Thursday, 24 April 2008

Planning and Management of Complex Emergencies

Introduction: the complex emergency

In the 1990s, particular strategic and physical circumstances led to the definition of the "complex emergency" in developing countries affected by the lethal combination of warfare, socio-economic breakdown and natural disasters.[1] A good example is the current situation in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, where large-scale population displacements, insurgency, drought and the injuries caused by landmines combine to make each day a disaster for local people.[2]

However, in the debate over such events it has been pointed out that all emergencies are complex to a greater or lesser degree.[3] Therefore, emergency planning and management are first and foremost about making sense of complexity. In industrialized countries, disasters have not merely become more common and more destructive, but also more complex. For instance, it has been suggested that despite measures to protect Florence against floods, and manage such events effectively, a repeat of the 1966 event would lead to worse effects than those experienced 35 years ago. The relentless accumulation of physical capital and the presence of 10,000 vehicles in the city centre would significantly complicate emergency operations.[4]

The hard part of the planning process is no longer the estimation of physical forces and their distribution--the where, when and how much of floods or earthquakes, for example--but the prediction of consequences for the socio-economic system: complex patterns of damage, lost production, medical costs, compensation and liability issues, etc.[5]

Fortunately, powerful new tools have been developed to reduce complexity in disaster to manageable levels. But are they sufficiently well understood to be used effectively? Do we have enough consensus, training, funding, expertise and experience to benefit from the tools, or do they merely complicate emergency preparedness and distract attention from the real problems of bringing aid to stricken populations? This essay will consider ten of the most salient issues in planning for and managing contemporary emergencies.

1. From the paper planning syndrome to the digital planning syndrome

Lack of real commitment to emergency preparedness can lead to the formulation of plans that are treated as static documents and deposited in archives without the necessary adaptation, testing and updating that would render them functional and efficient. This was long ago identified as the "paper planning syndrome", in which only the letter, and not the spirit, of civil protection regulations is honoured.[6] In theory, the application of digital computing technology to emergency planning should make the syndrome a thing of the past, as computers offer a vastly greater degree of flexibility in how plans are devised, stored, displayed, communicated and utilized, as well as making it very easy to amend and update them.[7] But has the digital revolution merely substituted one syndrome for another?

To begin with there is no absolute obligation to use computerized planning procedures any more effectively than their typewritten antecedents. Secondly, the use of computers and the Internet involves questions of balance. Possibly, products with superior marketing strategies are likely to accumulate the most followers regardless of their degree of usefulness. Moreover, the most vocal people and companies can flood the market with their views. Hence, digital technology can become a vehicle for diffusing, not only valuable advances in methodology, but also inaccurate information.

It has also been suggested that, by reducing the degree of personal interaction, computer use diminishes opportunities for non-verbal communication and introduces a sense of artificiality into emergency management, akin to that which prevails in modern aerial warfare, where screen-watching and button-pushing replace more direct action.[8]

Unfortunately, most emergency preparedness courses do not include guidelines on how to make the best use of computerized technology and how to guard against problems such as artificiality and misuse of information. Indeed, as far as I know, no widely accepted guidelines exist: they should be formulated as a matter of urgency.

The interim solution is to use computer technology with a large dose of self-awareness and self-evaluation. No procedures should be implemented without considering their eventual effectiveness. No expenditures should be made without some form of cost-benefit analysis, and without specification of the criteria for identifying and judging benefits (which are often less easy to quantify than are costs).

Computers and associated communications technology have enormous potential for reducing the complexity of disasters to levels that are intelligible and manageable.[9] However, at the same time they introduce a new level of complexity--and vulnerability--into emergency preparedness. Systems therefore need to be robust, complemented by adequate redundancy and back-ups, and above all user-friendly. Both designers and users should contribute to the process of achieving such goals.

2. The role of the scenario in emergency planning

There is often a tendency to write emergency plans backwards, and thus to try to match the problem to be tackled to the resources available to tackle it, rather than the other way around. Such plans tend to be very vague about the nature of the emergency situations that they will be applied to. Many emergency plans either have no base scenario or make an uncritical, untested assumption that the last great event in the area covered by planning is exactly diagnostic of what to expect next time. In contrast, a well-constructed plan should be based on a thorough analysis of the kinds of event that it will eventually have to tackle. This requires the full-scale use of scenario modelling.[10]

A predictive scenario is an exploration of what is likely to happen under a particular set of circumstances. It asks the question "what if...?", but this should be backed up by scientific forecasting of hazards and strict logical investigation of the chains of consequences that may occur when a hazard strikes.[11] The aim is to draw out the most likely train of events, and reactions to them, in order to form a secure basis for planning. As the principal objectives of emergency planning are to reduce the gap between the resources that are needed and those that are available, and to apply the latter as effectively as possible to the urgent problems caused by disaster, it follows that the planner will need an accurate and detailed assessment of what is likely to happen.

The base scenario, or scenarios, used in emergency planning should be subject to logical evaluation. As they are a predictive tool, they will have to make a considerable number of assumptions about what is likely to happen under certain sets of conditions. This should not be an impossible task, nor necessarily a daunting one if sufficient background research has been conducted. Such work should be based on the fundamental relationship[12]

hazard × vulnerability [× exposure] = risk --> impact

Hence, successive stages in the formulation of the scenario involve collecting information on the spatial and temporal distribution of hazards, assessing the vulnerability of populations and structures to these, deriving patterns of risk and considering how the risks are likely to materialize as impacts. As the best modern planning is generic (all hazards)[13] rather than restricted to single hazards or risks, this process should be carried out with a sufficient level of generalization and flexibility that it is unlikely to break down in the face of unexpected developments.

3. The relationship between emergency planning and urban and regional planning

One of the most remarkable aspects of emergency planning in the modern world is its lack of relationship with urban and regional planning. Disaster preparedness is not usually taught to students of planning, and trainee disaster managers are not usually given a grounding in land-use planning. Yet the links between the two disciplines ought to be self evident: they lie in the concept of the "hazardousness of place".[14]

One of the principal and most successful means of reducing the risks to life and property posed by natural and technological hazards is to restrict land uses in the most threatened places. In 1986 a petroleum tank explosion and fire claimed several lives and rendered 2600 people homeless in central Naples. In 1998 150 died in the towns of Sarno and Quindici in predictable mudflow disasters. Both of these represent cases in which an identifiable hazard did not simulate vulnerability reduction measures. The simplest, and often the cheapest of these, is to separate incompatible land uses. At the very least, this requires a strong dialogue between emergency planners, who can formulate scenarios for future events, and municipal planners, who can institute measures to restrict development in hazardous areas.

A second aspect refers to the possible role of urban planning in improving conditions for emergency management. Roads may need to be straightened, widened and cleared of obstructions to ensure either that evacuees can get away quickly or that emergency vehicles can arrive in minimum time. Emergency scenarios should identify critical nodes, points in the urban system that are vitally important to operations in disaster. These include hospitals, fire stations, emergency operations centres, assembly points, and also places where disaster may strike, such as floodable areas, unstable slopes or warehouses stocking hazardous materials. Urban design can do much to facilitate emergency management if this is explicitly incorporated into it.

The solution is to integrate emergency plans with urban plans as much as possible. It requires dialogue and cooperation between both sorts of planner, who must appreciate each other's terms of reference and problems to be solved.[15]

4. The vertical and horizontal integration of emergency plans

Another common fault of emergency plans is that they are often written in isolation from one another. In Italy the prevailing legislation is vague about the relationship between plans at the municipal, provincial, regional and national levels. Provinces and regions have coordinating roles, but these are poorly specified. At the same time, there is no guarantee that municipal emergency plans will mesh with plans for factories, hospitals, airports, and so on. As disaster planning becomes more common, this problem is set to grow. The result is a vast area of potential conflict between the objectives and procedures of overlapping plans. This could lead to duplication of effort, or failures of communication between organizations, or other forms of inefficiency. In Italy, a municipality that is the seat of a COM during a national disaster may have as many as 37 desks for 9-14 different support functions, if one takes into account national, prefectural and municipal operations centres. The more such desks there are, and the more duplication of functions occurs, the more opportunities there are for failures of coordination and communication.

Municipal emergency planners should act as catalysts to stimulate disaster planning in other organizations, such as hospitals and factories. But there needs to be a high degree of compatibility and interaction between the planners and their plans. This will enable tasks to be delegated and will ensure that communication is effective between the organizations during emergency situations.[16]

5. The achievement and recognition of adequate professional standards

The current consensus is that emergency preparedness is not quite a profession.[17] Typically, those who practice it also have other jobs, or come from unconnected fields, to which they may well be asked to return. No adequate professional standards exist and no widely accepted protocols govern the content of training courses. Few academic institutions offer courses or degrees in emergency planning and management[18] and there is, in any case, little agreement about exactly what an emergency responder ought to know. Furthermore, what training courses exist offer an exceedingly heterogeneous mixture of information and usually impose no control on the quality of instruction. The first result of this is that the knowledge levels and capabilities of emergency managers vary enormously, and the second is that both interchange and ability to learn from others are hampered by lack of compatibility and an agreed body of common knowledge.[19]

It is time to devise better standards and norms for emergency training and eventual certification. These should specify a minimum number of hours of instruction and define the content of courses. They should also specify the appropriate balance between of learning between theory and accumulating practical experience.

The increasing complexity of disasters requires that emergency responders be acquainted with many different aspects of the problem. Some 30 different academic and applied disciplines are involved, as well as many practical skills.[20] In the absence of adequate guidelines about what to study and how to go about it, the best strategy is to supplement one's knowledge by reading widely among the materials that are internationally available. Several World Wide Web sites offer guided reading, for example, the U.S Emergency Management Institute site

Theory should not be treated as inferior to practical experience, as it is, in the words of one expert in the field,[21] the "road map" that orientates the disaster manager in times of confusion and uncertainty. Successful learning is marked by the realization that theory and experience qualify one another and render one another intelligible. This aspect will be explored further in the next section.

6. The gap between research and practice: the need for dialogue

Few disaster managers are regular readers of academic literature and few academics write up their research with disaster managers in mind as their primary audience. Academic writing is often abstract and laced with jargon, which legitimizes it to the peer groups who are its main readership but makes it unreadable by others. In any case, much of it is hidden away in publications that are not easily accessible to disaster managers. As a result, many useful applied research results have failed to come to the notice of the very practitioners who could benefit from them.

At the world level, several institutions are actively trying to combat this state of affairs. Paramount among them is the Natural Hazards Centre at the University of Colorado at Boulder, USA. This institution offers a well-furnished web site (, three periodicals in printed form and one in e-mail format. Likewise, the Emergency Preparedness Information Exchange at Simon Fraser University in Canada ( is an important academic resource for emergency responders. So is Emergency Management Australia ( and the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness (

Dialogue requires that both sides demonstrate willingness to interact. Disaster managers must make their research needs known and identify gaps in their knowledge. Researchers must learn to communicate, without lowering the tone of their discourse, in ways that non-specialists can understand and benefit from. Both groups need their horizons widening and both must learn to listen more effectively.

7. Information management in an age of superabundant data

The paradox of information technology is that it vastly increases the quantity of information available but does not necessarily improve its quality. Thus we all need to evolve a survival strategy in order to cope with information management. This means:

  • avoiding dependence on sources of vital information that could fail at critical moments

  • ensuring that essential information does not become archived or destroyed and thus lost through failure to recognize its importance

  • ensuring that "perishable" information is collected when it is available (usually during the early phase of disaster)

  • learning to discriminate rapidly between valid and invalid information, useful and useless data, appropriate and inappropriate material

  • learning to cope with information overload

  • avoiding overdependence on computer technology and situations in which the available hardware and software determine the solution, rather than letting it be governed by the nature of the problem itself

  • developing a critical ability to recognize what is useful

  • learning to interpret data in human and operational terms[22]

Recent major disasters have spawned as many as 20 web sites each,[23] but this has not guaranteed that the free availability of information over the Internet actually improved their management, especially as no control was exercised over the quality, accuracy and usefulness of the information posted.

Nevertheless, information has become a very valuable commodity and much of commerce, banking and industry is now dependent on its diffusion by electronic means. Emergency planning must thus be extended to ensuring that information is part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Communications breakdown can lead to huge losses if money cannot be transferred electronically, orders cannot be fulfilled and customers informed about what they need to know in order to purchase goods and services. Information loss is therefore not just a risk for emergency management but also a significant and growing part of general disaster losses to be mitigated by taking precautions before disaster strikes.[24]

8. Political acumen of the disaster manager

Modern courses usually involve teaching aspects of management science and psychology to trainee disaster managers. However, it is clear that such people will not only have to direct people under their control but also hold their own in the political arena. The disaster manager is, above all, a facilitator, whose job is to obtain the consensus that is necessary in order to innovate in the field of emergency planning and management. This requires knowledge of the legal, social and political consequences of decisions taken in times of quiescence and during emergencies, and to communicate effectively so that political hierarchies are convinced of the need for better civil protection systems.

However, both during emergencies and in the intervening times, the disaster manager should have a perception of the prevailing situation that does not exceed his or her command of the available resources.[25] Obviously, realism is the key ingredient. In addition, command structures need to be free of equivocality.

9. The challenge of involving the public in disaster mitigation and creating a culture of risk mitigation

Recent trends in emergency preparedness have demonstrated the importance of democratizing the field. People will not relate to disaster prevention if efforts are not made to involve them in it. Conversely, they need to be empowered and given some responsibility for their own safety. The assumption that civil protection is a matter exclusively for experts is both widespread and dangerous.

Successful schemes for involving the public require first a certain selectivity about which groups to work with and secondly the collection of information on the effectiveness of projects--i.e. feedback from the users. Publicity needs to be designed carefully and its impact evaluated in terms of the results it produces and knowledge it diffuses. Awareness of results is critically important: in the past, schemes to increase the level of public awareness of hazards have sometimes led to the diffusion of misassumptions.[26] At the very least, public indifference is indicative of a failed publicity program.[27]

In the past public information programs have failed for the following reasons:

  • warnings that have not resulted in disaster

  • information about what is likely to happen, but not what steps to take when it does

  • vagueness about hazards and warning signs

  • conflicting orders and information

  • failure to involve the public in decision making, so that decisions are resented by those people who feel they have had no say in them

  • failure to observe local cultural norms, patterns of activity and ways of communicating.[28]

All of these pitfalls can be avoided by adequate attention to the local context of public education programs and careful monitoring of their impacts.

10. The mass media: friend or foe?

The news media are critically important to awareness campaigns both during disaster and at other times. Research has given split results about the role of the media in disasters. The balance probably leans towards regarding them as irresponsible and unreliable[29] though some researchers have shown how the media can be a vital part of emergency management if journalists are properly engaged.[30] In either case, disaster managers ignore or mistreat representatives of the news media at their peril: they cannot stop reports being published or broadcast.

Mass media cannot be coopted in disaster. The best that can be hoped for is that they can be engaged constructively and induced to collaborate in the diffusion of correct information and the discounting of incorrect news. Treated as responsible they will usually rise to the challenge and behave responsibly. They must, however, be given adequate representation and facilities in emergency operations. Attempts to drive them away will only lead to negative reporting about the quality of emergency operations, and possibly the diffusion of misassumptions. This can lead to reductions in the degree of public cooperation with emergency authorities. Hence, many of the best emergency plans include chapters on managing the news media and treat this aspect as vitally important, which indeed it is. A useful primer on news media liaison during emergencies can be found at the U.S. FEMA website


In summary, a good emergency plan is:

  • generic (all hazards) rather than restricted to single hazards

  • written on the basis of carefully compiled scenarios of hazard, vulnerability, risk and impact

  • integrated with plans made by other organizations and levels of government

  • a process and not an end in itself--i.e. constantly updated, revised and tested

  • linked to urban planning with the objective of reducing the "hazardousness of place" by land use control processes.

A good emergency planner is

  • well versed in the applied hazards literature

  • well versed in the political and legal implications of his or her work

  • a person who facilitates rather than commands

  • able to appreciate the connections between different disciplines and methodologies

  • able to work effectively with the public and news media representatives.


1. A classic paper on this topic is Duffield, M. 1996. The symphony of the damned: racial discourse, complex political emergencies and humanitarian aid. Disasters 20(3): 173-193. A more didactic one is Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 1995. Complex, humanitarian emergencies: I. Concept and participants. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 10: 36-42.

2. See the situation reports of Action by Churches Together (ACT) available at the Volunteers in Technical Assistance web site

3. Kirkby, J., P. O’Keefe, I. Convery and D. Howell 1997. On the emergence of complex disasters. Disasters 21(2): 177-180.

4. See Alexander, D. 2000. Confronting Catastrophe. Terra Publishing, Harpenden, UK, and Oxford University Press, New York: 99-101.

5. Ellson, R.W., J.W. Milliman and R.B. Roberts 1984. Measuring the regional economic effects of earthquakes and earthquake predictions. Journal of Regional Science 24: 559-579.

6. See discussion in Auf der Heide, E. 1989. Disaster Response: Principles of Preparation and Co-ordination. Mosby-Yearbook, St Louis, Missouri, 363 pp. This book can be downloaded for free from the Internet at the following address:

7. Gruntfest, E. and M. Weber 1998. Internet and emergency management: prospects for the future. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 16(1): 55-72.

8. Quarantelli, E.L. 1997. Problematical aspects of the information/ communication revolution for disaster planning and research: ten non-technical issues and questions. Disaster Prevention and Management 6(2): 94-106.

9. Tobin, R. and R. Tobin 1997. Emergency Planning on the Internet. Government Institutes, Inc., Rockville, MD, 230 pp.

10. Alexander, D. 2002. Principles of Emergency Planning and Management. Terra Publishing, Harpenden, UK (, and Oxford University Press, New York (

11. Alexander, D. 2000. Scenario methodology for teaching principles of emergency management. Disaster Prevention and Management 9(2): 89-97.

12. After UNDRO 1982. Natural Disasters and Vulnerability Analysis. Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Co-ordinator (UNDRO), Geneva, and Burton, I., R.W. Kates and G.F. White 1993. The Environment as Hazard (2nd edn). Guilford Press, New York, 304 pp.

13. Quarantelli, E.L. 1992. The case for a generic rather than agent specific agent approach to disasters. Disaster Management 2: 191-196.

14. Hewitt, K. and I. Burton 1971. The Hazardousness of Place. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

15. Britton, N.R. and J. Lindsay 1995. Demonstrating the need to integrate city planning and emergency preparedness: two case studies. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 13(2): 161-178.

16. McLoughlin, D. 1985. A framework for integrated emergency management. Public Administration Review 45 (special issue): 165-172.

17. Drabek, T.E. 1988. The Local Emergency Manager: The Emerging Professional (Part 1). National Emergency Training Center, U.S. Federal Emergency Management Association, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

18. About 3.5 per cent of U.S. colleges and universities (70 institutions) offer courses in emergency preparedness. Even fewer courses are available in other countries.

19. Neal, D.M. 2000. Developing degree programs in disaster management: some reflections and observations. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 18(3): 417-438.

20. Alexander, D. 1993. Natural Disasters. UCL Press, London, and Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, 632 pp.

21. Professor Thomas E. Drabek, in one of the FEMA outline courses cited above.

22. Quarantelli, E.L. 1997. Problematical aspects of the information/ communication revolution for disaster planning and research: ten non-technical issues and questions. Disaster Prevention and Management 6(2): 94-106.

23. For example, the Hanshin-Kobe earthquake in Japan (1995) and Hurricane Mitch in central America (1998), both of which spawned up to 20 websites.

24. U.S. National Research Council 1996. Computing and Communications in the Extreme: Research for Crisis Management and Other Applications. Computing Science and Telecommunications Board, National Research Council, Washington, DC, 174 pp. This and similar publications can be obtained from

25. Alexander, D.E. 1999. How are emergency plans written, tested and revised? In P. Fontanari, S. Pittino, D. Alexander and S. Boncinelli (eds) La Protezione Civile verso gli Anni 2000. CISPRO, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Florence, Italy: 151-177.

26. Alexander, D. 1993. Natural Disasters. UCL Press, London, and Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, pp 16-20.

27. In one notorious case (the River Thames flood warning exercise of 1981 in the city of London) a costly and extensive publicity campaign came to nothing: social surveys after the event revealed that 50 per cent of respondents did not hear the warning, and of those who did, 30 per cent did not understand what it meant and 60 per cent did not know what to do (IDI 1981. The Physical and Social Consequences of a Major Thames Flood. International Disaster Institute, London, p. 44).

28. Southern, R.L. 1995. Warnings that failed, warnings that worked. Stop Disasters 25: 9-10.

29. Goltz, J.D. 1984. Are the news media responsible for the disaster myths? A content analysis of emergency response imagery. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 2(3): 345-368.

30. Scanlon, J., S. Alldred, A. Farrell and A. Prawzick 1985. Coping with the media in disasters: some predictable problems. Public Administration Review 45 (special issue): 123-133.