CD simulates disaster scenarios

Emergency management officials from Weber County, Utah, conducted a test of the Automated Exercise and Assessment System in early November.

Emergency responders and political leaders in Story County, Iowa, have practiced handling disaster situations together only every two years because coordinating all the different entities was too difficult and time-consuming.

When they did get together, the exercise used a combination of tabletop maps and actors role-playing a disaster scenario, said Paul Fitzgerald, the Story County sheriff.

Now the National Guard Bureau will give the county'and more than 3,200 other localities'the ability to train for natural and man-made disasters through a new computer simulation CD-ROM called the Automated Exercise Assessment System.

Congress funded the $4 million program to improve training in real-life scenarios, which was one of county first responders' three greatest needs, said Dan Donohue, special assistant to the chief of the National Guard Bureau and computer simulation project director.

'We wanted to design a program that is geotypical and covers the disaster from the first 911 call to the governor calling the president for a declaration of disaster,' Donohue said. 'Users are exercising in an environment identical to one that they would be in if the event really occurred in real time.'

The idea for a computer simulation program began after the bureau submitted a report to Congress on the nation's ability to respond to an attack by weapons of mass destruction in 1999, said Donohue, who wrote the report.

Free copies

The National Guard will finish testing the program, written by Science Applications International Corp., by the end of February and will send a free copy to every county and local sheriff next month.

The application runs under Windows or Unix on an office LAN. Each CD is uniquely secured by an alphanumeric password that counties must obtain from the National Guard Bureau after registering the software, Donohue said.

'This will be a tremendous asset,' said Fitzgerald, whose county was one of three test sites. 'It will allow one or as many offices as are available to train on the scenarios, and that will help us.'
The National Guard Bureau also field-tested the application in Weber County, Utah, and Preston County, W.Va.

The simulation program has 11 scenarios such as a high-explosive chemical event, a nonpersistent gas release, a biological attack with contagious and noncontagious agents, and radiological nonnuclear and nuclear explosions, Donohue said. The program lets emergency response agencies, such as sheriffs' offices, police and fire departments, utility companies, emergency medical responders and public works, take part in the exercise. If one of the key players cannot attend or if the exercise is limited to one group, the computer plays the unfilled positions.

Local managers enter into the program's database a county's inventory of emergency response capabilities, including aid from surrounding counties and industry, and the exercise uses that inventory as the basis for the county's ability to respond.

'Entering your data lets your county act in its own environment,' Donohue said. 'If something happens to a fire truck or to your personnel, it is deleted from your inventory.'

Fitzgerald said this helped Story County take a closer look at its response plan and get a different perspective on other response plans.

The application evaluates the quality of users' decisions after a typical four-hour exercise, Donohue said.

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