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Observations from a week under a volcano and 12 reasons why relief organizations should conduct simulations

By Gregg Swanson
Posted on: 11/20/2006

Note: for background, please also see my related article, Exercise Java Lava: a Unique Field Simulation to Prepare for Natural Disasters.

Also see the HumaniNet blog with links to additional photos.

My recent week in the mountains of Java with the ADRA Asia regional response team – 15 professionals from 11 countries – gave me a much better understanding of the challenges these teams face and the importance of preparedness. And this team is prepared.

For an on-the-ground report of the simulation, please see the HumaniNet blog and our photos on Flickr, taken by the observer team and participants.

Robert Patton, ADRA Asia Regional Coordinator for Emergency Management, planned and led an outstanding simulation which was realistic, comprehensive, and just stressful enough to optimize team learning.

Robert formed an observer team to assist with planning and execution. It was a privilege to work with these experienced and dedicated people. In addition to Robert, there were:

  • Yuriya Teragaki, Japan Platform
  • Chris Olafson , ADRA Australia
  • Steve Glassey, Emergency Management Academy of New Zealand
I am indebted to Robert and the observer team not only for their perceptive findings, but for many excellent photos of the exercise. Steve Glassey prepared a fine Powerpoint after the exercise and gave us permission to distribute it – thank you, Steve! His text slides and a much bigger Powerpoint of photos can be downloaded from the links on our ICT Features page.

First, I will summarize the primary simulation findings that relate to ICT – information and communications technologies – and I emphasize that it is a summary, not a full report or analysis. The observer team provided valuable comment and findings in the debriefing, for which I thank them; but any errors or questionable conclusions in this article are strictly mine. Your questions and comments are most welcome; please send them to

        Steve Glassey on an Iridium call

CT initial primary observations

1. If you don't have reliable comms (communications) you are in trouble. This is not news, as the lack of "Day One comms" proved to be a severe impediment in the responses to the tsunami, Katrina, and many other disasters. You cannot depend on cell phones.
2. Broadband is especially valuable in a crisis, and wireless is extremely helpful with multiple users coming and going. The Hughes 9201 BGAN, our "Internet cafe in a backpack," worked extremely well. Almost all team members were able to log on without difficulty, although two people had difficulty because of system software, firewalls, or some other problem.
3. Email is how people operate every day, and it is how they will operate in an emergency response. The problem is this: dozens or even hundreds of emails flow into the inbox of every responder, every day, and you do not want to see them all when you are on the ground: pictures from family members, routine admin mail, jokes, spam, etc. etc. Relief teams need a separate, designated mailbox for mission-essential emails.
4. Power is critical, and should be addressed in every relief plan. This includes solar, generator (plus required cables and fuel), and batteries. Teams should have a backup power plan, and practice it.
5. Relief teams need maps, and there needs to be an easy way to download and print local and regional maps, with topography, roads, towns, English language names, etc. This does not require a complex software app, simply someone who can digitize paper maps and transmit them to the team.
6. Every team member should know how to use GPS, for tracking locations, reporting, security, and many other reasons.
7. A crisis environment is not the place to learn how to use tech equipment and services. If you don't know how to use something before the disaster (GPS, radios, satphones, wireless, etc.) you will almost certainly not have time to learn it in the emergency, nor will anyone be available to do the training.

Other ICT notes from Java Lava:

  • Keep a detailed checklist of equipment, accessories, cables, power strips, software, manuals, and anything else that you are going to need in the field. Test your checklist by setting up an operation in a nearby building or vacant lot – it is much better to find out there what is missing than on the ground in a disaster
  • .

  • Consider the small stuff. If you bring a printer, and plan to use it with a different computer – for example your laptop instead of the desktop computer in the office - you will need the printer driver software.
  • .

  • One virus can cause near-panic on a team. Everyone should have updated anti-virus and religiously scan every thumb drive (memory stick) that gets plugged into their computer.
  • .

  • Administrative chores are tedious but necessary for effective ICT and communications. The tasks are numerous: managing radio frequencies, call signs, numbers of satellite phones, cell phone numbers, email addresses, and even names of key personnel. Someone has to track all of this – maybe a volunteer (see my comments at Executive Director's Report.)
  • There is a lot of interest in database-driven solutions to support field teams – and I refer to the large-scale information management tools that have been publicized and demonstrated in the last two years. However, for people on the ground who are juggling all shapes and sizes of "right now priorities," these software solutions are not on their minds. They want and need answers to ordinary, specific, and often perishable questions: "When did the vehicle leave Jakarta?" "Who is in the car?" "Did they bring the CD and USB cable?" "Who is keeping track of gasoline expenditures?" It is eye-opening to see up close (and experience) how many unknowns there are, and how decisions must be made using imperfect information.

12 Reasons why relief organizations should conduct simulations

1. Preparedness – only by practice and training can teams and individuals gain and practice the skills needed in a very demanding environment.
2. Does your plan work? Only by testing your plan will you know.
3. Identify gaps, weaknesses, and needs – you won't find them out without a field exercise or an actual response, and it is easier to determine and record these findings in a field exercise.
4. Teambuilding – there is no better way.
5. Motivation – just ask the ADRA Asia team members. As one told me: "If there is a disaster, that is where we want to be – that is our job."
6. Evaluate your personnel – managers need to know who is good at this, and who is a top performer.
7. Try out new processes and procedures – an exercise is a great laboratory for testing new concepts.
8. Try out new enabling capabilities, including ICT equipment. Providers of services and equipment are often delighted to loan their newest products for field testing by "real relief workers."
9. Acquaint your senior management (and other internal management) with your plan, your capabilities, your people. They may not know how challenging it is.
10. Show external organizations, including government and U.N. agencies, what you can do.
11. Show your donors what you can do. They want to know, and they will probably be impressed. Invite key donors as observers.
12. Publicity of your simulation is healthy and should be welcomed by all employees, volunteers, donors, and other supporters. The press and the public are very interested – and this is not only at home. The press and public in countries like Indonesia are very aware of the dangers of natural disasters, and they have a stake in relief capabilities.

A final point: the ADRA Asia team kept one central fact uppermost in their thinking and planning. That is simply that relief is about the people in distress. While it is easy amidst the clutter and pace of simulation activity to overlook that, they did not. This is certainly the most important lesson of all.

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