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Designing Disaster: An interview with Gisli Olafsson

Gisli Olafsson is a Humanitarian Advisor at NetHope and has been responding to disasters for the past 25 years.

July 29, 2018

Gisli Olafsson (standing to right) is a Humanitarian Advisor at NetHope and has been responding to disasters for the past 25 years. He is the main designer behind the NetHope Disaster Preparedness Training simulation held in Panama July 18-28. Below is an interview where he explains his process for designing the simulation and the expectations and goals of the exercise.

NetHope: What process do you use to design a disaster simulation?

Participant Jade Auer from Facebook sets up a VSAT during the field simulation.

Gisli Olafsson: When creating a simulation such as this, it must be as realistic as possible so that the participants experience the same challenges that might happen in real-life emergencies. But there is also the logistical challenge to condense everything into an artificially shortened period. We had 48 hours in which to include several types of activities and events. So, we condensed certain activities to fit into that limited timeframe. There is a variety of tasks and situations that must be introduced to give participants experience with a full spectrum of work and events.

With the time constraints, we must introduce some restrictions, such as not allowing certain technologies to be used—even if they would make sense—to give them an understanding of the limitations that sometimes occur in the field.

NH: Did you have any actual disasters or events that you used as models?

GO: Yes, the overall framework or story we used for participants was when Hurricane Maria hit the island of Dominica in 2017. But the events we used once they deployed into the simulation are based on the types of situations that have occurred on several emergencies to provide a full line-up of experiences.

NH: This training consisted of classroom sessions as well as the actual simulation. Why do you feel both are necessary for the participants since they are all already very technologically advanced professionals?

GO: For us, the classroom sessions are about introducing them to how we do things, and how technology is employed in field situations. They may already be familiar with the technologies, use it daily or, in some cases, even helped develop it. But in the classroom, we want to get everyone to the same level of understanding of how we actually use it. We also get to see how they interact with the technology, and how quickly they understand what is being presented. We can also gauge from the questions we are asked if we’re successfully getting our curriculum across, so it’s a great opportunity for everyone to learn. But still it only gives the theoretical background. That’s why having a simulation in conjunction with the class is very important for the full set of skills and understanding.

Daniel Hernandez of Save the Children and Robert Gibley of Facebook install Cisco Meraki equipment.

Just as important as the technological elements is the human factor: how do you work under stress; how do you work in an austere environment; how do you work in the chaotic environment that are often part of a disaster. Things change on a regular basis; how do you respond to that? Those are the qualities revealed during a simulation that you can’t get in the classroom and are vital to the success of a deployment. It’s one thing to set up a point-to-point system outside, but it’s a very different thing to do so in the pouring rain or scorching heat and have to worry about protecting yourself, hydrating yourself.

NH: So, you may be looking at their reactions and responses to outside stimuli as nearly as important to how they handle the technical aspect?

GO: Definitely. We believe technical abilities can be learned, but how you react and interact, personality and personal skills, is almost paramount. Not everyone is setup to work in these types of environments. Even though they may be the most technically competent people, their responses in the field are the real test. A well-trained person, ready to respond, needs the full circle of technical and personal skills.

NH: Can you tell me about the injects that are done during the training?

GO: Injects can come in various forms: they can be as simple as information that is being shared. But they can also be situations that are acted out, such as going through customs and immigrations, having a VIP visit from officials or donors, or a visit from a militia. It’s really hard to see how they respond if it’s just being told to them as opposed to being inserted into a lifelike simulation. We want to see how they answer these questions face-to-face. It’s that interaction that we are evaluating. So, we try to include situations that give a variety of scenarios that challenge them with different people and events, from VIPs to NGO and government officials, to locals requesting supplies or connectivity. It’s better to have them exercise that here rather than once they deploy in the field.

NH: For the first week, there were three teams consisting of 25 participants drawn from NetHope tech partners (Facebook, Google, and Amazon) and NGO members (Save the Children, SOS Children’s Villages, Mercy Corps, and the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent). How do you feel this went from the perspective of interactions among participants?

GO: In hindsight, we probably should have initially split them into four teams and will do so with this size group for any future simulations. But in the second day, they split themselves into smaller groups on their own because they realized they were not leveraging their capacity as well as they could. It was an opportunity to have them test that—as you deploy as a small group in the field—that you’ll largely have to get by on your own skills, knowledge, as well as your intuition.

Trainers, observers, and participants consult on install sites during an ECT meeting.

For the group leaders, they’ll have to interact with people in the field, from NGOs to government officials, to beneficiaries, and it’s not always a positive encounter. It’s really where leadership counts. Some people naturally have these skills, while others step up as technical leads. Others are happy to just be the workers. All of these are important roles. You just must ensure balance in each team.

Seeing it here allows us to understand who is ready for each role when a deployment comes.

NH: How did it work out with NGOs working side-by-side with for-profit tech employees? Were there tensions?

GO: What we witnessed here is that it doesn’t matter what logo is on your back. Whether they came from a for-profit or nonprofit, they all worked together as one team. And that’s exactly how we see it in the field. That’s part of what NetHope is all about: getting the NGO sector and the private sector together to work cohesively. There was no sense of competition among the participants. It was all about working together toward a common cause.

NH: How about in the sense of existing positions; some came here from more senior positions and working with others who did not have management experience.

GO: It came down to not really mattering what your title is, you can always be a leader in whatever your role. We saw that even when people didn’t come from management lead backgrounds. They really stepped up and did amazing work to keep the flow of work moving. They helped make sure the work was done in a professional way just as much as the formal leaders. That’s what makes a successful team.

NH: Would you consider this a learning experience for the simulation organizers and trainers as well as the participants?

GO: It certainly is. For us, we have not had the experience of deploying a team of this size to one emergency. The largest was to Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, about 15-18 people. We learned with a team this large, it needs to be broken into smaller units with a larger management team. We are always making course corrections as we discover new information.

NH: How do you feel this first team performed?

GO: I’m really pleased with the results. They of course had their challenges; if they didn’t, the exercise wouldn’t have achieved its goals. Emergencies don’t go according to a schedule, but they overcame the challenges and got the work done that we wanted them to do. It’s about overcoming challenges to successfully create lifesaving connectivity.

For the second team, I expect no less. I anticipate them to have challenges in certain things, fail on certain things, but continue to the end, not give up and collaborate to achieve the end goals.

NH: You used the fictional Caribbean island of “Raminica” for your simulation, along with names for the hurricane of Alex, and towns and airports such as Dagville and LP International Airport. Where did you derive these names?

GO: We used Dominica but with the first name of NetHope’s Global Programs Director of Field Operations, Rami Shakra, and the others were named for NetHope staff or trainers. Even disaster organizers like to have a little fun.

Click on Day 1 and Day 2 for details about the first week of training.

Special thanks to The Patterson Foundation and all of NetHope’s tech partners for their financial support.

Sincere appreciation to Save the Children - Latin America and Caribbean Region for generously providing personnel and space. Thanks also to Airbnb for donation of lodging.

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