The Evolution of U. S. Emergency Management Dennis S. Mileti Professor Emeritus University of Colorado at Boulder



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The Evolution of U.S. Emergency Management

Dennis S. Mileti

Professor Emeritus

University of Colorado at Boulder

The character of emergency management continues to change in our nation. These changes are of three general types. First, there are changes in the content of the profession. Second, there are changes in the context for the profession. Third, there surely are changes in the viewpoint or paradigm that guides the profession. The purpose of this text is to elaborate on some observations of and changes in these general categories.


Non-Rational Risk Management
First, we do not manage risks in our nation rationally. We never have. I know we teach the disciplines of risk assessment and risk analysis, but we really aren’t able to use them to manage risk in this nation. So I recommend you teach people to use it. Here is an example, and I am going to pick an example from my own state of California that is quite colorful, but true. In 1931, there was an earthquake in Long Beach and some schools fell down, and the state made it illegal for schools to fall in earthquakes. It passed an law requiring strong seismic resistance in public schools. Then in 1971 there was an earthquake in San Fernandina and a hospital fell down, and the state moved quickly to make it illegal for hospitals to fall in earthquakes. In 1989 there was an earthquake in the Bay Area and part of the Bay Bridge collapsed. Now guess what the state did, it moved swiftly to make it illegal for bridges to fall in earthquakes. That is not rationale risk management. You might say that it is reactive management of risk. And this example is from the State of California. It doesn’t get any better for risk perception of earthquakes in our nation than is the case in California.
Here is another example of not managing risk rationally. In the 1980’s we abandoned an operational nuclear power plant on Long Island called Shoreham. The result of this is that we’ve had a $5,000,000,000 “paper weight” in Suffolk County, Long Island for twenty years. People in that area of the country simply did not want to accept the risk of a breach of containment in the reactor. The probability of a breach of containment out of the reactor vessel was 1 times 10 to the minus 7. I called up the U.S. Geological Survey in the 80’s and asked “what is the probability of an earthquake large enough to level Manhattan?” The answer they gave me was 1 times 10 to the minus 7, the same probability as a breach of containment at Shoreham. We shut Shoreham down because we feared the risks. Yet, do any of you know any Manhattan residents concerned with the earthquake hazard? One can now fairly ask, what is really going on regarding risk management in our country, since it is certainly not rationale risk management.
More examples of non-rational risk management exist. For example, on September 11th lunatics flew two airliners into the World Trade Center Towers. How many of you have noticed that getting on an airplane in this country has never been the same? What we are doing is protecting ourselves from the risk of terrorist attacks in airplanes. But have any of you noticed anybody protecting us from the risks of terrorist opening up bottles of poisons by air intakes for high rises on sidewalks? You haven’t, and do you know why? A high rise air intake disaster hasn’t happen yet.
I would like to propose that how we manage risks in this nation for all hazards is to not manage it. In fact what we do with risk management is more like a political knee jerk response to what’s on television and in pictures on the front pages of newspapers. This approach to risk management is not based on reason, it is not based on science, it is not based on knowledge, it is political. My request to the attendees of this conference, the people who operate higher education program for hazards management and emergency preparedness, is that you train the next generation of emergency managers to management risk rationally, and to hold political leaders accountable when they seek to management risk in non-rational ways.
Command and Control
Second, I’ve noticed that the 1950s command and control approach to responding to events is back regarding how our nation seeks to manages emergencies. Traditionally, command and control approaches to emergency management has been based on the assumption that public is a problem in emergencies and organizations are the solution. Yet research into emergencies since the 1950’s clearly suggests that any emergency response system that is based on a command and control model doesn’t work. I want to say that again. We’ve known since the 1950’s that if emergency response organization looks like the organizational structure of the United States Army, it doesn’t work.
One can ask, why did our nation throw out our bottom up approach and replace it with a top down approach won’t work? And why are we, since we know such an approach won’t work, letting our nation get away with it? Must we wait for a world-class catastrophe in which emergency response fails to learn this lesson yet one more time? We’ve moved backwards a half a century, and stepped over and ignored all the research done by all the social scientist who have investigated this issue. Let me give you one example of why a command and control approach to emergency management response doesn’t work.
Once again, I will pick on my own state of California. Imagine that you’ve moved to southern California, and that you are having a BBQ in your backyard. Mom is in the kitchen cutting watermelon. And then the big one hits and your house collapses. Are you going to wait for an urban search and rescue crew from Fairfax County, Virginia to come dig mom out? Or are you going to start searching for mom on your own? Now do you get what I mean when I say effective emergency response must be organized from the bottom up? Moreover, the public is actually a resource in an emergency. I request that you train the next generation to make full use of that resource.
A Holistic Approach
Next, we need a holistical approach to emergency management. We need an approach that has local emergency managers address all the hazards that they face, rather than an approach based on local response to programs that the feds come up with one at a time. What I mean is that local plans are needed for response and recovery that covers all the hazards that those locals face, not different response and recovery plans for different hazards one at a time. A plan to warn American citizens when they need to be warned not a different warning plan for dozens of different hazards. A plan for preparedness that includes all hazards, that has appendices specific to specific hazards. Our current national emphasis on the hazrds of terrorism, although warranted, should not assume that the laws of nature were repealed on September 11th. I recommend that you train the next generation to do emergency planning holistically.
National Leadership
Next, we need profoundly useful national leadership. We had it once, but we didn’t have it long. We have hardly ever had it in our nation’s history and we need it again. We need leadership to help locals if we are concerned with terrorism, make good decisions about how they spend the money they have on the technology for terrorism that they are buying rather than waste it. We need to help locals understand how to design an integrated warning system for all hazards that really works. An integrated warning system is more than a buzzer or siren or picking a new buzzing devise. Do you know that its been a quarter century since the Federal Emergency Management Agency has ever given anybody any technical guidance on warning systems. We need leadership, and we need an emergency management community populated by those who would demand it of the people we elect to run our nation.
Shifting Goals
Also, the general goals of emergency management have shifted, in fact the goals have shifted many times. Years ago emergency management was all about shelter, food, and medical care. A decade ago it was about customer satisfaction largely begun after public outcry in Hurricane Andrew. And for a brief time we had the goals of emergency management located exactly where they need to be. Emergency management was seen as a small of the general goal of creating sustainable human communities that can survive both what people and nature throw at them. We must work again to make sure that the boarder goal of achieving disaster resilient communities re-emerges. We must integrate natural hazards sustainability and other hazards sustainability and terrorism all together.
Regarding whatever accomplishments we may achieve in the domain of protecting ourselves from Mother Nature, terrorist acts, or other hazards. Of what good are safe communities if no one can breathe the air? If people don’t have jobs, if the economy is spirally downward, if too many of our citizens have to low standard of living and if the city is being submerged under rising seas. Making disaster resilient communities a national goal has fallen by the wayside and needs to be resurrected and made indigenous to our culture.
Who Emergency Managers Are
Last, there have been and will continue to be changes in who emergency managers are. Half a century ago, emergency managers were people who had retired from the United States Army. A decade ago, emergency managers were people who were civil servants and one day found a better paying job called “Emergency Manager” on a bulletin board where they worked and applied for it. Tomorrow emergency managers will be trained by you and will be armed with all the skills they did to practice their crafts. So I liked to say to all of you that have programs and faculty to foster and teach the next generation in emergency management: thank you for taking this on, thank you for the programs that you have created, thank you for all you have done, and all you will do that I don’t even know about to shape and mold the future of emergency management in the United States.
General Conclusion
Some of the most important emergency management lessons of the past have been forgotten as our nation returns to a top-down command and control paradigm. That perspective has failed so many times in the past. Rational risk-based emergency management is on the decline, not the upswing. A holistic and all-hazards approach was mounted a decade ago, but it now seems on the side line. The adequacy and appropriateness of national leadership is questioned by many. An approach linking emergency management goals to other vital local interests that might integrate the profession into local cultures has been abandoned. And the trend toward increasing the level of self-directed professionalism among emergency managers seems on the decline. The upside of these grim observations is that the lessons of the past with soon be re-learned and, with luck, trends will be reversed.






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