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VMASC to Coordinate Hampton Roads Emergency Response Exercises

A catastrophic hurricane has just roared through Hampton Roads. The 16 communities in the region are about to start the difficult process of assessing the damage and planning the recovery.

There's wind and flood damage to property and infrastructure. Power is still out in much of the region. There have been reports of casualties and looting. Now people are returning to their homes, and will soon be demanding help from government agencies, in an effort to normalize their lives again.

Where do you begin to figure all this out?

Thanks to a grant from Virginia's Office of Commonwealth Preparedness (OCP), Old Dominion University's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) is where community leaders will start.

ODU VMASC has received a $400,000 grant from OCP for its role in the Hampton Roads Full Scale Exercise May 16-19, which will test local government officials' response to various scenarios - from a shooter at a local school to a maritime incident. The exercise will take place at Fort Eustis.

The first day of the exercise, May 16, VMASC will host 140 emergency preparedness officials, including chief administrative officers from all 16 local cities and counties, conducting an exercise to simulate the days and weeks after a hurricane hits Hampton Roads.

Barry Ezell, associate professor of research at VMASC and the principal investigator for the grant, said ODU's modeling and simulation expertise will be put to the test in conducting this event.

"I like to say that this entire full-scale exercise is stretching the rivets and the hinges of VMASC," Ezell said.

The May 16 event is what's known as a "tabletop" exercise. A multidisciplinary simulation of Hampton Roads in the days after a hurricane is currently being created by VMASC researchers. On the day of the exercise, municipal officials from all 16 Hampton Roads communities will meet at VMASC and sit around tables in two rooms - one room for Peninsula officials, one for officials from Southside cities and counties.

In a third room between the two, subject-matter experts will provide information to both groups and facilitate information sharing. The simulation is designed to mimic the days immediately following a hurricane, and the effects in multiple areas.

"It's a very challenging scenario because it touches on all the big issues in response and recovery that they'll face," Ezell said.

"VMASC's role is to provide modeling and simulation support, to inject technology into the tabletop. What we can't do with simulation, we will do with good old-fashioned research and analysis. So it encompasses all the letters of VMASC, actually."

Ezell said the exercise can be of real value because of its timing, and because veterans in any field often do real learning when faced with challenges they haven't seen before.

"Real learning takes place when things challenge conventional wisdom. And the more senior you get in your career, you react differently to challenges. We like to think we have it all figured out. Usually, we learn when something occurs that we haven't thought of before," he said.

"This is a very friendly environment in which to learn, to experiment, before you have to deal with the challenge. And this event is occurring right before hurricane season."

The tabletop exercise, however, takes up only day one of the Hampton Roads Full Scale Exercise. On May 17, VMASC will serve as the staging area for emergency personnel as a simulated "live shooter" exercise is held at the former Tidewater Community College campus in Portsmouth.

The day after that, VMASC will again be the command hub for a "mass casualty" exercise being held at Harbor Park. The next day, May 19, will see the maritime scenario hosted at Fort Eustis. VMASC will again provide logistics.

The total cost of the exercise is $2.7 million. Besides OCP and the 16 communities' emergency preparedness offices, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Hampton Roads Regional Planning District Commission will take part.

In addition to the four days in May, the Hampton Roads Full Scale Exercise includes an August simulation at VMASC, where Ezell said ODU scientists will demonstrate the value of their research.

"We've looked at the state of the art in these types of exercises. We see an opportunity to inject technology into these exercises in a way that hasn't been done before," Ezell said. "But because we're a research center, we have to prove it scientifically."

During the simulation experiment in August, side-by-side tabletop exercises will be run, with VMASC researchers injecting technology into one of the exercises. Then the results such as how effectively members communicate and how quickly learning occurs will be measured, in an effort to demonstrate, scientifically, the value of the technology.

"Measuring the effectiveness of an exercise program is no trivial thing," said Ezell, noting that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has directed progressive advances be incorporated in the United States' emergency preparedness planning. "We believe the appropriate use of technology will improve the learning experience. So we set out to prove it through experimentation," Ezell said.

This article was posted on: April 11, 2011

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