1:45 PM: The Fire Department responds to a call of an explosion at a biological lab.
2:30 PM: The 911 call center notices a spike in calls of people reporting semi-conscious citizens walking down the middle of the road coming from the local biological lab.
2:45 PM: Hospitals report a sudden surge of people coming in with bite marks all over their bodies reporting that the bites came from “zombie-like people” roaming the streets.
Zombies have an everlasting place in our popular culture—from the scary movies we watched as kids, to Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, to a resurgence of zombie-themed movies such as World War Z and television shows like The Walking Dead. There are even zombie survival workouts (there are a scary number of these available online!) and survival meal plans.
In October of 2015, U.S. News & World Report released its findings for the most resilient U.S. cities against a zombie attack in the article “Where You Should Go to Survive the Impending Zombie Apocalypse”. Of 53 U.S. cities, Boston ranked No. 1 in survivability, followed by Baltimore at No. 4 and Washington D.C. at No. 11.
New York City came in last. Research was based on factors like population density, industrial resources, skilled labor concentration, and medical facilities. Even some government agencies, including the Center for Disease Control (CDC), recognized the impact of zombies on society. The CDC’s assistant surgeon general wrote a “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse” blog article to instruct people on what to do during a zombie apocalypse. These CDC instructions inspired many drills in multiple states across the country. Even the Pentagon laid out a battle plan against zombies!
So why all of this focus on zombies? What is the connection of this highly improbable event to real-world emergency preparedness?
Individual Preparedness. For the average citizen, the zombie is an image that almost everyone can abstractly relate to—they can perceive the urgency in responding to a zombie attack and protecting the rest of the citizenry from further zombie infection, even if it is an improbable threat.
By producing something as simple as a light-hearted ranking of safe zombie cities as U.S. News & World Report did, people are encouraged to think about preparedness. Boston residents may sleep a little easier after seeing their that city ranked No. 1 in zombie-reliance while New Yorkers may start to assemble that home preparedness kit they have been meaning to do for some time.
Parallels to real-world biological outbreaks. For emergency managers, zombie scenarios encompass many of the same challenges that are present in real-world biological outbreaks: medical response, bacterial or viral containment, biological hazard response, citizen containment or quarantine, and safe food and water provision.
While a real zombie attack is improbable, the preparation for and response to a zombie attack is very similar to the preparation for and response to any other type of biological outbreak scenario. Of the many potential disasters faced today, biological outbreaks have become an increasing concern. In recent years, the potential of another Avian Flu outbreak has caused governments at every level to consider the threat of a rapidly contagious virus with an uncontrollable vector.
Biological outbreaks such as Ebola are particularly difficult for governments because they involve very complex public health issues that directly impact citizen mortality rates. Governments have responded by developing and exercising pandemic plans that focus on continuity of government operations, mass care, medical surge, public information and warning and countless other target capabilities. An exercise is a method to practice and improve preparedness, response, and recovery capabilities in a risk-free environment.
Zombies are fun. So, why use a zombie scenario instead of a biological outbreak scenario in an exercise? In the United States, the number of exercises emergency managers, first responders, and key government officials participate in annually has increased dramatically following the post-September 11 focus on preparedness.
Exercise designers are frequently challenged with developing exercises that successfully elicit high levels of participation, keep participants actively engaged, and provide a creative environment for the successful accomplishment of participating agency objectives. The emergence of non-traditional exercises as a means for examining potential real-world emergency management issues has become a successful framework for reducing exercise fatigue and increasing enthusiasm. Zombie exercises have been used by the University of Florida and at the 2009 Continuity Insights Management Conference to focus on real-world topics such as possible containment options and public information strategies during a zombie outbreak when the timeline for infection spread was unknown. Participants weighed in the needs of non-infected people immediately caught in a zone with zombies, and the impact on the rest of the region, country, and world.
Through this type of non-traditional scenario development, emergency managers and exercise designers can explore ways to encourage more participation and creative discussion about “what if” scenarios that may have been initially dismissed as unlikely. Think back to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. Oil spill exercises before this event were focused on oil volumes that mirrored a spill similar in volume to the release from the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in 1989 with 10.8 million gallons released.
Why not plan exercises for more oil than a tanker could hold and accidentally spill— the worst case spill scenario imaginable? The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico changed this thinking quickly as it became the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry with an estimated 172 million gallons lost, an event that seemed impossible to imagine just one year before. Consider the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that started in 2013 and continues today. It is the largest outbreak of Ebola in history with multiple countries affected, and the first Ebola outbreak to reach epidemic proportions. As tragic as this event is, what if a future Ebola strain is even more highly contagious?
An Ebola virus with airborne transmission from human to human instead of the direct contact with an infected person would demand a new medical framework and would have an even greater effect on the global economy and travel habits. Preparedness efforts benefit from these creative “what if” drills because the results from these discussions can be integrated into real-world response plans without having to wait for the real event to occur.
Again, a zombie attack seems highly improbable and completely silly and kitsch. Yet, zombie exercises allow us to accomplish the overall goals of exercise design while letting people showcase their previous untapped pop culture knowledge of zombies.
Jeff Roth is a Senior Associate, Booz Allen Hamilton. He has been a leader within the Booz Allen’s Wargame & Exercise Team for over 14 years where he plans and executes wargames and disaster management exercises.