UNICEF - Rehearsing the emergency response

Each year, the 133 UNICEF country offices around the globe respond to an average of 250 emergencies, including such diverse crises as floods, droughts, earthquakes, epidemics and conflicts, among others. Nevertheless, the bulk of UNICEF’s time, energy and human resources are devoted to long-term development issues. This poses an interesting challenge for the organisation: how to maintain the humanitarian knowledge, skills and decision-making ability of all staff members during the long, non-crisis periods? For the past nine years, UNICEF has been quietly scaling up its own preparedness at country level through the use of an office-based emergency simulation. The simulation is a day-long exercise designed to test all members of a country office by acting out the response to an invented crisis that has just occurred. Participants are given a plausible disaster scenario, modified to fit the socio-political, cultural and geographic country context, and then tasked with achieving a dozen deliverables by the end of the exercise. These products generally include a security assessment, an initial response plan, a supply list, a staffing table, fund-raising documents, situation reports, etc. A small team of facilitators runs the simulation, using a “script” of injects containing information provided via e-mails, phone calls and meetings, to mirror what usually occurs during an actual crisis. Staff at headquarters and regional offices call in to offer support and request information, enhancing the realism of the scenario and underlining the commitment from all levels of the organisation. The key to UNICEF’s simulation lies in the fact that participants are not required to role-play; rather, each person carries out the functions s/he would normally have during a real humanitarian crisis. The simulations are surprisingly engaging; most participants enjoy ‘suspending disbelief’ and jump into the activity with enthusiasm. The fact that the emergency is entirely fictitious tends to fade into the background, as the staff members, confronted with the realism of the scenario, take decisions based on the situation, the data, the reactions of partners and use their own common sense. All participants go through a formal, hands-on debriefing the following day to identify strengths, weaknesses and lessons learned. This permits the staff themselves to develop an action-matrix of tasks to improve their collective readiness for the next humanitarian crisis. So, what exactly does this kind of exercise accomplish? Several results have been reported by participants: a greater familiarity with the tools and mechanisms for coordinated action; recognition and correction of preparedness gaps in a “safe” environment; boosted confidence in the team’s ability to handle the pressures of a crisis; and increased esprit-de-corps among all participants. By coincidence, in certain instances actual emergencies struck a country soon after a simulation was run, effectively testing the country office’s response capacity. The results indicate that rehearsing an emergency response pays off. Some examples: • Zimbabwe, 2005: Only weeks after the Country Office underwent a drought simulation, the Government launched its Operation Clean-Up, displacing tens of thousands of urban dwellers onto the streets of Harare; UNICEF was able to quickly mount a humanitarian programme and provide multi-sector support. Despite the different scenario, prior experience led to a quicker, better response. • Syria, 2006: UNICEF ran an earthquake simulation in March as a proxy for other, more likely (but more sensitive) geo-political risks. Three months later, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon pushed close to one million persons across the border into Syria. The country office reacted with a high degree of professionalism, slipping seamlessly into response mode. • Bangladesh, 2007: UNICEF carried out back-to-back simulations over consecutive weeks for pandemic and earthquake. Later that year, Category 4 cyclone Sidr slammed into the southeast of the country, raising the spectre of massive humanitarian losses. Having practiced the drill, UNICEF responded rapidly under pressure. In all three instances cited above, senior management subsequently reported that the simulation exercise had proved invaluable to their team as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the actual emergency that followed. Similar comments were received from UNICEF Representatives in Colombia, Haiti, Mauritania and Nepal, using expressions like “confidence”, “fluidity” and “automaticity” in reference to their office’s response. UNICEF was one of the pioneers in developing such exercises in the early 2000s, but simulations have by now become the training tool of choice for many humanitarian actors. In 2008, UNICEF, WFP and OCHA collaborated to create an inter-agency exercise useful for an entire Humanitarian Country Team. The Inter-Agency Emergency Simulation, led by regional emergency advisors from a handful of UN agencies, involves virtually all humanitarian actors in a given country, including UN agencies, local and international NGOs, Red Cross/Crescent Societies and, wherever possible, government agencies. In 2009 and 2010, OCHA/PIC picked up the simulation model and used it to great value in raising awareness and preparedness in advance of an expected outbreak of pandemic influenza. In recent years, simulations have focused on helping national and local governments test and improve their own capacity and coordination, with successful experiences in Tanzania, Ghana, Madagascar, Philippines and many others. As co-chairs of the IASC Sub-Working Group on Preparedness, UNICEF and WFP developed a how-to manual for Government Emergency Simulations for use by national disaster management offices and line ministries. Most recently, simulations based on this same model have been mandated and used by the IASC Principals to test different components of the Transformative Agenda. UNICEF’s organisational ethos mandates that all staff—not just the emergency wonks--must be ready to respond to humanitarian crises, whenever and wherever these may occur. Yet like any expert practitioners—be they surgeons, fire-fighters, or ballerinas--humanitarians require regular drills and constant practice to remain sharp. Running a simulation constitutes a relatively low-cost, easy-to-organise means of honing skills and testing plans. Moreover, it is far better to discover gaps and challenges during a simulated emergency than during a real crisis, when lives, livelihoods and organizational reputations are at stake. By Frederick Spielberg, Office of Emergency Programmes, UNICEF-Geneva