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Decision Theater tests pandemic flu plans

May 14, 2008

Twelve sets of eyes darted across the dark room, waiting for one of the seven floor-to-ceiling video screens to light up. Seconds later, the center screen illuminated, revealing a newscast on the latest developments of the avian flu.

Except the news broadcast wasn’t real. It was part of a tabletop exercise full of hypothetical situations intended to test ASU’s response plan in the event of an epidemic spread of disease.

In this case, the lifelike scenarios addressed the latest strand of the avian flu virus – H5N1 – to which humans are not immune, and there is no known antiviral medicine to cure it. At the close of the exercise, ASU’s implementation had prevented the theoretical deaths of 70 students.

The world’s top medical experts agree that the globe is on the brink of the next pandemic. The World Health Organization is encouraging all government municipalities to build a plan in response to the inevitable. ASU answered the call and starting writing a plan in 2006.

Two years later, the committee created what is known to be the only tabletop exercise of its kind in the nation, says Allan Markus, ASU’s director of campus health services and co-chair of the pandemic flu committee. The exercise, which took place April 10 in ASU’s Decision Theater, involved the university’s pandemic flu planning committee and several senior administrators, including ASU President Michael Crow and the university’s executive vice president and provost, Elizabeth D. Capaldi.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time in the nation that any university has used the power of ASU’s Decision Theater computer mathematical modeling capabilities to test a pandemic response plan,” Markus says.

Mary Tyszkiewicz, a senior analyst at the Homeland Security Institute, a think tank that supports the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, seconded Markus’ observation. She believes this is the only exercise of its kind conducted by any government organization.

Tyszkiewicz traveled from Washington, D.C. to observe the event and report back to Homeland Security.

While most test exercises involve decision-makers seated around a conference table who are verbally given likely scenarios to discuss, this exercise was highly technical, involving artificial newscasts, electronic maps, charts, graphs and up-to-the-minute data compilation. Often the data was inadequate – but that was part of the design, since decision-makers often have to manage situations with little to no data available at the time.

“The frustration of waiting for data and then receiving incomplete data is all part of the ‘fog of war’ in exercises like this,” Tyszkiewicz says.
The exercise setting was the Decision Theater, a $6.9 million facility that is part of the Global Institute of Sustainability at the Tempe campus. Policymakers, community planners and business leaders use the Decision Theater’s visualization, simulation and collaborative decision-making tools to aid in solving issues. It is the only nonmilitary facility of its kind in the country.

“We wanted to see how key personnel would absorb large amounts of information, connect the dots and make tough decisions given certain constraints,” says Tim Lant, director of the Decision Theater who created the mathematical model for the exercise. “A situation like a pandemic flu requires several constituencies to collaborate well and communicate fast. There were many lessons learned during the exercise.”

Nearly 30 ASU personnel participated in one of three groups: executive policy group, emergency operations center and incident command.

These same groups would convene during an emergency, and this exercise allowed the groups to practice communications with each other.

The exercise also was an opportunity to learn and make adjustments to the university’s response plan to ensure the best decisions are made during a real situation.

An observation group also joined the exercise to evaluate the three groups in handling the multiple scenarios. The exercise’s scenario instructors were Charles Schable, former director of the Center for Disease Control’s bioterrorism emergency planning group, and Peter Kelly from the Arizona Department of Health Services.

“The participation of faculty, staff and administration, from the president of ASU to those in charge of delivering medical care, enabled us to really test our plan,” Markus says. “It also showed that, with proper preparation and a knowledgeable, collaborative group, a university can successfully respond and react to save lives during a pandemic.”

The ASU pandemic flu planning committee is co-chaired by Markus and Leon Igras, director of Environmental Health & Safety.

For more information on prevention, preparedness and response to pandemic flu, visit the Web site