Simulating emergency response: Preparing students for disaster risk management and humanitarian relief

  • 2020•12•07     Bonn


    Every year students of the Master’s of Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security participate in a simulation exercise to put their new knowledge of disaster management and humanitarian response to practice. Although in an adapted virtual format, this past week students of the 2019 batch got the chance to immerse themselves in the world of emergency response.

    The simulation was marked by four days of virtual exercises, role-playing, and a field exercise. With a small exercise control group leading the scripted storyline, students were divided into three UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams, Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. In the simulation, the teams responded to a fictional disaster caused by storm Kappa, which brought severe storm surge impacts to Western Europe. In the scenario, torrential rainfall over Germany resulted in catastrophic flooding along the Rhine, putting the teams on standby to rapidly deploy.

    At the fictional request of the German government, the teams arrived in Bonn to support the national response effort. The tone of the exercise set in as they received their security briefing and mission mandate from the UN Resident Coordinator and UN Humanitarian Coordinator, the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK), and a military liaison officer of the German Armed Forces. Their main objective was to support the national response and to coordinate international contributions.

    This was not an easy task as they were first in charge of establishing the On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC), coordinating the UN’s Humanitarian Cluster System of specialized agencies, as well as with national authorities, NGOs, and private sector companies to ensure efficient logistics of aid. Immediately, they were presented with critical challenges such as competition for emergency resources and time pressures.

    As the situation worsened, their role began to shift, exposing them to the dynamics of complex emergencies. “We felt the cascading disaster and stress. UNDAC teams, who are specifically trained for this, face uncertainty and unknowns in real life. This is what we had to confront,” said Alpha’s team leader, Melisa Mena Benavides of Costa Rica.

    On the third day, students who played the environmental experts for their teams were called into the field to provide an assessment for a fictitious ship collision, which led to a damaged bridge and an oil spill. This portion combined a short field exercise with a GPS activity, allowing pairs of two to trek across Bonn’s Rheinaue to reach the incident site.

    At the site on the Rhine River, they assessed the extent of the damage to the bridge, the impacts of water contamination in the river, and at a nearby water treatment facility. There they coordinated with an engineer and a chemical water specialist to recommend further mitigation measures.

    During the final injection, the scenario turned for the worse as the fictitious flooding from Kappa encroached on nuclear plants in nearby Tihange, Belgium, and Cattenom, France. The teams quickly consulted with an actual expert from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, in order to make the critical recommendation to shut down the reactors to avoid further disaster.


    While this year’s simulation had to be slimmed down to ensure COVID-19 safety, it was greatly enhanced by actual experts in disaster management from around Europe, who not only role-played remotely but also imparted knowledge from their own professional experiences from real disaster responses. Experts from the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the Deutsche Post DHL Group (GoHelp Program), the UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, all contributed to the exercise.

    “They were crucial because in a made-up scenario you need an element of reality. It was helpful to have them guide us and tell us how it happens,” said Mena Benavides.

    The IAEA expert provided them with insights into nuclear emergencies, and assured them of the reality of their scenario, citing his own experience in responding to Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011.

    This attention to detail also made this year’s virtual simulation exercise a success and allowed the students to see how the UN’s humanitarian response system and related agencies work. “It is one thing to discuss this in a classroom but another to get a sense of what it could actually feel like,” remarked Mena Benavides.

    “From a UN perspective, we are very glad to train our students in emergency response preparedness and crisis coordination, together with official national and international emergency relief agencies,” said Dr. Joerg Szarzynski, Senior Scientist at UNU-EHS, who developed this year’s simulation based off his own experiences as an active member of UNDAC. “Each year we educate numerous students from all over the world and some of them will become future leaders in disaster management back in their countries. This is of particular relevance to better support the ongoing process of localization in emergency response and disaster management.”

    The simulation has served as a programme highlight and provided inspiration for many of the students’ future career paths following the master’s programme.

    “Disaster response and humanitarian action are important and crucial elements within the Joint Master’s studies and shape our students’ career aspirations after,” said Education Programme Manager Karen Hattenbach. “We are proud to see some of our alumni working for renowned organizations and responding to events around the world.”

    As a part of the programme’s disaster risk management and humanitarian response module, this simulation serves to support the theoretical component which provides comprehensive information on structures, workflows, and practical challenges of national and international actors dealing with disaster management and humanitarian response. The annual simulation exercise is usually conducted by the Academy of Crises Prevention, Emergency Planning, and Civil Protection (AKNZ) of the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, but was adapted this year due to the ongoing pandemic.

    Applications for the International Joint Master’s Programme in Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security are currently open and more information can be found here.