Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Integrated Emergency Response

Configuration of resources in disaster preparedness

Towards a common language and culture of civil protection

At least 35 disciplines and professions have relevance to civil protection. When disaster strikes or incidents occur, their practitioners must work together efficiently and effectively. Many of the greatest problems of emergency co-ordination occur, not within, but between organisations and groups, for people must work together who are not accustomed to doing so, or at least not in the way that emergency situations demand.

Stated simply, during an emergency the priorities are to save and protect lives, rescue and evacuate people, make environments safe, and restore acceptable conditions as soon as possible. These objectives require programmes, plans, protocols, procedures, norms, regulations and a legal framework. In its essence, planning is not about procedures, it is about co-ordinating inter-agency work according to particular scenarios of event and response. Thus, a common language and a universal culture of civil protection are needed. Indeed, one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century is to involve the general public in this process, and encourage them to know and evaluate the risks they face, generate personal plans, and support civil protection initiatives.

The need for both professionalism and multidisciplinary competence means that members of the civil protection community must consider the consequences of actions outside the compass of single disciplines (Comfort 1985). For example, to achieve greater integration in the field, non-medical rescuers must learn to appreciate the needs and modus operandi of medical, sanitary and epidemiological emergency responders.

When disaster strikes, we face three sets of challenges connected with different spheres of action: domestic, international and intercontinental. Whereas in the past these have involved three distinct communities of responders (local civil protection operatives, national ones and international humanitarian agencies), as world integration gathers pace there is an increasing tendency towards convergence and the involvement in each field of all three constituencies.

The organisation of civil protection systems

With regard to domestic emergency response, there are four main groups of protagonists: public administration (in general, the civil protection services of government at all levels), 'blue-light' services (police, fire, ambulance and technical specialists), civil society organisations (especially volunteer services), and military and paramilitary forces in their roles as providers of military assistance to civil communities. This diverse set of protagonists requires careful organisation in order to ensure rapid and timely response to disasters, and guarantee a well-organised, carefully targeted reaction that is based on scenarios of what is likely to happen. The key words are command, co-ordination and collaboration. Generally, as information and communications technology (ICT) has opened up new opportunities, there has been a shift in emphasis from the first of these to the second and third (Green 2001). With respect to models of emergency control developed in previous eras, ICT has thus had the effect of flattening the chain of command. A rigid hierarchy is no longer needed when what is required is a flexible approach to the evolution of problems in the field that draws benefit from techniques of adaptive management. Hence, parallel task forces have tended to replace the earlier militaristic forms of centralised command [1], and their roles have been enhanced by digital information sharing. Rapid communication has facilitated the apportionment and conduct of emergency response tasks.

There is no universal model of command that is valid and appropriate for all circumstances. Instead there are two basic themes: the command principle and the support function principle. Both require a lead agency, or in other words a central organisation that takes a directional role in emergency situations and also functions as a point of reference for the diverse forces that respond to incidents and disasters. This is usually a 'blue-light' service but which one it is depends on the country involved. For instance, in the United Kingdom, where emergencies are seen primarily as a question of public order, it is the police service. In Italy, where the primary requirement is for technical intervention, the fire brigades are the lead agency; while in Iran, where mass casualties are feared on huge scale, it is the national Red Crescent Society.

The command principle divides emergency functions vertically into policy (and ethical), strategic, tactical and operational levels (PESTO). Alternatively, the support function principle divides command by creating corresponding units that manage functions (such as communications, transportation, material supplies, and shelter) at different levels and in different organisations. Unfortunately, the two principles seem not to be compatible to the extent that a hybrid system can be made out of the best features of both.

Civil protection can only function well if it is generated and organised at the local level, for when emergencies occur the local area is almost always the "theatre of operations". In fact, given distances, route blockages, shortages of resources and the press of time, there is no substitute for locally-organised preparedness. As a result of this, other levels of government or administrative hierarchy should harmonise and co-ordinate, not supplant, local efforts. The importance of this cannot be overstated: many studies have proved that local resources and organisation are paramount when disaster strikes (Waugh and Tierney 2007). In fact, perhaps 90 per cent of emergency resources deployed during the early stages of sudden-impact disaster are likely to be of local origin (Gillespie 1991).

This implies 'bottom-up' organisation, but paradoxically it still requires 'top-down' harmonisation to ensure compatibility between different levels of administration and geographical areas. Generally, local preparedness has been fostered by decentralisation, and by applying the principle of subsidiarity in government. However, there is a risk that the resulting mosaic of jurisdictions will be exceedingly heterogeneous in terms of the degree of preparedness and the kinds of measures adopted. If that is so, the result will be incompatibility, and disasters are no respecters of political boundaries. Thus, one of the greatest challenges in civil protection is to ensure local self-sufficiency and at the same time guarantee compatibility.

Integration is not easy to achieve. For example, with respect only to medical emergency response, there is a need to integrate intra-hospital plans with plans for both inter-hospital response and the whole medical system (Auf der Heide 1995). The results must in turn be compatible with other civil protection plans, for example for municipalities, regions, airports and factories. At the simplest level it is merely a question of reading through plans in a comparative way and trying to ensure that there are no glaring inconsistencies between them. However, there are many other aspects. One of the greatest problems in emergency situations is to ensure adequate communication, not merely within groups, but between different organisations. This is both a technical matter, for example in terms of radio frequency compatibilities, and a socio-organisational one, regarding the protocols, priorities and command procedures utilised. The solution is to design systems in a parallel manner to be technically workable and robust, and also to have clear and acceptable chains of command. However, it is not easy to get particular organisations to accept overall command by members of other, possibly rival, institutions (Sylves 1991).

In the interests of creating a common language and culture, there is a question of whether to opt for standards and standardisation procedures (Alexander 2005). Standardised language need not involve absolute definitions, but should at least aim for acceptable working definitions of commonly used terms. These can be derived from any of more than a dozen glossaries of emergency management that are currently available on line or in print. Common language and culture also means familiarity with the faces, personalities and modus operandi of people in different organisations. This can be achieved by general field exercises, but these take much time and many resources to organise. They are also disruptive of routine. Frequent conferences and meetings, as well as table-top exercises and discussions, are needed. In any case, despite the increasing prevalence of information technology, which tends to remove people from direct contact with one another, the human aspect of emergency management cannot be overemphasised and is fundamental to any attempt to achieve integration of methodologies and resources.

In reality, technology and human organisation (i.e. management) both have a role to play in the achievement of greater integration in emergency management. Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA), for example, has the ability to overcome the disjuncture of frequencies between organisations and emergency responders (Tattersall 2001). The Incident Command System (ICS) offers a flexible, modular way of ensuring overall control of an event without necessarily interfering with each organisation's internal mechanisms of command (Buck et al. 2006). It is no coincidence that ICS has become popular as information technology has made it more attractive and at the same time created the conditions for its more efficient application.

Humanitarian relief

Special attention needs to be devoted to the problems of integrated emergency response for large disasters in the international arena. Gradually over the last 60 years the world community has evolved a sophisticated system of relief for major sudden-impact disasters (Dore and Etkin 2003). It has been widely exercised: indeed, it has had to react to increasing numbers of deadly events. However, it is far from being efficient.

When a major flood, storm or earthquake causes a massive death toll and leaves survivors trapped, homeless or hungry rescue teams take to the skies and various branches of the United Nations send aircraft full of basic goods. The mobilisation of foreign search-and-rescue teams involves a series of stages. First they need to be alerted, and the early information coming out of major disaster areas is frequently as incomplete as it is inaccurate. Secondly, they must mobilise and find transport for personnel, equipment and, where appropriate, search dogs to the affected area. Thirdly, they must navigate customs, importation and quarantine regulations in order to gain entry to the country where the disaster has occurred. Finally, they must obtain transport and logistical support in order to reach the area. Many governments are not prepared in terms of policy or bureaucracy to waive or accelerate entry requirements. Commonly the realisation that this must be done is belated, or so is the realisation that the help should not be staved off.

Most forms of entrapment involve relatively short survival times for injured people. A harsh climate and dangerous conditions of entrapment can drastically shorten the survival time for victims who are initially uninjured. Hence, although people can survive entrapment for up to 15 days, the cumulative curve of survival indicates that most victims will succumb under the rubble within 8-12 hours. In fact, after a day has elapsed the probability of being rescued alive diminishes to a value that may be statistically insignificant (Coburn and Spence 2002). Yet the international community is simply unable to import specialist search-and-rescue forces over intercontinental distances in such a way as to make a significant difference to the eventual survival rates. For example, after the Bam earthquake of 26 December 2003, about 1,600 foreign rescuers arrived in the Iranian Province of Kerman. Most arrived at Kerman, which is a significant distance from Bam. None had brought wood for buttressing tunnels into rubble, yet Bam is in a desert where there are only the most limited supplies of wood. Transport from Kerman to Bam was limited as well. The rescuers arrived during a time window that stretched approximately from 36 to 72 hours after the main earthquake. They succeeded in rescuing a total of 36 people, at a cost which probably reached about one million US dollars per life saved, if all the ancillary support is taken into account.

The problem of delay is exacerbated when national governments refuse to admit that they cannot cope. These include Myanmar in the 2008 hurricane and India in the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, both of which imposed restrictions on the arrival of foreign assistance. Even the United States was slow to accept international aid in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.

There is no inherent reason why there should be one form of civil protection for the rich nations and another, inferior one for the poor countries. The cost of information and communications technology is falling, especially on a per capita basis, and much can be achieved by improvements in organisation, which are not necessarily costly. There is, however, a strong need to transfer expertise and training to the countries that are in the front line against disasters. This involves many different questions related to peace-building and sustainable development (White and Cliffe 2000).


In conclusion, how better to integrate emergency response is one of the leading questions of our time in civil protection (McLoughlin 1985, Ikeda et al. 2008). The increasing complexity both of emergency situations and of response capabilities has thrown this problem into high relief. For the sake of efficiency in emergency management it requires that considerable thought and effort be devoted to the search for a solution.


Alexander, D.E. 2005. Towards the development of a standard in emergency planning. Disaster Prevention and Management 14(2): 158-175.

Auf der Heide, E. 1995. Community Medical Disaster Planning and Evaluation Guide. American College of Emergency Physicians, Dallas, Texas, 182 pp.

Buck, D.A., J.E. Trainor and B.E. Aguirre 2006. A critical evaluation of the incident command system and NIMS. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management 3(3): article 1. www.bepress.com/jhsem/

Coburn, A. and R. Spence 2002. Earthquake Protection (2nd edn). Wiley, Chichester, UK, 420 pp.

Comfort, L.K., 1985. Integrating organizational action in emergency management: strategies for change. Public Administration Review 45 (special issue): 155-164.

Dore, M.H.I. and D. Etkin 2003. Natural disasters, adaptive capacity and development in the twenty-first century. In M. Pelling (ed.) Natural Disasters and Development in a Globalizing World. Routledge, London: 75-91.

EMA 1998. Australian Emergency Management Glossary. Manual no. 3. Emergency Management Australia, Canberra, 133 pp.

Gillespie, D.F., 1991. Co-ordinating community resources. In Drabek, T.E. and Hoetmer, G.J., eds., Emergency Management: Principles and Practice for Local Government. International City Management Association, Washington, D.C.

Green III, W.G. 2001. E-emergency management in the USA: a preliminary survey of the operational state of the art. International Journal of Emergency Management 1(1): 70-81.

Ikeda, S., T. Sato and T. Fukuzono 2008. Towards an integrated management framework for emerging disaster risks in Japan. Natural Hazards 44(2): 267-280.

McLoughlin, D. 1985. A framework for integrated emergency management. Public Administration Review 45 (special issue): 165-172.

SIPROCI 2007. Glossary of Civil Protection for EU Citizens. SIPROCI Interregional Response to Natural and Man-Made Catastrophes, Ancona, Italy, 7 pp. http://www.siproci.net/

Sylves, R.T., 1991. Adopting integrated emergency management in the United States: political and cultural challenges. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 9(3): 413-424.

Tattersall, P.T. 2001. Professional mobile radio: the BT Airwave public safety service and the path for technology and service evolution. BT Technology Journal 19(1): 142-148.

Waugh, W.L. Jr and K. Tierney 2007. Emergency Management: Principles and Practice for Local Government (2nd edn). ICMA Press, International City Management Association, Washington, D.C., 366 pp.

White, P. and Cliffe, L. 2000. Matching response to context in complex emergencies: 'relief', 'development', 'peace-building' or something in-between? Disasters 24(4): 314-342.


[1] This is also true in the organisation of modern military forces, and hence there has been a general shift away from linear chains of command.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Lessons in Disaster Preparedness: Vox clamantis in deserto persico

The following was written in early 2004 and remains pertinent in the light of subsequent earthquake disasters.

Introduction: a little elementary geology

As I write this I have in front of me a high-definition satellite image of the Bam area of southern Iran. The signs of recent, cataclysmic tectonic activity emerge spectacularly from the desert landscape. Faults, folds and eroded geological structures are all precisely etched in the arid terrains of the Bam basin. The moderate-power earthquake of 26 December 2003 was an episode of slip-faulting in the normal direction (i.e. vertically downwards). As the dominant fault of the area is transcurrent (i.e. subject to horizontal movement), it seems that the December event was a mere tectonic adjustment to more serious local movements of the Earth's upper crust. Yet tens of thousands of people died in it. More than a geological calamity, the event is thus a terrible indictment of human negligence.

Whatever political expedient may eventually turn them into, natural disasters start as morally neutral phenomena. Hence they are relentless in the way they expose the inner workings of society. The Bam earthquake seems to have revealed a shocking lack of preparedness in Iran.

It is always important to learn lessons for public safety from disasters when they occur, and hence the following are a brief series of reflections on what lessons the Iranian case has to offer.

The timing of events

The Bam earthquake happened at 05.27 local time. At the world scale, whereas the distribution of damaging earthquakes is exactly balanced between the three periods 8 am-4 pm, 4 pm-midnight and midnight-8 am, 80-95 per cent of casualties occur in the last of these periods. This is firstly because vernacular housing in many of the major seismic zones is the least safe place to be, and secondly because people cannot take self-preserving action when they are asleep. Behavioural research suggests that people's instantaneous reactions to the onset of major seismic shaking can have a very significant impact in reducing the death toll. Even so, the average number of people killed per building that collapses is only somewhere in the range 0.12-0.34, though in the Bam case the buildings were so weak and collapsed so readily that the final ratio is likely to be anomalously high. Nevertheless, in Bam the unsafeness of vernacular housing was graphically demonstrated: 60-70 per cent of it collapsed, with heavy loss of life.

The usual myths

This morning the television newsreader on Italian Channel 5 spoke solemnly of the high risk of epidemics caused by unburied dead bodies. His report was backed up by pictures of corpses being flung by the dozen into long, shallow trenches over which the dusty earth was hastily bulldozed. Meanwhile, piles of dead bodies were being sprayed with disinfectant, and so were survivors, rescue workers and collapsed buildings.

At least, as southern Iran is a desert area, the trenches will not flood and the bodies will not float out of them before they can be covered with earth, as has happened so often elsewhere. Time and time again, eminent and authoritative experts have pointed out that dead bodies do not constitute a health hazard. Indiscriminate burial demoralises the survivors and can lead them to be deprived of transferable pension benefits through failure to provide death certificates for pension-holders. Spraying wastes useful disinfectant, as well as manpower.

The Bam earthquake happened 18 months after the last mass-casualty seismic event in Iran, yet even the arrangements for disposing of the dead were utterly ineffective. Then there was the vexed question of looting.

Reuters reported that armed men stole Red Crescent tents and others on motorbikes chased trucks that were tossing out blankets to the survivors. Studies reveal that looting is a highly uncommon and circumscribed phenomenon in the aftermath of natural disasters, which are usually characterised by high levels of social participation. The Reuters report from Bam did not give any indication of its magnitude, which was probably small. Nor was there any indication of the social conditions that led to it (brigandage is endemic in the Bam area).

Neither is it very likely that the fabric of society stood any chance of disintegrating into chaos, another cherished myth. However, if nothing else, the image of blankets being tossed indiscriminately from the back of trucks implies a serious failure of relief distribution mechanisms.

International efforts

Along come the international search-and-rescue teams. No one would wish to belittle their efforts, and if one person is saved by their presence, then that would be a significant achievement. However, there were two reasons why in the Bam case the presence of international rescuers was even less effective than usual (apparently they saved 30 people during 48 hours' work). First, the local building materials (stone with little shearing resistance, poorly-fired brick and mudbrick) produced more dust than is commonly the case and hence both reduced the size of void spaces in rubble that might contain living, trapped victims and contributed to asphyxiation through dust inhalation. Generally, suffocation is much more effective at reducing survival times under rubble than are major blood loss, cranial trauma, hypothermia and dehydration. Secondly, the weather was cold. Within 100 hours of the earthquake, hypothermia would halve survival rates among trapped people.

There is now a huge amount of evidence, accumulated from natural disasters all over the world, that it is local aid that rescues people in significant numbers, and in sudden impact disasters the critical period can be as short as six hours. During this interval the degree of training and appropriateness of equipment of local rescuers will determine the efficiency of search-and-rescue operations.

Hence, a massive, expensive international rescue operation was launched to bring dead bodies out from collapsed buildings, something that could be done just as well with national resources. It probably will not function well, as the key to body retrieval is heavy plant, which is not supplied internationally.

National efforts

Even national aid is bound to be less effective than local efforts. Huge increases in the numbers of blood donors were reported from Tehran, resulting, no doubt, in a massive temporary surplus in available blood supplies in the Iranian medical system. This would not do much to help the survivors, as injuries that require major transfusion are seldom that numerous in earthquakes. Given the prevalence of crush syndrome in major earthquakes, kidney dialysis is much more important. Apart from that, pre-hospital treatment is the greatest key to survival, especially where crush syndrome is involved, and that once again highlights the importance of local efforts.

Local medical efforts were of course hampered by the collapse of two hospitals, echoing similar losses in, for example, the 2001 El Salvador earthquake. The decision to airlift 11,500 patients to medical facilities in other parts of the country is thus understandable--the local hospitals would have been overwhelmed even if they had survived. But as it involved a logistically cumbersome, medically risky, time-consuming and expensive exercise, it could hardly be described as the soul of efficiency.

Preparedness and planning

News reports from Bam contained graphic descriptions of improvisation and chaos in the relief efforts. All too often emergency planning is either unsystematic or totally absent. Yet there is very little in a natural disaster and its aftermath that cannot be foreseen by the systematic application of scenario methods and the use of reference events from the past. Iran has an unusually rich stock of the latter: so has Kerman Province, in which Bam is located, as it experiences a major earthquake about once every 8.7 years, surely such a short interval that there is no excuse for not having effective plans.

When disaster occurs, failure to plan in advance is suddenly, and often spectacularly, revealed as ineptness in the provision of relief and aid. By and large, not enough is being done to promote robust methods of emergency planning around the world. The need is obvious, the techniques are tried and tested, but the stumbling block is the matter of how to convince political hierarchies to devote a proportion of national wealth to such initiatives.


There is no technical reason why at least 90 per cent of what has been knocked down should not be elegantly rebuilt, and to reasonably anti-seismic standards. It is purely a matter of economics and organisation. As the International Council on Monuments and Sites says, there is no technical reason why ancient buildings, including mud-brick ones, need collapse in earthquakes, as the know-how to render them safe has existed for decades (and in some cases centuries).

And so...

Paradoxically, earthquakes have the power to make the world a better place by encouraging the virtues of prudence, preparedness and organisation in the human populations of seismic areas. But is that what happens? The usual welter of accusations and criticisms began in the Iranian press the day after the earthquake. In itself this is not a bad sign, but will it lead to constructive changes or will the lessons be forgotten before they can be applied?

More than ever before we can say that the scientific know-how is there, the planning techniques, engineering methods and expertise are available. Perhaps it is time to devote a substantial proportion of our considerable research expertise in the disasters field to determining why obvious lessons are being ignored at the expense of future public safety.

The Use of Scenarios for Emergency Training

Figure: Scenario methodology for emergency planning.

The idea that crisis situations are unique and unpredictable is a misleading truism. In fact, emergencies are made up of both foreseeable and unexpected elements. The way to manage them is to anticipating the former in order to minimise the latter. This can be achieved by building predictive models, or scenarios, of what is likely to happen in the future.

The models are a vital ingredient of both planning and training. In an emergency plan the reference scenarios can be taken from significant events that have occurred in the past, which must be updated to take account of modern conditions. The scenario can be elaborated in terms of hazard, vulnerability, impact and emergency response. A systems methodology should be used for this (see Figure) and the conditions tailored to a variety of situations, for example with respect to disasters that strike at night or during the day, the outcomes of which are, of course, related to aggregate patterns of human behaviour. As the essence of emergency planning is to anticipate pressing needs in order to supply them effectively at the critical moment, a well-constructed set of crisis or disaster scenarios is an essential aid. Coupled with an audit of emergency resources (vehicles, equipment, supplies, manpower, procedures and protocols) the scenario can help identify potential shortages and deficiencies so that these can be corrected before the next disaster strikes.

The other main use of scenarios is in training. As the field of emergency management becomes steadily more professional, course leaders must consider the problem of how to make training lively, realistic and relevant to actual crises. Scenarios can be used to provide a means of getting students to think their way into emergency situations. The scenarios should be chosen carefully, or synthesized from the most relevant events, and should be used with care in order to teach essential principles.

A training scenario example

By way of example, the following scenario, given in abbreviated form, was originally posted to an Internet search and rescue discussion group on 18 March 1996. The story has been modified to make it brief, generic and illustrative of the dilemmas that face the emergency manager in the field. Students or trainees are asked to consider how the emergency is developing, devise a strategy for co-ordinating the relief effort as it gets underway and consider the limitations to what can be achieved.

On the periphery of a large industrial city a factory that once produced vehicle batteries is about to be rebuilt into a wholesale warehouse. Inside it there are some large, rusting tanks that contain residues contaminated with arsenic and cyanide which are leaking slowly into the ground beneath. The roof of the factory, which workmen have begun to dismantle, contains asbestos.

Wood and aluminium scaffolding has been erected up to roof level and polyethylene sheeting has been rolled out to contain the asbestos dust. As it is winter, space heaters powered by bottled liquid propane gas are being used inside the building. Electrical power is obtained exclusively from a connection point at the perimeter of the site which is next to a storage area containing a large number of LPG canisters.

During the lunch-break there is a violent storm with heavy gusts of wind. Part of the scaffolding collapses and the polyethylene sheeting catches fire when it comes into contact with one of the space heaters. A large explosion leads to a fierce fire that generates temperatures of more than 1000EC. The building is rapidly consumed by flames, which burn out the site office and then move toward the LPG storage area. The site office and electricity point are destroyed.

The flames reach the gas canisters and the resulting explosion seriously damages the water supply hydrant and the drains, such that the toxic materials stored on site start to leak copiously into the sewerage system. Above the burning factory a cloud forms, rich in the combustion products of the toxic substances present at the site. The wind is blowing it gently towards a school, which is occupied, and an area of housing.

Within minutes you arrive at the site, the first incident commander to reach it. How are you going to manage the situation? What resources will you need and what can you count upon obtaining quickly?

Classroom strategies

Experience in the classroom with a wide diversity of student and trainee groups suggests that the discussants usually fall into two categories: those who are practical by nature and those who have yet to grasp the difference between what can be done and what cannot. To manage the emergency well, they must divest themselves of the purely academic approach. For example, there is no time to analyse the toxicity of the smoke, to measure wind speed or even to evacuate the school and the residential area. A warning can only be given if there is a safe way of delivering it, and the best strategy is probably to use a police car with loudspeaker and a series of telephone calls advising people to stay indoors with windows and doors closed. The first priority should be to warn the school.

With a little gentle persuasion, students can be encouraged to think realistically in operational terms, listing first the problems to be solved, secondly the needs that they generate and thirdly how to manage them by applying some simple rules.

The problems can be summarised as follows:-

- a high-temperature fire
- explosion damage and a continuing hazard
- the toxic cloud
- potentially severe pollution of the storm drainage system
- toxic substances at site (asbestos, cyanide, arsenic, etc.)

The principal needs generated by the emergency are:-

- evacuate the factory site and protect people against fire and explosion hazard
- protect residents and people in the school from the effects of the toxic cloud
- contain the fire and abate of the explosion hazard
- protect the sewerage system and limit toxic contamination

These are the possible operational strategies for devising solutions:-

- distinguish, list and prioritise tasks (it should become second nature to do this)
- where appropriate, delegate responsibility
- do not tackle problems that lack an immediate solution
- where it can be done, apply a workable solution

For example, five questions come to mind regarding the toxic cloud:-

- can a rapid estimate be made of where it is going and roughly how fast?
- where will it get to and approximately when?
- how much time is there in which to do something?
- what emergency resources are likely to be available in that time interval?
- under the circumstances, what would the most appropriate strategy be to limit the cloud's effects?


As it is not so much the seriousness of the problem that counts but the efficacy of the solution, what is needed is a form of mental triage. The 'golden rules' for applying this are three. First, all solutions must function in the very short term. Secondly, it pays to limit one's span of control, where appropriate by delegating responsibility for specific tasks (calling the HazMat team, for example, and explaining the situation to its leader). Thirdly, problems should be judged by the likelihood of achieving a solution quickly with the available means. If this cannot be accomplished a problem should be delegated or deferred in favour of more solvable matters.

For many students who are new to the field of emergency management, a classroom scenario such as the one described may be their first introduction to the concept of operability. They need to accustom themselves to working in an environment of great uncertainty, and hence one of the greatest challenges for the teacher is to reduce the role of hindsight and encourage the trainees to think themselves into the emergency situation, dealing with information as it arrives, when it is in short supply relative to what needs to be known and has yet to be verified.

The scenario listed above is an extremely basic one which has been cast in a generic form--i.e. without reference to any specific system of command and control or particular set of operating rules. These can, of course, be added in order to lend realism, but a balance must be struck between adding operational detail and obscuring the general picture

In synthesis, scenarios are both a fundamental input to emergency plans and a vital teaching resource. With a little thought and the distillation of field experience, what would otherwise be a mere anecdote can be turned into a useful tool for illustrating the basic principles of emergency management.

Further reading

Alexander, DE (2000) Scenario methodology for teaching principles of emergency management. Disaster Prevention and Management 9(2):89-97.

Janing J (1997) Assessment of a scenario-based approach to facilitating critical thinking among paramedic students. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 12:215-221.

Ringland, G (1998) Scenario Planning: Managing for the Future. Wiley, New York.

Walker, WE (1995) The Use of Scenarios and Gaming in Crisis Management Planning and Training. Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, California.

This article is reproduced with permission from:-

Alexander, D.E. 2005. Use of Scenarios for emergency training. Chemical Hazards and Poisons Report 5, UK Health Protection Agency, London: 24-25.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Making Communities Resistant to Disaster

Global change and globalisation are threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. This is especially true with respect to disasters, whose impacts are increasing rapidly in scope, frequency and seriousness. In the world's disaster areas, survivors face increasing socio-economic instability, vulnerability and marginalisation. Yet it need not be so, for there are solutions to these problems.

It is a fundamental principle that disaster preparedness is best organised at the local level. Local people suffer the impact of disasters and, in the phase of isolation that immediately follows such events, only locally generated aid is available. Moreover, resilience, the inverse of vulnerability, is the key to surviving and recovering from disaster and it is best developed from within the community.

The proper degree of outside intervention by national governments and international organisations is the subject of much debate. It is clear, however, that disasters raise serious issues of democracy and empowerment. Development will only succeed if it takes into account the desires of local communities and does not ride roughshod over their traditional coping mechanisms. The world community is finally recognising that, as the cumulative impact of disaster can set back progress or even prevent it entirely, sustainable development, that elusive but attractive concept, must be combined with sustainable mitigation of catastrophes.
The benefit-cost ratios of disaster mitigation are almost always positive and sometimes overwhelmingly so. One dollar spent even only moderately well on avoiding calamity will usually save several dollars--and much unquantifiable misery--in losses that are prevented from occurring. Curiously, this almost universal fact has failed to convince many public administrators, and even some major donors, to invest more in preventing disaster. Moreover, it is not merely a question of money. Much can be achieved at very modest cost by improved organisation.

About 220 million people are directly affected by disasters each year. The world's hazardous places are well known, for disaster tends to strike repeatedly, often cyclically. Vulnerability is also a well-known result of factors such as population density, the fragility of natural and built environments, grinding poverty and the ferocity of hazards. Yet some places are repeatedly struck by disaster but are able to cushion the effects and recover quickly, while others are not. In part this stems from the unequal distribution of wealth, but it is also a question of an apparent reluctance to share technology and expertise with the world's needier communities. The unselective transfer of technology and management techniques from one culture and economy to another may actually increase susceptibility to disaster by inducing a dangerous dependence on unfamiliar and unworkable solutions. But there is ample, untapped scope for transferring technology, knowledge, training and expertise intelligently in such a way as to make communities more resilient and less dependent on the vagaries of nature or the arbitrary decisions of outside forces. The goal is therefore one of increased assistance but decreased dependency.