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Simulation Software Helps Aid Teams Prepare For Emergencies

A cutting-edge new software package is helping rapid response teams be ready when disaster strikes. Known as DeMist, the programme simulates a wide range of emergencies, pitting aid workers in the same situations they face while responding to real-life crises.

MANILA – Sudden-onset crises test even the best-prepared emergency organisations. Speed can mean lives saved, but operations often have to be mounted in an environment where information is sparse and conflicting and where the logistical, financial, and physical obstacles would test many an army, let alone a humanitarian agency.

In a disaster, the most effective responders are often those that operate as a coherent team. WFP’s reputation as an effective responder has been built on many solid achievements, but perhaps more than anything on its ability to come together as a team to mount a large-scale emergency response. Teamwork does not magically appear; it needs investment beforehand to get the team ready for the situations they will likely face.

Ahead of the curve

In order to ensure that WFP continues to evolve and remains ahead of the curve in its disaster response capacity, WFP is expanding its use of exercises, or simulations. These events realistically simulate a disaster response, test plans, find gaps, familiarise everyone with processes and information flows, and with what they will have to do as part of the team.

The idea of exercises is already winning new converts as a tool to sharpen WFP’s readiness ‘edge’: “More time invested in such exercises is more useful than preparing endless plans for different scenarios that don’t occur and then sit on shelves,” said WFP Myanmar Country Director Chris Kaye.

The keys to making these exercises effective are realism and means to retain the lessons and issues that they raise. To support this, a new simulation software suite is being developed.

DeMist

Known as DeMIST (Disaster Management Interoperability Simulation and Training), and part of the Readiness Initiative - the software allows a relatively small control team to manage an exercise from initial concept through to after action review.

The DeMIST software manages a “storyline” – which could be based on an existing contingency plan – to feed participants a steady stream of information to which the team then have to respond and draw up their operational plans and situation reports. One of the main challenges for participants can be choosing which information they receive is actually relevant to their response, as the deluge begins at the onset of an emergency response.

The Philippines Country Office was one of the first to trial the new software and Country Director Stephen Anderson also liked what he saw. “These types of events can reinforce WFP’s leading reputation in emergencies – and the inter-agency level, with governments, and with donors,” he said.

Building teams

Another key component of the exercise methodology is to build close-knit teams of people who understand a common way of operating in times of crisis. All plans and teams need to be tested – otherwise they risk being no more than an illusion. DeMIST enables this.

Trials have been completed in Jakarta and Manila, and the software is expected to be ready for wider use later in 2010.

“This is major step forward for WFP’s readiness and capacity to respond to emergencies,” said WFP Asia Bureau Emergency Preparedness Advisor Tony Craig. “We only have to look at the challenges we all faced in Haiti earlier this year to understand how important it is that WFP maintains our cutting edge capability in responding to disasters.”