Pacific: Disaster simulation boosts readiness across three countries

3 October, 2013
September 2013, Tonga: A map from a recent disaster simulation exercise in Tonga, showing an area 'affected' by a mock disaster. The simulation - the first in the Pacific to involve multiple countries - was organized to test disaster readiness. Credit: WFP
September 2013, Tonga: A map from a recent disaster simulation exercise in Tonga, showing an area 'affected' by a mock disaster. The simulation - the first in the Pacific to involve multiple countries - was organized to test disaster readiness. Credit: WFP

OCHA and its humanitarian partners have completed a disaster simulation across Tonga, Samoa and Fiji – the first time that such an exercise has involved multiple countries in the Pacific. The exercise is part of continuing efforts to strengthen community-, country- and regional-level emergency response.

Held on 10 September 2013, the simulation was coordinated by OCHA, in partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) New Zealand.

"The geographical size and distribution of nations in the Pacific means disasters can affect a number of countries at one time,” said Sune Gudnitz, Head of the OCHA Regional Office for the Pacific. “The simulation was a good way of testing not only country responses, but a regional response through OCHA and the Pacific Humanitarian Team.”

Simulation exercises are an important part of disaster preparedness and capacity-building. They provide an opportunity to practice disaster plans in a controlled environment, helping authorities and aid agencies identify ways of improving preparedness and response systems before a disaster occurs.

The scenario was based on actual events in 2009, when an 8.7-magnitude earthquake generated a tsunami that impacted both Tonga and Samoa. In both countries, National Emergency Operations Centres were activated and linked in with the Pacific Humanitarian Team (PHT) in Fiji.

Over 100 people took part in the simulation, including representatives from UN agencies, NGOs, local Red Cross Societies, governments, donors, schools and the community. Throughout the exercise, participants received more than 60 updates in the form of emails, phone calls, and even mock newspaper articles and radio broadcasts, helping to add a sense of realism to the exercise, and challenging participants to adapt new information to existing policies and procedures.

Country- and community-level preparedness

Robert Patton, from ADRA New Zealand, who coordinated the simulation exercise in Tonga, said the aim was to develop local disaster response capacity further.

“We wanted to facilitate simulations in the Pacific as it is (one of) the most disaster-prone regions in the world, and the most susceptible to sea level rises and severe weather due to climate change,” Mr Patton explained.

Spread over two days, Tonga’s simulation tested both community- and national-level response plans. Schools and residents from participating communities evacuated to designated sites and temporary shelters. Meanwhile the National Emergency Operations Centre in the capital, Nuku'alofa, communicated with community responders to coordinate and mobilize resources.

“Overall, it was a great success but there were a lot of lessons to take away, which is what simulations are all about,” said Mr Patton. “For instance, one of the tsunami early warning sirens did not go off and the community was a bit disappointed about that. But we explained that it was a positive thing because now they can address the issue before a real disaster happens.”

Improving regional coordination and decision-making

In Suva, Fiji’s capital, over 20 representatives from humanitarian organizations took part in a cluster coordination meeting to connect with Samoa and Tonga and provide international support and assistance.

In a repeat of the situation in 2009, phone and Internet communication was limited, making it difficult to obtain verified information from the field. For the PHT, the challenges of obtaining information on impacts and needs, and making decisions within tight timeframes, made the scenario realistic.

"The simulation exercise provided lots of lessons on how clusters work together and communicate during a disaster," said Marc Overmars, who works with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and chairs the Pacific Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Cluster. "It also helped us understand the importance of prioritizing needs, and how cluster resources and personnel can best mobilize when responding to government requests for assistance."

Common lessons and capacity building

Mark Shapiro, from WFP’s Readiness Initiative Project, a team which has designed and supported more than 10 simulation exercises globally in 2013, says there are always common lessons that emerge.

“Coordination, information management, communication, decision-making and maintaining situational awareness are common themes because things are changing so rapidly,” he said. “This is why simulations are an effective tool for enhanced emergency preparedness and for strengthening relationships between humanitarian partners.”

ADRA New Zealand, WFP and OCHA hope to conduct more simulations in the region and to build the capacity of Pacific Island governments to run their own exercises.

“Eventually, we hope to develop a resource bank of simulation materials that can be used by governments across the Pacific Islands to run their own exercises and to test their disaster risk reduction and preparedness plans,” explained Mr Patton.