Sierra Leone: The Ebola warriors in the situation room

National Ebola Response Centre (NERC) Situation Room in Sierra Leone Photo: UNMEER/Simon Ruf

13 Feb 2015

Sierra Leone: The Ebola warriors in the situation room

The Ebola war is being fought on many fronts. On the frontlines, social mobilizers strive to educate local communities, contact tracers go door-to-door searching for new cases, and doctors and nurses work to save lives in Ebola Treatment Units. In Monrovia, Conakry, and Freetown – the three capitals of the countries still affected by Ebola – men and women are also hard at work in the Situation Rooms, culling through data, charting contacts of Ebola patients, and planning for the end of the epidemic. The Situation Rooms are the nerve centres of the Ebola Response.

“Please be silent,” booms the guttural voice of an army officer standing in a corner of a big room. It used to be one of the courtrooms in Sierra Leone’s Special Court where some of those involved in the country’s civil war faced trial. It is now called the “Situation Room” and it feels eerily like a military war room. In Sierra Leone’s Situation Room, tens of Ebola warriors, including Sierra Leonean and British military officers, work tirelessly day to day to defeat the Ebola virus.

Everyone obeys the officer and keeps quiet, and signs on the wall advise that mobile phones must be switched off. It’s 5 pm, time for the daily briefing on Ebola. Only invited representatives of the various organizations involved in the Ebola fight are allowed in the room. Every seat is labelled; everyone knows where to sit. People do not wear business suits or ties, nor do they engage in any backslappings. Rather, sleeves are rolled up, faces are stern and sombre, and business is brisk and brief.

Among those in the room are Palo Conteh, the CEO of the National Ebola Response Centre (NERC); Amadu Kamara, UNMEER’s Crisis Manager in Sierra Leone; and representatives of the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID), other UN agencies, and NGOs.

There are also information management specialists, surveillance and safe burial experts, social mobilizers and the media. Eyes are focused on a huge screen right up on a wall in the front of the room, which shows key information on the latest Ebola developments.

The evening briefings are loaded with facts and figures. There are usually between four and six power point presentations followed by comments or questions – all within 45 minutes. Those who are not presenting listen with attention. Often, presentations are on the current Ebola situation in the various districts; analysis, graphs, maps or diagrams, on the state of Ebola Treatment Centres; media trends; status of logistical support, etc. Lastly, Conteh, a former major in the Sierra Leonean army, announces action points. Once it’s over, participants are out of the room within minutes.

The briefing is a product of the day’s work in the Situation Room. Before the briefing, from as early as 7 am, it resembles a busy stock exchange, with information streaming in real time. There are signs on the wall depicting the various sections, such as: Planning, Report Writers, Data Collection, and Information Management and Analysis. Each section has between three and four individuals who are ostensibly discussing or analysing pertinent Ebola information.

Marcus Bangura, a Sierra Leonean, who works as a Surveillance liaison officer, says that “working here enables us to know what the others are doing, and this enhances the efficiency and effectiveness of response efforts.” There are five other liaison officers for Case Management, Psychosocial, Communication, Safe Burials and Social Mobilization. Bangura joined the Situation Room last December when confirmed Ebola cases were up to 60 a day. Although transmission numbers are declining, he says that his pillar is plugged into every district, collecting data, which he presents to others daily.

Noah Sempiira, a Ugandan, and Muhammed Iqbal, a Pakistani, are UNMEER Information Management officers working in the Situation Room. They collect, analyse and interpret data such as the number of empty beds in the Ebola Treatment Centres and the outputs or products by partners such as DFID and UNICEF.

“We have tools to get and aggregate reports from the districts,” says Sempiira. “By knowing the difference between the number of dead body alerts and safe burials carried out per day, we can tell how efficient safe burial activities are going. At the moment, safe burials are almost 100%,” he adds with a smile.

Iqbal further explains how a mapping tool they developed has helped provide timely feedback on district response activities. It is an open source platform or open data kit that is accessible to other UNMEER colleagues deployed in the provinces. These colleagues can simply input information on to the platform through the web or by mobile phone. Such information is automatically aggregated and can be printed in the Situation Room.

The Information Management and Communications wing is headed by Khalil Jah, a Sierra Leonean, who says that declining Ebola transmission numbers do not necessarily result in less work. “We have only changed tactics, paying less attention to ambulances, for example, and putting more emphasis on contact tracing and community engagement.”

Jah heads a team of 20, including officials from DFID, the UK military, the African Governance Initiative, an NGO led by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and others. DFID representative Emese Csete has trained people on the use of information systems: “It’s been absolute pleasure being part of this fight,” she says.

By late afternoon, any in-coming information, good or bad, can set off a frenzy of activities in the Situation Room with notes being compared and the work from the various pillars being combined into one piece, even as experts make sense of it. The day’s reports must be prepared for the evening briefing.

It’s 5 pm again and the briefing begins. Once in a while, there are surprises in the Situation Room, such as when President Ernest Bai Koroma made an unscheduled appearance in the middle of a briefing. The President wanted to rally his Ebola warriors. He encouraged a redoubling of efforts. The mood that day was exceptionally upbeat.

Ebola doesn’t sleep and so the Situation Room will not sleep, says Csete.