Introduction to emergency management

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This chapter provides an overview that describes the basic types of hazards threatening the United States and provides definitions for some basic terms such as hazards, emergencies, and disasters. The chapter also provides a brief history of emergency management in the federal government and a general description of the current emergency management system—including the basic functions performed by local emergency managers. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the all-hazards approach and its implications for local emergency management.


There are many ways to describe emergency management and the importance of the tasks emergency managers perform. Indeed, in some respects, it hardly seems necessary to explain the need for a profession whose purpose is saving lives and property in disasters. It is likely that, while many people recognize their communities are exposed to environmental threats requiring a systematic program of protection, only a few appreciate the magnitude and diversity of the threats. One can introduce the study of emergency management by noting losses from disasters—in the United States and the rest of the world—have been growing over the years and are likely to continue to grow (Berke, 1995; Mileti, 1999; Noji, 1997b). Losses can be measured in a variety of ways—with deaths, injuries, and property damage being the most common indexes. The 1995 Kobe, Japan, earthquake killed more than 6000 people and left another 30,000 injured. In the previous year, the Northridge, California, earthquake resulted in approximately $33 billion in damages. These individual events are impressive enough, but the losses are even more dramatic when accumulated over time. Between 1989 and 1999, the average natural disaster loss in the US was $1 billion each week (Mileti, 1999, p. 5). Furthermore, many costs must be absorbed by victims—whether households, businesses, or government agencies—because only about 17% of losses are insured. Spectacular as they are, these past losses pale in comparison to potential future losses. Major earthquakes in the greater Los Angeles area or in the midwestern New Madrid Seismic Zone, which are only a matter of time, could generate thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of injuries, and tens of billions of dollars in economic losses.

Indeed, the daily news seems to suggest the world is plagued by an increasing number and variety of types of disasters, an impression that is certainly heightened by what seem to be frequent, very large scale natural disasters—including earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and wildfires—all over the globe. When we add to these events a wide range of severe storms, mudslides, lightning strikes, tornadoes, and other hazard agents affecting smaller numbers of people, one might conclude that natural disasters are increasing. Technological activities also initiate disasters. Hazardous materials are transported via road, rail, water, and air. When containment is breached, casualties, property loss, and environmental damage can all occur. Some technologies, such as nuclear power plants, pose seemingly exotic risks, whereas more commonplace technological processes such as metal plating operations use chemical agents that are very dangerous. Even the queen of American technology, the space program, has experienced disaster associated with system failures. Finally, we see terrorists operating on US soil—made forever visible by the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

At times, it seems as if humankind is living out the script of a Greek tragedy, with the natural environment exacting retribution for the exploitation it has suffered and an unforgiving modern technology inflicting a penalty commensurate with the benefits that it provides. Though such a perspective might make fine fiction—disaster movies are recurrent box office successes despite their many major scientific errors—it does not accurately portray events from a scientific and technological view. The natural environment is, of course, not “getting its revenge”. Geophysical, meteorological, and hydrologic processes are unfolding as they have for millennia, beginning long before humans occupied the earth and continuing to the present. Given the eons-long perspective of the natural environment, it would be very difficult to identify meaningful changes in event frequency for the short time period in which scientific records are available on geological, meteorological, and hydrological phenomena. Event frequency, from an emergency management perspective, is not really the issue. It is certainly true that, over the years, more people have been affected by natural disasters and losses are becoming progressively greater. The significant feature driving these observations, however, is the extent of human encroachment into hazard prone areas. With increasing population density and changing land use patterns, more people are exposed to natural hazards and consequently our accumulated human and economic losses are increasing. Much of this exposure is a matter of choice. Sometimes people choose hazardous places, building houses on picturesque cliffs, on mountain slopes, in floodplains, near beautiful volcanoes, or along seismic faults. Sometimes people choose hazardous building materials that fail under extreme environmental stresses—for example, unreinforced masonry construction in seismically active areas. Some exposure results from constrained choices; the cheap land or low rent in flood plains often attracts the poor. The point is that one need not precisely estimate event frequency to understand rising disaster losses in the United States. As Mileti (1999) writes in Disasters by Design, the increasing numbers of humans, our settlement patterns, the density with which we pack together, and our choices of location for homes, work, and recreation place more of us at risk and, when disasters occur, exact an increasing toll.

The pattern observed among technological disasters is somewhat different. Certainly more people are affected by technological threats simply because there are more people, and we often make unfortunate choices (as was the case with natural hazards) about our proximity to known technological hazards. However, the nature of the threat from technological sources also appears to be changing. The potential for human loss from technological sources increases with the growth and change of existing technologies and with the development of new technologies. For example, risks are rising from the increasing quantity and variety of hazardous materials used in industry, as well as from energy technologies such as coal and nuclear power plants and liquefied natural gas facilities. Such facilities and the processes they use pose a variety of risks for both employees who work in the facilities and those who live in nearby neighborhoods. Furthermore, as technologies develop it is sometimes found that what was thought not to be hazardous a decade ago does, in fact, have deleterious effects upon health, safety, and the environment. Yet, unlike natural events, advancing technology often produces an improved capability to detect, monitor, control, and repair the release of hazardous materials into the environment. Ultimately, as technologies grow, diversify, and become increasingly integrated into human life, the associated risks also grow.

Although terrorism has a long history (Sinclair, 2003), it has been a low priority that only recently become prominent on emergency managers’ lists of threats to their communities (Waugh, 2001). Recent events, especially the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, have made it obvious that the outcomes of at least some terrorist attacks can be considered disasters. Although some consider terrorism to be a hazard, this is not a very useful conceptualization. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (1996a, p. PH2.11), the Federal Bureau of Investigation defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”. That is to say, terrorism is a strategy, not a hazard agent. Most of the technological hazard agents (chemical, radiological/nuclear, or explosive/flammable) that could threaten American communities in terrorist attacks can also occur by means of accidents. As Winslow (2001) notes, terrorists have typically used explosive agents, sometimes used chemical agents, and have the potential to use radiological or biological agents. Thus, although radiological materials have not yet been used in terrorist attacks, emergency managers should be prepared to respond to their deliberate or accidental release. Similarly, concern has been expressed about terrorist attacks using biological agents, but these can also occur naturally. Biological hazards are normally the concern of public health agencies, but emergency managers should be knowledgeable about them because terrorist attacks involving these agents will require coordination between the two types of agencies.

It remains to be seen precisely how terrorism will be fitted into the lexicon of disaster research. Already, definitions of terrorism vary between the academic community and emergency managers (Buck, 1998). Nonetheless, emergency managers must address the consequences of terrorist attacks using the same basic approaches that are used in other emergencies and disasters. One major difference between most terrorist attacks and many other types of disasters such as floods and hurricanes is the uncertainty about the time, place, and magnitude of the event. Advance detection is a prerequisite for forewarning, but experience to date indicates detection accuracy is not high even for the timing of an attack, let alone the place, magnitude, and type (chemical, biological, radiological/nuclear, explosive/flammable) of agent involved. At the present, emergency management efforts must focus on prompt detection once an incident has occurred, along with preparedness for a timely response and recovery. Even these strategies are complicated because it is so difficult to anticipate the competence of the terrorists. For example, the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s attempt to disperse the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo subway during 1995 underscored the importance of agent quality and diffusion effectiveness. Cult members carried bags of the liquid form of the agent onto subway cars and cut the containers as a means of initiating the release. Although Sarin is extremely lethal, the attack resulted in only twelve deaths and approximately 1,046 patients being admitted to hospitals (Reader, 2000). If the Sarin had been effectively aerosolized, the death and injury rates could have been phenomenal. Ultimately, whether terrorism and its consequences are increasing or not seems to be a matter of many factors that defy meaningful measurement at this time.

Given the increasing toll from disasters arising from natural hazards, technological accidents, and terrorist attacks using technological agents, American society must decide whether the risks are “acceptable”. Moreover, given the limited amount of time and resources that can be devoted to risk management, decisions must be made about which risks to address (Lowrance, 1976). When individuals, organizations, or political jurisdictions reach consensus that a given risk is unacceptable, resources can be marshaled to reduce the risk to some level deemed more acceptable. Such resources can be used to attempt to eliminate the source of the danger, or, alternatively, change the way people relate to the source of danger. For example, building dams or channeling streams can eliminate the risk of seasonal floods (at least for a time). Alternatively, people and dwellings can be relocated outside the floodplain, or a warning and evacuation system could be devised to provide population protection (but generally not property) in times of acute flood threat. Emergency management is rooted in this process of identifying unacceptable risks, assessing vulnerabilities, and devising strategies for reducing unacceptable risks to more acceptable levels. Of course, emergency managers cannot perform all of these activities by themselves. However, as later chapters will show, they can act as “policy entrepreneurs” that propose strategies and mobilize community support for risk reduction.

In general terms, emergency management is “the discipline and profession of applying science, technology, planning and management to deal with extreme events that can injure or kill large numbers of people, do extensive damage to property, and disrupt community life” (Drabek, 1991a, p. xvii). Thus, emergency managers identify, anticipate, and respond to the risks of catastrophic events in order to reduce to more acceptable levels the probability of their occurrence or the magnitude and duration of their social impacts. In the United States, emergency management traditionally has been conceptualized as the job (if not the legal responsibility) of government—local, state and federal. Particularly since the middle of the 20th Century, private business organizations have taken an increasingly active interest in emergency management, especially as it relates to their own business continuity. Certainly as the 21st Century begins, emergency management is best conceived as relying on alliances among all levels of government and the broader private sector (including for-profit and nonprofit organizations with a wide range of missions).

Many factors have contributed to the increasing salience of emergency management in American society. One important factor lies in changes in the principle of sovereign immunity at the state level in the last quarter of the 20th Century and the establishment of levels of tort liability for local and state governments (Pine, 1991). Although some levels of immunity persist, it is important that government liability can be established under state and federal law, particularly in cases where negligence (failure to plan where appropriate) can be contended successfully. Another factor promoting the importance and visibility of the emergency management is the professionalization of emergency managers. A recognition of the need for specialized training and development for emergency managers has led to the establishment of professional associations, the use of training certifications (e.g. technician certificates for hazardous materials and emergency medical expertise, and general certificates in incident management systems), and of professional credentialing processes such as the Certified Emergency Manager program promoted by the International Association of Emergency Managers. These developments have contributed to the growth of an organized body of specialists who understand how to appraise and cope with a range of environmental threats. Still a third factor is a growing sensitivity to hazards on the part of the public-at-large that is driven by media attention to periodic catastrophes associated with the forces of nature and technology. Finally, private businesses have become increasingly sensitive to the fact that disaster losses can have significant negative consequences on business plans and performance, sometimes forcing bankruptcy, closure, or the loss of significant market share (Lindell & Perry, 1998). With such significant potential consequences, vulnerability assessment and disaster preparedness have become both imbedded in business planning and thriving businesses in themselves. Collectively, these factors have generated a social environment in which governments' ethical and legal obligations to protect citizens, and private sector interest in self-protection, have attracted attention to emergency management.

    Fundamental Theories of Disaster

    Over the centuries, there have been four fundamental theories about disasters. These four theories have conceived of disasters as:

  • Acts of fate/acts of God,

  • Acts of nature,

  • Joint effects of nature and society, and

  • Social constructions.

    Acts of Fate/Acts of God

    For millennia, disasters were considered to arise from impersonal and uncontrollable forces—either from unfortunate alignments of stars and planets or as acts of God that were beyond human understanding. Both forms of this theory viewed a disaster as predetermined and, thus, completely beyond the victim’s control. A variation on this theory was that disasters were cosmic or divine retribution for human failings—personal disasters for personal failings and collective disasters for societal failings.

    Acts of Nature

    Over time, increased scientific knowledge led many people to substitute natural causes for supernatural ones. Thus, floods occurred because the large amount of rainfall from a severe storm exceeded the soil’s capacity to absorb it. The rapid runoff exceeded the river basin’s capacity, so the excess spilled over the river banks, flooded buildings, and drowned people and animals. Accordingly, the term natural disaster came to refer to “an outside attack upon social systems that ‘broke down’ in the face of such an assault from outside” (Quarantelli, 1998, p. 266). The resulting conception of man against nature has been especially potent as the driving force behind attempts to “tame” rivers by straightening their channels and building dams and levees.

    Interactive Effects of Nature and Society

    Still later, it was proposed that hazards arise from the interaction of a physical event system and a human use system. Thus, it takes both a hazardous physical event system and a vulnerable human use system to produce disasters. If either one is missing, disasters do not occur. According to Carr (1932, p. 211)

Not every windstorm, earth-tremor, or rush of water is a catastrophe. [S]o long as the levees hold, there is no disaster. It is the collapse of the cultural protections that constitutes the disaster proper.

According to this view, human societies adapt to the prevailing environmental conditions (e.g., temperature, wind speed, precipitation, seismic activity) at a given location. Unfortunately, they fail to anticipate the variation in those environmental conditions. Consequently, their adaptation to normal conditions usually is inadequate for extreme events—blizzards, heat waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods. This perspective is perhaps best illustrated by earthquake damage and casualties. As earthquake engineers are fond of saying, earthquakes don’t kill people, collapsing buildings kill people. According to this view, people can avoid disasters if they stay out of seismically active locations or, if they do move there, they must build structures that resist the extreme environmental events that will eventually occur.

    Social Constructions

    Most recently, researchers have recognized that disasters are quite systematic in the types of people they harm, as well as the types of geographic locations and human use systems they strike. To the interactive effects theory’s concerns about hazard exposure at specific locations and physical vulnerability of specific structures, social construction theory calls attention to the social vulnerability of specific population segments. To say that hazard vulnerability is socially constructed does not mean people are vulnerable because they think the wrong thoughts—as most people would now categorize the belief that floods are caused by the alignment of the planets and stars. Rather, socially vulnerable population segments emerge because our psychological, demographic, economic, and political processes tend to produce them. Of course these processes have produced many good things. Many residents of the US, in particular, have good jobs, comfortable lives, and we have enjoyed one of the most democratic governments in the world. Nonetheless, all of these conditions have changed over time—life now is much improved from what it was a century ago and there are many ways in which it can be improved still further. Of particular concern to emergency managers should be the many ways in which our institutions can reduce the hazard vulnerability of those who have the least psychological resilience, social support, political power, and are the poorest economically.

Theoretical Comparisons

These theories have, in one sense, succeeded each other over time as scholars have found later theories to provide a better account of the data from their research. However, scientific acceptance is different from popular acceptance. Each of the four theories is currently believed by at least some members of society. Indeed, the most cynical version of the Acts of fate/acts of God theory uses it to avoid responsibility for actions that are substantially within human control. For example, representatives of the coal company that built a dam across Buffalo Creek West Virginia claimed the dam’s collapse was an “Act of God” because the dam was “incapable of holding the water God poured into it” (Erikson, 1976, p. 19). This was clearly a feeble attempt to avoid admitting the company negligently built a non-engineered dam from unstable materials, thus risking the lives of downstream residents to maintain company profits.

Each community throughout the world probably has at least some believers in each theory. Because each theory has different implications for environmental hazard management, the prevalence of each theory has significant implications for policy at the local, state, national, and international levels.

Hazards, Emergencies, Disasters, and Catastrophes

Hazards, emergencies, and disasters afflicted human societies much longer than either the profession of emergency management or academic disaster research has existed. Thus, many vernacular terms have arisen that refer to the negative consequences of environmental events—accident, emergency, crisis, disaster, catastrophe, tragedy, and calamity, to name a few. Over the years, many of these terms have become embedded in the American vocabulary, often introduced through the mass media or literary usage. As such events have become the focus of academic study and professional emergency management, it has also become necessary to devise technical—as opposed to vernacular—meanings for them to communicate a standardized meaning for each of these terms. For the purposes of this introduction to emergency management, it is important to distinguish the meaning of three terms: hazards, disasters, and emergencies.

The environment humans occupy consists of natural and technological components, each of which contains elements that pose a variety of risks to the human occupants and their property. These risks include both health and safety dangers for the occupants themselves and dangers to the physical or material culture created by the occupants. The risks arise from the intrusion of the human use system into natural and technological processes. The term hazard captures the notion that, to the extent that people co-exist with powerful natural and man-made processes, there is a non-zero probability that the natural variation in these processes will produce extreme events having very negative consequences (Burton, Kates & White, 1993; Cutter, 2001). The human danger posed by these hazards varies with the level of human intrusion and the knowledge and technology associated with the hazard (Lindell & Perry, 1992). Tsunami (seismic sea waves) hazard is nonexistent in Ames, Iowa, because human occupancy at that location is so far from the runup zones near the ocean shore, but tsunami hazard is very significant along the Pacific coast—especially the Hawaiian islands. Hazards are inherently probabilistic; they represent the potential for extreme environmental events to occur. Thus, hurricane hazard refers to the potential for hurricanes to affect a given location. Hurricane hazard does not describe the condition when a hurricane strikes a coastal community causing death, injury, and property destruction. Of course, to achieve long-term survival, humans must adjust to or accommodate both natural and man-made processes in some fashion. The classic definition of hazard adjustment focuses upon the modification of human behavior (broadly speaking, to include even settlement patterns) or the modification of environmental features to enable people to live in a given place (or with a given technology) under prevailing conditions (Lindell & Perry, 2004).

The term emergency is commonly used in two slightly different but closely related ways. The first usage of the term refers to an event involving a minor consequences for a community—perhaps a few casualties and a limited amount of property damage. In this sense, emergencies are events that are frequently experienced, relatively well understood, and can be managed successfully with local resources—sometimes with the resources of a single local government agency. Emergencies are the common occurrences we see uniformed responders managing—car crashes, ruptured natural gas pipelines, house fires, traumatic injuries, and cardiac crises. They are managed via (usually government, but sometimes private) organizations with specially trained, specially equipped personnel. One commonly associates emergencies with fire departments, police departments, and emergency medical services (EMS) organizations. These events are “routine” in the sense that they are well understood and, thus, elicit standardized response protocols and specialized equipment (Quarantelli, 1987). Nonetheless, it is important to understand each emergency can present unique elements; experts caution there is no such thing as a “routine” house fire. The belief that each new fire will be like all the previous ones has a high probability of producing firefighter deaths and injuries (Brunacini, 2002).

The second usage of the term emergencies refers to the imminence of an event rather than the severity of its consequences. In this context, an emergency is a situation in which there is a higher than normal probability of an extreme event occurring. For example, a September hurricane approaching a coastal community creates an emergency because the probability of casualties and damage is much greater than it was in March before hurricane season began. The urgency of the situation requires attention and, at some point, action to minimize the impacts if the hurricane should strike. Unlike the previous usage of the term emergency, the event has not occurred but the consequences are not likely to be minor and routine methods of response are unlikely to be effective if the event does occur.

The term disaster is reserved for the actual occurrence of events that produce casualties and damage at a level exceeding a community’s ability to cope. As Table 1-1 indicates, a disaster involves a very specific combination of event severity and time/probability. Unlike the uncertain time of impact associated with a hazard (whether or not the impact would exceed community resources), a disaster reflects the actuality of an event whose consequences exceed a community’s resources. Unlike imminent emergencies, the consequences have occurred; unlike routine emergencies having minor impacts, disasters involve severe consequences for the community. By extension, a catastrophe is an event that exceeds the resources of many local jurisdictions—in some cases crippling those jurisdictions’ emergency response capacity and disrupting the continuity of other local government operations. Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of the local emergency response agencies and disruption of other local government agencies in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama certainly qualifies for this designation.

Prince’s (1920) study of an explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia was the first modern piece of disaster research, but it was twelve years later that Carr (1932) made the first attempt at a formal definition of disaster. Presently, disaster is commonly defined as a nonroutine event in time and space, producing human, property, or environmental damage, whose remediation requires the use of resources from outside the directly affected community. This definition captures the two features that are minimally (and traditionally) cited as features of disasters: they are out of the ordinary events whose consequences are substantial enough to require that extra-community resources be marshaled to respond to and recover from the impact (Quarantelli, 1984; Perry, 1991; Tierney, Lindell & Perry, 2001). There are many different definitions of disaster present in the professional and academic literature, but most of them include the dimensions listed in this definition. In addition, some of the other definitions specify the mechanism that generates the event such as acts of God, social injustice, acts of nature, aspects of social organization, etc. As will be discussed later in this chapter, there are important distinctions to be made among different types of disasters and the ways in which emergency management strategies vary with the source of the disaster (Drabek, 1997). Whether one believes God, nature, social injustice, or purposeful encroachment produce disasters certainly affects the attitude we express toward victims. The academic community, in particular, is still debating the details of such distinctions and consensus about the specific details of different meanings is still developing (Quarantelli, 1998). However, in the profession of emergency management, the focus is typically on the assumption that disasters are caused by the overlap of human use systems with natural and technological processes and the charge is to minimize the negative consequences. At least on this applied level, emergency managers can operate on a concise definition of disasters, while remaining cognizant that the concept can be extended in a variety of ways and has myriad dimensions.

Table 1-1. Relationships Among Hazards, Emergencies, Disasters, and Catastrophes.





Demand compared to

community capacity

Less than




Greater than




The Development and Tasks of the Emergency Management System

Most hazard/disaster researchers and emergency managers would probably agree that it presumes much to claim that an integrated emergency management system exists in the United States. Certainly this is so if by an integrated system one means a well-defined and clearly differentiated structure of components with mutually agreed upon roles interacting over time in a coordinated manner to achieve common goals (see Katz & Kahn, 1978, for a discussion of the systems perspective on organizations). However, there is a loosely-coupled collection of organizations that perform relatively differentiated roles in planning for, responding to, and recovering from disasters. Indeed, a basic understanding of the emergency management system and the demands that shape it has existed only since the late 1970s. Even this basic conception of emergency management continues to change and the rudiments of what may yet become an integrated system for managing emergencies continues to evolve. Clearly, even after the intense efforts to enhance the system after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, much of what currently exists remains both fragmented and incomplete. In many respects, the old adage that “disasters are a local problem” seems as true now as it was thirty years ago (Perry, 1979). What is different today is the fact that there is a greater degree of consensus regarding how to assess and respond to the risks of natural and technological hazards. Concomitantly, there appears to be increasing agreement regarding the goals and structures by which federal, state, and local governments work with private organizations and the general public to develop an integrated emergency management system.

By focusing upon an ideal emergency management system, the current state of the art, imperfect as it may be, can be described and placed into historical perspective. Since the primary aim here is to describe rather than evaluate, the purpose of the following section is to provide a picture of the organizations comprising the system as it has changed over time. To some extent, the discussion will include what might be with respect to an emergency management system as well as what is. Consequently, instances will be noted in which organizational links are tenuous at best and where functions assigned to agencies (particularly at the federal level) are minimally fulfilled or in some cases completely ignored. What follows, then, is an attempt to describe in a very short space what is really a very complex and extensive constellation of agencies, programs, and interrelationships. Although the limited space available here requires compressing and simplifying many complex issues, the next two sections will describe the history of emergency management organizations, followed by a discussion of the functions that comprise emergency management.

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