Training for a disaster typically means attending stuffy lectures on response protocols and slogging through role-playing in boring tabletop exercises.

That's hardly a recipe for rapt attention, nor does it cultivate leaders' abilities to make insightful decisions under duress. Nobody likes to be bored, and no one can afford to leave their duties as mayor or city council member to attend training that doesn't teach anything new.

In September, disaster training will get a makeover using sophisticated gaming technology. A group of 20 to 30 community leaders and high-level private-sector executives will walk into a Portland, Ore., "command center" equipped with large plasma screens affixed to the walls.

The screens will display realistic images created by three-dimensional rendering technology from Oregon3D. These images blend preprogrammed elements -- such as a TV news clip of a reporter standing in front of a disaster scene -- with three-dimensional animation, sound, video, still photos and real-time inputs. The goal is to create a new approach to training high-level decision-makers to respond to disaster scenarios.

Investing in Decisions

This idea is the brainchild of the Critical Decision Institute (CDI), a nonprofit national training center in Portland. The CDI is the first center operated under the National Center for Disaster Decision Making.

In December 2003, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski helped kick-start the CDI's development by committing $500,000 in federal homeland security funds to the project. Private donations financed the remaining $1 million needed to build the facility.

Working with the Sandia National Laboratories, Advanced Competitive Strategies (ACS), Oregon3D and ANSER Inc., the CDI devised an approach to disaster-preparedness training programs that focuses on saving lives, reducing property loss and speeding community recovery.

The September exercise will be CDI's first.

A key factor in the CDI's approach is acknowledging that police, fire and emergency responders are only part of the disaster response equation. Disaster training should target others as well, said Greg Hendricks, CDI's executive director.

The CDI will focus its training efforts on senior government leaders and executives from the private sector -- especially those responsible for critical infrastructure.

"We haven't made near the investment in leadership at the civilian level, whether it be local and state government, or executives in the private sector," Hendricks said. As a result, leaders who run their organizations competently under normal circumstances don't fare as well in a disaster.

"When we have a crisis or catastrophic event, they're so inexperienced and so ill-prepared -- through no fault of their own," he said. "It's a cultural and system failure. They really don't understand the kinds of events that will visit their communities or organizations; the kinds of decisions or level of responsibility they'll have; the consequences for those decisions; and really the environment they'll have to operate in."

Duplicating that "pressure cooker" environment is how gaming software adds a new dimension, helping people make better decisions in disaster situations.

Using Unpredictability

Hendricks said the CDI is working with Portland-based ACS to incorporate the company's gaming engine into decision-making training.

Private-sector companies have long used gaming-based software to stimulate sharper decisions in crafting corporate strategy, said ACS President Mark Chussil, adding that the engine's effectiveness translates well to disaster situations.

The simulation process confronts people with situations they may encounter in real life, allowing them to learn what's effective, what's not effective, and how to cope with stressful situations, he said.

ACS has orchestrated more than 100 "war games" for major corporations, said Chussil, and participants universally gain at least one startling insight or "a-ha" during the simulation.

"The value of those insights, at least in the corporate world, tends to be measured in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars," he

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor