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.
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 said. "Even though that's pretty big, that's still a smaller arena than what CDI is dealing with, where you've got not only some big bucks, but also the lives of many people."
The ACS gaming engine software adds unpredictability to disaster training because the course of the simulation is influenced by participants' decisions.
"It's not unpredictable in the sense that there's randomness," Chussil said. "It's unpredictable in that the model, like the real world, is sufficiently complex that no person can figure out with any degree of certainty exactly what's going to happen."
Contrast that with a typical disaster-response training simulation, which follows a script. Participants rehearse their roles, and everybody knows what's coming and builds reflexes in dealing with particular scenarios.
"If that situation changes, then we either apply inappropriate reflexes or we don't know what to do," Chussil said. "When we train with a system that has the realism and complexity -- so people don't know ahead of time what the right answer is -- that's when they learn. When they play [the simulation] again and again, over multiple days, that's when people get insight, as opposed to habit."
Similar to the famed "butterfly effect" in weather patterns -- the notion that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in California can have an impact on weather in China -- the disaster scenario evolves as participants make decisions.
The CDI also is working with Sandia National Laboratories to inject Sandia's economic consequence model into the September training event, Hendricks said.
Using GIS, Sandia National Laboratories researchers developed a computer model based on Portland's physical infrastructure -- including roads, buildings, telephone lines and bridges -- that calculates the economic consequences if a piece of infrastructure is destroyed or damaged during simulation.
Economic modeling allows leaders to immediately see how decisions that harm physical infrastructure during a disaster can impact their community's long-term economic recovery.
One example was what Hendrick's heard during Los Angeles' first Homeland Security Leadership Summit, about challenges Detroit faced after the blackout of 2003 -- especially the economic after-effects that may not be apparent at the time of a crisis.
"If businesses aren't open for business, they're not generating revenue," Hendricks said. "If they're not generating revenue, they're not generating tax revenue. That's a significant long-term impact on local and state, and oftentimes, the federal government."
He said he also heard that during a 96-hour period, millions of dollars in customs tariffs weren't collected at the Canadian and U.S. border, because a computer system that assessed tariffs on goods coming across the border was down due to the blackout.
The Sandia model will help add a sense of realism to the September exercise that would not be present otherwise, he said.
"As the simulation unfolds, their econometric model will be chugging along in parallel," Hendricks said. "When we get to the 'hot wash' or the debrief of each of these training experiences, we'll be able to say, 'Unbeknownst to you, while you were managing the operational side of this event, there's a direct impact to the economy, short term and long term, and here's what it is.'"
Perhaps the biggest benefit of economic modeling combined with the gaming engine is how quickly participants will grasp the entirety of a disaster event, he said, especially the aftermath.
"They really understand what can happen, and what they have to do to be as prepared as possible, and to come out the other side in their recovery phase with as little impact on their individual organizations and their communities as possible."