Monday, 27 October 2008

Information and Emergencies

Information is a prime necessity in disaster situations--some would say the prime necessity--as it is the essential first input to the process of making decisions about emergency response. Paradoxically, disasters are characterised by simultaneous information overload and shortage. That which absolutely must be known--what has happened, where, when and with what degree of seriousness--is often elusive and obscure in the early stages of a disaster. Instead, it is usual to receive a mass of conflicting, inaccurate and contradictory information that must be painstakingly verified and classified.

Fortunately, help is at hand: as in most other walks of life, so in disaster management, a revolution is occurring in information and communications technology. It is bringing new opportunities and challenges to the field. On the one hand, information flows have increased vastly in size and strength, while on the other, there is a need for new working methods to cope with the information overload that the new channels and technologies bring. There is even the prospect that information technology will cause a disaster, perhaps through spreading incorrect knowledge or mismanaging vital processes.

The question of the collection and use of information in emergencies can be divided into three main elements: (a) information management for professional emergency managers, (b) the impact of information about disasters on society and the mass media, and (c) the role of information in how the general public reacts to emergency situations. In hazard and disaster situations, information flows can be classified into those directed to the emergency management community, those that reach the mass media, and those that affect the general public directly. The information itself is of two main kinds: perishable and durable. The first of these refers to time-sensitive information that is liable to disappear unless it is collected and stored at the time it becomes available; the existence of the second type is not dependent on time.

This paper will examine each of the three main uses of emergency information and then draw some general conclusions about the "state of the art" in this rapidly evolving field.

Information management for the emergency preparedness community

This section will consider the place of information in emergency management first in terms of its direct role in crises and disasters and secondly with respect to new developments in training the emergency managers.

Information for managing emergencies

Faced with a disaster, the emergency manager first needs to know what has happened, where it has occurred, where the cardinal points are (these are the places where destruction and entrapment of victims are concentrated), where the boundaries of the affected area are, what level of seriousness the event has attained, what resources will be required to cope with it, where they will come from and how soon they will arrive at the scene. Viewed with hindsight, most of these questions seem very simple, but in the heat of the moment the answers are likely to be uncertain and subject to change at a moment's notice. Hence, decisions about the deployment of resources must be taken on the basis of incomplete and potentially incorrect knowledge.

The modern age is characterised by advances in technological sophistication which are so rapid that the social adjustments needed to absorb them and make wise use of them lag behind. Instantaneous or rapid communication over very long distances has changed the process of emergency management. In particular, it has engendered a pressing need to develop a new technique of managing information in large quantities and with extremely rapid delivery in order to extract the valuable data from that which is not useful.

New developments in the use of information and communications technology in civil protection include the following:-

(a) Software has been created for developing emergency plans and posting them on computer networks, including the Internet. The main advantage of this is that it allows more flexibility than traditional, paper-based methods of planning. The disadvantage is that there is no guarantee that a more rational plan will emerge, or that it will be more rationally used than its traditional counterpart (Gruntfest and Weber 1998).

(b) Many pieces of software have also been developed for managing emergencies, with standardised procedures based on spreadsheets, geographic information systems and computerised communications. The principal advantage is one of being able to handle information more efficiently during emergencies. The disadvantages include the tendency to duplicate effort in producing new proprietary software packages to do the same work (Comfort 1993).

(c) Emergency management has made ample use of modern communications networks, which in some cases are dedicated to emergency work. These include cellular networks, intranets and extranets. They have the advantage of being more robust than traditional methods, and of carrying more redundancy, which enables higher peak loading during disasters (Tobin and Tobin 1997).

The full implications of these developments have yet to be felt in emergency management. However, some trends have already emerged (Stephenson and Anderson 1997). To begin with, information and communications technology (ICT) has tended to flatten the chain of command. It allows more emphasis to be placed on collaboration than on control, and more autonomy to be gained in field operations. It facilitates clearer ideas about what is going on in an emergency, with greater ability to develop a co-ordinated overview of events as they unfold. In its prototype form, ICT gave rise to the Incident Command System (Irwin 1989), which is a participatory, bottom-up form of emergency management and has proved very successful when applied to emergencies of all sizes.

The future is undeniably bright for information technology (Alexander 1991) in the service of emergency management, but some important traps and pitfalls must be avoided. To begin with, one hopes that we are not moving from the 'syndrome of the paper plan' to that of its digital counterpart. It was once easy to write an emergency plan that was then ignored or neglected rather than diffused, practised and updated (Fischer 1998). However, despite the greater immediacy of computerised methods, there is no guarantee that the paper plan's digital counterpart will be treated any differently, despite the ease with which it can be activated and revised. This is true despite the existence of a plethora of digital products for information management in disasters. Much reinvention and duplication have occurred, leading to shortages of compatibility and interoperability. The problems becomes acute when international collaboration is involved.

Modern information management demands a radical reorganisation of working methods. It requires that emergency manager learn quickly to scan potentially vast amounts of information, to judge that which is useful, discard that which is useless and judge the quality and accuracy of what remains. Through this process, there has been a reduction in reliance on face-to-face and verbal communication. This is potentially a worrying development when we consider that the world's worst air disaster resulted from a mere verbal misunderstanding (Quarantelli 1997).
There are other ways in which information technology is potentially the author of disaster. It controls vital processes in industry, transportation and power generation and, moreover, an increasingly large proportion of companies and organisations depend on it for record-keeping and business transactions. Thus, failure of information systems, above all where back-up systems are inadequate or missing, could have catastrophic consequences with complicated knock-on effects throughout society. This could greatly complicate the development of scenarios upon which to base emergency plans.

As there is every sign that information technology will be widely used in training emergency managers, it is to be hoped that it will also teach them how to use it wisely when managing risks and disasters.

Information and training of emergency managers

During the 1990s in the field of emergency preparedness there was a huge increase in information dissemination via the Internet. Growth has now levelled off and the emphasis is changing. There will probably be a considerable development of on-line courses in various aspects of the field, including management, medical response, psychology of emergencies and business continuity maintenance (Neal 2000). For example, 22 of the United Kingdom's 135 universities are already involved in initiatives of this kind.

One central aspect of training refers to the availability of scientific and managerial literature, which in this field is notoriously hard to obtain as many journals and books tend to be limited in publication and circulation. This problem will gradually be solved by increasing access to material on line. For example, the journal Disasters is available in a web-based subscription format and electronic access to it will soon be donated by UN agencies to the universities and institutes of poor countries. Eventually, we could see the development of "distributed geo-libraries", in which there is a drastic reduction in the restriction of access to information on the basis of geographical location.

These examples imply that information and communications technology can radically alter the attitude to learning of trainees. ICT, of course, is also causing deep changes in the collective attitude of society to emergencies and disasters, as discussed in the following section.

Disasters, information and society

In 2001 Americans donated $16 million to the survivors of the earthquake in Gujarat, India, in which 19,700 people died and about one million were made homeless: they donated 100 times as much, $1,600 million, to the families of victims of the collapse of the World Trade Center, in which 2,890 people died and no one was left homeless. The reasons for the discrepancy have to do with patriotism, personal relationships with events and the degree of immediacy of events, but they are also a function of the collective images of disasters as managed by the news media. Although the news media can motivate the public to contribute to relief appeals, they can to a certain extent turn disaster relief on and off like a tap by arbitrarily highlighting, minimizing or ignoring the plight of survivors (Benthall 1997).

"The medium," wrote Marshall McLuhan, "is the message." Mass media are both created in the image of society's values and designed to reflect those values, in an endlessly circular relationship that is as true for L'Osservatore Romano as it is for the New York Post.

Disaster researchers who have studied the news media tend to divide into two categories: those who believe that the media will always seek to distort the news in order to increase sales or ratings (Goltz 1984), and those who believe that the media can be treated as responsible agents of information diffusion and if this is done they will collaborate with the emergency managers in order to get the story right (Scanlon 1983). In either case, the media cannot be ignored. Rarely do emergency operations centres lack television receivers, as what the media tell the public may well determine what the public do during an emergency.

Modern technological changes affecting the mass media have profoundly altered the way in which disasters are viewed. To begin with, there is a greater sense of immediacy and--in a certain manner--participation. There is also a tendency to conflate news values with entertainment values and to exalt disaster as spectacle. The picture is complicated by the ceaseless accretion of more, and more copious, sources of information, which are available at more times of the day and week.

As Professor Quarantelli (1997) has noted, "The IT revolution is clearly undermining the traditional quality control framework." It has not substituted another, but most members of the public are not trained to distinguish reliable from inaccurate information, especially if the latter is presented as authoritative. However, in a healthy, democratic society information management does not signify centralised control of the information or the means of diffusing it. Indeed, the independence of journalism is to be safeguarded as one of the prime means of ensuring proper public evaluation of official decision-making. Hence, emergency plans that seek to control the media are bound to be flawed.

Information management for the public

As noted, a freer information market also leads to the greater diffusion of inaccurate information. A simple test can be done by looking up the key words 'earthquake prediction' on an Internet search engine. The short-term prediction of earthquakes is a scientifically contentious issue, but one that fascinates the fringe scientists and assorted futurologists. Typically, the search will yield sites dealing with the scientific progress on (and impediments to) prediction, but also sites in which charlatans claim to have discovered infallible means of predicting earthquakes, perhaps by "conjunction of astral rays" or some such nebulous means.

In a certain sense, in the modern world a large disaster defines itself by the information flows that it generates. Hurricane Mitch in 1998 gave rise to 29 dedicated websites. A similar figure pertained to the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake of 1995 in Kobe, Japan. Thus the public has free access to copious amounts of information, but not necessarily to an independent assessment of its quality. Some of the information is likely to be inaccurate, potentially even deliberately misleading. That, of course, has always been a risk, but it has been compounded by the huge increase in sources of and outlets for information.

In disaster preparedness, one of the great challenges of the 21st century is to involve the public in managing its own safety. This will require a more open attitude to the diffusion of official information on risk, preparedness, emergency planning and emergency operations. In some quarters the age-old attitude "don't tell the people, they may panic" still prevails, despite decades of sociological research that shows convincingly that instead of panicking the public tends to become more responsible when it is properly informed. The corollary on the part of ordinary people is the attitude that emergency preparedness should be left to the experts. Studies tend to show that resilience in the face of disaster is greatest in communities that are fully involved in protecting their own resources.

Disasters have long been the subject or rumour, myth and misconception. Many myths are remarkably persistent. For example, there is little or no evidence that the presence of unburied dead bodies in a disaster area gives rise to a significant risk of disease epidemics among the living. However, there are numerous--and recent--examples of unwarranted hasty burial or cremation, which can demoralise survivors and compromise arrangements for death certification and, where necessary, autopsy. Mere increase in access to information, and in the rate at which it is supplied, does not appear to have reduced the level of dependence on misconceptions. Indeed, it is worrying that under commercial and political duress, the purveyors of information are becoming increasingly superficial and manipulative (Wenger and Friedman 1986).

Concluding remarks

As the United States has for long been the world leader in emergency preparedness, its policy and attitudes towards disaster management have had a considerable impact elsewhere. The effect of the events of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent "War on terrorism" have led to a sudden interruption of a developing trend, followed by a considerable change of direction. Prior to September 2001 emergency management was steadily becoming more inclusive, open and comprehensive. Subsequently, the emphasis on 'homeland security' has engendered a retreat towards secrecy and a restricted form of preparedness. Some experts fear that this will destroy some of the gains in resilience achieved to date, or at least set back progress. Whether or not this is so, there is little doubt that greater emphasis is now placed on restricting the flow of information to the public instead of augmenting it (Mitchell 2003).

The world has learned how to create sophisticated networks for the supply of information but all the signs are that it has not yet learned how to use them to overcome some very traditional problems. New developments in technology have tended to reinforce traditional images of reality and symbolic constructions and to have done little to change the cultural and perceptual filters that change the value and quality of information as we receive and interpret it. As T.S. Eliot wrote in 1934 in his poem The Rock,

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?


Alexander, D.E. 1991. Information technology in real-time for monitoring and managing natural disasters. Progress in Physical Geography 15(3): 238-260.

Benthall, J. 1993. Disasters, Relief and the Media. St Martin's Press, New York, 267 pp.

Comfort, L.K. 1993. Integrating information technology into international crisis management and policy. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 1(1): 15-26.

Fischer, H.W. III 1998. The role of the new information technologies in emergency mitigation, planning, response and recovery. Disaster Prevention and Management 7(1): 28-37.

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.

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.

Irwin, R.L. 1989. The Incident Command System (ICS). In E. Auf Der Heide (ed.) Disaster Responses: Principles of Preparation and Coordination. Mosby, St Louis, Missouri, 133-163.

Mitchell, J.K. 2003. The fox and the hedgehog: myopia about homeland security in U.S. policies on terrorism. In Terrorism and Disaster: New Threats, New Ideas. Research on Social Problems and Public Policy 11: 53-72.

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.

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.

Scanlon, T.J., 1983. Canadian communications in crisis situations. In B.D. Singer (ed.) Communications in Canadian Society. Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts: 268-281.

Stephenson, R. and P.S. Anderson 1997. Disasters and the information technology revolution. Disasters 21(4): 305-334.

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

Wenger, D. and B. Friedman 1986. Local and national media coverage of disaster: a content analysis of the print media's treatment of disaster myths. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 4(3): 27-50.