Gamifying Disaster Preparation Exercises – Could Your County Win?

A Sustainable City Network article (2016-11-09) examined how “gaming” multiple hazard exercises could produce more robust disaster management plans and responses. The article noted that typically disaster response decisions are either made before something goes wrong (which can overlook additional problems generated by the initial disaster) or during an actual disaster (when emotions are running high and decision making information is scarce. The article described how gamifying disaster responses could lift the process beyond those two cycles through an exercise run by United State Army Corps of Engineers’ Institute for Water Resources policy fellow Harvey Hill and civil engineer/planner Jason Smith. The Multi-Hazard Tournament exercise was run at the recent Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque, Iowa.

Using the Corps’ tournament framework, the participants were divided into teams of 5 or 6 players, competing with each other to find the best ways to reduce the effects of a multi-pronged disaster. Presented with a scenario — a hundred-year flood followed by a drought or a “water quality event” such as a concentration of nitrates — the players could suggest actions to take in response. Then state-of-the-art statistical modeling provided by the Corps allowed everyone to see the sometimes surprising effects.

The computer program helped evaluate their choices’ impact on protection of property, total nitrogen, aquifer recharge and recreation, among others.

A tournament playbook was provided to lay out the situation “without providing the answers,” Smith said. This was needed because natural disasters can have effects that go far beyond the obvious. A flood can shut down a power plant, leaving response teams working with only emergency power. A drought can create a poor harvest, which ultimately leads to a reduced supply of corn ethanol fuel. It can also leave nuclear power plants without enough water to use in cooling.

In the face of these complexities, each group had the opportunity to make several decisions — but the game got more difficult as it went on. With each turn, a portion of the budget would be spent, reducing the available money for the next turn. …

It’s complexities like these that make a gamification exercise more valuable than simply reading reports. “It’s a tool and a technique for encouraging systems thinking,” Hill said.

Useful Links

Institute of Water Resources Website