More Than Wishful Thinking: Training and Scenario Play for Future Crisis Events

By PhD. Greg Simons, Associate Professor, University of Uppsala, Sweden

Preparing for future crisis events through scenarios and training, including the practice in role play and in communication, will bring certain organisational benefits. The present article places an emphasis on the philosophical and communicational benefits of how and why an organisation would benefit from investing time and effort in this sort of contingency preparation.

Crises, disasters, catastrophes and so forth are different names for man-made and naturally occurring extra-ordinary events that can have an adverse and disruptive impact on the effective functioning of any given society affected. These terms have different definitional implications and meaning in academia, policy implications and impacts for policy makers and practical implications for practitioners. Back in 1975, Joseph Scanlon noted and remarked that around every physical crisis is an accompanying crisis of information, failure to manage the informational aspects can and often does exacerbate the crisis including its operational aspects. This is particularly so in the politics of crisis management, which inevitably occurs during and in the aftermath of a crisis event. This makes the philosophical approach of organisations and key personnel to appreciating the value, tangible and intangible, in preparing for future challenges so critical to succeeding or failing to manage the physical, informational and cognitive aspects of extraordinary events. The main take-home point in this philosophy of approach is that training and scenarios should be seen as an investment and not a cost, especially when organisational value is becoming much more aligned to its reputation and brand. Militaries around the world are in a regular state of training for crisis events and engaging in multiple scenarios, non-military organisations and personnel should also play close attention to the role of these activities and the potential benefits that they can bring. In the 10-year span that I worked at CRiSMART at the Swedish Defence University (2005-2015), my work assignments varied from academic research to more practically orientated tasks. A brief overview of some of the practical engagements include: being an international observer on the Estonian pandemic scenario Exercise Pandora (2006), training managers of nuclear enterprises from the North-Western Federal District in Russia in crisis communication, assisting in scenario exercises with officials from the Baltic States and Central/Eastern Europe, assessing the effectiveness of crisis communication by local, regional and state officials in Kyrgyzstan. This variation gave a broad overview and insight into the role and need for crisis exercises and scenario training within organisational settings.

Swedish emergency Exercise Barents Rescue in September 2019, practicising for cross-border emergency situations in the Barents region

Exercises and scenario training of personnel are about preparing them cognitively for all physical domain situations (at least to an extent) through providing the tools that are most appropriate for the task at hand. Moving out of the strictly crisis scenarios, but still a personal illustration to make the point. In the year 2000, I was a post-graduate student at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and had just secured a part-time position as a passport control officer at Christchurch International Airport. During the training time my class was trained how to handle different scenarios. When the trainer came to the issue, how to process a deportation, he exclaimed “that will not likely happen.” Well, Murphy’s Law intervened and on my very first day on the front desk as a passport control officer, a gentleman about to be deported to Africa that had just been released from a New Zealand jail for a serious crime and attached to two large New Zealand police officers presented themselves. This kind of scenario creates a potential problem that increases the risk through the game of chance and much depends upon how the people immediately affected react and respond to the situation. So called Black Swans may be unlikely, but they do occur and should be trained and exercised for in spite and maybe even because of the lack of likelihood.

A training exercise or a scenario is a time condensed representation of a possible reality that may adversely affect the functioning of an organisation or society. If one is to hope for the best, it always helps to prepare for the worst. A good way to test and challenge organisations and their respective personnel to develop the necessary capability and capacity to deal with extra-ordinary situations is to expose them to controlled exposures of simulated risks and hazards. Exercises and simulations can be used to test the functioning that includes gaps in personnel knowledge, reaction and vulnerabilities and/or as a means to establish organisational routines and procedures in the event of a crisis. It is always better to do this in advance of the real thing rather than as an afterthought following one. Exercises and scenarios are both an enabler for creating a culture of safety and creating a contingency mind-set among personnel and stakeholders. However, it would be a mistake to think that a cookie cutter approach can be applied as a one size fits all as there should be a very specific purpose and target in mind for such activities. A host of internal and external factors also affect organisations and publics in their environment – national culture, political culture, organisational culture, economic factors, physical environmental factors and so forth.

Exercise Aurora 2017 in Stockholm

All of these factors need to be considered when approaching the issue of training and preparing for future crisis events, neglecting elements can prove very costly. As a case in point, Sweden, considers itself a modern and progressive society that has knowledge and practice to offer the outside world. The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency has been training and exercising national and international stakeholders for some time, including specifically training for the management of forest fires, relevant given the vast amount of forests in parts of Sweden. In the summer of 2018, Sweden experienced an unusual period of drought and high temperatures, which led to increased risks and hazards (such as forest fires). Some counties in Sweden had multiple gender plans, but they were lacking essential crisis management and contingency plans. The lack of conceived scenarios and their contingency planning proved costly. Crisis events are not ideological in nature and do not respect politics or ideology. Sweden found this out the hard way in the summer of 2018 when ravaged by numerous forest fires, which it struggled to contain. This was a creeping crisis in the making as the focus was on ideology and political correctness, rather than preparing physically, informationally and cognitively for the next risks and threats that can and do challenge society.

Even if contingency planning through training and scenarios does not exactly match on contact with a real emergency situation, organisations and personnel are better prepared cognitively to adapt and manage the situation. Training and simulations of crisis situations are an important and yet, at times, neglected aspect for ensuing organisational reliance, capacity and capability in the event of extra-ordinary situations. They should therefore be viewed as an asset and an investment by organisations and their leadership, if they are conceived and exercised appropriately for the specific needs of the organisation and personnel concerned. Scenarios and training must be absolutely and ‘brutally’ realistic in order to challenge assumptions and locate knowledge and practice blind spots as emergencies and extra-ordinary situations tend not to be merciful to the unprepared!

Satellite image of the 2018 wildfires near the Swedish town of Ljusdal

Associate Professor Greg Simons is originally from New Zealand where he gained his PhD in 2004, but is currently based at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He spent 10 years (2005-2015) with the Centre for Crisis Management and Training (CRiSMART) at the Swedish Defence University where he focused on applied crisis management research in Eastern Europe and was occasionally engaged in crisis communication training of government officials and industry personnel from the region. Currently he is based at Uppsala University and engaged in research on public diplomacy, public relations, political marketing and armed conflict. In addition to academia, he has been engaged in assignments for the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.