Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Watermark: Behind the scenes of a mock disaster

I asked Kristy Chandler about her favorite waterway and she didn’t hesitate in saying the Swan River in Perth, Western Australia. She grew up there before moving to the UK in 2003. I can see the influence of both continents- She has a cultured confidence that seems typical of the English. She also has that cheerful warmth that comes from heavy doses of sunshine during certain formative stages of development.

The Swan River 

She’s now an environmental engineer for Capita Symonds. She deals with all aspects of flooding – hydrological assessment and hydraulic modeling and risk assessment, and the application of those technical things to different areas. More recently she’s been looking at emergency planning. She flew to Melbourne to give several presentations about her work and we talked in a meeting room overlooking the Yarra River and the Polly Woodside, an 1880s sailing ship. I asked if the Swan River was small enough to jump across and said it would be better to catch the ferry.

So, here’s the first part of our conversation where we talk about Exercise Watermark and what it was like to be a part of a country-wide disaster simulation.

Kristy Chandler

Tom Pagano:              There’s a project that you’re involved with that you gave a talk about at this conference…what was [Exercise Watermark]?

Kristy Chandler:           People will probably be familiar with fire drills; essentially it was a flood drill. We hosted a mock flood event so that people could test how they would react and respond to that flooding if it was a real flood. It went from the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) [top level organizational response and reaction] all the way through to where the public were involved….We hosted a four day very widespread severe flooding exercise…50 organizations participated, and 10,000 people were involved.

…It started with the summer 2007 flood events and a post flood review that recommended that one of these exercises were held.  The U.K.’s government department’s responsible for flooding (the Environment Agency), were in charge of running it, and they needed some help for such a large scale event.  They hired a group of us consultants to provide that specialist expertise plus the software that was required to run the exercise. We’d plan it and deliver it, and are now reviewing it.

Tom Pagano:              Ok.  You developed all kinds of scripts of what would happen at different times… Put us in the place of one of the [flood exercise] participants…

Kristy Chandler:           They would have received a briefing pack a few weeks before to say that something is going to happen on the day. It included some general principles about the conduct of play during the day.  But everything else was a secret. 

                                    What we tried to do was to make it as realistic as possible so that they could go to work in the morning, sit down at their desk, grab their cup of tea, and then it would just start as it would in a normal event. It’s called a “command post exercise”, meaning that participants sit at their normal desk and receive bits of information in the normal way that they would receive it. 

                                    They would get a phone call (if they normally would) or they would get an email, and we produced television scripts so that they could watch the news three times a day to see the events unfolding.  And then they would use all those little segments of information to piece together the actual situation and then react to that. That’s how they would do that in reality.

Emergency response command center (source)
Tom Pagano:              In every disaster movie you see a command center… How realistic is that, people with clipboards running around? What is a realistic scene at an emergency control center?

Kristy Chandler:           It depends on where they are. In the U.K. there’s command centers all over the place. When they’re responding or interacting with people on the ground, that’s when they’re running around with the clipboards. [Laughing]

When the situation gets a bit higher, it becomes a meeting room, probably like in the movies. There’s a meeting room with a big table and all the chiefs of different organizations are sitting around it, discussing what their next moves are and what they’re going to do. And so we gave them the information and a scenario that was severe enough to actually make those centers and those meetings start up.

Tom Pagano:              What would be a severe enough situation to activate [the command centers]?

Kristy Chandler:           The U.K. is probably quite similar to Australia. You need two regions being affected by an emergency.  We ended up having 14 regions that were affected at various times during the exercise. If two or more regions need help, it needs to be coordinated by a tier above that.  It can escalate up all the way to the prime minister.

Tom Pagano:              Did you get to meet “the big guy”?

Not "the big guy", but pretty close when it comes to flooding. (more)

Kristy Chandler:           [Laughing] No, but we had plenty of minister [politician] participation.  One of the good things was that they were very enthusiastic and had a lot of fun playing. They came out of the day saying really positive things about their experience and how they enjoyed participating. There was a bit of a buzz, actually… There’s a kind of adrenaline that you get in these emergency situations.  That was good to know that they felt involved and engaged enough that they got that kind of buzz – you know, electricity.

Tom Pagano:              For someone who’s never been in that situation, how would you describe that adrenaline, or that feeling, that buzz?... Is it the sense of not knowing? Or the confidence that you have when there’s something to do and you know how to do it? Did you have your own sense of anticipation organizing this and not knowing how it was going to turn out?

Kristy Chandler:           Yes, I was one of the staff members at exercise control.  There was one central command center where we issued all the bits of information from and monitored how things were going.  And if things weren’t going quite right, we did some on-the-spot additional bits of information to get it back on track.

…Essentially we set up our own command center. Every morning you got the ten minute warning and your stomach turned slightly. You take a deep breath and then get going and there’s people running around… We had quite a lot of planning and testing.  And on the big day, yeah, it was a bit nervous! [Laughing] Butterflies, that’s how I’d describe it.

Tom Pagano:              Yeah. “Uh oh, cappuccino machine is down, what do we do?” [Laughing]

Kristy Chandler:           More like what if “our whole IT system is down!” But thankfully due to all of our testing and planning that did not happen.

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