Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Disaster Simulation's invisible value

MV-22 Osprey hovering over Guiuan, Philippines, November 14, 2013 (Photo: AP)

Towns, cities, regional and national governments face incredible obstacles and challenge in the lead up, occurrence, response and recovery phases of a crisis or disaster. Emergency management agencies at all levels face unknowns and variables that are impossible to calculate. In today's modern world, we have processes and procedures that are spelled out and specify each team member's role. Agencies spend enormous amounts of money and time to educate, train and exercise for multiple types of crisis and disaster events. We soon learn and identify after an real event occurs where gaps and weaknesses are. Training is a critical component in disaster management. We learn by doing. We can illustrate and prove that we are getting better, faster and quicker in crisis and disaster response. It also helps us define and identify where problems and gaps are in the system. We tend to build post training scorecards on outcomes and facts that can be analyzed into a zero sum report. We send that report up the chain of authority and either get a passing or failing grade. Next.

A straight forward conclusion would be, train and simulate as often as you can. Flush out multiple types of scenarios until everyone knows the playbook top to bottom. This methodology has few flaws. It works for most scenarios. However, we no longer live in a world where we can only take into account "most". Just ask any western military service branch how they teach and train recruits straight out of high school's and universities. Over the past 25 years, military units have achieved remarkable increases in performance. Perhaps emergency management organizations should simply adopt similar methods. In fact, many organizations already do, they just do not advertise or recognize it as such. Some processes are easily identifiable and transferable. We have to understand significant differences between a military officer corps and civilian emergency management agency roles and responsibilities. It turns out, the issues facing civilian agencies, are similar in nature when military organizations have to support civilians led operations. 

Tactical exercise and simulation training are what the military does when units are not deployed. They are not sitting in barracks playing cards. At all levels, individuals are put through continuous training programs including academic, research and development and regular core training exercises. Resiliency and effectiveness become second nature within each branch of service. They practice scenarios in different conditions and environments. Military units are capable of adapting and improvising effectively in the field because of this. An example was the use of MV-22 Osprey aircraft during Typhoon Haiyan. With no prior experience in HA/DR operations, Marine squadrons of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) deployed from Okinawa with stellar results. How did they do this?

Emergency management operates in a similar manner but not to the same tempo or frequency. The objectives often do not anticipate every possible scenario or intensity. The insertion of specialized teams is carried out on an ad-hoc basis and are not regular participants during a training exercise. Civilian Agencies have access to any or all resources if escalated to appropriate levels for use, but rarely are such scenarios practiced or understood as to their full potential and conditional results. It is often suggested that within emergency management leadership circles, Incident Command System (ICS) procedures are nothing more than the execution of logistics management processes moving people and assets into a disaster zone. There is a sliver of truth in that. But it is much more than simply moving stuff from a to z in the most effective and expedient manner. A disaster zone has multiple sets of priorities and obstacles that are often unseen or predictable. Rarely is advance intelligence or situation awareness and status of what pieces are left,  for availability and utilization. The conditions and environment can rapidly change leaving command plans in shambles, shifting how a response is carried out. Outside observers could easily suggest hesitation and / or the lack of foresight to anticipate compounding stresses could be significant issues requiring resolution. This is not always the case, but in many scenarios, observers would be wrong in their analysis. What often occurs is leadership's reluctance to say No to a request or are too ambiguous in their intentions and agreements.

It is not what you want say that matters, it's how you say it. 

Military organizations generate very detailed and technical operations plans (OPLAN's) for any mission assigned to a unit. They are carried out without hesitation. Along the way, units identify like ICS leaders do, obstacles and challenges not anticipated within the mission plan. It may change to adapt to the environment, but the goal does not change. If a new task is required and accepted to be carried out, a new (or sometimes amended or revised to one) OPLAN is issued. Once in the chain of command, the plan does not change in assignment and is carried out. As resources are tasked and consumed additional requests are eventually refused. The military does not come out and just say no, instead, it explains how its role is defined (and by whom, etc), how it is going to carry out the objectives assigned and why it cannot extend or take on additional responsibilities. If priorities change, then so does the effectiveness of its original tasking. A decision is made and operations either change or continue as originally tasked.

In an Emergency Management Office headquarters, the conversation is often very different. Instead what sometimes occurs is the redistribution of assets, to carry out missions the 'best they can' for every segment of a scenario at the same time, attempting to alleviate the appearance of potentially leaving somebody behind. Worse still, is when a situation develops that relies upon augmentation from other regions that are not directly under the full time authority of the lead agency. These assets will get there when they can. What is conveyed to the public is 'help is on the way', yet definitive commitments are impossible to state clearly with concise tasking and objectives. The United Kingdom's Ministry of Environment had to defend against this charge constantly in the press and with local constituents affected by the Winter floods of 2013/14 over a period of three straight months. In many cases, core leadership has limited visibility in how these resources will perform in the field during the event with their own. They hope for the best and watch. Even during training exercises, discussions between specialized or back up emergency resources are not in depth and are treated more like acquaintances than true partners that understand each others strengths and weaknesses. 

Success comes by diving into the deep end of a simulated disaster.

The best place to analyze and observe where limitations and problems could occur is during a field exercise. But these are often one time annual events, limiting the amount of dialogue and integration requirements that are often needed. Field operations become reliant upon syllabus and protocol to carry the day's mission plan. Senior leadership rarely observe or identify interaction issues that inevitably surface. Field training is expensive, which often limits the type of exercise scenarios that can be carried out in a given amount of time. Establishing how people operate under stress in concert with building trust and coordination trust can prove difficult to achieve during a one or two day exercise.

Simulation solutions offer three important elements that are rarely talked about or discussed. In the past I have talked about 3C's; Coordination, Cooperation, Communications. These three words can mean the same thing. Put in context of assigned leaderships roles and areas of responsibility... 

Studies prove the more often simulation programs tackle a problem, the more likely a team will overcome obstacles put into a teams path. While repetition in itself is valuable teaching tool it does not teach human response variables. Generally speaking, we tend to underestimate the time it takes to accomplish an objective. Instinctively we then over weight these factors to error on the side of an increased level of safety margin. However, if a simulation program is carried out over an extended period of time, the margins begin close tighter together and confidence levels rise. As a scenario's level of difficulty is increased, the team continues to build on its original starting point and begins to identify areas of weakness and make adjustments. 

A team begins to learn how to say no and avoid unnecessary vague commitments to prepare for the next level of escalation and engage additional assets with clear and precise objectives in mind. When leaders train and simulate in stressful environments that are closed and in tightly controlled environments over an extended period of time, the more likely the team will adapt, understand its limitations, and perform within its capabilities, thereby limiting the pressure to over promise and under deliver. This is how the military trains its units and why they are very successful in carrying out assignments. It has nothing to do with rank and file marching orders, instead, modern military training emphasizes understanding roles, capabilities and impacts on unknown variables and contingencies that may arise during a tasking. The U.S. military revamped many of its senior leadership education programs after Joint Operation and National Command Authority reorganization took place in 1986 under the Goldwater - Nichols Act. It began to recognize the complex and difficult stove pipe culture that had entered into each service branch required significant changes.

This develops naturally as leadership teamwork builds an open trust model, relationship peer support, that creates respect and awareness of understanding. This is often the most commonly identified area of "improvement" during a simulation debrief and hot wash. The key is to then go back into the simulator again and again to prove or disprove their internal analysis. The team learns its limitations and when and how to say no to conditions that are out of their control. The more simulator time groups are given, the more likely performance objectives improve. Dramatically. 

Simulation programs are available from a variety of sources. They offer bells and whistles that are often not required or needed. Sand tables are widely used and offer straight forward implementation, capable of delivering basic and advanced ICS curriculum. Just like a real deployment, people save lives, not technology. Technology can and does help support ICS training and simulation operations. As it becomes more and more integrated into ICS and Headquarter operation centers, technology will (and does) improve response capability and capacity. But it does not tell leaders how we should process group and individual decision making and command leadership choices. There are cases where technology has actually hindered and confused situation awareness during a real crisis or disaster. Technology became the delivery mechanism that displayed conflicting information creating hesitation and uncertainty during Hurricane Sandy. One forecast said the hurricane was going to veer off into the Atlantic while another model said it was heading directly for New Jersey and New York, delaying and misinforming evacuation management decisions that needed to be made. Worse still, not everyone got the final conclusions mutually agreed upon in the final hours before the hurricane hit.

During simulation sessions, the unthinkable can be modeled, the no win scenario. In a sand table exercise experiment in 2013, we threw Hurricane Sandy at a group of students with no prior experience in a real disaster and had only 4 prior sand table exercise sessions under their belt. The teams were energetic and enthusiastic as expected and had 18 hours advanced planning time to prepare and structure their team as they saw fit. Students believed they were ready to take it on. The results were what steering group and observer teams expected. Not a single person was evacuated and not a single order was issued and soon unraveled into total and complete chaos a mere 2 hours into the simulation. After a lunch break, another 3 hours passed and chaos still reigned. During the debrief, the students were incredibly hard on themselves. They were emotionally drained and as you can imagine, stressed to their very limits. Our steering group then gave our debrief. 

We explained that this was the no-win scenario and that the challenge was to see if they could absorb such intense information and demands in an environment where each of them had little or no prior experience in Disaster management and 3C's. The team did not recognize that they really did not know each other all that well. In fact, the team accomplished a lot more than they realized, recognizing gaps, roles and responsibilities that go beyond individual leadership and assignment. No surprise afterwards, to a person, each one was relieved that they were put into a scenario that was practically impossible for them to resolve and carry out. What happened next was no more surprising, the team wound up talking with each other as a group intensely for the next two days on how they could have been more effective. They discussed what they would have changed and could have improved upon, long after the actual hot wash. It was not small talk either, as the students did deep dive analysis into the challenges crisis and disaster management leaders must overcome. If the team had time, (which we did not), they eagerly wanted to re-run the simulation at the same levels of intensity. The students developed relationships based on trust that integrated awareness skills and wished to test them and be fully evaluated. This is the true strength and scorecard that should be emphasized when carrying out simulation training on a recurring basis. As is often the case, it is not visibly conveyed to government leaders as well as it should be.

Our DDRS magazine has several articles on these issues. For further reading here are some additional reference materials.

Congressional Research Service Report - Typhoon Haiyan. Published Feb. 10, 2014

United Kingdom Met Office - The recent Storms and Floods in the UK - Feb. 9, 2014

FEMA After Action Report - Hurricane Sandy - July 1, 2013

FEMA Emergency Management Institute - Incident Command System

United Kingdom Cabinet Office - Emergency Response and Recovery Guidance

Public Safety Canada - Government Operations Center

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