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Exploring SIMEX: Satellite Technologies and Disaster Management

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How do you prepare to face major disasters, such as earthquakes or hurricanes, amid a refugee crisis? During the month of May at the University of Portsmouth, we have learnt to do just that. The South Coast Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications hosted part of the 2021 SIMEX at our offices in the Technopole, Portsmouth.

The SIMEX was established in 2012 has become the UK’s largest annual international disaster response exercise. It is usually an operational (live controlled) simulation involving activities ‘in the field’. SIMEX is designed to establish a learning environment for emergency management organisations to exercise disaster response plans, policies and procedures, to test both national and international response mechanisms. The programme is designed for the students of the Crisis and Disaster Management MSc course, but can involve scores of organisations and thousands of participants, all keen to test out their skills and procedures.

Due to this year’s Covid-19 disrupted circumstances, the 2021 SIMEX was different, involving more online virtual activities, with fewer organisations able to participate. From the 18-20th May students on the Crisis and Disaster Management MSc course ran a disaster damage mapping ‘mapathon’ from our space enterprise lab. This year’s SIMEX scenario involved a complex disaster in a developing country: major flood damage, alongside a volcanic eruption, with displaced people and refugees in a conflict zone.

Exercises like this are vital in developing and maintaining skills and getting valuable experience working alongside partner organisations. Simex enables us to understand the hazard, vulnerability, exposure and risk components of disaster and creates an awareness of emergency planning and logistics, enabling responses to be faster and better equipped when the time comes, saving more lives…..

We spoke to Richard Teeuw, Professor of Geoinformatics and Disaster Risk Reduction at the University of Portsmouth.

What is SIMEX?

SIMEX is a simulated disaster response exercise: we have a different scenario each year, some years it can be a hurricane arriving off the coast and flooding inland, with oil tankers colliding in the harbour and oil-spills resulting from that – and we place all of that within a conflict zone, so you have displaced people or refugees as well. That is a complex disaster and SIMEX utilizes this simulated, unique learning environment to exercise disaster response plans, policies and procedures. We work key partners across the country, including Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, the Red  Cross and emergency response NGOS, such as ServeOn; as well as international responders, such as the UK Medical Response Team (with field hospital) and UN Disaster Assessment & Coordination teams.

The SIMEX organisers spend many months meeting with participating organisations to develop that year’s scenarios for the simulated disaster response. Key spaces within  Portsmouth district are transformed into scenario settings for various emergency response activities. These include coastal areas, such as the Institute of Marine Sciences and Langstone Harbour ferry crossing, as well as locations on nearby Portsdown Hill, such as Fort Widley, with its urban search and rescue training facilities.

A few hours before the 3-day SIMEX, text messages go out to all the participants, informing them that an international disaster has occurred – for instance a major earthquake in Jamalaland (we make up the place names). We make the reporting of this situation as realistic as possible with simulated pre-event documentation (such as simulated BBC or CNN world news website reports) supporting the situation and informing our participants – telling them to be ready to deploy at short notice.

Then at 06.00 on Day 1 of the SIMEX, the disaster response begins, with participants getting more text updates on the situation, with instructions on where and when to deploy to. The transportation of the emergency responders to the SIMEX disaster sites – including clearing them and their equipment through the deployment ports – is the first logistical challenge of the exercise.

However, those first responders urgently need situational information: they have “Where?  What? and When?” questions that need rapid responses. So while the responders are deploying, a team of mapping experts, often led by volunteers from the MapAction or Medicins Sans Frontiers NGOs, are using the latest satellite technologies to coordinate teams separated across huge distances. They use Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to provide topographic maps and administrative maps of the affected areas, as well as processing the most recent satellite imagery to map the extent of damage and prioritise districts for the first-responders to focus on. Satellite telecoms are then used to send those maps to the responders at the disaster locations, with updates every few hours throughout the SIMEX.

Near the main disaster location we have a base of operations that not only has to coordinate effective communication and delegation amongst the emergency responders but also has considerations such as refugee control – how to process people fleeing from emergency situations and how you moderate, process and administer this short-term crowd control – all the while working in extreme environments, with limited electricity and poor internet access. This tests not only the competency of our emergency teams but also their interpersonal skills – reaching compromise or negotiation between vast groups of people for shared welfare and wellbeing, while still following strict humanitarian frameworks for disaster response.

We also test various new tools, methodologies or equipment  in the SIMEX – we might put a drone up high above a disaster response site to see the extent of the situation, for instance using thermal imagery at night to detect possible hostile activity around a camp. We have also done some experiments in the past with satellite Earth Observation data, such as testing European Space Agency radar imagery or daily PlanetScope imagery, to see if they can detect changes around our simulated refugee camp.

Drone survey of Dominica hurricane damage

On Day 2 of the SIMEX we jump ahead a few days in the disaster and have the crisis response complicated with new issues: issues with medical supplies, food and water supply, shelter, fuel and things like that – sometimes unexpected considerations require new responses.

For Day 3, we have jump on almost two weeks into the simulated disaster, so you would be moving from the response to the recovery stages, sorting out issues such as reuniting families, refugee camp logistics etc. We then conclude the SIMEX with a de-brief for all participants and an evaluation of responder performances.

Why? What are the aims of SIMEX?

The importance of what we do in the SIMEX is reflected in how the event has grown. Originally, we delivered a 1-day ‘live’ disaster simulation event for our MSc students. SIMEX has since grown into 3 days (and 2 nights) of ‘live’ disaster management activities – expanding geographically from just Langstone Harbour and Hayling Island, to the wider Hampshire region. Furthermore, we have grown from about 50 participants to nearly 2000 across 60 organizations. This growth speaks for the value and aims of SIMEX itself. To continue to evaluate, reinforce and improve operational guidance and build high standards of local, national and international response.

How are you doing SIMEX differently this year?

We are still doing three days this May, but due Covid-19 lockdown disruption – an unexpected crisis that the SIMEX organisers have had to cope with – the nature of physical interaction has had to be reduced and some aspects of the exercise have had to become virtual. Some medical organizations sadly do not have the capacity to participate this year due to their resource-dedication towards treating the pandemic. The essential physical aspects I mention involve participants being in groups of no more than six, each group then rotating around a set of disaster management scenarios.

How are satellite technologies helpful in disaster situations?

Satellite technologies have a key role in analysis of the disaster landscape and the coordination of many response teams. The importance of this monitoring, which we do 2 or 3 times daily, to offer updates of rapidly transforming emergency situations, cannot be underestimated. Satellite remote sensing provides us with a real-time technology that can work in extremely challenging and often dangerous environments. An example is the mapathon aspect of the SIMEX. The participants have been working on mapping damage from severe storms and flooding in Dili, the capital city of East Timor (Timor Leste) – and part of that is using old satellite images in order to update existing maps – so we can see how many houses are in the capital, and then we can add details from post-disaster imagery, for instance showing which buildings have been damaged by river flooding. We can see contextual situations like collapsed buildings or inaccessible roads and that in turn informs the daily situation reports given to disaster responders.

SINU mapathon Sept 2019

We also can see the importance of this satellite technologies being utilized for real – for example in 2017 after Dominica was devastated by Hurricane Maria. 90% of houses were damaged and vegetation was stripped bare: Dominica went from being the verdant ‘Nature Island of the Caribbean’, to being a brown/grey island of bare tree-trunks. Satellite technologies assisted disaster response teams in locating communities that most urgently required assistance. The information provided by space technologies, from satellite imagery of damage extents, to specific GPS locations of damaged features, greatly improves emergency responses, such as changing aid supply routes so they don’t try to cross a bridge that was destroyed in the disaster.

Does SIMEX inform your research/work?

My research has evolved from lots of different backgrounds. From traditional geology and geography, to mapping for geomorphology and mineral deposits, into geohazards and hazard mapping, and then getting into risk mapping and disaster management – which dovetails into with what we do at SIMEX with the scenarios we create. The growth of the SIMEX at the University of Portsmouth has also gone alongside the development of our teaching of Crisis and Disaster Management at Masters level and associated research into the uses of remote sensing (via satellites and drones) into applications for disaster risk reduction, for instance the CommionSensing project funded by the International Partnership Programme of the UK Space Agency (https://www.commonsensing.org.uk/).

Do you have a SIMEX highlight – what have you learnt / Is there something stand out that you have learnt over the years of SIMEX that is now used in real life disaster scenarios?

I think that the most wonderful thing is how realistic it gets to be, it captures a lot of the complexity of the real world in a major disaster over a short space of time.

An interesting situation I remember is the time we had a Masters student who worked for the Foreign Office. He ran their crisis response centre, in charge of getting British Citizens from unsafe places – for example, a few years ago he helped to coordinate the evacuation of Brits from Libya. Because of his skills, he was put in charge of one of the student training groups in the disaster response; however during the second day we simulated that he was kidnapped by ‘liberation fighters’ (played by actors). His kidnappers were holding him in an army tent close to a simulated refugee camp. It transpired that he had been very well trained at negotiating, so that whenever they pretended to be tough and threatened him, he was able to empathise and negotiate. He was so effective that by the end of that day his kidnappers wanted to release him: they were totally befuddled by him and felt that he could better serve their liberation efforts if he was released. This is an example of how if you have the right training it can get you through very tricky situations. And that is a central feature of the SIMEX – to improve your preparedness, to improve the way you do your emergency response tasks.


Chloe McClellan
Media and Communications Assistant
Chloe McClellan is an experienced communicator and social media specialist.