Simulation Exercises – reality check

OCHA’s Emergency Services Branch works to support the capacity of Governments and organizations to better prepare and respond to humanitarian crises. Every year, the Branch trains hundreds of experts and coordinates major emergency simulations to improve response to natural disasters and complex emergencies.

Why are we conducting simulation exercises?

We conduct simulation exercises to evaluate the organization’s ability to execute its response capability, to test and evaluate plans, to reveal planning weaknesses and gaps in resources, to improve organizational coordination, to clarify roles and responsibilities, to further improve individual performance, to gain recognition and support of officials, and to train personnel. Simulation exercises play an important role in preparing for an emergency response, as a meaningful coordination and collaboration of national, regional, and international actors in major emergencies can only be established through regular training and exercising with all concerned. Joint exercises contribute significantly to building trust among participating actors, and deepen the knowledge and confidence in applied coordination concepts. It is widely recognized that trust among stakeholders, a good understanding of mutual roles and mandates, combined with a thorough knowledge of relevant procedures and processes are essential for successful coordination in major emergencies. It is also widely understood that the frequent and regular participation of all relevant actors in joint exercises is an effective way to achieve this. It is important that the exercises are organized by different organizations and countries and that they are based on the same principles and assumptions and apply compatible methodology.

Human-Military Operations Coordination Centre (HuMOCC) during the TRIPLEX 2016 at camp Lista, Norway. Credit: OCHA

Triplex exercise 2016

Triplex is one of the largest humanitarian field exercises in the world. This September it brought together around 36 organizations and participants from over 70 nationalities, which experienced a safe environment to test their humanitarian response mechanisms.

Triplex started with a two-day workshop where many relevant topics and processes in the humanitarian environment were addressed, including field coordination, assessment, Emergency Medical teams, camp and shelter. The workshop was an opportunity to learn and to use this learning in the following exercise scenario. The three days of real-time exercise that followed provided the participants with the opportunity to practice their craft and some of the skills acquired. IHP  provided the necessary services to the participants, such as the base camp for offices and accommodation, vehicles for movement of staff and relief equipment, as well as the coordination facilities and basic communication services.

More than 200 participants had an opportunity to work on assessment, coordination and initial response planning on a realistic scenario with many of their usual response partners, including United Nations Agencies, EU Civil protection, the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, International NGOs, the military, the International Humanitarian Partnership, the private sector as well as the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Defence.

“The opportunity to meet new colleagues, form new networks and learn more about the mandates, resources and ways of working of different organizations is invaluable and the positive effect it has on real humanitarian response is undeniable” Jon Barden, IHP Exercise Control Group.

Geir Ellingsen, IHP Triplex Project Manager, concludes that “the Triplex provides a unique platform for many organizations to practice their skills and capacities in a realistic scenario together with a wide range of other humanitarian response organizations”.

Geir Ellingsen at the opening of TRIPLEX. Credit: IHP

Triplex is an exercise planned and organized by the International Humanitarian Partnership, consisting of:

  • Administration des services de secours (ASS Lux)
  • The Crisis Management Centre
  • Finland (CMC)
  • Danish Emergency Management Agency (DEMA)
  • UK Department for International Development (DFID)
  • Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection (DSB)
  • Estonian Rescue Board (ERB)
  • Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB)
  • German Federal Agency for Technical Relief.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) acts as the IHP Secretariat. The exercise was hosted by DSB Norway, and co-funded by ECHO and the IHP members.

OCHA staff participated in the exercise in different capacities: Exercise Control, Evaluators, UNDAC Team members, OCHA Surge staff and Civil-Military Coordination Officers. Triplex 2016 was a great opportunity for the Civil-Military Coordination Section to roll-out the Humanitarian-Military Operations Coordination Centre (HuMOCC) in a natural disaster response exercise and how it complements the On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC) as a dedicated space for humanitarian and military interaction in a response environment.  The HuMOCC was staffed by four CMCoord officers which deployed with the UNDAC Team. Five military liaison officers from foreign and national military forces co-located at the HuMOCC, which provided the following key coordination services:

  1. A dedicated space and structure to facilitate the dialogue and interface between humanitarian and military actors,
  2. A one-stop shop for humanitarian/civilian – military information exchange and update, task sharing and division, and shared/joint/transition planning, as appropriate;
  3. Provide a platform for cluster representatives and military liaison officers to coordinate requests for military assets/capacity to support the priority humanitarian capacity gaps.

The Triplex exercise enabled UNDAC team members, cluster coordinators, humanitarian partners and military representatives to get more familiar with humanitarian civil-military coordination principles and tools applied during natural disaster response operations.

Flash Environmental Assessment Tool (FEAT 2.0)

OCHA’s Emergency Services Branch is contributing to a more effective response to natural disasters by helping to organize four EU-funded field exercises for emergency flood responders over the course of 2016 and 2017. The purpose of the exercises is to test civil protection mechanisms related to water emergencies, such as high capacity pumps and rescue boats. The first planning workshop for these exercises was held in Riga, Latvia, from 12 to 14 September 2016.

One of the ways to save lives and reduce suffering caused by natural disasters is to integrate environment considerations in disaster response. In this regard, an important outcome of the workshop was the adoption of the Flash Environmental Assessment Tool (FEAT 2.0) as a standard tool to rapidly identify life-threatening environmental risks and impacts. “FEAT 2.0 is an environmental assessment tool especially developed for emergency responders and disaster workers to identify, prioritize, and mitigate human health and environmental impacts of industrial chemical releases” said René Nijenhuis of the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit. “FEAT 2.0 includes the addition of a new Pocket Guide to provide a compact field reference for applying FEAT in emergency response situations. Also available is the FEAT KoBo data collection tool allowing multiple assessment teams to simultaneously collect field data on smart-phones or laptops for consolidation in one central FEAT assessment.”

FEAT 2.0 was originally developed for UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams. With its adoption by other international first response teams, the tool is well on the way to becoming a globally accepted and inter-operable resource for environmental assessments.

International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG)

For many years the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) has held exercises in countries around the world, seeking to strengthen a country’s response capacity to a major earthquake disaster and to enhance its ability to work with international partners and agencies during the initial humanitarian phase of any emergency.

Most recently, 752 participants from 25 countries and organizations representing the Colombian national disaster risk management system, as well as the district of Bogotá, the Humanitarian Country Team, the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team and its partners, 30 national and international Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams, as well as 21 national and international Emergency Medical Teams (EMT) gathered for the Americas SIMEX 2016, the regional earthquake response exercise, in Bogotá, Colombia, from the 26 until the 30 September 2016.

The exercise was hosted by the Government of Colombia through the National Unit for Disaster Risk Management (Unidad Nacional de Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres), and jointly organized with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in its capacity as Secretariat of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), and with dedicated support of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

Coordination between UNDAC team and the National Onsite Coordination Center, Americas SIMEX 2016, Colombia. Credit: OCHA


As part of the implementation of the GA Resolution 57/150 on “Strengthening the effectiveness and coordination of urban search and rescue assistance”, INSARAG formalized these events into multi-stakeholder training exercises to not only strengthen national response, but also to promote and practice the INSARAG methodology across the INSARAG Regional Groups of Africa/Europe/Middle East, Asia-Pacific and the Americas.

In 2015, following an update of the INSARAG Guidelines, and as part of OCHA’s overall goal to promote interoperability in humanitarian response, the exercise package was updated to reflect the new Guidelines, improve functionality for the participating organizations and to incorporate new training methodologies available. The INSARAG earthquake response exercise guide can be found here.

Focus Task Force on Simulation Exercises and Training

The OCHA ESB-led Consultative Group for Emergency Preparedness and Response (Consultative Group) brings global humanitarian networks and partnerships closer together to promote interoperability among them, and to jointly develop sustainable solutions to challenges of common concern.

Focus Task Forces address identified challenges of common concern in five areas:

  • Field coordination
  • Simulation exercises
  • Humanitarian customs
  • Information management in the first 72hrs
  • Environmental risks versus humanitarian action

These FTFs work towards developing sustainable solutions to these challenges, building on existing initiatives, collective knowledge, and collective capacity.

The Focus Task Force on Simulation Exercises and Training aims at improving the quality of disaster simulation exercises which are organized by different countries and organizations in a great number every year. The SimEx FTF is expected to define standardized scenario assumptions and methodologies that guide the design of such exercises to ensure minimum quality and measurable outcomes. The FTF invites organizations and Member States that either host or participate in regional and international disaster simulation exercises.

As a first step, an inventory of simulation exercises will be created, to determine the exercise purpose, expected outcomes, target audience, applied procedures, and methodologies. The exercise inventory is expected to be published at the Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW) in February 2017, and will serve as a basis for analysis and discussion of the FTF to develop agreed scenario assumptions and standardized methodology. First concrete results of the Focus Task Force are expected in the course of 2017.

His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales, Royal Patron of MapAction, visiting TRIPLEX 2016 in Lista, Norway. Credit: OCHA




2 thoughts on “Simulation Exercises – reality check

  1. Great work being done to enhance capacities of governments in different parts of the world to respond to humanitarian disasters. Unfortunately it seems very little is happening in Africa, particularly Southern Africa. I wonder if there help from out there to generate interest among governments and other stake holders.


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