Sunday, 2 March 2008

Do You Want to be Commanded and Controlled? Reflections on Modern Emergency Management

It has long been clear that people react to circumstances on the basis of their perceptual models of reality, and that these may or may not reflect how things actually are (Burton and Kates 1964, Saarinen et al. 1984). Over the last half-century a considerable body of information has been accumulated on the ways in which people perceive and react to disaster (Drabek 1986). Emergency managers who know their field are well aware that public perceptions of hazard and risk present both opportunities to improve disaster management and constraints upon it (Scanlon 1991).

There are also wider questions of how events are perceived; indeed how the course of human history is envisioned. We tend to have a short-term view of things. For example, capitalism has become so powerful and pervasive around the world that it is often treated as if it were the result of some natural law of human organisation. Yet for much of human history it has not been the dominant force. The polarisation of society and competition between its members may to some extent be natural, but they are not the only alternatives for humanity. Relying as it does on competition, capitalistic organisation is something of an anathema to the welfare functions that go with managing emergency situations. This may explain why it is difficult and unwise to privatise disaster management (cf. Horwich 1993).

Secondly, there is nothing particularly immutable about the modern nation state. Sovereignty, fixed boundaries, territoriality, patriotism and national defence may have ancient antecedents, but their modern interpretations are not subject to any natural law about how societies should be organised. Many of the moral and legal principles on which they are based could be interpreted in radically different ways without loss of basic freedom or democracy. Terrorism has its origins and causes in questions of statehood and governance: on the other hand, natural catastrophes show no respect for political boundaries. Hence, both forms of disaster call into question the modern concept of statehood (Hewitt 1994).

In emergency management, the political problem boils down to a question of centrism versus devolution (Wolensky and Wolensky 1990). In principle, disaster management systems need to be organised on a local basis, with regional and national coordination of the many separate local systems (Sink 1985). In fact, despite decades of hard work by many different pan-national agencies, the world disaster management system remains in its infancy, poorly coordinated and unable to make the crucial effort to stop the relentless rise in impacts and losses.

Thirdly, there are broad questions about how knowledge is perceived and managed. The practise of dividing it up by department and degree is a remarkably modern one. It is also becoming increasingly counter-productive, especially in emergency management, a field which requires some level of synthesis of anything up to 35 academic disciplines. Moreover, in the present decade it is becoming increasingly clear that risks can only be reduced successfully by using holistic, integrative methods. This calls into question the basic framework of emergency planning and management (Alexander 2000).

Management and disaster management

In the modern world, the academic and practical discipline of management has its roots in capitalism (the organisation of production, distribution and consumption) and the nation state (through civil administration). However, disaster management has more diverse roots, and for this reason it may enter into conflict with its nominal parent discipline (Greening and Johnson 1996). Let us examine how.

To being with, in disasters, order does not spring from chaos by management alone. The essence of managing an emergency is to apply available resources to urgent problems in the most timely and efficient manner: in this respect ordinary management principles should be followed. However, there is also a vital need to understand and anticipate contingencies before they materialise--in other words, to reduce the level of improvisation in a disaster to a minimum. Thus emergency planning is at least as important as emergency management and should always precede it (Alexander 2002). The field is strongly allied to urban and regional planning, not least because both should tackle the question of the 'hazardousness of place'--i.e. reducing the risks of human settlements and activities (Britton and Lindsay 1995). Disaster management is thus much more than a technique to be learned in advance and applied ad hoc. It requires careful consideration of the scenarios for hazard, vulnerability, risk, impact and emergency action (Alexander 2000). It adds up to a need to develop techniques of "thinking the unthinkable" and "foreseeing the unforeseeable". This can, and should, be done.

The essence of disaster management is therefore not leadership in chaos--management as reaction--but rather the application of procedures that have been carefully worked out in advance. The degree of maturity of a country's emergency preparedness system can therefore be judged by the extent to which it is based on detailed (but flexible) planning and to which it is participatory. In my opinion, low levels of development are represented by the command and control approach (Waugh 1993).

Command and control has its origins in both warfare and colonialism. It divides participants into a disaster into commanders and commanded, and sets ground rules for how the former will control the movements and activities of the latter. Granted that some degree of control must be exercised over public safety and the efficiency of emergency operations, it is nevertheless easy to take this approach too far.

The challenge of the 21st century is to democratise emergency preparedness in such a way that ordinary people take more responsibility for their own safety. This will require them to know the risks, face up to them and make informed choices (Platt 1999). In extreme situations, it will also involve safeguarding their rights, not setting these aside.

Much progress has been made in designing and implementing civil systems for the management of civilian emergencies. The civil defence that grew up in response to 1940s air raid precautions and subsequent Cold War attack scenarios has mercifully ceded ground to civil protection against floods, storms, earthquakes, toxic spills and so on. But the cold warriors have not disappeared, they are in fact ready to stage a come-back. The terrorism threat is drastic enough to require more authoritarian methods of management than do most civil emergencies. It also involves different levels and criteria of predictability than most other non-military hazards. But need it require the suspension of participatory emergency management? Has anyone asked the general public whether it wishes to be commanded and controlled, and if so to what extent? Is authoritarianism really the way to manage great crises? These questions remain largely unanswered.

In addition, there are both small and large issues of democracy. With regard to the former, public support for emergency management must depend to some extent on sharing information and guaranteeing rights. The large issue is that command and control structures may in extremis be used either to safeguard the chosen few, rather than the public in general, or to safeguard the state against the demands of the public. At present there is a serious risk that civil protection services, which prize their own neutrality, could inadvertently be drawn into situations of extreme polarisation and forced to side with one party or the other. This is a risk that has loomed very large at recent anti-globalisation protests.

Command and colonise

A 1979 United Nations report on disaster management in developing countries observed that technologies and management techniques developed in Western countries are often inappropriate for managing emergencies in the world's poorer countries (U.S. National Academy of Sciences 1979). Knowledge and expertise are not necessarily directly transferable. Despite this, there has been a tendency to assume that such methods are etic--i.e. independent of specific cultural referents. In reality they are emic--dependent on assumptions about cultural acceptability and feasibility (Brislin 1980). Thus, in local indigenous circles, the foreign expert who arrives in an unfamiliar country and seeks to apply his or her knowledge to local problems has become something of a detested obstacle to good emergency preparedness (Allinson 1993).

The problem has its origins in the colonial epoch in such historical events and the British mismanagement of famines in the Indian subcontinent (Hall-Matthews 1996). It has persisted in the extraordinary poverty of solutions offered by countries that purport to manage disaster well and transfer their expertise to those that lack appropriate knowledge and structures. For whom are disasters being managed? By educating a professional class and diffusing a universal body of know-how are we pitting professionals against local people (Beatley 1988)?

At its worst, globalisation can be interpreted as an integrated system of commercial exploitation that has had the effect of increasing the world's income differentials, concentrating wealth in few hands, and spreading poverty, marginalisation and polarisation. If that is so, then it is a situation that facilitates the return of the colonial approach to emergency management, in which dissent, as much as disaster, has to be managed, order and stability have to be restored at any cost.


Is it inevitable in a divided world that we be separated into those who manage and those who are managed? In terms of preparedness for disasters the problems have steadily worsened, despite decades of hard work on devising new solutions. Besides the importance of well-known factors such as increased risk-taking, rising urbanisation and burgeoning populations in hazardous areas, the problem is also a result of the primacy of science, management and autarchic establishments (Wisner 2001). We may talk, not about policy, which ought to be sensitive to real, fundamental needs, but about "policy metaphors", which impose parameters where variables are warranted.

Civil protection against the peacetime emergencies that threaten populations need to be managed from a grass-roots perspective. The key words are 'participatory' and 'empowerment' (Wisner et al. 1977). Volunteer groups need to be trained and encouraged to improve their professionalism; ordinary people need to take more responsibility for their own safety (Wolensky 1979; Bowenkamp 2000). Modern information flows need to be the catalyst for sharing the burden of disaster. The technical component of disaster management is set to increase in both developed and developing societies. There will thus be a convergence of problems and solutions, but not one in which there will be any right or other justification for imposing solutions upon people.

In synthesis, the prospects for democratising civil protection worldwide need to be evaluated in the light of global trends in exploitation, diplomacy, hegemony and the uses to which new technologies are put. We must differentiate structure from mentality or mind-set. It is vital that the former not be conditioned by outdated forms of the latter. Neither at home nor abroad should risk and emergencies be managed by excessive use of command and control, or excessively technocratic management systems, or of excessive economic management by monetarism (Butler and Doessel 1981; May and Burby 1996). New paradigms of global security should not be used as an excuse for reintroducing forms of exploitation under the guise of preventing terrorism or forcing the pace of development.

In future years there will be an increasing convergence in emergency management systems between rich and poor countries, as both will have to cope with the growing complexity of modern disasters and the international dimensions of their impacts. It is essential that the convergence be based, not on rigid crisis management systems, but on a management process that emphasises planning to foster flexibility, co-operation and co-ordination.


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