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Exercise Java Lava a Unique Field Simulation to Prepare for Natural Disasters

By Gregg Swanson
Posted on: 11/20/2006

Note: for additional observations and information on Java Lava, 12 Reasons Why Relief Organizations Should Conduct Simulations..

Also see the HumaniNet blog with links to additional photos.

Robert Patton and the observer team consult with
local officials before the exercise kickoff on October 30

Humanitarian relief is one of the most uncertain, unpredictable, and difficult to manage activities in the world, and it is not getting easier. Natural disasters and complex humanitarian emergencies are unfortunately more frequent and – lately – more severe.

While relief NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) have been stretched to their limit since the 2004 South Asia tsunami, the need to plan and prepare is more critical than ever. One NGO is making a determined and forward-looking effort to "be ready for the next one." Their approach is one that all relief managers should consider, and that donor organizations should be aware of.

In October 2006, a humanitarian relief team from ADRA Asia, a regional office of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), conducted a six-day exercise of their emergency response capabilities by way of a simulated disaster event, in a remote location near an actual volcano in Java, Indonesia. The simulation exercise was named "Java Lava."

Thanks to an invitation from Robert Patton, ADRA Asia Regional Coordinator for Emergency Management, who planned and led the Java Lava simulation, I was able to go to Indonesia as an exercise observer. Java Lava was a unique opportunity, an outstanding learning environment for all involved, and a very rewarding experience personally.

ADRA emergency management coordinators from 11 countries were notified on October 26 of the location and scenario, a volcanic eruption of Mt. Gede, south of Jakarta, and assembled an emergency response team within days near the mountain.

The simulation was a first-of-its-kind for an international relief organization, not only for the realistic scenario and the "no notice" testing of readiness, but also because the relief team utilized state-of-the-art equipment from the outset for voice communications and Internet access – beginning on "Day One."

The simulation had five primary objectives: team learning, testing and improving emergency plans, improving preparedness, documenting lessons learned, and testing the ADRA Asia emergency response kit. Most of the 15 ADRA participants had never worked together, nor even met each other, so the exercise offered realistic and valuable training in forming an effective team in a hurry – within hours of arrival at the village exercise location.

The exercise elements spanned a wide range of actions, learnings, and simulation events. These included:

  • Pre-event intelligence and situation reporting
  • Activation process
  • International border control movements
  • Base camp establishment
  • Initial needs assessment and proposal for aid
  • Comprehensive needs assessment and network proposal
  • Professional development training sessions on:
    - Types/means of communications and ICTs: GPS, Iridium, BGAN, and radio.
    - Health and safety, Code of Conduct, Humanitarian Charter, Project Sphere (standards in disaster response), principles of coordination, and proposal writing.

The trial of the response kit turned out to be one of the most valuable aspects of the simulation, primarily because of an effective communications plan. Steve Glassey of the Emergency Management Academy of New Zealand delivered comprehensive, outstanding training in the use of radios and GPS, including small team field exercises. Steve also gave an excellent workshop overview of radio and satellite communications. Steve and I then conducted hands-on training in the use of the communications and GPS tools.

The ADRA team came prepared with Iridium satellite phones and a Hughes 9201 BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) terminal, which was loaned by Telenor Satellite Services (TSS) for exercise testing and use. TSS also donated $1000 of satphone airtime and BGAN usage. The BGAN, with integrated wireless (WiFi) was the centerpiece in establishing immediate, effective team communications.

The field test of the BGAN was extremely successful, both in proving its technical capabilities and for demonstrating the value of easily accessible broadband in an emergency situation. Chris Jensen, a participant from ADRA Australia, said that "having the luxury of Internet access" from the moment of arrival is a "huge advantage" in delivering relief and helping the communities in distress.

Team members had downloaded the "Launch Pad" software before they deployed, using their home Internet access – one of the many "best practices" that emerged from Java Lava. Since none of the ADRA team had ever seen or used a BGAN, a brief training session was scheduled. In only ten minutes, all team members were briefed – two were online in less than two minutes.

The BGAN, which was positioned on a balcony for the initial test, quickly acquired the satellite. An audio "seeker tone" made it easy to set up, in less than two minutes from "power on." All relief team members found that their laptops quickly detected the WiFi signal from the BGAN. They could then connect over the Launch Pad software. Speed was excellent, using the Standard IP option; there was no need to utilize the streaming options, although these tested successfully.

The BGAN quickly became a star performer, especially since it did not require AC power from the team office: a foldable solar panel kept the battery charged at 100% through the day, even when cloudy. The battery remained at 90% or higher charge well past nightfall.

The BGAN, approximately the size of a notebook computer, combined with a the foldable solar panel, gained the nickname "Internet cafe in a backpack." While there are several types of BGAN terminals, the Hughes 9201, with integrated WiFi, was found to be perfect for a large team in a remote location, with users coming and going through the day and night.

The only potential difficulty actually arises from the BGAN's ease of use: because it is very simple to log on and access the Internet, users are tempted to check personal email and various Web site, all of which can generate high costs – the BGAN service is charged not by the minute but by megabytes of data sent and received. A user team should use the service only for necessary email and mission-essential Web sites. The team tested UUPlus, a well known service for managing email over remote and low-bandwidth connections, with complete success.

The ADRA Asia team learned a number of important lessons quickly. For the first time, every team member had the advantage of Day One connectivity. Everything that must be managed in a hectic and unpredictable relief environment – instructions from UN and government agencies, logistics, transportation, security, reporting, administrative communications, even submitting grant proposals to donors and getting access to digital maps – depends on reliable communications and Internet access. ADRA is much better prepared for helping people in its region as a result of this field simulation. Every relief organization should seriously consider holding, at least annually and optimally in each region or country, a simulation like Java Lava.

I would like to thank Telenor Satellite Systems for their support of Exercise Java Lava and for their sponsorship of HumaniNet's participation. Also, I am grateful to Robert Patton of ADRA Asia for the opportunity to join the ADRA team as an exercise observer and advisor, and for his patience and consideration in hosting me and the other members of the observer team. The ADRA team are dedicated professionals, and it was a privilege to work with them.

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