Posted in Issue 100 August 2005 News from PAHO/WHO
PAHO and a number of organizations in Colombia and Ecuador have been working to improve health preparedness for volcanic emergencies. Now, multimedia software has been developed to enable health Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) to conduct simulation exercises.
All simulation exercises require a good script and PAHO enlisted the help of vulcanologists to prepare realistic scenarios of simulated events. The next step was to design and develop the software to place students in situations in which they must solve problems or react pragmatically. This new simulation software has advantages over traditional paper-based exercises in that the computer interface, with video images, radio spots, photos, written reports and other documentation, immerses the user in a situation that is as close-to-reality as possible, without being exposed to the actual risks of a volcanic eruption. To conduct the simulation exercise properly, the software must run on nine individual computers that have been connected to a local area network.
As participants progress through the exercise, they are forced to interpret and act on a large volume of information, both qualitative and quantitative. They can then measure the results, negotiate and discuss their decisions. As in real disaster situations, decisions are generally taken in a climate of uncertainty, where there is only a partial understanding of the actions of colleagues and other entities participating in the exercise. During the process, participants test their knowledge of preparedness measures along with communication and negotiation skills.
This tool not only allows users to learn more about the behavior of volcanoes, the characteristics of the threat (lahars, pyroclastic flows, ash and gases) and the potentially adverse effects on health, but also to appreciate the complexity of the decisions that an EOC must take and the importance of coordination and communication, both internally and between sectors. The exercise promotes the health EOC as a key preparedness and emergency management tool and lets the players “live” the importance of forming and maintaining an updated situation room that provides information and analysis for decision making.
The exercise ends with a joint evaluation by all the participants: evaluators, observers, and the players themselves. Most of the 50 people that have already field tested the software in workshops in Colombia and Ecuador said it was an extremely helpful learning experience that allowed them to evaluate their knowledge and decision-making skills and improve teamwork in stressful situations. Their evaluations of the script, the software, and the methodology will be used to adjust a subsequent version of the simulation, which will be field tested in Central America later this year.