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Preparing for Emergencies – the Next Generation

Preparations for national emergencies in the State of Israel is mostly done by a group of consultants who recycle outdated military concepts instead of developing a data analysis system capable of providing realistic scenarios. A wake-up call!

Since the end of the second Lebanon war, the State of Israel has been busy preparing for defense/security crisis situations on an unprecedented scale. In some fields, the accomplishments have been impressive on a global scale. For the most part, these accomplishments will be closely associated with solutions for a confrontation on a specific front, for mass-casualty terrorist attacks, for suicide bomber attacks and for other specialized threats, and they were achieved courtesy of the radical Islamist terrorist organizations.

This preoccupation with preparedness led to the conclusion that the challenge facing the State of Israel is preparing for national emergencies that are far more complex and extensive – situations that affect a substantial percentage of the national territory, if not all of it, and pertain to millions of the country’s inhabitants. The reference threat normally concerns a massive missile attack and a severe earthquake. In both scenarios, it is obvious that the process is infinitely more complex than dealing with a pin-point mass-casualty attack or even with a massive rocket attack from the Gaza Strip.

Identifying the Value Chains

The difference is in the required know-how and experience: a serious terrorist attack or a limited confrontation are dealt with by a specific chain of command, by commanders who address these issues on a regular basis. On the other hand, a national emergency is, first and foremost, a management challenge, and the tools for preparing for such extreme situations are not necessarily military command and control methods.

In order to effectively govern and manage the State of Israel during a national emergency, additional skills and capabilities are required. Primarily – an in-depth understanding of how the State of Israel operates in routine situations. In Israel, like in any other developed country, an intricate network of interdependent activities that form “value chains” is constantly in action.

One simple example: the energy sources (coal, gas, fuel oil) purchased and delivered to the power stations are converted into electrical power. The electrical power is delivered to the consumers and used to drive other utility and infrastructure systems (water, communications, fuel, health). It would not be too difficult to understand that power supply is vital, but not sufficient, in order to keep a hospital running in an emergency, for example. The medical staff should be available and proficient, a suitable inventory of equipment and medical supplies should be kept on hand, the buildings should be provided with adequate protection, etc.

Analyzing the interrelations within the value chains that are in operation in this country, in a manner that makes it possible to predict how an emergency situation would affect the performance of the economy, is a complex undertaking that includes collection and processing of tens of thousands of information bits. It may be compared to a chess game with thousands of pieces on a board the size of the state.

Such analysis requires a high level of proficiency in the implementation of information systems along with creativity and a human capability of assembling a complete picture of the activities of the government and the business sector, as well as the responses of the public to the various situations. This will make it possible to identify the issues that need to be focused on in an emergency, so as to minimize the damage sustained by the civilian population and enable the economy to recover and resume normal operation as quickly as possible.

Understanding the Routine

The challenge is in collecting the information available in the various systems and processing it into a complete national status picture. The Israel Electric Corporation, for example, is a well-organized and efficient organization when it comes to preparing for emergencies. They can present, at any given moment, the power supply status and even predict the power supply status pursuant to various hits inflicted on the Corporation’s installations. The Mekorot Company and National Water Authority possess a similar – but separate – capability, and so, to some degree or another, do other national authorities.

If we were to add to this game the local municipalities, charged with the responsibility for looking after their inhabitants, and the business sector, the volunteer organizations and the status picture on the roads and the communication networks, we will be able to prepare for and plan our primary activities in advance, and enable the decision makers to understand the implications of specific potential responses.

So, for example, if we were to run the weather data of the storm of December 2013 on a scenario analysis system (temperatures, snow, rainfall, wind velocity), we would have obtained a fairly accurate description of the implications of that storm, for example – whether it would start at noon on Thursday and extend well into the weekend.

These are the data available: the expected amount of persons traveling along a certain road at a certain date and time; the snow-clearing capability in the relevant area; high-tension lines threatened by strong winds; the areas served by those high-tension lines; the amounts and types of population in the affected areas; vital installations in the area; local buildings that may be used to accommodate evacuees and so forth.

This status picture – known as a reference scenario in the professional jargon – when computed and presented using state-of-the-art tools, enables accurate, effective preparation and reduces the distress of the civilian population to an absolute minimum. The prediction or forecasting process as it is performed today, in most cases, is just a heap of papers blown away by the stormy winds.

The Solution: Gaming

Regrettably, the “copy-paste” experts are hard at work, even now, producing text-laden, hollow analyses of incidents devoid of a broad context, which would evolve into volumes as thick as the telephone directories of the past that will once again become tedious, unreadable texts. We must put an end to the use of the “copy-paste” functions as the leading method for planning the national preparations for emergencies.

What we need is the ability to process a simple and clear picture that encompasses all of the players on the field and the interconnections between them. Such a visual forecast will be used as a tool by the decision makers: the prime minister and his ministers, the mayors and municipality heads, the commanders of the various emergency services and forces, executives in the private sector and the leaders of the various staffs, commands and organizations.

This is by no means science-fiction. In an experiment in which we participated recently, conducted in cooperation with computer game giant Electronic Arts (EA), the developers of the popular computer game SimCity and research institutes in the USA, we demonstrated that through the use of accurate and realistic visualization, junior high school students can be taught to make correct decisions for management challenges facing a mayor.

Such amorphous issues as budgeting, the environment, quality of life, employment and the interrelations between them came to life on the screen. The students became involved very quickly and demonstrated an impressive level of performance in the employment of the planning tools made available to them, using the format of a colorful, vivid computer game, rich in details and highly realistic.

Even those of us who are not children anymore can enjoy the benefits of realistic visualization and advanced computing capabilities. A few days after the disastrous Carmel Ridge fire, in December 2010, we established for the Israel Fire & Rescue Services a study group charged with the development of a picture of the anticipated scenarios and the ways in which the Fire and Rescue Services may provide solutions for them. We started out with the scant information available at the time – limited background material and scarce, incomplete data.

Little by little, more and more bits of information became available and additional partners joined in. The compilation of data, collected through an enormous effort, evolved into a usable presentation. As these lines are being written, summer is already here and the storm of December 2013 has faded into a distant memory. It is important to remember, however, that it was not our finest hour. The time has come to stop “sowing the wind” and start working. This is the entire picture. 

By Asaf Ashkenazi, first published on Israel Defence