal or written – during the exercise. The group must take care that the codeword chosen is phonetically distinct from other key words that are used in communications. Neither should such words be used for other purposes in emergency response operations (e.g. Gold, Silver, Bronze).

Logging and recording

An important means of communication, particularly after a real incident, will be contemporaneous records and logs.

These can be particularly important at subsequent public enquiries. In exercise, those taking part should understand the importance of keeping an accurate log of actions and decisions. Exercise planners should not assume that players will bring their organisations’ logging practices to the event – even where they exist.

Media participation

Dealing with the media is a major part of responding to any incident and therefore should be practised as often as possible.

The exercise planners could deploy student journalists, the Central Office of Information or reporters from local papers to test the different agencies’ response to the media. For major exercises, a representative from the national media should be invited to attend. Exercise press conferences and interviews can be used to test the knowledge of the combined response.

Media coverage

The media might arrive, unplanned, to cover the exercise and arrangements must be in place for this possibility. Public relations staff should be allocated to keep the media informed during the exercise. Designate a good viewing point and useful locations for photo-opportunities.


The type and number of briefings will depend on the exercise’s aim. As a general principle it is advisable that each agency’s representative on the exercise planning group takes responsibility for briefing those of their staff who are involved in the exercise. Further briefing may be required on arrival at the place of deployment. Particular attention needs to be paid to volunteers.

Further briefing will be required for additional exercise directors and observers. It is advantageous to give these briefings at the exercise base before it begins.

Pre-exercise final arrangements

These are the responsibilities of the members of the exercise planning group so that all possible measures have been taken to ensure that the exercise itself is not compromised by poor planning and organisation.

Live exercises

  • Participants should be briefed prior to the exercise.
  • The scene is set with casualties made up and in place.
  • Observers briefed, in position and suitably identifiable (tabards).
  • Exercise directors briefed, in position and suitably identifiable (tabards).
  • First aid support (if necessary) in place and clearly identifiable.
  • External groups are briefed and in place.
  • Welfare arrangements (refreshments, temporary toilets etc.) in place.
  • Media arrangements made.
  • Communication checks complete.
  • The participation of the focus for the exercise – e.g. a train, tunnel or station – has been guaranteed or an alternative scenario has been prepared to discount its absence.

It should be remembered, particularly in live exercises, that although the exercise on site has been completed other elements may need to continue for some time, e.g. control rooms, casualty bureau, media etc.


A review of the responses to an exercise by the emergency services and agencies giving assistance is essential. This provides an opportunity to evaluate efficiency, to learn from experience gained and also offers a source of information to assist in future planning, training and exercising.

This process can be best achieved by a series of debriefings at all levels within all agencies involved and concluding with a multi-agency debrief. Hot de-briefs (those which take place immediately after the event) can be a useful way of capturing instant reaction which may not be revealed by the cold de-brief (that which takes place after an interval). All actions identified by the debrief should be taken forward by a nominated person/agency and given a timescale.

Organisations may wish to consider appointing a neutral debrief co-ordinator. It is important that a non-threatening atmosphere is created so that people are not afraid of being honest about their experiences and problems.

Single service debriefing

The methods of debriefing personnel involved in a major incident may vary within each individual service. It will, however, be beneficial to debriefing if consideration is given to the following:

Debrief as soon after the exercise as is practicable.
Everyone involved, including personnel remote from the area of operations (e.g. control room staff) should be given the opportunity to contribute to debriefing at some stage.
Consider the need for additional debriefing sessions for personnel involved in specific or specialist operations.

NB: Recordings made at the exercise, particularly video recordings/photographs, along with written reports will assist in debriefings.

Multi-agency debriefing

The debriefing process should culminate in a multi-agency forum which includes not only the emergency services but also any other agency which may have assisted in the overall response. It is important that each service is represented by personnel actually involved in operations, as it will be necessary to give first-hand accounts of events.

Depending on the scale and nature of the exercise it may be advantageous to hold joint debriefings for specific levels of command, e.g. Incident Control Team (Tactical level) and/or for personnel deployed on tasks requiring multi-agency involvement. Such meetings should, of course, be a pre-cursor to the final multi-agency debriefing and should add to its content.

NB: Facts emerging from the debriefings should be documented and problems identified. Lessons learnt should be shared with all who may be required to respond to major incidents even if they did not participate. Training needs – individual, organisational and multi-agency – should be identified.

Consider sharing “lessons learned” with a wide audience.

Exercise report

A major multi-agency exercise can be both costly and time consuming to arrange and undertake. It is particularly useful, therefore, to produce an exercise report after the debrief. This should be well presented and brief so that the busiest manager has no excuse not to read it.

The report should cover the aim, objectives, scenario, the planning process and both positive and negative observations from the exercise concluding in recommendations for the future. It is also important that the recommendations are acted upon and a follow up report prepared no later than six months after the publication of the Exercise Report noting what action has been taken and what is planned.

Exercise checklist

This can vary, depending on the scenario and exercise type. Anyone wishing to receive a typical checklist and support is encouraged to contact Dr Tony Cash ([email protected] / +44 (0) 7786 790886)

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