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Achilles's heel 4: Emergency drills and learning from them

A nearly ubiquitous element of any exchange with disaster management practitioners is their emphasis on the absolute imperative of drills. Ideally, drills force all actors involved to realize their role in an emergency, to prepare for it, to practice it, to evaluate what went well and what did not (and why), and to adapt their behavior accordingly.27 Moreover, quite basically, drills are an excellent opportunity to meet liaison personnel and to establish some level of trust and communicational patterns (below the surface of what technical briefings on paper constitute): Smith and Dowell (2000, p. 1153) have identified “a widespread difficulty in constructing a relexive shared mental model; that is, a shared mental representation of the distributed decision-making process itself, and its participants” as a major detrimental factor to adequate responses in an actual emergency. Yet within the German multilevel disaster management governance system, drills are conducted unevenly: On the operational and tactical level of the first responders (i.e. fire brigades, emergency rescue services, etc.) on the ground, Germany can by and large claim to have one of the best-drilled forces in the world. Inherently more difficult to arrange are large-scale drills in the clinical sector—they disrupt routine business, and they thus cost money for which there is no obvious billing account. The largest deficit, however, is to be diagnosed on the administrative-political level of crisis management groups (on laender and local level) and regarding scenarios involving several laender.

The Bund has been addressing this deficit mainly by offering extensive crisis management group training at the Academy for Crisis Management, Emergency Planning, and Civilian Protection28 (AKNZ) and by initiating the Across-Laender Crisis Management Exercise29 (LÜKEX) series. LÜKEX, held on a yearly basis, involves a different scenario each time. So far, power blackouts, terrorist attacks, various aspects related to the football world championship 2006, a pandemic, a dirty bomb and a cyber-attack were covered. As required by the respective scenario, private actors (e.g. airports, power supply companies, train stations, banks) are also involved. Regarding the departmental interfaces within laender mentioned above, a federal Ministry official in charge of LÜKEX was amazed that several public servants from different Ministries responsible for different aspects of disaster management within the same laender met for the first time ever at LÜKEX exercises. Furthermore, the expert reports, some laender had no crisis management group structures in place at all at land level (and had devolved all of this to the regional and local levels instead) when they first started to participate in LÜKEX, then (rather slowly, see below) establishing them in reaction to it.

AKNZ and LÜKEX are cherished by all experts we talked to. They are very valuable tools in themselves. Their impact, however, could be more effective if two difficulties in institutional learning could be overcome. First, sending whole crisis management groups to AKNZ for a week is something that requires political backing. As an interviewed expert with experience in several cities noted, there are marked differences in the willingness of mayors to do without a significant share of their administration's top brass for an extended time (of a week or so). Thus there is a wide variation in local preparedness depending on decision-makers' responsiveness to their disaster management personnel's wishes. Secondly, the capacity for institutional learning is severely limited in some areas, mostly for a lack of personnel resources. Since implementing lessons from drills is, again, most often an administrational on-top activity, it is often painfully slow. Thus an expert from a land Ministry told us that in his house the main lesson from LÜKEX 2007 (involving a pandemic scenario) was finally implemented in 2011.

Yet at least LÜKEX exercises are debated refreshingly forthright within networks of Bevoelkerungsschutz professionals. Thus the online-news agency heise.de reported on May 29th, 2012:

As the first land, Hesse has published its report on LÜKEX 2011. […] Contradicting the very positive evaluation by the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the Hessian experts conclude that LÜKEX 2011 was plagued by over-bureaucratization. […] The exercise was also evaluated by invited scientist who raised further criticisms. According to them, social media were not employed appropriately, and police perspectives and issues, especially regarding communication channels, dominated over the actual defence against the cyber-attack that had been simulated. (authors' translation, abridged)

An expert working at a power supplier pointed out a second-order problem at the intersection of the two deficits just mentioned which also underscores the continuous nature of the drills topic: A crisis management group is both blind and lame if it has no support staff available that feeds it with information and carries out its decisions. So identifying the employees who are instrumental in this regard and being able to mobilize them even when standard communication networks are down30 is nearly as crucial as being able to activate the crisis management group members themselves.

Moreover, political and institutional learning is not always of a sustained nature, as the difference between the two following lessons from the 1988 Ramstein airshow catastrophe illustrates. While many of the helpers responding to this disaster performed truly heroic, many evaluators concluded that the emergency medical structures could have been prepared better to deal with such an event. A couple of laender and/or local authorities have therefore created the post of Ärztlicher Leiter Rettungsdienst (ÄLRD). Basically, these are experienced emergency physicians drafted to the administrative task of supervising and improving emergency medical structures and processes. The diffusion of this institutional innovation is still on-going, and nationwide co-operation of ÄLRDs still building-up, so it is rather early for an assessment, but it seems to be a lasting effort.

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