UN World Food Programme

Disaster Simulation Readies Telecomms Team For Emergencies

OpEx Bravo is a high-intensity exercise which challenges emergency IT professionals with many of the same scenarios they'll encounter in the field. Copyright: WFP/ Mariko Hall

An immersive disaster simulation in Germany recently put the skills of an emergency telecoms team to the test with many of the same hazards and dilemmas that await them in the field. Armed militants and angry mobs were just a few of the scenarios participants had to negotiate in the process of setting up telecoms services for an emergency response.

DUBAI - A recent training exercise organized by WFP cast a group of telecoms experts from ten different organizations into the middle of a violent conflict as first-responders to a humanitarian emergency.

Set in the fictional country of Turkastan, the exercise—known as “OpEx Bravo”— required teams to set-up equipment and establish services including VHF radio and Wi-Fi internet connectivity, while being confronted with challenging incidents that can actually happen when working in an emergency.

To bring Tukastan to life, over 20 of THW´s training staff and volunteers played the roles of various characters from local drivers and disgruntled citizens to border guards and militants.

“Each day was different, whether it was the technical situation, getting mobbed by crowds of people or even being attacked,” said Ivan Thomas, a WFP emergency telecommunications officer in West Africa.

Full-time exercise

Coordinated by WFP, the simulation was supported by Vodafone Foundation and the Government of Luxembourg, and was hosted by the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) in cooperation with German authorities and humanitarian partners.

“We have a lot of different courses at our training base in Neuhausen,” said Joerg Haas, Cross Cultural and Disaster Manager at THW. “But this is the first time we’ve had something like OpEx Bravo. It was a full-time exercise; 17 to 18 hours per day, split across four sites. It was definitely a challenge.”

At the end of each day, participants were debriefed and given feedback. In order for the participants to learn the most from OpEx Bravo, facilitators in Exercise Control were constantly adapting the plan according to the progress and response of each team. 

Teamwork

“OpEx Bravo provides opportunities for participants to work together and learn from each other,” said Cindy Heselton, OpEx Bravo Exercise Manager and WFP IT Training Consultant. “The inter-agency approach provides participants with a well-rounded exercise and reflects the critical cooperation and coordination required in actual emergency situations.”

“Responding to an emergency is like writing a good book,” says Patrick Gordon, OCHA Deputy Chief IT and OpEx Bravo Facilitator. “You must be able to deal with the ambiguities. We must be able to improvise, especially with the ETC because it’s a special cluster - we provide internal support. We are the people who support those who support others. We have to understand what they need and be able to adapt.”