Portland group simulates crisis

The Critical Decision Institute

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An Oregon nonprofit organization is using gaming technology to simulate a realistic environment to train local officials to make decisions in times of natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

The Portland, Ore.-based Critical Decision Institute is developing what it calls technology-mediated training to help senior-elected leaders and top public safety professionals experience crisis management decision-making, said spokesman Norm Eder. Normally, most officials learn either through lectures or tabletop exercises with predictable outcomes. Occasionally they may participate in field exercises, but those can be complicated to organize and expensive.

CDI's approach is "creating a realistic environment in a room where people are presented with a scenario and then they are forced to respond to it," Eder said. They would "interact with each other and interact with the basic scenario code that is obviously going to drive images on a large series of plasma screens so they'd actually be able to see some elements of what's going on through 3-D rendering."

Some elements would be pre-programmed, such as showing a clip of a TV reporter's standup regarding the disaster. There will be a mix of 3-D animation, sound, and video and stills displayed on large plasma screens. "This is like writing a movie and producing it except it's reduced to code," Eder said.

A scenario's outcome would not be predictable because it would be affected by decisions made along the way. The objective is to provide participants with "a very different appreciation for the kind of issue they have to grapple with. We can't complete the task but we can get them thinking about things," he said.

The organization plans to hold a September demonstration with about 10 individuals at a cost of about $1.5 million in public and private funds. If successful, the demonstration may serve as a national training model for state, city and regional leaders, as well as Private-sector leaders. CDI officials have also discussed the center with Homeland Security Department officials, including Secretary Tom Ridge, Eder said.

CDI is acting as project integrator, but is getting help from other Portland-based companies and organizations. Advanced Competitive Strategies Inc., which has been in the corporate gaming business for nearly 15 years, will help build disaster scenarios with variability. Oregon 3D Inc. would provide visualization services and the facilities where the officials would train. Arlington, Va.-based Analytic Services Inc., or ANSER, a public research institute that helps federal agencies in various capacities including homeland security, is also participating.

CDI officials will also conduct an economic analysis of the decisions officials make during the training. Using geographic information systems, Sandia National Laboratories officials have a developed sophisticated computer model based on Portland's actual infrastructure — roads, buildings, telephone lines and bridges, among others — that calculates economic consequences if something is destroyed or damaged, Eder said.

That kind of "econometric infrastructure modeling," he said, could better help officials understand the decisions they make during emergencies. "The point is for people, as they're making decisions, [to] have an appreciation for the unintended consequences," Eder said. "And we don't have to hit them over the head with that as they make every decision, we just have to be able to show them after they make a series of decisions that maybe if they had done it differently the consequences would have been different."

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