French Emergency Management System: Moving Toward an Integrated Risk Management Policy Irmak Renda-Tanali, D. Sc. 1 & François Mancebo, Ph. D. 2 Introduction

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Evolution of industrial/technological hazards policy:

About half a century ago, dealing with industrial/technological hazards consisted primarily of limiting construction in exposed areas, much like the natural hazard risk mitigation policies. However, later, in the beginning of the 1980s, it became evident that there were many dangerous industrial installations already located in densely populated urban locations and these posed extreme danger to inhabitants. The reason of the proximity of these dangerous installations to urban populations can be explained by the fact that, a) some of these areas were located in the large industrial sites built in the 19th century and were already urbanized long before zoning legislation was in place and these industrial plants attracted a multitude of workers who settled their homes near their workplaces, b) the dangerous installations indeed consist of the necessary supply infrastructure for the urban needs such as local power transformers, gas retailers, train stations, etc., and c) those concerned areas which were initially located on the outer edge of the city may have caught up with the urban sprawl and became part of the urban area (Boltanski et al, 1996).

Effective zoning requires periodical assessment and reassessment of area hazards, vulnerabilities and, hence, acceptable risks. It also requires modification as the urban settlement areas evolve through time (Glatron, 1996). Thanks to the EU, technological risk management in France began by directives and policies that came about after the Italian Seveso disaster. There was a massive dioxine emission in 1976 near the Italian commune of Seveso which provoked an early attention to the prevention of industrial risks in France and the EU. Since 1976, any plans for industrial activities that pose high risks and hazard to the environment and public health in France are required to be submitted for administrative authorization. In order to establish the authority for coping with potential disasters and mitigating against them, this requirement was concretized by a 1982 EU directive, called COMAH (Control of Major Incident Hazards) also known as the Seveso directive. This directive requires EU member countries to specify the inventory of all of their industrial risks and to register all their dangerous industrial sites to the Regional authority and to the European Commission. These inventories are edited online by the French government (See These dangerous sites are called Installations Classées pour la Protection de l’Environnement ICPEs (Classified Installations for Environmental Protection). Next, regional authorities and local governments have to develop a zoning policy and a document named Danger Study that specifies how to mitigate, prepare for and respond to any possible major incidents in each of the defined danger zones.

The French policies concerning technological and industrial risk management is greatly influenced by COMAH. Since 1982, the more dangerous ICPEs (like chemical or nuclear plants) must strictly comply with COMAH. COMAH has been modified several times, gradually enlarging its competencies until it was replaced by a new directive COMAH 2 (96-82-CE) known as Seveso 2 on February 3, 1999. This new directive is an extension of COMAH with further control mechanisms on long-term urbanization with provisions on land use and construction, specifications on disaster recovery and logistics, and restrictions on activities such as hazardous waste disposal and agrochemical storage. COMAH 2 also offers improvements in Danger Study contents, and enhancements to public information sharing and participation in the decision making processes concerning hazardous activities. The new directive introduced a clause that requires the careful assessment of potential consequences of an accident in the installation on neighboring installations. Cooperation between adjacent dangerous installations through exchange of information, common and coordinated emergency plans, is thus required by the local authority within a Danger Study (Chateauraynaud and Torny, 1999).

COMAH was put into test when the AZF fertilizer plant explosion in the French town of Toulouse occurred in September 2001. The explosion blew off roofs and buildings nearby, killing 26 people and injuring hundreds of others. At the same time, a toxic cloud spread all over the conurbation. AZF was classified as ICPE as an agrochemical plant under COMAH 2. Right after the incident, a warning was issued according to the Danger Study, and the first response measures were also implemented according to the same plan by the prefect’s authority. All the pertinent roads, railways and airways were closed and/or secured, civil protection measures were put into place. Although the response was successful, long-term disaster recovery was a failure since there were no plans for recovery.
Organization of Emergency Management

As we have indicated in the previous two sections, French policymakers have come to the realization over the years that: (a) it is necessary to work on complex risks without dissociating them as natural and technological since they interact, (b) standard procedures and plans prove to be inefficient, therefore they must be differentiated enough as to be adapted to local conditions and specific situations, and (c) disaster and post-disaster recovery should be clearly defined and fully operational.

Based on the above premise, a new risk and disaster management mechanism was created into law on July 30, 2003. The new mechanism is centered on French communes: the smallest French administrative territorial division. Accordingly, a commune’s mayor is given authority over risk prevention, mitigation, risk warning, and emergency planning with the help of a local document called Plan Communal de Sauvegarde – PCS (Safeguard Communal Plan). The PCS details actions and measures to be taken in case of emergencies as well as post-disaster recovery actions. If the emergency situation crosses several jurisdictions, then PCSs of all of the affected communities can be unified to issue an inter-communal PCS (Urfalino & Hubert, 2000).

When the local mechanisms and plans such as PPR, PCS, ICPE, or DICRIM are not sufficient to mitigate an emergency or a disaster, the Plan ORSEC-Organization des SECours (Rescue Organization Procedure) is used which is the French generic emergency plan which is really a civil security emergency plan. The ORSEC plan is for widespread and long lasting disasters such as storms, floods, earthquakes or major industrial disasters. ORSEC is carried out by gendarmerie. The gendarmerie is a French police force with a military commandment coming under the control of the French Defense Department. Its missions can be partly compared to those of the US National Guard, fire and police departments under the joint authority of the prefect and mayor. It organizes population evacuation and relief operations, medical assistance, and other technical interventions to address the causes of the disasters and further mitigate its consequences. ORSEC is articulated at two levels: 1) a standard plan that is applicable under any circumstance and at any place, and 2) a specific plan that is adapted for the local context at French département level. Yet at the same time there are many other emergency procedures that can parallel ORSEC plan such as Plans Particuliers d’Intervention – PPI (Specific Intervention Plans) in order to deal with highly localized danger sources such as ICPE installations; Plans de Secours Spécialisés – PSS (Special Emergency Plans) that deal with diffused hazards such as flooding, transportation accidents involving hazardous materials, tanker oil spills, etc.

During the past three decades, French hazard and risk management policies have evolved from nationwide standardized procedures discriminated according to type of risk (natural or man-made) into “complex risks” management strategy that is based on assessing and managing all potential hazards affecting each local administrative district. These procedures have become more integrated covering all phases of disaster management from mitigation to preparedness to response and to recovery. Furthermore, these policies and procedures have become part of local sustainable development public policies.

Challenges and Opportunities

In his book Risikogesellschaft - Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne (Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity), Ulrich Beck suggested organizing our societies around risk pervasiveness (Beck, 1992). The multiplication of disasters this last decade combined with people’s increasing insecure feelings about food, health, environmental changes, economy, social violence, and terrorism proves him right.

The French emergency management system has moved toward an integrated risk management policy partly to become a key element of local planning and local policies.

Effective risk management depends on: information devices, criterions defining risk acceptability, anticipation of people's reactions when a disaster occurs, and inventorying of all available resources (financial and technical) to act.

It is therefore necessary: (a) to establish operative and comprehensive (including financial backing) post-disaster plans, (b) to develop alert procedures and a forecast system, (c) to inform the population about the risks and about disaster management procedures, and (d) to define local risk zoning maps where construction and some activities are restricted, and they must be applied to urban and land planning documents.

In France, the implementation of such policies is often made difficult by the discrepancy between the local elections timescale (usually five-year or six-year terms) and the much longer risk timescale.

There is a second pitfall: risk actors are subjective in their choices like anybody else. They tend to favor decisions that coincide with corporate or individual interests and with their own representation of risks. This issue is becoming crucial in French risk management. It becomes clearer and clearer that a risk is not only an objective measurable entity, but comes also as the upshot of a confrontation between different individual and collective representation of the future in which a disaster can take place, since a risk is nothing but a potential disaster.

Risk managers are supposed to "tell the truth" about risks, but their opinion is largely dependent on their beliefs (Coanus, Duchêne & Martinais, 2004). Indeed, if you want to point out a risk in order to manage it you need: a) to believe in the existence of a danger and give it content and b) to give a prediction about its occurrence.

Eventually, new risks can be considered as the emergence of pre-existing risks that were hidden from the conscience of the actors. Hence, how is it possible to identify what can get wrong when everything seems to go well? It is a matter of which interpretations and which representations of the future are regarded as possible— or say it better: believable.

Every time a new type of disaster happens (explosion of the AZF plant in Toulouse) and every time a study points out the possibility of a new disaster (e.g. possible linkage between cell phone usage and brain tumors, inhalation of radon closely associated with an increased risk of lung cancer, etc.), new unexpected risks to come to light that usually don’t square with the current risk management framework. This means that the system classically used to manage risks is not efficient to predict new risks, and the reason probably is that it never questions the interpretative frame in which risks are taken into account. Nowadays, for example, —10 years after— no one can give a clear explanation of why and how AZF plant exploded apart from some technical specifications about chemical reactions (Arnaudiès, 2005).

Therefore, French risk management has just engaged itself in an important reorganization: the point is the obligation to define before any plan or action which interpretative frame risk actors use to analyze the situation.

Thus, French risk zoning tends to gain plasticity as acceptable risk level (and its corollary – population security) becomes negotiable during the zoning process. In this negotiation, issues other than risk and security are considered. Those are: control on the urban sprawl, development of urban programs, financial restraints, and quality of life of the communities concerned by the zoning. As an example: how can France tune up risk management with sustainable development in urban areas where frequency of disasters increases with the density of population, facilities, flows and activities? Densely occupied urban areas are conducive to domino effect (a disaster triggers another). Therefore, in urban sprawl, low density tends to diminish the probability for disasters resulting from complex risks. However, very low density urbanized areas are not prone to sustainable development. Here, choice has to be made between sustainability and risk management (Andres & Strappazzon, 2007).


In the French emergency management system, risks are now managed as complex risks as a whole system rather than managing them individually according to the nature of the risk (see our discussion in the Disaster Policy section above).

French risk zoning tends to gain plasticity as acceptable risk level becomes negotiable during the zoning process (see Challenges and opportunities section above). The examples are the use of PPR in the case of dealing with natural hazards and ICPE in dealing with industrial and technological hazards.

Thus, the French approach to emergency management, with all its challenges, is better off than it had been before in dealing with new and emerging risks such as changes in environmental patterns (issues related with global warming), new health risks due to use of technology and other future hazards that are not known well yet.

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Table 1: Natural Disasters from 1980 – 2008 (source:

No of events:


No of people killed:


Average killed per year:


No of people affected:


Average affected per year:


Economic Damage (US$ X 1,000):


Economic Damage per year (US$ X 1,000):


Figure 1: Natural Disaster Occurrence Reported

Table 2: Average Disaster Per Year







Extreme temp:




Insect infestation:


Mass mov. dry:


Mass mov. wet:







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