Revolutionary and Evolutionary Change in Emergency Management: Assessing Paradigm Shifts, Barriers, and Recommendations for the Profession David A. McEntire, Ph. D. Department of Public Administration University of North Texas Abstract

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Revolutionary and Evolutionary Change

in Emergency Management:
Assessing Paradigm Shifts, Barriers, and

Recommendations for the Profession

David A. McEntire, Ph.D.

Department of Public Administration

University of North Texas


The following paper acknowledges that disasters are on the rise and asserts that proposed paradigm shifts to meet this challenge are valid to the extent that they are based on sound epistemological assumptions. The central finding of this paper is that significant change in emergency management is needed, but this goal may not be easily or completely achieved. Therefore, preparedness and response operations can never be eliminated as may be unintentionally implied by certain proposals in the academic literature. Progress is both likely and advantageous, however, as long as it is built on - but goes much further than - our efforts of the past.


Are disasters becoming more frequent and intense as compared to the past? Will a paradigm shift occur in emergency management, making it completely different in the future than it is today? Can all of our goals for progress in this field be reached and the barriers to change overcome? The following paper will address these questions and attempt to illustrate that emergency management should and will promote a more proactive approach for disaster reduction. However, there is a possibility that some of the current proposals for the future may amount to an unrealistic revolution that inadvertently discount the necessity of traditional approaches to emergency management. Change will take place in the emerging profession, though, and this progress will include strides to reduce disasters in both quantitative and qualitative terms.

Before proceeding with this argument, the author wishes to emphatically stress that he is not opposed to more stringent and broader mitigation measures. In fact, his research has been supportive of further steps for disaster prevention (see McEntire 2004a; McEntire 2004b; McEntire 2004c; McEntire et. al. 2002; McEntire 1997).1 The purpose of this article is to point out that preparedness and response functions will always be needed (although the activities in these phases will likely be undertaken by more educated and well-trained professionals in a variety of organizations with the assistance of new perspectives, tools, techniques and strategies). Therefore, this paper should in no way be construed as an argument against further steps for disaster reduction. It instead should be viewed as a critical epistemological assessment along with a proposal to amend current policy proposals.
Disasters on the Rise

In the early 1980s, Frederick Cuny (1983) asserted that the magnitude and impact of disasters were on the rise. Others have noted similar trends in both developed and developing nations (see Burton, Kates and White 1993). There is some disagreement if we are experiencing more earthquakes, tornadoes and tsunamis as compared to the past. Cuny (1983, 14) asserted that hazardous events are remaining constant but observed that we are experiencing more disasters because of changes in vulnerability. However, there is evidence that there are more flooding episodes today and this type of hazard is occurring at rates and intensities and in places where they have never occurred before (perhaps as a result of the wide-spread use of concrete and asphalt in today’s urban settings). It is also true that some natural hazard agents (e.g., hurricanes) might be more active during certain historical periods than others, and there is agreement that climate changes will alter episodes of flooding and drought. In addition, the increased presence and use of hazardous materials and reliance on computers is creating or will result in more technological disasters as time goes by (Quarantelli 1997; Quarantelli 1993). There is also a likelihood of a greater number of terrorist attacks in the future and these may be more devastating than the events on 9/11 - especially if they involve weapons of mass destruction (Falkenrath et. al. 1998). New biological hazards such as SARS or Avian Flu appear to be present today as well. But this focus on hazards reveals only a portion of the story. As mentioned, human activity is augmenting vulnerability to disaster in other ways, and it is this element of disaster that we are most able to control, influence and reduce (McEntire 2004a).

Along these lines, E.L. Quarantelli (1993) has illustrated that there will be more and worse disasters in the future. He declares, among other things, that industrialization, urbanization and demographic patterns are putting people at risk and/or decreasing the ability of certain individuals and groups to protect themselves. Culture, government policies, bureaucratic politics, code enforcement, construction practices, business activities, weak emergency management institutions and a myriad of other variables are likewise increasing vulnerability (McEntire 2004a; Wisner et. al. 2004; Mileti 1999; Platt 1999). Vulnerability is certainly the significant contributing factor for the occurrence and adverse impact of disasters. Without people, there can be no disasters – only natural hazards.

The net result of ubiquitous hazards and our ongoing changes in vulnerability is intense disasters that occur more often. Although the loss of life resulting from disasters is down in the United States and in other industrialized countries because of better engineering techniques, warning processes and response operations, more people die in the poor nations of the world (e.g., the recent tsunami killed an estimated 300,000 in various countries surrounding the Indian Ocean). The United Nations and Munich Reinsurance provide ample evidence that the financial costs of disasters are also up and are increasing at exponential rates (see

introduction.htm and Mileti (1999, 66) also reveals that losses owing to natural hazards in the United States total over $1 billion per week. Such figures may perhaps result in part from growing wealth as well as more property, appliances and goods needed to service a growing population (Mileti 1999, 104). Rising losses may have a great deal to do with poor land-use choices and other factors that increase physical exposure to hazards or limit the effectiveness of steps taken for preparedness, response and recovery. Regardless, these trends say nothing about the social, psychological, political and other consequences of disaster. All in all, these facts point to a somewhat dismal – but not hopeless – future (Quarantelli 1993).
Paradigm Shifts and The Possibility of Their Success

Considering the above context an important and indispensable debate about the future of emergency management is ensuing. One school of thought believes revolutionary change is needed; the other acknowledges the desire and possibility of progress, but is hesitant to declare more than evolutionary change in the field. Dennis Mileti (1999) is representative of the former view. He rightfully argues that we must alter our values, attitudes and practices in order to curb the growing quantity of disasters and their associated rising losses. In particular, he emphasizes structural and non-structural mitigation, further steps to protect the environment, and altered social, political and economic relations. Claire Rubin (2000) might be indicative of the latter school in that she suggests that the emergency management house must be remodeled even though it will continue to rely on its existing historical foundation. She recognizes that there are new threats that will require more effort and attention, but seems to imply that we cannot escape the need to prepare ourselves to respond to future disasters (although we must do so more effectively than we have in the past).

Both of these perspectives make valid points and each alternative might advocate a paradigm shift of some sort. Disagreement is likely to emerge between the two camps, however, as the meaning of “paradigm shift” can be interpreted in distinct ways. For instance, some scholars may see a paradigm shift as the need for wiser land-use planning, improved construction practices, or government policies that do not subsidize risk (Mileti 1999; McEntire and Fuller 2002; Platt 1999). Others may define a paradigm shift in terms of technological breakthroughs, more preparedness activities, and increased networking or collaboration with other disaster stakeholders (McEntire et. al. 2002; Mileti 1999). Massive public education campaigns and the promotion of personal responsibility may be considered desired approaches also (McEntire and Myers 2004; Mileti 1999). Environmental protection, concern for special populations and further reliance on insurance could be viewed in similar fashion (Mileti 1999; McEntire 2004a). Striving to spend more on mitigation in comparison to disaster relief will also be viewed as a justified paradigm shift. Rethinking the merit of the “hazards” management viewpoint in favor of the concept of vulnerability might also prove useful (Wisner et. al. 2004; McEntire 2004a). All of these views and many others have merit and should be incorporated into the future of emergency management.

The problem regarding the notion of a “paradigm shift” in emergency management is certainly not what is promoted or advocated. All scholars agree that more must be done to reduce disasters and that change should be pursued. The questionable aspects of paradigm shifts often arise from hidden implications or mistaken assumptions in the scholarship that supports them (see McEntire and Marshall 2003). As an example, some scholars have requested that emergency management be “couched within a general sustainability framework” (Thomas and Mileti 2003, 18). Dennis Mileti’s book, Disasters by Design (1999), supports this view and it has understandably been praised for a very comprehensive reassessment of natural hazards and what we should do about them (Myers et. al. 2000). Nevertheless, Mileti’s proposed shift to sustainable hazards mitigation may unintentionally imply that we can control natural hazards, it may unfortunately suggest that sustainability will resolve all types of disaster problems, and it may unnecessarily downplay the value of traditional approaches to emergency management (McEntire et. al. 2002). Research has consistently shown that giving preference to hazards instead of vulnerability is a major error among scholars and practitioners (Cannon 1993; Hewitt 1983; O-Keefe et. al. 1976), that sustainable hazards mitigation may not help us deal with certain disasters such as terrorist events (McEntire 2000), and that the concept of sustainability may only be related the mitigation and recovery phases of emergency management (Berke 1995). Regarding this latter issue, the scholars that advocate sustainable hazards mitigation may unconsciously give the impression that we will have no problem turning the field completely upside down as preparedness and response activities are seemingly divorced from this new paradigm for emergency management. Mitchell, too, has noted this possibility and declares that disasters and the crisis phase of emergency management are not always captured by the sustainable development concept:

Differences between hazard mitigation and sustainable development ensure that important parts of each subject remain outside of the frame of reference of the other. In other words, safety (a prime consideration in hazards management) does not necessarily equal sustainability, and contingencies (of which hazards and disasters are good examples) may require different responses than enduring problems (1999, 505).

Interestingly, Mileti seems to be aware of this tenuous relationship at times and he admits, as an example, that “warning systems seem to have little direct bearing on sustainable development” (1999, 197). Mileti does observe that “ . . . preparedness and response are vital to a society’s ability to survive extreme natural and technological events over the long term” (emphasis added) (1999, 239). And he continues this train of thought by asserting that “this contribution to disaster resiliency is by far the strongest link between preparedness and response and sustainable hazards mitigation . . .” (Mileti 1999, 239). Nonetheless, this intended and seemingly exclusive emphasis on recovery and the implementation of mitigation seems to downplay the indispensable nature and documented benefit of well-devised and implemented activities in the immediate emergency post-disaster period. Furthermore, Mileti’s use of the term resiliency appears to be a crutch that is required to show what appears to be a distant or indirect relation between the preparedness and response phases and sustainable hazards mitigation.

Without being overly critical of Mileti’s impressive work, his discussion of the relationship between traditional approaches to emergency management and sustainable hazard mitigation is especially telling:
Sustainable hazards mitigation will not eliminate the need for emergency preparedness and disaster response to deal with the physical destruction, losses and human suffering imposed by disasters. In addition, there is a great opportunity to make progress toward sustainable hazard mitigation by setting policies and practices for recovering from disasters (Mileti 1999, 209).
Again, it is noteworthy that these remarks do not say preparedness and response are closely associated with and integral to sustainable hazards mitigation; they only reveal that these two traditional phases of emergency management will be needed in spite of a paradigm shift to sustainable hazards mitigation.

As a result of this apparent exclusion of these phases in sustainable hazards mitigation, the call for holistic and interdisciplinary research issued in Disasters by Design may never be fully reached if the concerns or reservations expressed and implied by Berke, Mitchell and Mileti himself are correct as they appear to be. For instance, how does sustainable hazards mitigation relate to emergency operations planning? Disaster exercises? Grant management and budgeting? The establishment and management of an emergency operations center? Warning? Evacuation? Mass fatality management? Damage assessment? Disaster communications? Emergency medical care? Volunteer management? Donations management or other disaster response functions? There have been no clear answers to these questions in works on sustainability. This subsequently calls into question the applicability of this proposed paradigm shift to certain actors and organizations including emergency planners, first responders, accountants, meteorologists, coroners, Red Cross representatives, ham radio operators, emergency medical technicians, and certain volunteer organizations. Berke is aware of this limitation when he notes:

The interest groups involved in mitigation . . . and long-range disaster recovery are likely to be closely associated with the interests of sustainable development advocates. However, for those interest groups concerned with emergency preparedness and response issues (e.g., disaster warning, search and rescue, evacuation and sheltering) the relationship with sustainable development would be less salient (Berke 1995, 14-15).
Are these actors and the activities they perform in disasters unimportant or even optional then? This epistemological impression is accidentally conveyed by the sustainable hazards mitigation paradigm, which could have a devastating impact upon practical efforts to deal with disasters. Mitchell has called into question this type of supposition in a most eloquent manner: “To assume that sustainable urban development can be achieved without attention to problems of contingency . . . is to court frustration and failure” (1999, 506). Berke agrees and states “naïve assumptions about sustainable development eliminating [disaster] impacts could lead to the shaping of flawed policy” (1995, 14).

Perhaps it is for these and other reasons why Wisner et. al. (2004, p. 29) and McEntire and Floyd (2003) state that sustainability is at times a slippery concept for the disaster field. Hooke (1999) has even stated that sustainable development is or should be out of the disaster debate. While there are undoubtedly many advantages of the concept of sustainability and even though this concept has a close and justifiable relation to increased mitigation measures (McEntire and Floyd 2003), Aguirre (2004) also wonders if the paradigm espoused in Disasters by Design can “sustain” emergency management scholars and practitioners in the future. Considering the possible validity of these concerns, it may be wise to consider how the field might progress in terms of a holistic approach rather than be completely transformed by a proposed paradigm shift that may not ultimately lead to its desired revolution.

Barriers to Revolutionary Change

There are numerous other factors that limit the possibility of revolutionary change as suggested by the sustainable hazards mitigation paradigm. First, everyone is in agreement that we are having more and worse natural and technological disasters as mentioned earlier. Clarke (2005), for one, believes it is time to think about worst case scenarios. This automatically indicates that we must do more to prevent disasters and mitigate their effects. But it also leads to the conclusion that preparedness activities will remain necessary and cannot be discounted in future disaster paradigms.

Second, in light of the current political situation in many countries and the rising hatred for Americans and Western Societies among some Islamic fundamentalists around the world, we will probably experience terrorist attacks on a more frequent basis and possibly with greater impact and complexity (Falkenrath et. al. 1998). Terrorist leaders have requested that their followers to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the use of a nuclear weapon would decimate a major portion of a large city while even a dirty bomb could possibly leave the geographic area uninhabitable for many years to come. At attack involving biological agents could kill thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. A chemical release would be less deadly but even its resulting response would require specialized knowledge, equipment and personnel. Consequently, response and recovery operations are likely to be more complex in the future because of the threat of terrorism, suggesting the need to make improvements in this area also.

A further issue hindering the revolution espoused by sustainable hazards mitigation is the truism that people often occupy dangerous areas because they provide jobs, food, goods and services. Burton, Kates and White (1993) acknowledge that people require resources to maintain their livelihoods. Humans therefore accept certain levels of risk because the alternative options of where to live are less appealing. Of course, some people are constrained in their decisions because of external economic and political forces, and these circumstances must be recognized and corrected (McEntire and Fuller 2002). At the same time, other “people who have been observed coping with risk and uncertainty in the environment appear to take account of likely economic outcomes . . . but the resulting behavior rarely conforms to what should be optimum by their standards of utility” (Burton et. al. 1993, 100). For instance, Mileti and Passarini (1996) have shown through various case studies that, for the vast majority of the population affected by deadly earthquakes, there is little or no effort to leave dangerous areas in an attempt to prevent a future recurrence of that type of disaster. We must therefore admit that “benefit-cost analysis should be an integral part of risk analysis” and that there are often advantages “associated with hazardous activities” (Heaney et. al. 2000, 8).

What is more, we must accept the fact that there are no hazard-free areas (McEntire 2004d; see also Mileti’s discussion of hazards 1999). Some locations are undoubtedly safer than others, but this should not be taken as an indication that a move away from California, Florida or Texas will keep one safe. If people are not confronted with earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes they will likely be dealing with drought, fires, ice or snow storms, traffic accidents involving hazardous materials, railroad derailments, plane crashes, floods, workplace violence or other unpleasant events. We may move away from the most prevalent hazards, but we cannot hide from all emergencies and disasters.

Even when we undertake a variety of steps to protect ourselves, it must also be recognized that our best efforts will still fall short at times (e.g., even the reportedly “unsinkable” Titanic sank and people died unnecessarily because it was assumed that additional life boats would not be required). A modern-day example of our limitation comes from the recent hurricanes that hit Florida. It has been revealed that “buildings that were suppose to be the strongest and safest – emergency operations centers, police and fire stations, hospitals and hurricane shelters – failed” (Morgan et. al. 2004). While these buildings may not have been constructed with the latest engineering techniques, nature’s strength should come as no surprise as compared to our obvious lack of omnipotence.

Another point to consider is that it has taken us a long time to create risk in our communities – sometimes decades or even centuries (see Oliver-Smith 1994 for an excellent example). Steps pursued to reverse this trend will not be easily or quickly achieved. We will logically need to be both proactive and reactive until we can find some degree of harmony in the natural environment (assuming that is possible when we will always be exposed to hazards of various types).

A seventh reason why preparedness and response will remain vital aspects of emergency management is because interested stakeholders frequently lack complete knowledge about and control over hazards and disaster prevention (Mileti 1999). Lovins and Lovins (1981, 63) remind us that “the impact of human fallibility and malice on hazardous, essential, and highly engineered systems is not at root an engineering problem but a people problem. It arises because the world is peopled by human beings rather than angels or robots.” Similarly:

Fallibility problems . . . [will] become more prominent as [vulnerable systems] . . . proliferate, salesmen outrun engineers, investment conquers caution, routine dulls commitment, boredom replaces novelty, and less skilled technicians take over in countries with little technical infrastructure and tradition (Lovins and Price 1975, 17-18 as quoted by Quarantelli 1999, 17).
We must likewise admit that it is difficult at times to determine risks in an accurate manner (Quarantelli 1999; Burton et. al. 1993):
The sheer complexity of many technical systems can defeat efforts to predict their failure modes. ‘The sequence of human and mechanical events leading to the two most serious power reactor failures in the U.S. [at Browns Ferry and Three Mile Island] were excluded from fault tree analysis in the most comprehensive study of reactor safety ever undertaken’ (from Rasumusson et. al. as cited by Lovins and Lovins 1981, 63 in Quarantelli 1999).

Omniscience is not possible and, as long as this is remains the case, disasters will recur.

Apathy is an eighth reason why a paradigm shift that excludes preparedness and response in an epistemological sense is unlikely. People see disasters as improbable events (Mileti 1999) and this complicates efforts to effectively mitigate them. In his review of the research literature, Auf der Heide (1989) reveals other factors:

  • Some people are unaware of the hazards that threaten them, their multiple vulnerabilities, and the potential negative effects of disasters in all their variety (see also Burton et. al. 1993).

  • Other individuals and groups downplay risk, ironically even when disasters are immanent and warnings have been issued (see also Stallings 1984; Perry 1983)

  • Citizens view disasters as Acts of God which cannot be controlled by human kind (see also McEntire 2001).

  • The public has fatalistic attitudes about disasters, thereby discouraging prevention and preparedness measures (see also McEntire and Fuller 2002).

  • The political culture in the United States limits government influence over personal decisions and consequently jeopardizes the passing of laws, enforcement of codes, and compliance on the part of the populace (see also Platt 1999).

  • Leaders of communities have difficulty in justifying the benefits of mitigation when an event may or may not occur in the near future - or ever (see also Waugh 2000).

  • Public servants and government agencies often over-estimate their ability to deal with disasters and their adverse consequences (see also Mileti 1999).

Besides these observations, it is widely known that there are competing priorities in societies (Mileti 1999). Crime has to be fought, schools have to be built, and roads have to be repaired (Auf der Heide 1989). There are not unlimited funds to address and fix every single problem we are faced with including disasters. Even when more serious attention is directed toward disaster mitigation, some organizations will do all they can to protect their turf (i.e., fire fighters have very strong lobbies as compared to emergency managers). Other interest groups including land owners, developers and builders may actively oppose additional disaster legislation and increased regulations (Godschalk 1991). This unfortunately reveals that institution building for proactive emergency management will be fraught with resistance and occasional set-backs.

A tenth issue that restricts the probability of revolutionary change is owing to the fact that there are trade-offs that have to be considered (Auf der Heide 1989). All of the scholars that propose a paradigm shift to sustainability focus on natural hazards alone. In many ways this is justified as scholars observe that terrorist attacks are less likely to occur than natural disasters (Waugh 2004). However, one intentional or instrumental disaster could conceivably have far greater impact than a natural event (Falkenrath et. al. 1998). Therefore, selecting which hazards to deal with or the appropriate balance among alternative policies is not an easy one to determine (McEntire 2004d).2 If we concentrate too much attention on one hazard over another, we inevitably open ourselves up to the possibility of not always being able to deal effectively with distinct types of disasters as we would prefer.

An additional issue that has a bearing on the occurrence of disasters is in relation to policy making in democratic societies. Richard Sylves (2004) has illustrated a tension between the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian models of agenda setting. Scholars and policy experts would like to see more laws and regulations in relation to emergency management. In contrast, citizens often want less government influence over their lives. Which of these perspectives should be deemed correct or most appropriate? Is it ethical if the government ignores researchers’ pleas to protect the populace? Is it right for the government to protect citizens from disasters even if it might be against their will? Unless dictatorship is a desired option, there will always be some disagreement between epistemic communities and the people they are trying to serve. This obviously has unavoidable implications on the probability and impact of disaster.

A twelfth variable that influences the probability of disasters espouses an irony associated with the sustainable hazards mitigation paradigm in emergency management. In California, the recent fires in the Southern part of the state were exacerbated due in part to the hesitancy to thin forests of fuel because of environmental concerns. Therefore, policies intended to reduce certain disasters may inadvertently augment others. This is not the only example that could be given. The prohibition of certain fire fighting foams may hinder the ability to deal with oil fires which could spiral out of control and lead to further environmental damage. Hence, sustainability is not necessarily a perfect fit for the disaster problem as is currently affirmed by dogma in the field (Aguirre 2004; Wisner et. al. 2004; McEntire and Floyd 2003; Mitchell 1999; Berke 1995). Disasters are complex phenomena, not amenable to simple or piecemeal solutions only.

This discussion could be expanded in terms of the arguments made and the evidence provided. It is important to reiterate that we must obviously do more to tackle these and other problems that have a bearing on the occurrence of disaster and their associated consequences. Increased education to alter attitudes about emergency management is only one of many steps that must be taken to reverse the disturbing trends associated with disasters (McEntire 2004b). However, suffice it to say that disasters cannot be prevented in every instance. Quarantelli reveals that “a risk free society is a chimerical dream . . . [and he reminds us that] the notion that hazards and subsequent disastrous occasions can be completely eliminated is not borne out by history” (1997, 17). On one occasion he even asserts that giving the highest priority to mitigation is a fad (Quarantelli 1997, 101), which is probably an overstatement considering that he does advocate further steps to reduce disasters in other research outlets (Quarantelli 1999). Nevertheless, we should humbly acknowledge that there are limits to what can be done in terms of disaster mitigation.

The overall lesson to be drawn from this essay is that, while mitigation clearly needs to be given additional attention, this does not mean that preparedness and response operations can be discounted in future disaster paradigms. Mitchell proposes additional land-use planning measures but he also observes “. . . . mega-cities must be prepared to cope with unexpected or unfamiliar events as well as long-term problems; acute natural hazards as well as chronic crises of environmental degradation” (emphasis added) (1999, 505). Even Mileti, who unintentionally appears to exclude traditional approaches to emergency management in his paradigm of sustainable hazards mitigation, recognizes the value of such activities for disaster reduction: “effective preparedness and response activities help save lives, reduce injuries, limit property damage, and minimize all sorts of disruptions that disasters cause” (Mileti 1999, 239).

These scholars are not alone however. Several recent assessments by many of the most respected scholars and practitioners logically recognize the need to focus attention on disaster prevention and mitigation. At the same time, these individuals also support the need for continued and even improved preparedness and response functions. For instance, at a June 13, 2003, Disasters Roundtable meeting in Washington, D.C., nationally recognized researchers and professionals did not assert that preparedness and response are unimportant in or irrelevant to the future of the profession. Conversely, several of the participants noted the need for additional training, increased interoperability of communications, more involvement of LEPCs and CERTs, further political support and resources for emergency managers, and additional reliance on technology in disaster response operations.

The International Association of Emergency Managers, too, reiterates the importance of knowledge, skills and abilities pertaining to the preparedness and response portions of the emergency manager’s responsibilities. Similar competencies relating to preparedness and response have been identified by Wayne Blanchard, FEMA’s Higher Education Program Manager, in his outline of “Competencies to Develop Successful 21st Century Hazard or Disaster or Hazard Risk Managers” (see Moreover, in October 2003, a large group of acclaimed scholars met to discuss “Educational Opportunities for the Hazards Manager of the Future.” It was recorded in the proceedings that emergency/hazards management includes all four phases of emergency management, even though it was acknowledged that finding the proper balance is difficult (Thomas and Mileti 2003, 17).

To be sure, each of these assessments did reveal that we must take additional steps to reverse the trend of more and worse disasters. Without placing a much greater focus on mitigation and recovery, our efforts to deal with disasters will obviously be incomplete and foolish. Nonetheless, in none of these assessments was it revealed that preparedness and response would be unnecessary as seems to be implied in certain academic perspectives. Scholars and practitioners concluded instead that we must also be more effective in these areas as well. Accordingly, paradigm shifts that ignore these facts are questionable in theory and unrealistic in practice. Emergency managers are not likely to “whither away” in the future as questioned by Britton in an excellent article on the subject (1999), but it is probable that their preparedness and response duties will expand and include a very heavy emphasis on mitigation and recovery (especially as these phases relate to disaster prevention). It is also likely that the functions emergency managers perform will be shared with and incorporated by others in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Change will undoubtedly occur in emergency management, but the barriers mentioned above will unfortunately constrain at least some of our goals for disaster reduction.

Clarification and an Alternate Proposal

Although the barriers presented above are real, the discussion about them should not be interpreted as a call to maintain or return to the reactive approaches of the past. Emergency management must spend a considerable amount of time, energy and attention on mitigation – dramatically more so than is currently being done today (McEntire 2004b). Emergency managers must also take advantage of the “windows of opportunity” made evident during recovery in order to implement more stringent mitigation policies (Olson et. al. 1998). There is no question that this is the case. The purpose of this article is not to discredit mitigation or recovery therefore; it is in contrast to illustrate that disasters have always occurred - and will always take place - for a variety of reasons. Preparedness activities and response operations will thus remain integral aspects of emergency management. Reputable scholars and practitioners assert that these phases must be retained and even improved in the future.

Can there be a paradigm shift, then, that not only pushes for further mitigation measures but also takes into account the realities of the challenges and limitations that lie ahead? One possible way to advance the field and overcome the weaknesses of other paradigms is to rely on, but alter the concept and policy guide of Integrated Emergency Management (IEM) (see McEntire et. al. 2002). IEM initially involved a three step process of 1) assessing risks, 2) determining capabilities, and 3) working to reduce the gap between them. To illustrate this point, emergency managers in the past were to determine the community’s exposure to earthquakes along with its ability to put out associated fires, and work to reduce risk and increase their capacity through planning measures and the effective performance of post-disaster functions. These processes, more than any others, get at the heart of emergency management. Nevertheless, IEM tended to focus on physical issues and response operations alone, and consequently overlooked social/organizational variables as well as other more proactive approaches to emergency management (McEntire et. al. 2002).

In an attempt to overcome these limitations but retain the strengths of IEM, the concept of “vulnerability management” has been proposed (McEntire 2004a; McEntire et. al. 2002). Rather than assess physical risks alone, vulnerability management recommends that we also determine susceptibility - the level of social/organizational liabilities. The proposal retains a focus on capabilities, but these are clarified as being elements of resistance and resilience (see Table 1).

With a reliance on this model, emergency managers might be better able to assess the wide range of liabilities and capabilities pertinent to the physical and social/organizational environments. These liabilities and capabilities include location/exposure, building construction, the use of technology, environmental degradation, politics, demographic patterns, culture, economics, and an ability to enforce building codes, warn the public, improvise, and conduct damage assessment, among other things. (McEntire 2004a). Also, by incorporating the concepts of risk, susceptibility, resistance and resilience, this modification of IEM makes the field dramatically more proactive than the past (McEntire 2004d). Focusing on vulnerability (which humans determine and can reduce), for instance, rather than hazards (which we have less or no control over) may amount to a revolutionary paradigm shift as well. In other words, we must take natural hazards as a given but ask what we must do to protect ourselves and deal with them in a more effective manner. In addition, the proposal presented in this paper remodels the house of emergency management for concerns of the future as suggested by Rubin (2000), but it likewise saves the foundation because vulnerability is related to all phases of disaster and it is related to IEM (McEntire 2004a). Furthermore, by including all of the hazards, variables, phases, and actors associated with vulnerability (McEntire 2004a), it is possible for research and emergency management to accept complexity and become more holistic or inter-disciplinary (McEntire 2004d). It is therefore more plausible that the disaster reduction profession will progress in the future through a paradigm shift toward the concept of vulnerability rather than experience an impossible revolution through proposals that visibly concentrate on hazards and mistakenly imply that sustainability is completely possible in the future. One is justified in promoting increased attention toward mitigation, recovery, environmental protection and social justice issues, but it would be unwise to accept a paradigm that diminishes the ongoing need for successful preparedness activities and response operations.
Table 1
Physical Social/Organizational

(including natural, (including cultural, political

built, technological) psychological, economic)

Liabilities Risk Susceptibility



Capabilities Resistance Resilience
Adapted from “Triggering Agents, Vulnerabilities and Disaster Reduction:

Towards a Holistic Paradigm.” McEntire, David A. (2001)

Disaster Prevention and Management. 10(3): 189-196.

There is no doubt that we are having more disasters as compared to the past. These trends naturally suggest the need for much greater attention on mitigation and recovery as we are undoubtedly not doing enough to prevent disasters or reduce their deadly, destructive and disruptive impacts. This should not mean that preparedness and response can be discounted as is presumed by some of the current literature in the field however. There are simply too many barriers to be overcome and scholars and practitioners alike recognize these realities.

In short, disasters can be reduced in quantity and in quality, but they can never be completely eliminated from human experience. Consequently, progress in emergency management will be more realistic and advantageous if undertaken with the lessons of both hindsight and foresight. One possible approach is to build the field on the foundation of IEM but alter it substantially by making vulnerability management the concept and policy guide of the future. The goal is not just to prepare and respond as has been the case in traditional approaches to emergency management. The aim is instead to do all that is possible to reduce the factors that increase physical exposure and social/organizational proneness, while also increasing the ability to withstand disasters and successfully respond and recover from them if our efforts to prevent them or mitigate their impact are less than ideal. Liability reduction (i.e., the diminution of risk and susceptibility) and capacity building (i.e., the augmenting of resistance and resilience) in all sectors of society and at all levels of government are what matters – certainly not the development of emergency operations plans and first responder capacities alone as was done in the past.

The challenges that lie ahead of us are clear. Will we accept and implement policies that will meet the broad range of realities that lie ahead? Specifically, will we do more to mitigate disasters while also prepare to successfully respond and recover if they cannot be prevented? Logic, empirical evidence and the recommendations of the most reputable scholars and practitioners in the field dictate that we should recognize both the opportunities and limits of what can be achieved in the disaster reduction profession. In spite of these facts, there is agreement that we should aggressively push for change and not be content with the reactive approaches of yesterday.

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1 The author’s research pushes for a proactive, holistic, integrated and interdisciplinary perspective of vulnerability which is consistent with the recommendations of many scholars (Mileti 1999, 35; Salter 1997/98, 22; Geis 2001, 152; and Weichselgartner 2001, 86).

2 Waugh (2005) explores in a lucid manner the misunderstanding of the relationship among the all-hazards model and terrorism, and the confusion about them may extend to the risk-based approach to emergency management as well. The all-hazards model is a misnomer in some ways as it really deals with the functions that are common to various hazards (e.g., warning, evacuation, sheltering) rather than focusing on all types of disasters. In other words, the all-hazards model does not necessarily address every hazard; it instead builds capabilities to perform the generic activities that occur in many disaster events - regardless of their classification. With this in mind, it may not be necessary to plan for terrorism, per se, as most disasters require similar efforts in fire suppression, public information and disaster assistance. Waugh is careful to recognize the need to accept a broader and more complex perspective though (2005, 10). In addition, Webb (2002) illustrates that human behavior in terrorism is similar to people’s activities in other disasters, but Peek and Sutton (2003) provide empirical evidence that conflict-type disasters require unique or more complex forms of responses as compared to consensus-type disasters. Site security, evidence collection, decontamination, mass fatality management, crisis counseling, or medical inoculations may be dramatically different after a biological or chemical terrorist attack than a natural disaster. Complicating things further is the fact that a risk-based approach to emergency management typically looks at probability but not necessarily consequences (Mileti 1999, 106). Terrorism is undoubtedly less probable in the United States than other disasters, but there is a great possibility that it could have more deadly, devastating and disruptive consequences than most tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes if it involves weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, an accurate assessment of potentialities must include not only probability but impact as well. Furthermore, even if there is a desire to plan for the most common disasters (i.e. take a risk-based approach), a hazard and vulnerability assessment would be incomplete if it did not initially consider every type of event ranging from a wildfire in a suburban area or flood episode in the middle of the city to the breach of a dam in a lightly populated area or a hazardous materials release on a crowded freeway. In this sense, even the risk-based approach to emergency management is concerned with all types of hazards. All of this suggests that dilemmas and complexity exist among terrorism, the all-hazards model and the management of risk. Nonetheless, it should be clear that our efforts to deal with terrorism should be built upon the existing disaster framework, rather than dismantling current emergency management institutions to plan for terrorist attacks.

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