Wednesday, 29 March 2023

Prolonged, wide-area electrical power failure

What are the likely consequences of prolonged, wide-area electrical power failure?

  • lifts [elevators] blocked: people possibly trapped in them
  • trains stranded: people possibly stranded in them
  • traffic control inoperable: possibility of accidents and queues at road junctions
  • critical facilities (hospitals, police stations, etc.) dependent on their own generators
  • food refrigeration stops: perished food needs to be disposed of
  • food manufacture lines cease operation; food perishes
  • no water or sewerage pumping: health and safety regulations put buildings out of use
  • electric cars and electrical equipment cannot be recharged
  • people with disabilities and illnesses who are dependent on home electrical equipment are at risk or in difficulty
  • fuel cannot be pumped: vehicles are gradually immobilized
  • there is no street illumination: safety issues at night
  • mass communication ceases or is severely limited
  • internet communication and commerce cease
  • loss of heating systems (for people and indoor animals)
  • cows cannot be milked electronically and milk cannot be refrigerated
  • cellular telephone networks cease operation as masts and repeaters run out of charge: mobile phone calls are not possible
  • people in need are isolated by the cessation of public and personal transportation
  • global navigation and positioning systems cannot be used at ground level
  • cases of hypothermia rise as a result of loss of heating systems
  • alarm systems are inoperative: cases of burglary and theft rise
  • people are stranded away from home as a result of the cessation of public transport
  • the use of candles leads to an increase in home fires
  • electronic transactions do not take place: home purchasing conveyancing fails
  • toll booths do not work: loss of revenue or access
  • critical information is almost impossible to share (on closures, warnings, evacuation, critical needs and emergency situations)
  • it is difficult to construct and share the common operating picture of the emergency, leading to reduced situational awareness by emergency services and crisis managers
  • emergency response coordination is plagued by uncertainty, and possibly equipment failure
  • it is difficult to buy food and medicines as tills that operate electronically are locked shut
  • reduced hygiene
  • social isolation, with particular effect on vulnerable people, including those with cognitive disabilities
  • workplaces are constrained to shut down, with losses of revenue and income
  • potential increase in criminal activity (not to be overestimated)
  • potential increase in stress-related violence (not to be overestimated)
  • cessation of many public administration functions
  • supply chains are interrupted or slowed down
  • cold chains are out of action
  • rubbish collection and disposal are affected by lack of fuel
  • educational activities are suspended, with an effect on learning, examinations and childcare
  • risk of unrest in prisons
  • postponement or cancellation of major activities (sports, arts, religion)
  • vehicles (and their occupants) are stranded when they run out of fuel
  • failure of sensors, including CCTV
  • medical and dental appointments cancelled

No doubt there are many other potential consequences. The list needs additions and some form of classification (and cross-referencing) of the impacts.

Wednesday, 8 February 2023

Reflections on the Turkish-Syrian Earthquakes of 6th February 2023: Building Collapse and its Consequences


                                                        Source: Wikimedia Commons

An interesting map was published by the US Geological Survey shortly after the Turkish-Syrian earthquakes.[1] It showed (perhaps somewhat predictively) that there was only one tiny square of the vast affected area in which Modified Mercalli intensity (which is largely a measure of damage) reached 9.0, the 'violent' level.[2] This is--just about--enough to damage very significantly a well-engineered structure (but not necessarily enough to bring it crashing down). Although the disaster of 6th February 2023 produced, in fact, stronger shaking than this (maximum 1.61g), it should not have caused 5,500 large buildings to collapse as large parts of the epicentral area had accelerations <0.6g, a design level for antiseismic construction in areas of known high seismicity. The disaster in Turkey and Syria is very obviously the result of poor construction. This is painfully visible in the video images of buildings collapsing. The patterns of collapse are also the same as those in the last dozen Turkish earthquakes, although they are doubtless more extensive this time around.

In 43 years of studying disasters I have seen few events that so clearly illustrate the primacy of vulnerability over hazard impact as does the Turkish-Syrian earthquake sequence of February 2023. Work at universities in Florida and Colorado strongly suggests that corruption is the principal cause of earthquake disaster, world-wide. The Turkish anti-seismic building codes have been revised five times in the last 55 years, including a thorough and intelligent upgrade in 2018. However, in 2016 and at nearly 20 other times there were amnesties that decriminalised those in the construction industry who ignored the laws, and those who modified buildings in ways that stopped them from being compliant with the regulations. Such practices were extremely widespread, the norm rather than the exception. This is also my experience from having spent extended periods in such buildings in Anatolia. 

Building codes in Turkey are now perfectly good enough. The tragedy lies in their non-observance and the paucity of retrofitting. It is a mixture of simple errors, lax procedures, ignorance, deliberate evasion, indifference to public safety, untenable architectural fashions, corruption and failure to enforce the codes. Many, perhaps most, people in Turkey live in multi-storey, multiple occupancy reinforced concrete frame buildings. It is these that collapse. Most of them are highly vulnerable to seismic forces. There is plenty of engineering literature on the typical seismic performance defects of such buildings in Turkey. Perhaps we can grant a small exception for Syria, although before the civil war it did have building codes and earthquake research. However, the comment by a leader of the Syrian Catholic Church that buildings had been weakened by bombardment was something of a red herring. This probably affected about 2-3% of those that collapsed.

To know whether a reinforced concrete building is safe to live in would require knowledge of:-

  • the shear resistance (i.e., quality) of the concrete
  • the presence or absence and connectivity of shear walls
  • whether there are overhangs or other irregularities of plan that distribute the weight of the building unevenly or concentrate load on particular parts of it
  • the presence or absence of a ‘soft-storey’ open ground floor which concentrates the load above columns that cannot support it during seismic deformation
  • the connections between beams and columns, especially how the steel reinforcing bars are bent in
  • whether there are proper hooks at the end of rebars on concrete joints
  • whether the rebars were ribbed or smooth
  • the quality of the foundations and the liquefaction, landslide or subsidence potential of the underlying ground
  • the state of maintenance of the structural elements of the building
  • any subsequent modifications to the original construction (e.g. superelevations).

An experienced civil engineer could evaluate some of that by eye, but much of the rest is hidden and only exposed once the building collapses. A short bibliography of sources that deal with common faults in Turkish R/C construction is appended at the end of this article.

Many of the news media that have reported the disaster have presented it as the result of inescapable terrestrial forces. While that cannot be negated, it is less than half of the story. The tragedy was largely the result of highly preventable construction errors. Vox clamantis in deserto: to examine this aspect of the disaster one would have to face up to difficult issues, such as corruption, political decision making, people's expectations of public safety, and fatalism versus activism. How much simpler to attribute it all to anonymous forces within the ground!

A well-engineered tall building that collapses will leave up to 15% void spaces in which there may be living trapped victims. It was notable that, in many buildings that pancaked in Turkey and Syria, the collapses left almost no voids at all, thanks to the complete fragmentation of the entire structure--i.e., total loss of structural integrity. This poses some serious challenges to search and rescue. In some cases the collapse was compounded by foundation failure, leading to sliding or rotation of the debris.

There was also an interesting dichotomy in the images on television between the "anthill" type of urban search and rescue, carried out by people with no training, no equipment and no idea what to do, and professional urban search and rescue (USAR), which sadly was in the minority of cases. Nevertheless, it remains true that the influx of foreign USAR teams is, sadly, both riotously expensive and highly inefficient, as they tend to arrive after the 'golden period' of about 12 hours in which people could be rescued in significant numbers.

Among the damage there is at least one classic example of the fall of a mosque and its minaret, the same as that which happened in the Düzce earthquake of 1999. Mosques are inherently susceptible to collapse in earthquakes: shallow arches, barrel vaults, rigid domes and slender minarets. The irony is that the great Turkish architect of the 16th century, Mimar Sinan (after whom a university in Istanbul is named) had the problem solved. He threaded iron bars through the well-cut stones of his minarets, endowing them with strength and flexibility. It is also singular that one of the first short, stubby minarets in Turkey (located in Izmir) was built 300 years after Sinan died in 1588.

The earthquakes chart a map of illegal and ineffective construction methods. Relatively few Turkish mass media openly discuss this (exceptions are KSL-NewsRadio and Bianet), and those that do are at risk of being treated as criminals. Nevertheless, the only way for reconstruction to succeed is for there to be a radical change in Turkish policy towards building practices. The issuance of a hundred prosecution notices to builders and engineers is a somewhat hypocritical response, given the amnesty they enjoyed. It shows that political responses to disasters depend on the electorate's short memory.

The President of Turkey has publicly vowed to "reconstruct thousands of houses within one year". This is not a good idea. It should take two or more years to conduct geotechnical survey (microzonation) and urban planning. More time is required for necessary public consultation on the plans. Failure to recognise that time is socially necessary in reconstruction risks marginalising the problems involved rather than facing up to them.

Finally, there is a seismic hazard map of the area affected by these earthquakes. It was made in 1967 and events have shown it to be substantively accurate. No one can say that the risk was not well known, or that the events were unexpected.

Select Bibliography of Sources on Turkish R/C Construction Practices

Cogurcu, M.T. 2015.Construction and design defects in the residential buildings and observed earthquake damage types in Turkey. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences 15: 931-945.

Dogan, G., A.S. Ecemis, S.Z. Korkmaz, M.H. Arslan and H.H. Korkmaz 2021. Buildings damages after Elazığ, Turkey earthquake on January 24, 2020. Natural Hazards 109: 161-200.

Dönmez, C. 2015. Seismic performance of wide-beam infill-joist block RC frames in Turkey. Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities 29(1): 1-9.

Erdil, B. 2017. Why RC buildings failed in the 2011 Van, Turkey, earthquakes: construction versus design practices. Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities 31(3):

Korkmaz, K.A. 2009. Earthquake disaster risk assessment and evaluation for Turkey. Environmental Geology 57: 307-320.

Ozmen, H.B. 2021. A view on how to mitigate earthquake damages in Turkey from a civil engineering perspective. Research on Engineering Structures and Materials 7(1): 1-11.

Sezen, H., A.S. Whittaker, K.J. Elwood and K.M. Mosalam 2003. Performance of reinforced concrete buildings during the August 17, 1999 Kocaeli, Turkey earthquake, and seismic design and construction practise in Turkey. Engineering Structures 25(1): 103-114.

Corruption and Earthquake Disasters

Ambraseys, N. and R. Bilham 2011. Corruption kills. Nature 469: 153-155.

Escaleras, M., N. Anbarci and C.A. Register 2007. Public sector corruption and major earthquakes: a potentially deadly interaction. Public Choice 132: 209-230.



Friday, 30 December 2022

Academic Publishing and Malpractice

In an article in Times Higher Education Professor Harvey J. Graff described malpractice among academic journal editors and called for a bill of rights to protect authors against such excesses. He discussed arbitrary decision-making, failure to communicate the reasons for decisions, negligence, manuscripts with excessive time in review, unprofessional reviews and use of inappropriate reviewers. I agree with all of his observations. I have been an editor (and mostly an Editor-in-Chief) of major international journals for almost 38 years. During that time I have encountered all sorts of behaviour, good and bad, by authors, reviewers and editors. I have made my mistakes, but I have always tried to do the job as it should be done, and not in an arbitrary or unfair manner.

Readers who want a summary of editorial malpractice can read Professor Graff's article (Graff 2022). Herein I am going to concentrate on malpractice by authors. As the number of people wanting to publish in academic journals continues to rise, malpractice  proliferates, in some cases to epidemic proportions. These are the forms it takes:-

  • irrelevant submission (out of scope)
  • plagiarism
  • use of copyrighted material without the explicit permission of the copyright holder and author of the intellectual property
  • duplicate submission
  • false authorship
    • improper use of people's names 
    • so-called "honorary" authorship
    • papers written by surrogate authors or artificial intelligence
  • falsification of data and results (mainly in the medical field)
  • citation cartels
  • other ethical violations (including political issues).

Irrelevant submission. This is not strictly malpractice. It usually represents a failure to consider what the journal would be willing to publish. Unfortunately its title is not a complete and accurate guide to the type of papers it includes. By virtue of their decisions about what to include in the periodical, and what to exclude from it, all managing editors and editors-in-chief have to define a profile for a journal. This is the only way to give it an identity and ensure that it is not overwhelmed by semi-relevant or irrelevant submissions. Journals do have widely varying policies about what they will include and how broad they will allow their scope to be. However, there is an increasing problem with submissions that are simply out of scope and should never have been submitted in the first place. Dealing with these manuscripts wastes everyone's time. In a high-volume journal probably more than a quarter of all submissions will fall into this category, and each manuscript will have to be individually rejected. A little more care in choosing a journal to submit one's work to would more or less solve this problem. 

Plagiarism. There is a rapidly increasing problem with the misuse of other works, whether they be by the authors of a manuscript or by other writers. Editors and reviewers should demand that works are original in their prose, illustrations and data. This means significant divergence from what has gone before, not merely camouflaging someone else's ideas with slight changes in wording. Unfortunately, we live in an age in which there is an increasing tendency to write by copy-and-paste, lifting sentences and often entire paragraphs out of existing published works and plonking them directly into new manuscripts. A similarity score of 20% or more raises a red flag. There are, of course, exceptions in which the reuse of material is perfectly justified. Reusing material from pre-prints and working papers are usually acceptable, as they are not full, formal publications. Proper attribution of sources can help as well. However, plagiarism is on the rise and, despite the existence of powerful software to detect it, we simply do not know how much of it goes undetected. For example, direct translation of copyrighted material from one language to another will not be detected by the software.

Copyrighted material. Where sources are properly attributed, there is a widespread tendency to ignore the procedures of copyright release, in which permission to reproduce published material is obtained. Although there is a grey area regarding the amount or size of material for which permission must be obtained, there is nevertheless a clear obligation not to use, for example, a map published in another work, without permission.

Duplicate submission. It is standard practice in academic publishing to require authors to certify that their submitted manuscripts are not currently under consideration by any other journal, and that the material has not been published elsewhere. They can, of course, submit a paper elsewhere if it is rejected, but not before that has happened. The larger academic publishers are now introducing software that can detect duplicate submission, but unfortunately it can only do so within a single publishing house. For a large-volume journal, a significant number of cases of double or multiple submission may be discovered.

False authorship. It is possible that a paper be written by surrogate authors, or even, perhaps, with the contribution of artificial intelligence algorithms. That is a problem that publishers, editors and reviewers will increasingly have to confront in the future. Some of the larger academic publishers automatically verify authorship. This became necessary once it was realised that the names of (mostly eminent) scholars and scientists were being appropriated as putative authors of papers, usually without their knowledge. Another problem is so-called 'honorary authorship' (Al-Herz et al. 2013). In this, scholars are included as authors without actually contributing to the writing of the paper, or possibly even to the research on which it is based. In many cases, the real authors of the paper gain by associating their names with someone who is more prestigious in their chosen field than they are. Ethical considerations demand that authorship should mean exactly that, not merely bestowing kudos on someone else's work. In one case I recently encountered, the author of a paper was attempting to sell co-authorship in order to pay publication charges.

Falsification of data and results. This, of course, is the classic form of academic malpractice. When it is detected on an impressive scale the result can be a spectacular scandal. However, there is no way of telling how much falsification goes undetected. In certain sciences, the problem extends to clandestine image manipulation.

Citation cartels. It is sad to reflect that academic prestige is often judged using bibliometric measures. The number of citations of one's work is one such measure, usually expressed by the somewhat arcane h-index, which is supposed to be a measure of academic productivity. This presupposes that the work is popular and has had "impact". It ignores the question of whether the work has been cited because it is wrong, misleading or badly researched. Citation cartels are groups of academics who have arranged to cite each other's works in order to drive up citation indices. This detracts from scientific objectivity in their work and usually leaves a paper bloated with unnecessary, and perhaps irrelevant, citations.

Other ethical violations. A full range of ethical problems can be perused by looking at the website of COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics ( This includes a very large number of anonymised case histories in which an ethical determination was made by the Committee.

Despite the development of increasingly powerful software to detect malpractice, it is proliferating as more and more scholars seek to publish their work. For those who never make it into prestigious mainstream journals, there is a complete undergrowth of 'predatory' publishers and journals, whose standards are low (or even non-existent) and whose main raison d'etre is to make money, usually by charging authors to publish. Comprehensive lists of 'predatory' journals and publishers have been compiled by Jeffrey Beall (Beall 2022). Predatory publishing has in turn spawned a whole industry of predatory academic conferences and sham editorial boards (Stratton 2017).

In conclusion, there may be editors whose actions are questionable, but there are also many authors who do the wrong thing. If one examines one's motivations, procedures and experiences, it is perfectly possible to act with integrity and publish academic work while avoiding the whole malpractice problem.


Al-Herz, W., H. Haider, M. Al-Bahhar and A. Sadeq 2013. Honorary authorship in biomedical journals: how common is it and why does it exist? BMJ Journal of Medical Ethics 40(5): 346-348

Beall, J. 2022. Beall's List of Potential Predatory Journals and Publishers. (accessed 30 December 2022).

Graff, H.J. 2022. Editors have become so wayward that academic authors need a bill of rights. 18 August 2022 Times Higher Education, London.

Stratton, S.J. 2017. Another “dear esteemed colleague” journal email invitation? Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 32(1): 1-2.

Friday, 21 October 2022

Managing Emergencies: The Challenges of the Future


Welcome to the 'riskscape'

On one day in July 2021 fires devastated large areas of Sardinia, flooding occurred for the second time in two weeks in London and I received a message from research colleagues in Germany that read "the institute was quite destroyed and many colleagues have suffered tremendous damage to their houses." Hot, humid weather and developing storms made me wonder whether my house was about to suffer the effects of the kind of concentrated microcyclone storm which has come to be known colloquially as a 'water bomb' and scientifically as ‘explosive cyclogenesis’. The last one caused mayhem as water poured copiously through the door (on the third floor) and I broke my foot as I scrambled to mop it up and save the parquet. So much for the personal reflections. What does all this mean for Britain? 

If we look at major emergencies in the UK over the last 25 years or so, there have been significant deficiencies in the response in just about every case. In some instances, notably the Manchester Arena bombing and the Grenfell Tower fire (both in 2017), the shortcomings have been nothing less than scandalous (Kerslake 2018, Moore-Bick 2019). The same is true of some of the earlier events, such as the Hillsborough stadium disaster of 1989. Lessons have been identified and in some cases learned, but the process is inhibited by the weakness of the overall system.

This has been the case despite the fact that Britain has formidable expertise in both the practical and the academic domains. Recently, I spoke to a senior emergency planner who has worked for years in the transportation and nuclear industries. From memory he recited to me a catalogue of omissions, oversights and failures in managing the risks. I asked him for a prediction of what would happen in the future. He looked gloomy and said that the most likely scenario would be a large destructive event in the nuclear or chemical industries, or perhaps a major infrastructure failure of some kind. In each case, there are plenty of risks and situations to choose from. However, do we really appreciate the magnitude of the challenge posed by climate change, not merely in terms of average values of temperature and precipitation, but with respect to extreme events: heatwaves, cold snaps, snow, ice, frost, rain, floods, rising sea levels in conjunction with coastal storm surges, and so on?

A climate of increasing risk 

A report by the Met Office and associated climate scientists (Kendon et al. 2021) confirms that the United Kingdom is getting warmer and wetter. The potential for extreme weather events is increasing fast. The forecast is for heavier rain, more flooding, greater heat waves and, paradoxically, more substantial cold snaps and deeper snow. Moreover, the rate of sea-level rise has doubled since 1900, which will increase the impact of storm surge flooding along the nation's coasts. Billions will have to be spent on making the country's infrastructure more resilient against this sort of event. More flood defences will have to be constructed and those that exist will need strengthening and maintaining, at great cost. Alarmingly, a survey by the Environment Agency that nearly 6 per cent of existing flood defences are in a poor or very poor state (Environment Agency 2021). One only hopes that land-use planning will stem the flood of new construction in areas that are prone to inundation by rivers that burst their banks and seas that rise up and surge inland, eating away at properties and coastal defences as they go.

The bureaucratic approach 

Emphasis is quite rightly placed on mitigating these impacts and preparing to adapt our lives and livelihoods to climate change. However, it would be wrong to avoid thinking about how to improve our ability to respond to meteorological disasters when they occur. In the UK, the term 'disaster' is not used: 'major incident' is preferred. This is acceptable when one is dealing with a road accident or a train crash. But in 2008 floods stretched from Alnwick in Northumberland to Tewksbury in Somerset, nearly 500 km away. Was this not a disaster? And how can the death of nearly 130,000 people from Covid-19 be called a 'major incident'? It is time to call a spade a spade.

Every country needs a law that specifies the nature of the civil protection system and the basic details of how it works. In the UK this is the Civil Contingencies Act of November 2004. Oddly, it was sidelined during the pandemic as the Cabinet Office Minister, Michael Gove, judged it to be 'too extreme'. He went on to promulgate a law, the Coronavirus Act of March 2020, that is perhaps even more 'extreme', although mitigated by its incomprehensibility. To illustrate that, consider just one of the 102 provisions and 29 schedules. namely paragraph 25D, subparagraph (1): 

"Regulations under section 25C may not include provision imposing a restriction or requirement by virtue of subsection (3)(c) of that section unless the Department considers, when making the regulations, that the restriction or requirement is proportionate to what is sought to be achieved by imposing it."

Wording of this kind is designed to defy the country's leading philosophers of logic, and let's remember that the Act is designed to tackle a major emergency–sorry, disaster.

The real problem is that the British emergency planning, management and response system is fragmented and incomplete. It lacks a national emergency operations centre. For the ops people in Rome there is a cluster of five emergency operations rooms in a substantial purpose-built complex. In The Hague there is a compact but technologically advanced operations centre. In Britain, there is the Cabinet Office Briefing Room, which is a mere discussion chamber, staffed on an ad hoc basis and very occasionally frequented by the Prime Minister. 

Emergency planning is a vital occupation. In major emergencies the plans orchestrate the procedures and reduce improvisation to a necessary minimum. This is a good idea because improvisation in place of proper foresight and preparation can be lethal, as we have seen with the provision of personal protective equipment and the first test-and-trace system in Britain. However, in the UK emergency planning is hardly a profession. Despite the presence of 62 universities that teach some aspects of disaster and emergency management, it has no graduate entry requirement and no career progression. Where it exists and has not been dispensed with in austerity cuts, expertise and institutional memory are easily lost in the rotation of staff.

Britain was one of the first countries to institute a national register of civil risks. This document is periodically updated and the latest edition came out in 2020. Interestingly, since the first edition in 2008, pandemics have been regarded as the leading risk in terms of their probability of occurrence and seriousness of consequences. Despite this, in early 2020 when Covid-19 struck, preparedness was at a low ebb and government was distracted by other contingencies, notably Brexit and counter-terrorism.

The National Risk Register has been criticised because it is not a particularly user-friendly document, it takes only a short-term view of the threats and hazards that assail the UK, it does not enquire into how risks can manifest themselves in combinations, and it is unknown to many of the organisations and decision makers who could make good use of it.

The local level of emergency preparedness in the UK does use the risk register, as it is charged with preparing community risk registers, which are local versions of the NRR.  They are managed by the country's local resilience forums. These are rather ambiguous bodies. They lack consistent funding and have little executive authority. They have few mechanisms for involving the community or creating an efficient, effective local system. This is particularly unfortunate as there is immense scope to generate more community engagement. Indeed, the challenge of the century in civil protection is to persuade ordinary people to be more responsible for their own risks.

One wonders why the police are the lead agency in the UK and why the emergency planners are so seldom the emergency managers? The answer lies in both the undervaluing of emergency planning ('disaster science' is not represented in, for example, the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, SAGE), and the excessive emphasis on command and control. An extension of this is the widespread use of military forces in civilian emergencies in the UK. At a time when the military complement of personnel is shrinking and there are many other demands on the attention of our armed forces, this does not make sense. Indeed, some military commanders I have spoken to are uneasy about their role in floods, storms and so on. It is a role that is seldom sustained enough to make a thorough-going difference. In fact, in general terms, the evolution of emergency management can practically be measured by its degree of demilitarisation over recent decades.

In the response to civilian emergencies, all countries experience a certain tension between centralisation and devolution. The UK has become highly centralised in its organisation, but most emergencies are far from being nationwide events. Given the future challenges, it makes clear sense to reverse this tendency.

Inspiration from elsewhere

I have the good fortune to be a dual national with British and Italian citizenship. In my home town in Italy a civil protection service has existed since 1525 (some 281 years after it began 17 km down the road in Florence - where it is still headquartered in the same building as it had in 1244). Organised voluntarism is fully incorporated into the system. This gives us a modern, efficient ambulance service that often has a doctor on board as well as paramedics. Across the road there is the emergency operations centre of the forest fire-fighting volunteers. Both services do much more than responding to casualties and fires respectively. 'Civil Protection' is written large upon their fleets of vehicles. Laws protect their operatives and define their responsibilities in major emergencies. Both services will look to the municipal emergency operations centre, which is combined with a small detachment of the national fire and rescue service. This is responsible for six local municipalities which respond to emergencies in consortium. The provincial emergency plan is fully digital and it is coordinated by the civil protection service of the region.

In Florence, a consortium of 29 volunteer organisations includes specialists in medicine, transportation, radio communications, fire-fighting, logistics and hazardous materials response. It can put 1,000 operatives into the field within ten minutes and 5,000 within two hours. I can verify that is is not a mere boast, as I have seen it done. In the case of a major national emergency such as a large earthquake, following a well-rehearsed procedure, the regional convoy will form up and be on its way within a matter of hours. Above all, this is a matter of local pride, not merely expediency. When one of the local ambulances developed a short circuit and caught fire, the townspeople stepped forward, paid up and six weeks later two new state-of-the-art cardiac arrest ambulances were parked outside the town hall for inspection. No doubt people were thinking "I may well need this service one day," but they also benefited from a sense of ownership. There are many civil protection volunteers among friends and family members. One curious result of this is that the last three major earthquake emergencies have involved more civil protection volunteers than members of the affected populations, but very much in the orderly, well-directed manner that is characteristic of a mature public service.

This digital pen-portrait of local emergency arrangements is meant to illustrate the point that the ability to respond to major emergencies is of necessity dependent on local arrangements. Civil defence involves the protection of populations against armed aggression. It is perforce a 'top-down' national affair and it is the parent discipline of civil protection. The latter is quintessentially 'bottom-up', as the theatre of operations is invariably the local area. No outside forces, whether civilian or military, can quite match the local understanding of local characteristics and needs.

A recipe for the future

The future holds considerable challenges: a possible epidemic of lethal, non-seasonal influenza, highly destructive extreme weather events, infrastructure failures with cascading consequences, and so on. Emergency planning, management and response in the UK needs to be welded into a coherent system with the following characteristics. First, it must be based on the local level, as all disasters are local problems. Secondly, it must be harmonised regionally and nationally, with standardised methods and procedures. Thirdly, it must be inclusive and representative of the diversity of the population. Fourthly, it must harness the voluntary sector in a coherent, joined-up way as part of the system. It must be demilitarised so that civilian authorities take full responsibility for creating resilience and response capability. Fifthly, it must divest itself of its traditional command-and-control ethos in favour of the more collaborative model that has become the norm in the modern world, a model that makes full use of the ability of information and communications technology to foster collaboration.

Finally, it is time to make full use of the talents of women, young people and members of minority groups. Although there are still relatively few women in emergency management, those who are members of this profession tend to be very good: practical, level headed, good at multi-tasking and not afraid to speak their mind in favour of improving the service. The typical emergency manager is still a middle-aged white male with a military background. Although some of these people are outstandingly good at their jobs, much depends on whether they can lose their military ethos, as it is simply not appropriate to the management of civilian emergencies. Indeed, it is one of the most important factors that inhibit positive change. One of the lessons of Covid-19 is that failure to view emergencies from the point of view of minority groups creates disadvantage, unfairness and discontent. The solution is to have emergency planners and managers who are not only well educated in the field, but they also have a more varied perspective on it.

Sir Oliver Letwin's excellent book Apocalypse How? (2020) describes a major infrastructure failure in the UK caused by a space weather incident, which occurs, hypothetically, in the year 2037. It describes the struggles to bring the situation back to normality given the role of funding cuts in the disappearance of redundancy and alternative systems. It ends on a relatively comforting, optimistic note. But unless the official mindset changes, I am not sure that the real thing will enjoy such a happy ending.


Environment Agency 2021. Risk of Flooding from Rivers and Sea. (accessed 30 June 2021).

Kendon, M., M. McCarthy, S. Jevrejeva, A. Matthews, T. Sparks and J. Garforth 2021. State of the UK Climate 2020. International Journal of Climatology 41(S2): 1-76. doi: 10.1002/joc.7285 

Letwin, O. 2020. Apocalypse How? Technology and the Threat of Disaster. Atlantic Books, London, 256 pp.

Kerslake, B. 2018. The Kerslake Report: An Independent Review into the Preparedness For, and Emergency Response to, the Manchester Arena Attack on 22nd May 2017. 224 pp. (accessed 21 October 2022). 

Moore-Bick, M. 2019. Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report. Report of the Public Inquiry Into the Fire At Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017. UK Government, London (4 vols.).


Thursday, 20 October 2022

Can we stop the rot in academia?

Few would deny that there is a general air of malaise in academia at the moment. I look around at colleagues and their attitudes seem to vary along a spectrum from combative anger, through pervasive anxiety, to sullen resignation.

Academics seem to be trapped in a spiral of worsening conditions, but many fear that if they seek a new position elsewhere, the situation there may be just the same as the one that induced them to move. Others, of course, are simply unable to move, stuck in a job with working conditions that are increasingly less tolerable.

Standards of management are generally very poor in the university and college world. Most academic staff are hired on the basis of their reputations as researchers or teachers, not for their skills in managing departments, faculties or entire institutions. Those who make the transition from intellectual activity to administration are precipitated into a system that enthusiastically applies principles and techniques that were tried out in business half a century ago and rapidly abandoned because they failed to improve the performance of companies.

Expansion, competitivity and the desire for hyper-visible progress induce university administrators to pile on the tasks with no attention either to a person's capacity or his or her priorities. The huge expansion in non-academic staff has created a large cadre of people who spend their time thinking up tasks for academics to perform. Many of the latter are being driven to distraction by the relentless increase in demands upon their time. 

Academic units such as departments or institutes are cost centres. They must under all circumstances maintain a balance between financial inputs and outgoings. There is no elasticity in this system, which cannot tolerate anything regarded as a "loss-making enterprise", no matter how worthy it is. Priorities are thus determined by how much money they are worth, not by their intellectual value. However, monetary value is a poor measure of utility to society, because not all things of value have an equivalent cost.

Among the greatest casualties of this vicious spiral is "thinking time", and with it creativity. Both are essential to the pursuit of research, which, we know, is essential to the furtherance of teaching. Academic staff who are too tired or demotivated or pressured to take time to think about their mission and their work are losing the very thing that underpins the real value of universities. 

Unions are fighting to halt the decline in the real value of salaries, the rise in precarious employment, the assault on pensions, and perhaps also the constant erosion of the status of the modern academic. However, there is more to be done in terms of university and college governance.

Managers need to recognise that the working week is finite and so is the number of tasks that can be completed during it. This means that management and the front-line staff need to agree on priorities. In this it must be accepted that, if one task is prioritised, another will not be accomplished. Lip service is paid to "work-life balance", but the system is currently rigged in such a way that for most academics it simply cannot be achieved. 

Many colleagues I speak to have lost their creative impetus to the constant demands of administrative tasks and the low-level activities that crowd into our days (and evenings and weekends). We need to be able to schedule ourselves at least half a day a week when we will not be answering emails, dealing with urgent requests, teaching classes, attending meetings and such tasks. Instead we will be reading and thinking, also writing. If we must regard academic life as a buying-and-selling market, then the product we have to sell is the fruit of our creativity. If we lose that, our product rapidly deteriorates.

During the worst of the pandemic there was, no doubt rightly, a huge emphasis on student welfare. Many of us had the impression that the corresponding emphasis on staff welfare was little more than lip-service, as we struggled day and night to support the well-being of our students. 

In effect, the pandemic saw the triumph of the marketisation of higher education, a process that had been steadily accelerating for decades before Covid-19 struck. Yet in its current form, the commercial market approach to academic life is bound to be self-defeating, as it hollows out the product that we sell to the consumers of our teaching and research.

Conditions are sadly not right for anyone to found a "slow university", a place where deep meditation can give rise to enhanced creativity, well-crafted publications, sustained concern for others, and courses in which one has time for free, wide-ranging discussion. Nevertheless, it remains an ideal, even if a distant one.

In the meantime it would be useful to repair the processes of governance in higher education. This would require more participation by staff in decision making, which in turn would require less of a separation between teaching and research staff, on the one hand, and management on the other.

One tendency that seriously needs to be reversed is the loss of trust in front-line staff. Everywhere, there seem to be procedures that control what we do and require us to justify the smallest of our actions. Not only is this demeaning, it creates a massive, unnecessary bureaucracy that eats up time that could be devoted to loftier activities and saps the will to create. If once it was unnecessary, it can treated so again.

It is striking that so many of those who run universities either cannot see the problem--and the solution--clearly enough or else remain indifferent to it. Cultural change is drastically needed in the academy. Some of it involves reversion to the saner ways of doing things that once prevailed, but, clearly, trying to recreate the past would not work in an age as dynamic as our own. Perhaps we should start by trying to ascertain why common sense seems to have fled from the halls of academia and what can be done to attract it back. Governance has to be improved, and one measure of whether happens is to know whether expectations of academic staff are realistic--indeed humane--enough.