Disaster management : a new public policy paradigm?

Sep 15th, 2004 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

Here at  the 14th World Conference on Disaster Management, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, South Building, June 20-23, 2004, it finally dawns on you 

“Disaster management” is yet another good example of an early 21st century oxymoron. Anyone who has been involved in real-world disasters will tell you they can never really be managed. Yet “extreme events” of various descriptions, affecting large numbers of people, are becoming an increasingly frequent part of everyday life in the new global village.

The road to Toronto 2004 …

So far no one seems to have any full explanation of why this is happening. Climate change may be prompting growing numbers of assorted natural disasters around the world. But it would be odd to suggest that it has much to do with oil spills or international terrorism.

Well before September 11, 2001, however, disaster management (or, less dramatically, “emergency management” or, perhaps even more accurately, “emergency preparedness”) had started its rise as a new public policy paradigm for our uncertain and quizzical age.

The natural devastations of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 helped crystallize the Clinton administration’s unsung but impressive reform of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the United States.

One enduring result is that the FEMA website more or less remains a marvel of modern democratic government in cyberspace today.

The successive vast and costly natural devastations of the Saguenay Floods, Red River Floods, and Northeast Ice Storm in 1996, 1997, and 1998 finally brought Canada into some similar space. (Though, partly because of the highly decentralized nature of Canadian federalism, there is still nothing quite like FEMA in Ottawa.)

Even before the depredations of these “Three Sisters,” Canadians who monitor the bigger picture could see the writing on the wall. Responding to what one book has called a Decade of Disaster in the 1980s, the United Nations declared the 1990s an “International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.”

An enterprising non-governmental organization known as the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness began holding World Conferences on Disaster Management early on in the 1990s. Since then “9/11” has been only the most horrifying reminder that being prepared for disasters of many different varieties continues to make increasing good sense.

Of course no one quite wants things to go on this way. But the June 2004 edition of the World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto was the biggest and best yet.

North American tilt

It is worth noting quickly that the current practical meaning of “World” here is as yet only somewhat broader than in the baseball technical term “World Series.”

Almost all the more than 50 presentations staged very efficiently over the four days from June 20 to June 23 were given by speakers from the five predominantly English-speaking countries of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Inklings of some emerging wider future were on display in two presentations from Israel, a German co-presenter in one Canadian presentation, and – just outside the general session hall – one poster presentation each from India, Iran, and Thailand. But officially bilingual Canadians were bound to notice that all presentations were in some version of the English language.

The United States being the most populous of the five main countries involved, it was only logical that a clear majority of both the presenters and the more than 1,300 delegates who came to hear their presentations were from assorted States of the Union.

Canada being the regular venu for the gathering, Canadians were also well represented. The world event at large had a pronounced North American tilt.

Yet Australians, with their unique penchant for international travel, were unmistakably in evidence too. And there were enough presenters and delegates from the United Kingdom to add some unobtrusive guidance from an older culture, with deeper experience in the tricky ways of trying to manage uncertain worlds.

Disaster management professionals

The most common dress for both presenters and delegates at the conference was business casual. Many disaster management professionals, however, have some past and/or present military or local police and fire background. There was a quite visible minority in various states of uniform.

Full registration for the conference cost close to $1,000. Most delegates were professionals in the field, subsidized by their employers – people who work in the growing emergency preparedness and response branches of assorted large corporate and government organizations.

The importance of good communication skills among disaster management professionals was a recurring theme. As one presenter explained, one of the main jobs in this business is to “tell people who don’t want to listen things they don’t want to hear.”

Even today the broad public everywhere is only seriously interested in disasters when they are happening (sometimes known in the emerging literature as the “focusing events” syndrome). We think we have better things to do than worry about the next disaster. It is only when the next disaster happens to us that we start to complain about how someone else somewhere ought to have been worrying before.

Those who are taking on this kind of worry as a living need all the emotional support they can get. And that, it seems, is one key role of the World Conference on Disaster Management.

Meanwhile, on the afternoon of June 21 a FEMA official from Washington gave a presentation on “the rise of a new academic discipline of emergency management.” He argued that, faced with “historically rising disaster losses … higher education can help bridge gaps between an adequate body of knowledge and inadequate application.”

Disaster management technology

The WCDM in Toronto is a more down-to-earth adaptation of the form and structure of the contemporary academic or scientific conference. Presenters give presentations, not papers (and typically in Microsoft Power Point, as at a business meeting).

Some satisfied customers in 2004 especially applauded the “Good mix of academics and real practical presenters – it’s nice to hear the research perspective from those who have actual experience implementing programs/practices.” (See the post-mortem publicity on the new website for the 15th World Conference on Disaster Management, to be held in July next year.)

General and concurrent sessions of presentations over four days were the main activity at the conference. Delegates chose among such topics as “How to Measure and Benchmark Your Business Continuity & Disaster Recovery Programs & Processes,” “The Looming Risk of Agricultural Bio-terrorism and the Prospects for Consequence Management,” “Mass Evacuation During the Kelowna Firestorm,”and “Selling Disaster Management to Top Brass.”

In between presentations presenters and delegates had coffee, breakfast, and lunch in a large hall that also featured a “Trade Show.” Here many of the latest technological aids to more effective disaster management were on display.

The Trade Show atmosphere had vague hints of those parts in James Bond movies where 007 is shown the latest new toys for his technological spy kit (almost all of which eventually do prove highly useful in dealing with some disaster).

There were also “noontime demonstrations” of more feisty new technologies outdoors, on the Convention Centre grounds. A New York-based firm associated with Rudy Giuliani gave a “Dynamic Demonstration of CBRNE Mitigation and Containment Capabilities.” A related entertainment was later staged by the “City of Toronto’s Heavy Urban Search and Rescue & Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Teams.” (And if you add “Event” to “Chemical …,” etc., you should at least start to understand what “CBRNE” means.)

The changing face of disaster management

So-called natural disasters – such extreme events as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and (most often) floods – have been the traditional bread and butter of disaster management.

But the new discipline of the early 21st century has its earliest roots in the Civil Defence movement of the 1950s, addressed to the most extreme prospect of preparing for nuclear war.

More recently, September 11, 2001 has been only the biggest reminder that disaster management in principle involves many different forms of potential extreme event. (And FEMA in the United States provided disaster assistance for various survivors of 9/11, as it had in the earlier and much less extreme terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993.)

In the late winter and early spring of 2003 Toronto itself had quite a strong taste of another variation on the current theme of disaster diversification. It lived through a substantial enough outbreak of a biological extreme event known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS.

In the somewhat wider world of Canada at large in 2003, the discovery of a single case of so-called Mad Cow Disease on one ranch in Alberta threw the beef industry into something said to approach chaos.

The US federal government closed the border to Canadian beef. The Alberta government declared an “economic hardship disaster.” And the Canadian federal government started pouring financial assistance into the beef industry.

With all this as just some of the background, the theme for the 14th World Conference in 2004 was “The Changing Face of Disaster Management … .”

Presentations were given on such subjects as “How Prepared Are We to deal with Both Man-Made and Natural Disasters?,” “Emerging and Re-emerging Diseases: Implications for Prevention, Preparedness, Planning,” and “Exposing the Spammers: Protecting Against Blended Threats and Worms to Ensure Communication Continuity.”

To help sum this trend up, an official from the New Zealand Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management talked about his country’s innovative “new legislation for a comprehensive hazard risk based emergency management environment.”

As the emerging new profession spreads its wings in such comprehensive hazard-risk-based directions, it is inevitably also developing its own specialized branches.

What finally unites even the increasingly diverse changing face of disaster management is that everyone involved is somehow getting paid to prepare for the worst that might befall the rest of us. This is no doubt bound to bring a certain mild but giddy paranoia into the proceedings. (Or, as someone used to say in the 1960s, “if you’re not a little paranoid, you don’t know what’s going on.”)

A new paradigm?

It is sometimes easier for small government jurisdictions to experiment with innovative approaches to public policy than it is for larger countries. And the June 22 presentation on New Zealand’s new comprehensive hazard-risk legislation alluded to “the paradigm changes which are occurring” as implementation of this innovation takes place.

A freshman delegate from Arizona also later remarked that the 2004 Word Conference on Disaster Management itself was a “true step in creating a new paradigm for world preparedness.”

Just what this paradigm might finally involve could concern some people who are not disaster management professionals.

William Pfaff is an American journalist based in Paris, whose “well-rounded analysis of U.S. foreign policy and America’s place in the international community” is always worth reading. Recently he observed in a jagged footnote that there “is speculation in some military circles that an attack on the US by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction might one day make military government necessary in the US.”

Yet the quite visible minority of uniformed military specialists in disaster management who gathered at Toronto this past June apparently come from different contemporary military circles.

Taking a comprehensive hazard-risk approach in the early 21st century also seems to imply that old-fashioned raw military government is at most just an absurdly extreme and strictly theoretical permutation of the emerging new paradigm, towards which the 2004 World Conference on Disaster Management has taken some early true step.

Even amidst the panic that no more than a fierce extreme event caused by mother nature can induce, disaster management ultimately does go to the heart of the first and most fundamental objective of government: the establishment and preservation of public order. (If you can’t do that, in the eyes of some decisive majority of the people you serve, then you are not a government.)

Military force, however, is only the most ancient means by which governments establish and preserve public order. Some of its most ancient methods are showing increasing signs of obsolescence (as it may finally be considered George W. Bush’s most historic achievement to have conclusively demonstrated at last).

As time has passed, such organizations as local police and fire services have come to play important roles in meeting government’s first and most fundamental objective as well. Still more recently, local public health and social services have developed, to at least try to do something about our increasingly more complex problems of public order, in our increasingly more complex and technologically driven societies, around the world.

If you look at what typically happens in the wake of officially declared disasters in countries like the US, UK, and so forth today, all the ancient and modern public order services of government are finally involved. FEMA in the US, e.g., can and sometimes does pay financial assistance towards such things as grief counseling for disaster victims.

Real-world disasters of various sorts can also create severe economic hardship for individuals, families, and businesses (including farms). In the United States both the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) can and often do provide economic assistance to disaster victims (usually through low-interest loans).

Public-private partnerships (and BCP)

Beyond the formal arms of government in any narrow sense, natural disasters in the 20th century increasingly also came to involve non-governmental private organizations like the Red Cross and assorted charitable and volunteer groups.

In countries that especially prize open free-market economies, governments have tended to assume as well that large private business organizations will be taking some steps to look after themselves when disaster strikes. (Just as private individuals and families are expected to carry their own insurance against disaster losses, wherever this is reasonably available.)

Current disaster management activity in the private sector focuses around “business continuity planning” (BCP). Many large corporations in countries like the US, UK, and so forth develop their own contingency plans, in effort to ensure that they can remain in operation in the wake of a dramatically destabilizing extreme event.

Large financial organizations that nowadays depend on a vast infrastructure of computer technology to transact ordinary business may have made the most progress in this direction so far. WCDM 2004 included a presentation by an emergency manager with the Wells Fargo bank, headquartered in earthquake-prone San Francisco.

There were seven other presentations on various aspects of business continuity planning, including one on “How to Get Certified” in the field. Another corporate manager later confessed that he “really liked the mix of public and private issues. Really enjoyed the conference – great job in organizing it … really energized me to go back to work on my BCP!”

During the often lively question-and-answer sessions at the end of conference presentations, there were some complaints from private sector disaster management professionals that governments were often not doing enough to keep them informed of public planning activities.

In the late afternoon of June 22 there was a formal “Panel Discussion on Public/Private Partnerships” – a key theme in the emerging “new paradigm for world preparedness.” Earlier the same day there had been a presentation on “Engaging the Community in Emergency Management.”

In the United States an innovative FEMA program known as “Project Impact” has perhaps gone furthest in trying to develop this side of the new paradigm. And, on the same afternoon of June 22 at the 2004 conference in Toronto, the local Project Impact program manager from Seattle gave a presentation on “Local Government & Businesses Working Together – Managing Everything from Terrorism to Floods.” It gave examples of “a number of public-private partnerships to highlight the importance of community-wide participation.”

Are we ready for more social involvement?

The 2004 World Conference on Disaster Management broke up on the afternoon of Wednesday. June 23 on quite a positive and upbeat note.

It would be wrong to suggest that there was something ominous or alarming about the four-day event. The ultimate bottom line of disaster management as a new public policy paradigm certainly isn’t anything like military government and trigger-happy declarations of martial law.

But it does seem to have a lot to do with some quest for new degrees and forms of what might be called social involvement, on the part of a great many of us who live and/or work in local communities, and who are not disaster management professionals.

Theoretically, again, one might suggest that there are some vague Orwellian undercurrents in this kind of quest. The ultimate message of the new paradigm does seem to be that, in all the local communities where we live and work, we must all somehow be better organized to effectively respond to and recover from a growing array of threatening extreme events, that may or may not loom on the 21st century horizon.

Someone determined to be an alarmist might even wonder whether the new disaster management paradigm may finally point towards tighter local organizations of social control – of the sort, e.g., that appear to have dominated much of China in the last half of the 20th century. (And say what you like about such inevitably repressive human networks: they have no doubt played a part in China’s ability to do such things as dramatically reduce its rate of population growth.)

Walking away from the 2004 conference at the start of the laid-back Toronto summer, none of this actually seemed too likely. Such innovations as FEMA’s Project Impact appear to have much more in common with the frontier-land religious revival meetings of an earlier North America.

But it may somehow be true enough that if we do want to increase our public and private safety in new and apparently more dangerous times – while at the same time preserving and even extending and enriching all our defining freedoms in our various free and democratic societies – we are all going to have to get somewhat more involved in disaster management ourselves, in the local communities where we most often work and live.

Whether enough of us are really prepared to do this will probably remain a good question for future World Conferences on Disaster Management, in the next number of years ahead. According to the emerging new professional literature’s theory of “focusing events,” the ultimate answer will almost certainly have a lot to do with just how many future real-world disasters we each of us find we have to confront practically, in our own everyday lives.

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