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A future-focused approach: Building virtual emergency response capabilities

10 Jul

In mid-June 2021, 30 members of the National Biosecurity Response Team (NBRT) connected over 4 days to participate in a series of virtual sessions as part of Exercise Network. The NBRT Program comprises of multi-disciplined representatives across Australia with skills, knowledge, and experience in responding to biosecurity emergency responses. This exercise was the final activity for the inaugural tenure period of the NBRT Program (2017–2021) and for NBRT members not continuing into the next tenure period.

Exercise Network was centered around the implementation of virtual control centres in the initial stages of a biosecurity emergency response. Historically, control centres have been physical facilities wherein response personnel are co-located. However, to accommodate the changes to the response environment imposed by the COVID-19 response (e.g., social distancing; mass movement to remote work arrangements; restricted travel), jurisdictions have recently adopted the use of virtual control centres whereby response staff can collaborate and support the response online.

Developed and delivered within a Microsoft Teams online environment, the exercise offered an opportunity for NBRT members to explore virtual incident management processes and enhance their capabilities to respond through virtual control centres.

Split into two phases, the exercise was structured to meet the training needs of the NBRT as response staff. Additionally, the exercise looked to contribute to the ongoing review and improvement of existing processes in responding to biosecurity emergencies through the development and testing of “virtual control centre protocols” – a series of principles that guide how response staff are to establish and operate from a virtual control centre.

Phase 1 ran over three sessions and hosted the Incident Manager and mentor cohorts of the NBRT. The activities focused on deploying and setting up the Incident Management Team, safety management, multi-agency coordination and establishing situational awareness and an operation tempo, all within a virtual environment. Phase 2 saw Incident Managers and mentors applying their learnings from Phase 1 to provide support and guidance to other NBRT participants over an additional three sessions that explored the mobilisation of a virtual control centre and how traditional activities within a control centre translates to the virtual environment.

In addition to the overall positive experience, participants had the opportunity to listen to guest speakers Andrew Tongue, Deputy Secretary of Biosecurity and Compliance at the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment who discussed the future of biosecurity, and Robert Cameron, former Director of General Emergency Management Australia who spoke on lessons learned from his extensive experiences in participating in and conducting exercises.

Despite having been conducted in a virtual environment, the exercise provided a smooth experience for participants to effectively participate in activities while obtaining valuable long-term resources and learnings.

An exercise report is currently under development, for more information contact