Humanitarian Health Action

WHO Global Surge Training: Testing the “new skeleton” of WHO emergency operations

Incident management team developing a health emergency operation plan. Three men wearing WHO vests are working on laptops inside a tent set up as the emergency operations centre.
WHO/Pippa Haughton

It was not the first time that WHO convened its most seasoned emergency professionals from all over the world to Geneva for a nine-day “WHO and Partners Emergency Surge Training”. For the fourth year in a row, this training has taken place in Geneva, generously supported by the Russian Federation. And yet, this year’s training was different and the first of its kind.

From 27 June – 5 July a select group of public health emergency experts and disaster response professionals from WHO Country and Regional offices and Headquarters joined with Health Cluster Partners and Stand-by Partners to learn everything about the new WHO emergency programme and the “Incident Management System” (IMS) and everything it meant to their day-to-day work in the places where it matters most. This diverse group of public health and disaster professionals are the first-hand implementers of the new WHO Emergencies Programme, which was approved by Member States during the World Health Assembly in May 2016.

“Every person in this room is highly qualified for future emergency deployments with WHO. Preparing them for their roles and responsibilities within the new IMS architecture is an essential practical step towards the organization’s commitment to the new programme, which aims to ensure a more effective, timely, accountable, coordinated and inclusive health sector response in emergencies” said Dr Jorge Castilla, Surge and Crisis Support Coordinator at WHO, who conceptualised, planned and coordinated the training. “The aim is to maintain a pool of competent disaster professionals as well as a roster of individuals on call for deployment in specified IMS roles.”

The training was composed of a seven-day multidisciplinary seminar and interactive workshops, which provided practical information about the new approach to all types of hazards, and all relevant systems, policies and processes of the “one emergency program structure”, i.e. the integration of WHO`s emergency response among all three levels of the organization. This was followed by a two-day simulation exercise which allowed participants to apply the acquired knowledge and skills in a simulated emergency environment and to test the IMS structure. (For details and illustrations of the training and simulation exercise, please visit the photo essay.)

A distinctive feature of this year`s training was the permanent exchange between the facilitators and the participants. Throughout the nine days, constructive feedback from the participants was constantly encouraged and carefully noted. “It is reassuring to see the level of engagement by the participants and their willingness to share their experience to fine-tune the new structure. It is an evolving mechanism. Every comment we gathered in this training will feed directly back into the ongoing reform,” explained Rick Brennan, Director of WHO`s Emergency Operations Department.

Phillip Mann, Health Cluster Coordinator in Myanmar confirmed: “It is exciting to be part of the course on the cusp of the WHO emergency reform. This interaction with so many experienced professionals inside and outside WHO can influence the framework of our new emergency programme and will shape WHO`s role as health cluster lead”. Mark Brooking, from WHO Standby Partner RedR Australia found it “refreshing to know people being so honest about the need to change. With this training we can learn from our colleagues.”

Mauricio Calderon, who played a leading role in WHO`s Ebola response in Sierra Leone stressed: “WHO reinvented itself by becoming an operational organization to respond to emergencies. This creates a momentum to ensure that focus remains on the human beings that need us. The aim is to create a system that is guided by compassion. On a personal level, this training gave me the opportunity to revisit some of my experiences through fresh eyes, which will help me enormously in my work.”

Khaled Shamseldin, Lead Emergency ICT Support at WHO`s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO) in Cairo said: "IMS Is like the new skeleton or nervous system of WHO operations. It will be interesting to see when WHO takes this new structure to the field”. On a similar note, Kit Leung from WHO Standby Partner RedR Australia commented: “It will be important to train the core regional and country office staff about the emergency reform to prevent any uncertainty about the implementation of new structure”.

For that reason Dr Castilla and his team are already in the process of developing an open-access online course on the basis of this year`s Global Surge Training, which will soon be available to all WHO staff, partners and beyond. Dr Castilla explains: “The online dissemination of the training underlines WHO`s objective to change as a health sector leader and not only as an agency. It will allow both providers and recipients of aid to build an understanding of the way WHO is planning to operate in emergencies from now on.”