Full-Scale Emergency Exercises: Howdy Partner!

Testing emergency plans for response agencies, governmental entities, businesses, and schools is a must to ensure that plans on paper actually work under emergency conditions. An untested emergency plan is only worth the paper it is printed on. Table-top drills are a great way to look at “big picture” considerations, but there is nothing like conducting a full-scale exercise to test the nuts and bolts of an emergency plan.


This is a depiction of a simulated injury accomplished by theater students in a makeup class.

Conducting exercises can be costly for those involved, both in terms of manpower and equipment. Grants can help to offset the costs, but the grant process can be cumbersome and the grants themselves might not cover the entire cost. Emergency managers and emergency response agencies might have to get creative to be able to conduct a full-scale exercise without breaking the bank. One out of the box solution is to partner with local colleges and universities.

What Colleges and Universities Can Offer

Schools have a variety of resources available to them that will enhance the realism of an exercise. There are a variety of majors at educational institutions that can offer value to an exercise while also providing “real world” experiences to their classes. Students can even be granted academic credit for participation in exercises. Below are a few examples of student groups who can add value by participating in a full-scale exercise:

Drama Students

Involving the drama/theater department of a college or university is a great way to add realism to any exercise. Students can be involved as actors who help simulate injury victims. This provides an immersive, interactive experience for first responders. Students can also be involved in applying make-up, moulage kits, etc. to make injuries seem more real and allow responders to test their skills in rescue, triage, and treatment.

Fire departments can use full-scale exercises for hazardous materials training.

Medical Students

Nursing, pharmacy, physician’s assistant, medical school, and other medical programs can be used to help write scenarios for injuries, coach actors and even assist with treatment. The medical programs benefit by teaching their students emergency medicine lessons in conjunction with the drill.

Student Media

Students from television, radio, print, and multi-media production classes are valuable role players to provide experience to emergency response agency public information officers and agency chiefs in managing the media in a controlled environment. Student media can report live from the scene of the emergency exercise, conduct interviews and even hold mock press conferences.

The value of role players cannot be overstated. Role players add realism, a sense of urgency and even stress to a full-scale exercise. Responders are immersed in a realistic situation and must perform under stress. Role-players provide interactive training and an immersive experience for first responders.

In addition to role players, colleges and universities can offer equipment that will help make exercises more realistic. For example, fog machines used in theater productions can be used to create realistic, but not harmful, “smoke” during exercises involving fire. Maintenance departments can control utilities to buildings — such as electricity to simulate power outages. Stage props, boxes and other materials can be used to create rubble to simulate a building collapse. Schools have resources at their disposal that can add a tremendous amount of realism to any full-scale exercise.

Colleges and universities offer another advantage in that they have a wide variety of buildings and areas in which an exercise can be held. For example, science buildings make a perfect venue to conduct simulated hazardous materials incidents. Dormitories are great settings to simulate fires. Auditoriums and stadiums make excellent backdrops for tornado exercises. Schools also make excellent settings for full-scale active shooter exercises.

What Is Gained by Making it Real?

One of the benefits of conducting a full-scale exercise is to identify strengths and weaknesses in departmental training programs. Exercises provide a more accurate picture for agencies on what works well, and where improvements can be made. Exercises involving multiple agencies and multiple role players create the realism needed to test training procedures in a controlled environment.

Preparedness measures are also tested during a full-scale exercise. By partnering with a college or university, both the school and the emergency response agencies are able to test their preparedness plans under live conditions. They are also able to test communications between the school, emergency response agencies and the office of emergency management.

Agencies and the school can utilize full-scale exercises to identify equipment needs. For instance, local fire responders can advocate for items such as Knox Boxes that allow them access to buildings on campus and throughout the city. Exercises can be written in a way to highlight a perceived deficiency so that the deficiency is either confirmed or negated during the scenario. It is always helpful for decision-makers, whether city officials, business CEOs, or school administrators, to witness a full-scale exercise firsthand to understand the importance of an equipment request.

“Victims” being loaded into an ambulance during a full-scale exercise.

What are the Benefits of Partnering with Schools?

Colleges and universities want to be an active participant and partner with the community in which they are located. In many cases, the college or university represents a large percentage of the population in a given town or city. The term “college town” emphasizes the importance that colleges and universities have in their communities. Many schools seek ways to add value to their city, and partnering with local response agencies to conduct full-scale emergency exercises is a great way to add value.

Schools benefit from hosting exercises in numerous ways. Often, media will cover the exercise, providing valuable marketing and public relations exposure for the college or university. Hosting exercises also ensures that first responders are more familiar with campus then they might otherwise be. This familiarity leads to faster response times, better communication between responders and the school, and better overall cooperation to resolve the crisis.

Response agencies benefit from partnering with colleges and universities in numerous ways as well. Schools provide a multitude of role-players who provide an interactive, immersive experience for first responders. Better relationships are established with schools which helps not only in times of emergency, but also in the day-to-day interactions between the school and response agencies. Schools also offer a wide array of venues for responders to train in and hone their skills.

Helpful Tips

The following is a list of tips to help establish a partnership between schools and emergency response agencies when conducting full-scale exercises.

Top Down Buy-In

You must have a strong commitment from the chiefs of the various response agencies participating in the exercise as well as university administration. Without buy in from the top, the collaboration project will not be successful.

Mutual Understanding

Both the school and response agencies should work hard to understand what the other has to offer in not just conducting a drill, but in response to an actual emergency as well. Many times, people have preconceived notions that must be dispelled so that there are not unrealistic expectations as to what an agency or school can bring to the table.


Make meetings meaningful so that no one feels that their time has been wasted. For instance, you might have one brainstorming session to determine the type and location of the exercise. Another meeting can be held to lay out the basics of the exercise plan and to seek input from those involved. It is important to meet within days of the exercise to discuss the final plan and conduct a walk-through of the exercise site. A final debrief drill can be held to analyze what went right and what needs improvement from the exercise.

Drill in Progress banner alerts the school community that a full-scale emergency exercise is occurring in the area.


Make sure that communication lines between response agencies and the college or university are firmly established before the full-scale exercise commences. There should also be communication between the school and its student body to let them know the day that the exercise will occur. (Never conduct a “surprise” full-scale exercise).

Start Small

Don’t bite off more than you can chew for the first full-scale exercise conducted as a partnership between schools and response agencies. Do not overcomplicate the scenario. Aim for success, and don’t get hung up on failures.


Partnerships between colleges and universities and their local emergency response agencies to conduct full-scale exercises can be very beneficial to all parties involved. Many times, schools are willing to contribute role players, facilities, and materials to the exercise in exchange for the valuable academic experience that students gain by participating. Response agencies benefit from the realism that schools can provide. Partnership ensures that the entire community is served by well-prepared responders, and that the school is seen as a valuable contributor to the local community.

Kevin Davis has over 22 years’ experience in the security industry. He earned a B.A. from Harding University and a Juris Doctorate from the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law. He is Assistant Director of Public Safety at Harding University. Davis has written and participated in annual full-scale exercises at Harding University for the past 19 years. Working with local response agencies, Harding has simulated tornados, fires, earthquakes, active shooters, hazardous materials spills, etc.

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