Photo: Patrick Augenstein
Recently, students of the Joint Master’s Programme “Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security” headed off to the Federal Academy for Civil Protection and Civil Defense (BABZ) in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in western Germany’s Eifel region to participate in the annual Simulation Exercise (SimEx), as a part of the JM9: Disaster Management and Humanitarian Response course. The exercise was long-awaited because it was the first time the whole 2020 cohort was able to gather in person.
This moment was certainly a cause for celebration and before the students could start the week-long simulation at BABZ they spent two days at the Red Cross Academy located at Ordensburg Vogelsang, an old military barracks also in the Eifel. There they bonded over a weekend retreat complete with team-building exercises and activities to bring everyone together.
“There was no chance for us all to meet before this. I was surprised how well our cohort came together. We wanted it to last longer,” said Teodora Stojanovic, a master’s student from Serbia.
While that provided a feel-good moment for the group, there was plenty of work ahead at the training grounds of BABZ. The students arrived there on a Monday morning and spent the first day in lectures from experts and oriented themselves in their respective UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) simulation teams, Alpha and Bravo.
The first injection was definitely a wake-up call. Ten minutes after beginning the exercise, the teams found themselves in the midst of a fictitious scenario where they were notified that they would meet at Istanbul Airport during their transit flight to a disaster-affected country to support the government in its national response. Although fictitious, the simulation was based on an actual large-scale disaster that occurred some years ago.
“The first day was purposefully chaotic, in the transit break we had to come up with a temporary plan of action. And then we landed,” said Stojanovic, who was Bravo’s team leader.
This point marked the introduction to the reality of the simulation. The expert team at BABZ who prepared the simulation went so far as to create a replica airport hangar, which was fit with security, customs, and passport control and vaccination checks. It wasn’t just the setting that was realistic but the role played security and custom officials who they interacted with. As in real life, missing documents and technical equipment meant greater scrutiny from authorities and added time pressures.
Once situated on the ground, teams established the On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC) and met with the UN Resident Coordinator. There the teams received their security briefing and mission objectives; to assist the government and to coordinate the international relief effort coming from member states. They then met with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), military and other resources involved in the management of such situations.
In this initial phase of injections the teams coordinated relief and supplies through the UN’s Cluster Coordination system. The importance here was to communicate the role of the UN in the national response and to provide information on incoming international relief.
“It was tough and important to have our key messages prepared. We had to stress that we were there to support the national government and that cooperation was going in the right direction,” said Stojanovic, who answered questions for Bravo.
Photo: Corinna Vigier
As the scenario worsened their role expanded. The ultimate stress test came when the teams were requested to send a small assessment team to the field to check on a group of displaced people. “Our mission was to assess the displaced people’s situation and their needs. Coordinating with our team back at OSOCC was a challenge but we managed with good teamwork,” said student Taimur Khan, who was Bravo’s Security and Disaster Management Officer.
The simulation capped off with the team completing a final report documenting all the actions the teams took to submit to the NDMA and Resident Coordinator. While a formality after operations, for the students it offered them the chance to draw major takeaways. Perhaps the biggest lesson learned was how crucial clear communication is in disaster risk management and emergency response.
“Communication was extremely important because we were working in a dynamic situation. We needed to be mindful of how the information we provided was received, especially in the field,” said Khan.
Thankfully, the students had a group of expert humanitarians in their back pocket to provide guidance when needed and to guarantee the learning experience. “At the beginning we were conscious of them being in the room and we were afraid to make mistakes. Once they started providing guidance it was incredibly helpful. At a certain point we could really work on our own,” said Stojanovic. The experts, who also guide trainings for the European Civil Protection Mechanism, not only observed the teams, but communicated with the Exercise Control group (ExCon) that leads the entire simulation.
Over the years students have greatly benefited from such expertise and it has spurred greater engagement in the area of disaster risk management, emergency response, and humanitarian relief to the point they are beginning to conduct research in the areas.
Students Shivani Rai and Niroj Sapkota of the 2019 cohort recently co-authored a paper precisely on simulation exercises that was published in an academic journal. They identified key design elements and functions with the aim to improve trainings and preparedness for future disasters.
It is engagement like this that has created a pipeline from the programme to the humanitarian sector, where several alumni have already gone off to have impactful careers.
“The professional careers of our graduates confirm the success of this innovative training, with our alumni serving other UN organizations as well as UN Member States,” said UNU-EHS Senior Scientist Joerg Szarzynski, who teaches the JM9 course, co-leads the training and is an active UNDAC member himself. “And being back in person this year we could see and feel the very high energy and engagement from students that has made this all successful.”
This simulation exercise course, kindly hosted at the Federal Academy for Civil Protection and Civil Defense (BABZ) of the German Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK), is a unique feature of the Joint Master Programme “Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security” that UNU-EHS has been running together with the University of Bonn, Department for Geography since 2013.