Simulated Flu Outbreak Teaches Real Lessons
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 16, 2007 About 1,000 Pentagon employees participated in a two-day pandemic influenza exercise that concluded yesterday to prepare portions of the Defense Department for a possible mass outbreak of deadly flu virus.
Personnel deemed “infected” worked from home, and “healthy” participants in the building wore masks over their faces and maintained six-foot barriers from coworkers while working through a script of challenging tasks.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon made officials realize that “we would have to be prepared to carry on our mission, perform our day-to-day functions in situations and circumstances we didn’t really anticipate,” said Michael L. Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
“That was reinforced for us with Hurricane Katrina, and that whole set of activities -- where accounting for people and being able to conduct your operations when you’ve lost some people -- was also very critical,” he said.
Pandemic flu is a fast-spreading infectious disease that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness that could sicken or kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people, according to the U.S. government’s pandemic flu Web site. For example, the 1918 flu epidemic killed more than a half million Americans. Furthermore, it could take six to eight months to develop a vaccine for pandemic flu after it strikes.
At the exercise command center here, organizers followed the adage, “plan for the worst, and hope for the best,” displaying the faces of department directors killed or incapacitated by the simulated flu outbreak. Charts detailed personnel strength of each department, with Defense Human Resources suffering 16 employees killed within the flu’s first hours.
A doomsday scenario forced personnel to adapt quickly to achieve a scripted series of tasks:
-- Reorganize each department according to orders of succession;
-- Use a phone tree to call employees;
-- Strive for 100-percent accountability despite BlackBerry devices being rendered useless due to a network crash;
-- Compile status reports of personnel and family members killed; and
-- Send letters of condolence where necessary.
Exercise manager Kathleen Ott, director of talent, acquisition and management for the Office of the Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, said the exercise has prepared the department to carry out essential functions in the event of a pandemic.
Ott said the department identified various weaknesses as early as April, when the planning phase began.
“We got a working group of action officers from each of the directorates together, and we started with the very basics. Did we have a recall roster? Did we have current organization charts? Did we have a list of our mission-essential functions?” she said. “We found that as we were developing those documents that we didn’t really have everything that we needed to have in place.”
As a result, Personnel and Readiness developed a recall roster listing current phone numbers for all employees and up-to-date organization charts indicating orders of succession and delegations of authority should current directors become incapacitated. The department also documented mission-essential functions.
Officials at the Defense Department and other federal agencies that are conducting similar exercises will share lessons learned from their respective demonstrations, Ott said.
“We thought there would be value in doing an exercise within (Personnel and Readiness) so that we could capture lessons learned to help us better frame policies we would be sending out to the field,” she said.
John Winkler, acting principal deputy of Reserve Affairs, coordinated the exercise on behalf of Reserve Affairs.
Winkler said practicing “social distancing” -- maintaining 6 feet of space from coworkers -- and wearing the required face mask for the duration of the work day was an adjustment. As he spoke, his breath escaped through gaps near the top of his mask, and condensation began to form on his spectacles.
“We started off by testing our phone trees last night and we learned, for example, that despite all of our careful preparation we still have old phone numbers in (electronic) contact lists,” he said. “That’s exactly the kind of thing we want to find out. Even though we thought we had figured it all out, what did we miss? That’s part of the education.”
The exercise’s interactive nature makes it a more effective means of teaching than distributing dry, text-based guidelines, he said.
“This exercise has certainly caused people to think harder about what it might really be like,” said Winkler, his eyeglass lenses now completely opaque. “When you walk around with masks and have to remind yourself to stay 6 feet away from everybody else, it adds another layer of reality to it all.”