Friday, 29 February 2008

The Value of Standards in Emergency Management and Disaster Risk Reduction

Civil protection is an inclusive process that involves public sector authorities, voluntary societies and the private sector. When emergencies, disasters or crises occur, a wide variety of organisations and jurisdictions must work together in harmony, yet under circumstances that may be relatively unfamiliar to the participants. Efficient disaster management requires common procedures, compatible plans and a significant knowledge of how other organisations are expected to perform under emergency conditions. In few areas of the world has this been achieved with sufficient uniformity between the organisations and jurisdictions involved. Thus, civil protection tends to be a mosaic that reflects policies, strategies, procedures and attitudes that are apt to differ between the various geographical and organisational components of the system. For this reason it is necessary to consider what can be done to harmonise operations and procedures so that they work well on an inter-organisational basis. One pertinent but unanswered question concerns whether the institution of standards will facilitate or hinder this process. Although doubts have been expressed, throughout the field there is considerable interest in this issue. This paper will offer a definition of standards, consider the principles on which they are--or should be--based, examine what they can be applied to and evaluate their potential for achieving positive change by creating harmonisation and enhancing the efficiency of emergency operations. It will review some existing standards in the field.


Whereas there is no absolute definition of the term, a standard is essentially a specification of the minimum acceptable level of a product or service. 'Disaster management' (which is perhaps more properly known as 'disaster risk reduction') is an umbrella term for the processes of planning and managing the impact of unexpected events with negative consequences (crises, emergencies, catastrophes, etc.) that, in comparison with normal day-to-day operations, require a qualitative change in the way they are tackled. 'Civil protection' is the broad field of managing, and preparing to face, emergencies using the resources of the state, accredited voluntary organisations and the private sector. The emphasis should be on co-ordination and flexible styles of management that adapt to changing circumstances. In point of fact, civil protection should involve all sectors of society, including the general public, in taking some responsibility for their own risks and security. Because the 'theatre of operations' in a disaster is invariably the local area, civil protection should be decentralised to the local authority level, but harmonised and co-ordinated by the central and intermediate levels of government. One way to achieve this may be through the application--though significantly not the imposition--of standards for civil protection actions and services.


It is clear from these definitions that a standard should be a document that specifies certain elements and qualities of the products and services furnished by civil protection organisations. Conceivably, standards could be applied to disaster planning, crisis management, emergency communication, the storage and usage of information in emergencies and procedures for education and training in the field. In each case, a standard would need to specify minimum acceptable levels of content and quality as well as define, where appropriate, its own applicability and possibly the duration of particular activities.

An instrument that achieves such goals may become a valuable tool for judging the appropriateness, acceptability or performance of civil protection actions. Hence, mechanisms need to be devised to apply the standard to the activities and initiatives that it covers, so that a judgement can be made as to whether each of them meets a set of criteria governing its acceptability. As a standard should involve minimum specifications, nothing should inhibit civil protection organisations from creating products or services that are of superior quality: for example, courses that are longer in duration and more comprehensive in content than those specified in a training standard. This does not diminish the value of the standard, which should be designed to ensure that services and products do not fall below a commonly accepted level.

In determining whether it is appropriate to create a standard, the first task should be to conduct a feasibility study. As standards only work if there is adequate consensus over their application and content among the community of users, it is essential to have sufficient support for the process right from the start. Secondly, a standard should facilitate, not inhibit, the development of civil protection services. These tend to be heterogeneous and only in certain cases is it appropriate to strive to make them less so. For example, in the European Union there is no overarching civil protection structure. The national and regional services in this field reflect differences in public administration systems that vary from highly centralised (France) to heavily devolved (Italy), and from monarchies (e.g. the United Kingdom) and unitary republics (Estonia) to federal republics (Germany). Hence it would be counter-productive to impose a single system of disaster management on such a wide variety of national administrative systems. Thus, before proposing a standard it is essential to find out what is realistically capable of being harmonised through the specification of common terms of reference.

In broad terms, a standard should conform to the following principles:-

- It should specify the minimum requirements of quality, content, durability, performance, etc., of procedures, equipment, systems, missions, assignments or organisations, as appropriate.

- It should specify its own conditions and limits of applicability, as well as its constituency of users. In this respect it should aim to be relevant to as large a body of users as possible and should be based on a broad consensus about its relevance and usefulness.

- A standard should define the terms it relies upon for explanations and specifications. It should also seek to homogenise the use and interpretation of terminology so that key terms are broadly agreed upon by the users. Moreover, it should do this by aiming for maximum clarity and freedom from jargon and "technical density".

- It should not be didactic--i.e., it should not seek to train people--but should indicate what they need to know to provide adequate products or services.

- In order to ensure maximum usefulness, a standard should be freely available and widely disseminated.

- Finally, a balance must be struck between creating a standard that is permanent and one that is frequently updated as circumstances change. In an evolving world too much permanence will condemn the standard to increasing irrelevance, whereas excessive "tinkering with the mechanism" will create confusion and diminish the effectiveness of the standard.


As a standard needs to be utilised in order to demonstrate its value and effectiveness, rules should be devised for its application. A basic choice needs to be made between putting the regulations in the standard itself or devising a separate set. In either case, clarity is needed about how the standard will be applied--i.e. how to judge whether a product or service conforms to the standard. In my experience, this tends to be a somewhat arbitrary process bereft of scientific precision and is thus an easy prey to subjectivity. Hence it is important to devise a set of rules that is robust and fair. A further choice must be made between three alternatives: having a standard that is 'self-policing', in which applicants are allowed to judge for themselves whether their products or services meet the criteria of the standard (i.e. self-certification); creating a committee or other body charged with judging applications for certification under the standard; or allowing, perhaps licensing, freelance entities to engage in certification work, possibly on the basis of a common training scheme that deals with how to apply the standard.

A final choice must be made about the means of recognising that a product or service conforms to the standard. It may be possible to design a formal accreditation system, although this will probably require a legal framework, which may be a complex issue if the instrument is designed to function in multiple jurisdictions. Alternatively, a less formal means of recognition can be instituted. In fact, many standards involve a voluntary scheme in which conformity is the result of incentives and free choice, rather than legislative compulsion. The biggest incentives tend to be the need to compete with other suppliers of the product or service and the desire to convince clients that what they are about to buy into is of a recognisably good quality.

Alternatives to standards

Detractors from the concept of standards argue that they are unnecessary, bureaucratic and restrictive. Problems arise from trying to harmonise products or services that are too complex or different from one another to be made uniform. It is also suggested that the imposition of a set of regulations, as contained in the standard, creates an unnecessary bureaucracy designed to "police" the standard (i.e. to ensure conformity with it) and restricts the development of the product or service by forcing it to conform to a set of arbitrary rules that may or may not be appropriate. Moreover, opinions differ considerably about the meaning of the concept of 'standard' and what the resulting document should contain. A very close specification, for example of the topics to be covered by a training course or the format of an emergency plan, will have the effect of forcing anyone who wishes to have a product or service recognised under the standard to conform to a particular way of doing things. There are many circumstances in which this would be counter-productive. On the other hand, a standard that is vague would be unlikely to achieve very much in the way of homogenisation or quality control.

There is an element of truth in these arguments, although not enough to warrant abandoning the quest for standards in civil protection and disaster management. However, one should not forget the presence of alternatives to full-scale standardisation. These are as follows:-

(a) Manuals of best practice (e.g. FEMA 1995). Exemplary ways of doing things are collected into a compendium and used as illustration and inspiration for readers who wish to emulate the successes of those whose work is described in the manual. Often there is an element of 'lessons learned' here. The 'best practice' described does not require conformity to a set of rules but does indicate what has worked in the past and what has not. Manuals of this kind are means of utilising the value of experience, which is always a vital part of civil protection work.

(b) Guidelines (e.g. UN-OCHA 1994). The main difference between sets of guidelines and a standard is that the former offer suggestions, rather than firm criteria, for the improvement or correct organisation of a product or service. The use of guidelines recognises that there may be many ways of doing something and hence it is inappropriate to specify procedures and criteria too closely. At their worst, guidelines tend to be sets of vague hints, but at their best they can provide useful indications about how to create a product or organise a service. The main difference between a set of guidelines and standard is that the former cannot as easily be used to judge conformity, as the guidelines are not rigid criteria. However, if the guidelines are constructed with sufficient rigour, they begin to approach the formal structure of a standard.

(c) Benchmarks (e.g. ISO/PAS 2007). A benchmark is essentially a performance criterion. In civil protection it might be the ability to remove a certain tonnage of rubble from the site of a structural collapse in a given period of time, or the ability to transport a certain number of patients to hospital. Hence, benchmarks act as thresholds for acceptable performance and need to be reached and surpassed by whoever wishes to demonstrate that a given service is adequate. As there is a strong element of quantitative evaluation, benchmarks are difficult to apply in terms of services whose performance cannot be measured in such terms (for example, psychological counselling). Moreover they may be most effective when incorporated into a standard, rather than being used in their own right. A corollary of the benchmark is the indicator, which is often expressed in the form of an index (Takeuchi and Okayasu 2005).

The simplest alternative is to share common procedures on an informal basis. However, it is clear that, despite the alternatives, there is still plenty of scope for developing standards in civil protection and disaster risk reduction. The advantage of standardisation is that it should impose a degree of formality and rigour on the process of harmonising products and services. The standard should be instantly recognisable as a guarantee of good practice and reliability. This is especially important in a field like civil protection, in which lives need to be saved and property needs to be protected from destruction. Indeed, the seriousness of the issue has been a great stimulus to the search for common ground on which to build standards.

The next section will briefly review some of the existing standards in disaster management.

Existing standards

The field of civil protection is evolving at such a fast rate that it beyond the scope of this paper to conduct a full and comprehensive review of existing and proposed standards. Hence the following account will be selective and will rely on examples that are in some way representative or exemplary. It should be noted, however, that there is no comprehensive, overall world standard in civil protection and disaster risk reduction. For the reasons stated above, it is doubtful whether any attempt to create such an instrument would be successful. Nevertheless, we now consider eight existing standards and evaluate their advantages and drawbacks.

(a) United Kingdom Cabinet Office Standards for Civil Protection in England and Wales (

This 16-page document of about 2000 words manages to be all-embracing in its coverage but simple in its approach and prescriptiveness. Published by the UK Home Office in 1999, it is the fruit of a broad and sustained consultation with the emergency planning and management community in the UK, which was asked what it thought should go into such a document. In this respect it represents a consensus. On the negative side, the England and Wales standard is short, vague and somewhat sketchy. It is written in terms of recommendations rather than parameters and hence lacks incisiveness. It has, in any case, been largely superceded by the UK Civil Contingencies Act of November 2004, which, as one would expect, is much more prescriptive in what it requires public and private authorities to do in order to prepare for emergencies.

(b) United States' National Fire Protection Association NFPA 1600 Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs 2007 Edition (

This 57-page document, now in its third edition, consists of five chapters and six annexes. It is thus comprehensive and detailed, and it reflects sustained consultation with stakeholders, whose interests and concerns are well represented in its many different provisions. It has the added advantage of being applicable to the private sector, through its provisions on business continuity management, as well as the public one. It is also very systematic and includes precise, rigorous definitions of all phenomena that it deals with. However, it is heavily orientated towards North America and is thus of limited direct application outside that subcontinent. Moreover, it is a long and complex document that, despite its good level or organisation and propensity for short, numbered paragraphs, achieves a high level of "technical density". Annex material amounting to more than half of the document is devoted to lists of North American emergency preparedness organisations. NFPA1600 thus represents useful inspiration for people or organisations that are interested in formulating standards but it is not universally applicable.

The NFPA offers other standards that are appropriate to emergency response, such as NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System.

(c) SIPROCI Project Minimum Standards for a Local Plan of Civil Protection (

SIPROCI was a project sponsored by the European Commission in the mid-2000s that dealt with inter-regional response to disasters at the level of local and regional public administration. It produced seven documents which are available in eight European languages. One of the documents is a standard for emergency planning at the local level. This 11-page document includes definitions and guidance on the topics and structure of a plan. This work emphasises the strong relationship between emergency planning and urban and regional planning, which should exist but is often neglected in practice. On the positive side, the SIPROCI approach is simple and practical, but unfortunately this ensure that the standard is rather superficial and elementary. To some extent it falls foul of the wide differences in the approach to civil protection that exist across Europe.

(d) Sphere Project Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response (

The Sphere Project was started in 1997 by a group of humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) under the aegis of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Federation in Geneva. The Charter and Minimum Standards reflect the concern of NGOs working in disaster relief that the difficult political, social and military conditions in which they must operate can lead to abuses of human rights, as well as inefficiencies in providing disaster relief. The 2004 edition of the Charter and Standards has been published as a 344-page handbook, with sections on the charter (humanitarian relief rights and responsibilities) and standards in relief. The latter include specific standards on water supply, sanitation, hygiene, food security, nutrition, shelter and non-food disaster aid.

As it is the fruit of wide experience and broad consensus among disaster relief NGOs, Sphere has both moral and practical authority. It was the first standard for humanitarian work (see also VENRO 2003) and is both comprehensive and widely utilised in the field. On the negative side, it has not been free of criticism (Darcy 2004) and, of course, it is only applicable to humanitarian relief situations and cannot be applied to civil protection problems in general.

(e) Region of Lombardy Advanced School of Civil Protection Lombardy Civil Protection Training Standard (

This instrument was formulated in 2003 and updated on subsequent occasions. It has the approval of the Government of Lombardy, which is the largest region in Italy. The standard is applicable only to civil protection training courses offered within the region (which is home to at least 600 emergency preparedness training initiatives Alexander et al., in press) but its sufficiently comprehensive, thorough and innovative to offer an interesting model for similar initiatives elsewhere.

The standard begins with a codified statement of principles governing civil protection training courses. Based on observation, common sense and experience of teaching, this is intended to safeguard the quality of courses approved under the standard. It then divides courses into categories, for example regarding the training of emergency managers, emergency planners, volunteers (including specialists in sub-aqua rescue, forest-fire suppression, dog handling, etc.), spokespersons, civil administrators, and so on. The approximate minimum content and duration of basic and refresher courses are specified for each category. In some cases, for example regarding emergency response and forest-fire fighting volunteers, the courses are stratified from novice level to specialist and command levels. An organisation that conducts training in Lombardy can apply to have its course approved by the Regional Government, which will evaluate the application through a committee made up of representatives of the main stakeholders in civil protection. The standard is currently only available in Italian.

The Lombard standard has proved successful in granting official recognition and publicity to courses in a region in which civil protection training has been heterogeneous and lacking in evaluation of its rigour and effectiveness. Much valuable experience has been gained by formulating and applying it. The eventual aim is to ensure that no one participates in emergency response activities in Lombardy without having taken one or more appropriate courses that have been approved under the standard. This is intended to guarantee the quality of civil protection activities and ensure that they are compatible between the region's 12 provinces and 1,547 municipalities.

(f) Australia-New Zealand Standard on Risk Management AS/NZS 4360:2004

Published with a handbook that gives details of how to apply it, AS/NZS 4360:2004 is a comprehensive standard on managing risks, including those pertaining to disasters, in the public, private and voluntary sectors. As they use a widely applicable methodology, these documents have proved to be an important and authoritative source of support for risk management initiatives both within and outside Australasia. However, the standard only refers to risk management, not to the more direct processes of dealing with disaster, and the documents are only available commercially for a price in excess of AUS$100.

(g) US National Incident Management System standards (

The United States' Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and associated bodies have devised a standardised methodology and structure for managing adverse events called the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The need to integrate emergency response across a wide range of organisations and levels of government led to calls for standardisation of the methods involved. In 2006 a committee reported on the issues involved (Stenner et al. 2006) and recommended the institution of standards in emergency management, communications, the processing and usage of information, equipment specifications and other matters. Currently NIMS adheres to 25 NFPA standards (see above), and eight ANSI standards. The entire concept of NIMS is rooted in standardisation, which is an ongoing process in its development.

(h) British Standard in Business Continuity Management BS 25999 Parts 1 and 2

In 2007 the British Standards Institution held a consultation with the UK business community regarding the formulation of an auditable standard in business continuity management. The standard is divided into a code of practice (Part 1) and a set of specifications (Part 2). These have now been published commercially. They include definitions of key terms and prescriptions for emergency plans and management structures appropriate to businesses and industries. The standard is comprehensive, in that it includes aspects of the problem such as dealing with the mass media and creating a risk register. As this instrument is not particularly specific to British conditions, it can be used anywhere in the world to help ensure resilience against disasters and other interruptions to business. Moreover, as the prevailing philosophy in many places is to regard public services in a business-orientated manner, BS-25999 is not only applicable to the private sector.

The eight examples reviewed above are only a selection of the standards that are currently available in the disaster management field. However, as noted above, the wide variety of organisations, systems of government and relationships between the private sector, public administration and civil society mean that it is difficult and perhaps counter-productive to aim for an all-embracing civil protection standard. This means that many standards in this field will be of limited applicability. In the interests of promoting the concept, the next section briefly gives some observations on how to build standards in disaster management for particular purposes and jurisdictions.

How to create a standard

It is perfectly possible to create one's own standard in any branch of emergency planning, disaster management, crisis communications, emergency information management, or civil protection training and education. The process should begin with a feasibility study that objectively assesses the need and support for the standard among a defined constituency of potential users. It is helpful to play "devil's advocate" here in order to ensure that a standard is necessary and appropriate, rather than any of the alternatives listed above.

At all stages of its formulation and application, the resulting standard must remain compatible with the following: any other means of evaluating civil protection work with which it must interact; operational procedures and protocols; laws governing emergency relief, environmental protection, safety at work and so on; and mutual assistance pacts. The standard itself will consist of definitions, criteria that explain the minimum acceptable levels of a product or service, and procedures for its application and updating. A fine line has to be drawn between specifying too much detail, or criteria that are too rigorous to be applied in any realistic way, and vagueness or laxity that diminishes the effectiveness of the standard as a quality-control instrument.

The creation of the standard should be a consultative process, in which the potential users are invited, perhaps for a period of one to six months, to contribute opinions on the project and on a draft of the resulting instrument. Once it is inaugurated, compliance with the standard should be monitored in order to ensure that it is adopted and utilised. Generally, this will only occur if there is sufficient consensus on its value to the community of civil protection practitioners. Finally, the standard may need to be revised periodically to take account of new circumstances or to adjust it to the needs and capacities of the users.

In the process of formulating a new standard, existing instruments may provide guidance and inspiration, but they should always be reviewed critically and any temptation to copy them without adaptation to local circumstances should be resisted. Finally, in two previous papers I formulated templates for standards in emergency training (Alexander 2003) and disaster planning (Alexander 2005).


The process of standardisation reflects the desire for order in a world that is increasingly complex. To some extent, complexity is the enemy of good disaster management, because it mitigates against efficiency and integration. On the other hand, it would be dangerous to oversimplify systems that must deal with communication, data handling, command processes, planning and strategy for many professions, organisations, jurisdictions and levels of government.

Despite these reservations, standardisation clearly has an interesting future ahead of it in civil protection and disaster risk reduction. For example, in training and education the creation of the figure of the professional emergency manager requires rigorous courses to be taught, certificates of competency to be awarded, employers in the public and private sector to recognise that it is essential to hire qualified applicants and roles to be created for people who have taken approved courses (Archer and Seynaeve 2004). Standards can help guarantee and maintain the quality of courses and thus contribute to the professionalisation of the field, which is vitally important if emergencies are to be managed effectively. Likewise, standards for emergency planning can help ensure that plans are effective and compatible with one another. Hence, they can contribute to the processes of vertical and horizontal integration between plans for different jurisdictions and organisations, which is a vital means of ensuring that emergency operatives can work together effectively.

In synthesis, standards will continue to be useful in disaster management providing that we do not ask too much of them, only use them where they are clearly appropriate and ensure that their limitations are properly understood and respected.


Alexander, D.E. 2003. Towards the development of standards in emergency management training and education. Disaster Prevention and Management 12(2): 113-123.

Alexander, D.E. 2005. Towards the development of a standard in emergency planning. Disaster Prevention and Management 14(2): 158-175.

Alexander, D.E., L. Bramati and M. Simonetta in press. Emergency preparedness training and education in Lombardy Region, Italy: survey of supply and demand. Natural Hazards Review.

Archer, F. and G. Seynaeve 2007. International guidelines and standards for education and training to reduce the consequences of events that may threaten the health status of a community. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 22(2): 120-130.

Darcy, J. 2004. Locating responsibility: the Sphere humanitarian charter and its rationale. Disasters 28(2): 112-123.

FEMA 1995. Partnerships in Preparedness: A Compendium of Exemplary Practices in Emergency Management. U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington DC (2 vols.).

ISO/PAS 22399:2007 Societal Security: Guideline for Incident Preparedness and Operational Continuity Management. International Standards Organisation, Geneva (

Stenner, R.D., D.S. Schwartz, J.L. Kirk et al. 2006. National Incident Management System (NIMS) Standards Review Panel Workshop Summary Report. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Seattle, Washington, 66 pp.

Takeuchi, K. and T. Okayasu 2005. Integration of benchmarks and indicators. Know Risk. ISDR Secretariat, Geneva, and Tudor Rose, London: 251-253.

UN-OCHA 1994. United Nations-DHA Guidelines on the Use of Military and Civil Defence Assets in Disaster Relief: the Oslo Guidelines (Project DPR 213/3 MCDA). United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Department of Humanitarian Affairs, Geneva.

VENRO 2003. Minimum Standards Regarding Staff Security in Humanitarian Aid. Verband Entwicklungspolitik Deutscher Nicht-Regierungs-Organisationen e.v., Bonn, Germany.