ESRC: Simulated disaster exercises are key for U.K.

The Economic and Social Research Council, a United Kingdom-based organization that sponsors research on economic and social issues, recently published a study on the importance of well-planned disaster exercises.

According to Ben Anderson from Durham University, Peder Adey of Royal Holloway, University of London, and their colleagues, well-designed and planned exercises are essential to make sure the U.K. can respond effectively to all contingencies, including terrorism, flooding, train or air disaster and pandemic flu. The research was meant to generate new understanding of how the thousands of annual U.K. disaster exercises are planned, designed and undertaken.

The researchers found the exercises have multiple important functions.

"The learning and capabilities deriving from all forms of exercise make a massive but largely hidden contribution to the ability of the U.K. to respond to emergencies and ensure public wellbeing," Anderson said.

The study determined the exercises develop, test and validate plans, procedures and protocols, test organizational forms and systematic routines, check communication networks and practices and develop staff competencies to use tactical plans and make snap judgments.

The exercises also allow organizations to become familiar with one another.

"Organizations involved in emergency planning and responses have different working styles, hierarchies and structures so that exercises will be challenging in different ways to all involved," Anderson said.

The disaster scenarios typically bring together emergency services, central government departments and agencies, local authorities and large commercial organizations.

"The informal interaction between individuals and groups afforded by exercises is also central to their value," Anderson said. "In our white papers and user guides we indicate how and why maximum learning can be gained and retained from the design, planning and prosecution of exercises. Improved exercising will help local authorities and other organizations be better prepared for the range of emergencies they face."

The researchers suggest exercises can be enhanced by using a surprise element to test capabilities, stressing the use of realism and plausibility, using memory aids and instilling a sense of excitement.