Expand your knowledge

Learn how to Contribute

Contribute what you know

Emergency Response Drills for Outdoor Programs

Greg Friese
Article Date:  May 12, 2013


Fortunately, many of our organizations will never experience a true emergency—serious accident or fatality, financial collapse, program crippling property damage, or mission threatening negative publicity. A clean record does not guarantee a smooth future. Recent events like multiple swimmers drowning, abuse allegations, vehicle accidents, and wildfires remind us of the importance of having an Emergency Response Plan. The best way to test your Plan and crisis team is to conduct an Emergency Response drill.

Types of Drills

Emergency Response Drills are categorized by complexity. Drill types include a plan walk-through, tabletop exercise, event simulation, or full deployment drill (Kamer, 2002). As complexity increases the drill length, stress on participants, necessary resources, and duration increase. Pick a drill type based on organization knowledge, experience, and resources.

A plan walk-through introduces the Crisis Team to the Emergency Response Plan. In a staff meeting, review key points of the plan, when it is implemented, and how it is executed. Refer participants to communication pathways, guidelines for speaking to the media, emergency contact phone lists, and emergency procedures. Conduct a plan walk-through when a new program is initiated, like a challenge course, or as a new full-time staff member is hired. It is a great chance to review roles and responsibilities by discussing what if scenarios, like a fall at a climbing site or a whitewater kayaking drowning. A plan walk-through sparks discussion on preventing and responding to those horrible what ifs.

During a tabletop exercise, crisis team members respond to incoming information about a hypothetical crisis as if it were real. A moderator and role players feed crisis team members details as the scenario unfolds. For example, a scripted role player calls the program office, “This is a drill. This is Sgt. Friday, reporting a program van rollover on highway 15 with multiple injuries.” During the drill, the crisis team leader assigns tasks and facilitates resolution of the crisis. A tabletop is a communication exercise and can have varying degrees of intensity and duration depending on the organization needs. Allow several hours for execution and debriefing improvements to the plan and assessing team function.

Event simulations increase the level of realism and intensity. For example, Wilderness Medical Associates wilderness first responder students respond to simulated accident scenes, complete with fake blood and screaming patients with simulated injuries. Students know it is a drill, but the level of stress is palpable and helps prepare them for a real medical emergency. As the realism increases, it is critical to have observers to ensure safety, evaluate individual and team performance, and prepare feedback for participants. In likely outdoor program emergencies, the response and patient care phase are usually low duration. Consider extending the event simulation to include evacuation to safety, communication to external audiences, and program continuity considerations. An event simulation could last two to eight hours or longer. Like a real incident, encourage participants to rest and recover afterwards. Conduct your evaluation the next day after everyone is comfortable, relaxed, and fed.

A full deployment drill is as real as possible. They are typically used in law enforcement, aviation, or healthcare settings to prepare for situations like bioterrorism, plane crashes, or hostage rescue where the incident could last for days. The duration simulates the fatigue, staff changes, and planning cycles that occur in a long incident. A full deployment drill requires extensive planning and a major commitment of time and resources. It is unlikely an outdoor program would independently respond to a full-scale disaster. More realistically, you would be one of many effected by a hurricane, wildfire, or bioterrorism incident. Contact your local Red Cross, emergency management officials, law enforcement agencies, or health care providers to see how you could participate in a regional emergency prevention and response program. Maybe your facility could become a treatment area or evacuation site during a natural disaster, like the 2003 California wildfires.

Conducting an Emergency Response Drill

To start planning, ask yourself, “What is our worst-case scenario?” Script how that situation could unfold, identify parties involved, and set goals for the drill. Phases of conducting a drill include:

  • Emergency Response Plan needs to be in place and supported by administration.
  • Crisis Team is aware of roles, by doing a plan walk-through and is committed to drill goals.
  • Prepare role players. Script the time of their interaction, lines, questions, and emotions. Realism increases learning.
  • Brief the Crisis Team on necessary background information and how the drill will unfold. Emphasize imagination, effort, and participation.
  • Conduct the drill. Follow a script for delivering information and assigning tasks to the crisis team. Observe the crisis team.
  • Debrief the drill. Identify positive team and individual actions, flaws in the plan, and areas for improvement. Celebrate!


Emergency Response drills are an excellent way to improve our emergency planning and communication. If you do not have an Emergency Response plan, you need one. Test the plan every year. Conduct a plan walk-through when new administrative staff are hired or for major programs changes. An annual tabletop exercise keeps your plan relevant and the team sharp. Unlike a real emergency, drills can be a fun, but they are also stressful. Reward your team with a meal or social opportunity afterwards. Practice for the thing that keeps you awake at night and you may start to sleep better.


Ajango, D. Editor. (2000).
Lessons Learned, A Guide to Accident Prevention and Crisis Response.
Alaska Outdoor and Experiential Education.

Herman, M. L. and Oliver, B. B. (2001).
Vital Signs: Anticipating, Preventing, and Surviving a Crisis in a Nonprofit, Nonprofit Risk Management Center

Kammer, L. (2003).
Preparing and Fine-Tuning your Crisis Plan: a Workable Methodology.
Larry Kamer.
Kamer Consulting Group.

Greg Friese of Emergency Preparedness Systems, LLC design and deliver innovative programs and staff training events to camps, outdoor programs, and community organizations. Realistic and context appropriate simulations, from a tabletop exercise to a full deployment disaster exercise prepare your organization to prevent and respond to an emergency.

The best seller used by outdoor programs across the country as a resource and textbook. 

Available in paperback, E-book, and now as an Audiobook at Amazon.com