Friday, 29 February 2008

Managing Hazards And Disasters: New Theories, New Imperatives

The Portsmouth 2000 Distinguished Lecture in Hazard and Risk Management, Geohazards Research Centre, Faculty of Science, University of Portsmouth, U.K., 17 May 2000

In this paper I will address two linked problems. The first is the status of general theories about hazards and disasters and the second is the question of how knowledge is applied to the urgent practical problems that such events cause.

Disasters have been studied using formal academic methods only since the 1920s. The conceptual underpinnings of the field are therefore young and perhaps incomplete, and its future evolution depends on the renewed development of theory, as this represents the framework within which events and phenomena are interpreted and provides a guide to the choice of research questions. Theory has also been described as a sort of "road map" by which emergency managers orient themselves during the various phases of catastrophe (Drabek 1998).

The dawn of the new millennium is a period of upheaval and transition in human societies and also marks the end of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (1990-2000). It is thus a good point in time to examine progress in the formulation of theory and the practice of managing catastrophes.


A Brief Critique of Existing Theories of Disasters and Hazards

In earlier works (Alexander 1991a, pp. 211-212, 1993, pp. 13-14) I classified approaches to disaster into six schools of thought based on the following disciplines: geography, anthropology, sociology and social psychology, engineering and architecture, medicine and public health, and development studies. To simplify the analysis, the following critique will address only the social science models, as these offer the greatest accumulation of expertise on the human condition in disaster. Though there are significant differences between the approaches of geographers and anthropologists (and rivalries, e.g. Torry 1979, Burton et al. 1981), there is enough overlap to enable these disciplines to be considered together.

The dominant body of theory on hazards and disasters had its origins in the 1920s with the work of Harlan H. Barrows in the USA, which paved the way for the emergence of human ecology (or cultural ecology), and that of Samuel Henry Prince in North America and Pitrim Sorokin in Russia (Sorokin 1942), which led to a sociological approach based on organizational dynamics.

The human ecological model was conceived as a geographical instrument for analyzing people's cohabitation with environmental hazards. It emerged slowly from the 1940s to the 1960s under the guiding hand of Gilbert Fowler White, leading light of the Chicago school of resource geography (Kates and Burton 1986). Subsequently it gathered pace under the impetus of the quantitative and conceptual revolutions that were going on in practically all of the sciences. In essence, the core idea was that people would adapt to hazards that they could not modify in such a way as to reduce their impacts. Adaptation would be based on rational premises, tempered by quirks of perception and preference. It would be expressed both in the pattern of losses and in people's choice of strategy.

At the same time, a sociological model of reaction to hazards emerged. Like cultural ecology it had its origins around 1920 (cf. Prince 1920, Barrows 1923), its early development not long after 1940 (cf. Fritz and Williams 1957, White 1945) and its fastest growth in the 1960s and 1970s (cf. Barton 1970, Burton et al. 1968). According to this model, people would respond to the stress of disasters in rational, socialized ways at the individual, peer group, family, organizational and societal levels. By focusing strongly on classifying human reactions, the model revealed a web of behavior patterns that commonly emerge under the duress of disaster.

Over the last fifty years, work in the social sciences has generated a rich variety of generalizations and observations. But we may ask whether the twin bodies of theory thus accumulated are capable of interpreting a world that is fast changing. Though very widely applied (e.g. Islam 1974), they were mainly developed in order to explain adaptation to hazards in the Anglo-Saxon countries and in a specific epoch, the 1960s and 1970s. Despite the best efforts of eminent practitioners (e.g. Quarantelli 1998), the theoretical side of the subject has tended to stagnate since this period ended.

It is striking that social science models of disaster have evolved overwhelmingly in the United States. At least 80 per cent of general human system research on disasters has been conducted in North America and it is therefore hardly surprising that it reflects the characteristics of North American society (Drabek 1986). The dominant ideology is functionalist and rationalist. It minimizes tradition and historical constraints and emphasizes rapid adaptation to changes in circumstance. Under the functionalist approach, people's reactions to disaster can be interpreted using Herbert Simon's 'bounded rationality' model, which suggests that people seek to do what they regard as right and logical, tempered by their ability to perceive and interpret the hazards that threaten them and the options that are available to them (Simon 1956).

While acknowledging that the human ecological and sociological models of disaster have served us very well, there are various reasons why we might question their bases. For example, European intellectual traditions are more relativist and not as functionalist as their North American counterparts. The dominance of U.S. research on hazards reflects, not only the vitality and large number of the U.S. academic institutions, but also a widespread failure in other parts of the world to come up with theories of hazards that fit local conditions better than North American functionalist models do. It is not that other societies are less rational in their approach to hazards than people are in the USA, it is merely that traditions and viewpoints may interpose subtlely different perspectives and priorities. In short, one must question whether the U.S. social model is an adequate global norm.

Culture and Context in Hazards and Disasters

The root of the problem lies in the interpretation of culture. The term is remarkably difficult to define, as it reflects the sum of traditions, habits, beliefs and reactions for a people whose origins may be intricate, complex or obscure, and which at the very least tends to be multifaceted. it is even harder meaningfully to define the relationship between culture and disaster.

In synthesis, disasters are signal events in the lives of people and communities that survive them. The sum total of such events represents a current of history, which in turn impresses itself in subtle ways upon culture. A purely rational "event and response" analysis of reactions to disaster can easily miss some vital cultural signals that govern the choices made and strategies adopted. This seems to be especially true of societies with deep roots, long histories and much internal cohesion.

For instance, in the Tuscany Region of Italy, floods, earthquakes and landslides are common occurrences. Gradually, painstakingly, civil protection structures and mitigation programs are emerging to counter the threat of damage and casualties in these events (Fontanari et al. 1999). The programs are sensible, rational responses to the need for greater environmental security and public safety, and they conform to most of the usual canons of hazard management. However, when one looks at the social mechanisms involved in their creation, great emphasis is given to the achievement of an adequate political consensus among a restricted group of influential people, each of whom has a particular set of expectations and priorities. Disaster prevention therefore begins with intensive negotiation and consensus-building. It has been so in Tuscany for centuries.

Functionalist approaches to hazards often seem to miss such subtleties, or to lack the means of interpreting them. Indeed, work by geographers and sociologists who have attempted to circumscribe and interpret the cultural influence on society's adaptation to hazards have produced results that are at best crude and at worst naive (Palm 1998). This is because the instruments created for functional analysis are poorly adapted to picking up the cultural signal (Alexander 1991b). In an original approach to this problem, Brislin (1980) distinguished between 'etic' and 'emic' components of hazard perception, the former of universal application and the latter culturally specific. Functionalist social sciences tend to assume that humanity is governed by etic principles (which up to a point is true) and that emic ones are merely local variations on the grand, unifying theme. Especially for societies with ancient roots, this generalization is suspect.

In the lives of people who live through them, disasters are milestones, points of reference and yardsticks by which subsequent experience is measured. For society as a whole, catastrophic events are absorbed into the matrix of history, which forms the background of culture (Figure 1). They thus exert an indirect influence upon the latter by contributing to its historical context, often in subtle ways. A history of frequent earthquakes can disseminate latent anxiety in a society for decades (Hansen and Condon 1989), or it can lead to periodic renewals of religious fervour, or to fashions for monument-building (Kates and Pijawka 1977).

Cultural Survival and Cultural Dynamism

Culture is a fundamental determinant of how hazards are perceived. It governs, in part, the efficiency of mitigation programs and emergency measures, and the pattern of human organization to tackle hazards. We might therefore say that culture mediates attempts to reduce the impact of disasters. But it is also made up of two components: cultural survival and cultural dynamism. The former represents the weight of history, tradition and conservatism, hence the emic aspects. The latter refers to the spread of new cultural values, the etic aspects, and the metamorphosis of old ones as they encounter new influences and as the social context alters (Figure 2). In a world that is changing rapidly, 'culture' and 'context' become key factors in this process. Cultural metamorphosis is leading human societies everywhere to struggle with the relentless pace of technological development and the radical reordering of the world economic system in order to interpret such developments in the context of their traditional beliefs, customs and coping strategies.

Consider the following paradoxes of modernity:-

(a) Ninety per cent of international money transfers are speculative, 80 per cent of them with a return time of less than a week. Collectively, 358 billionaires are richer than 45 per cent of the world's population. 'Income redistribution' is thus a very relative term.

(b) Income differentials more than doubled in the second half of the 20th century and in the final decades 89 countries experienced decline in national wealth. 'Equity' is thus a very relative term.
(c) Since 1945, between 25 and 50 million people have died in about 300 conflicts. In recent wars about 84 per cent of casualties have been non-combatants, especially women and children. In all of this period there have been only 126 days of global peace. 'Security' is thus a very relative term.

(d) Half of the people in the world have never used a telephone and more than 97 per cent are not Internet users. 'Information technology revolution' is thus a very relative term.
In a world in which capital has gained the upper hand over labour, the processes that reinforce differentials have strengthened, while those that reduce them have weakened in relative terms (Albala-Bertrand 1993). It is therefore hardly surprising that the toll of suffering and losses caused by disasters has increased. As a result of this growing polarization, the demands that people face are resolving themselves into two groups: the wealthy are challenged to take advantage of the new opportunities that technology and globalism are providing, while the poor are challenged merely to survive. Sophisticated mechanisms keep these processes going, despite the apparent simplicity and relatively small sums of money required to reduce suffering. The pattern of extreme geophysical events may be well-distributed among the world's 200 nations, but nine out of every ten catastrophes and 96 per cent of casualties occur in poorer nations, and especially among marginalized groups (IFRCRCS 1999, p. 7). Even in places where capital flows freely, the seriousness of damage and the complexity of losses merely illustrate how fragile and unprotected much current technology actually is.

Technological hegemony and global capitalism have polarized world society and culture. This, then, is the emerging matrix in which to set a new model designed to interpret hazards and disasters.

Towards a New Model of Hazards and Disasters

The 'classical' model of natural hazards developed from the 1940s to the 1970s by Gilbert White and his students proposed a linear chain of causality that runs from physical events to human consequences, mediated by humanity's tendency to put itself voluntarily or involuntarily at risk (Burton et al. 1993). The model is summarized by the following syllogism:-

Extreme geophysical events
act upon
human vulnerability and risk-taking
to produce
casualties and damage

White's aim was to take the field away from excessive reliance on technological mitigation and reintroduce the social aspects connected with non-structural measures, such as land-use control and insurance. But the linear pattern of causality in this model has tended nonetheless to favour technocentrism, as it is implicitly assumed that abating hazards will reduce vulnerability.

By treating social relations in a functionalist way, the sociological approaches to disaster have been no less dependent on this form of causal model. It has also been suggested that traditional sociology, born with the Industrial Revolution, was developed to justify the forms of capitalism that have propagated the technocentric approach to hazard management, not to criticize them (Anderson 1997, p. 4). In the world's poorer countries technocentrism in development and hazard mitigation have often led to the opposite of what was intended, i.e. the spread of increased vulnerability and the reduction of traditional coping mechanisms.

By the 1980s a 'radical critique' had emerged to counter what had become the orthodox view of hazards (Hewitt 1983). In this, vulnerability was treated as a more significant cause of disaster than hazards such as earthquakes, floods or chemical explosions (Blaikie et al. 1984). This model can be summarized as follows:-

Society's risk-taking and vulnerability
interact with
extreme geophysical events
to produce
casualties and damage

While one is justified in assuming that more vulnerable communities suffer greater losses, the problem with this model lies in the high degree of confusion and overlap between the terms 'hazard', 'vulnerability' and 'risk', each of which enjoys a range of subtle interpretations (Alexander 2000, pp. 7-22). The model also tends to reduce hazard mitigation to a mechanistic process of vulnerability reduction. As vulnerability is not a simple function of poverty (Cannon 1994), the model encourages superficiality in the analysis of why communities are vulnerable in the first place, which may have as much to do with culture and the yoke of history as it does to average incomes, gross domestic product or investment ratios.

As culture and context offer a route to further insight into hazards, an alternative model is needed based on these concepts. It might be summarized as follows:-

Extreme geophysical events
cumulatively offer a
historical and cultural context
that helps determine the nature of
adaptation to risk and disaster
which influences the toll of
casualties and damage

In this, the toll of casualties and damage results from the interaction of three factors: the nature of culture and society, the forces of socio-economic change, and the impact of extreme geophysical events.

In its details, this model is governed by opposing tendencies. As time progresses, culture is metamorphosed from the product of emic cultural survivals and etic cultural dynamism (Figure 2). Technological developments, which are the driving force of the latter, both create and mitigate vulnerability to disaster (Figure 3). Thus the cultural background of society, and the cultural filter through which hazard information is interpreted and adapted to, are continually changing as the balance between risk and mitigation alters.

Further development of the model depends on one's ability to codify and evaluate factors that contribute to the tension of opposites in the modern world (Figure 4), especially with respect to the factors that increase vulnerability in relation to those that reduce it (Alexander 2000, p. 246).


The practical application of knowledge about disasters

In no field are practical applications more important than they are in disaster research. In fact, applicability is usually a good test of the value of new ideas. At present, hazard mitigation, disaster planning and emergency management are all developing with unparallelled speed and intensity. This is giving rise to new demands, especially in terms of training and the sharing of knowledge, but there is considerable unevenness in the extent to which accumulated knowledge is being applied.

Overall, the degree to which knowledge about hazards and disasters acquired over the last half century has been applied varies from one school of thought to another. By and large, mitigation lessons have been learned in the physical sciences and engineering disciplines—often the hard way, as inefficiencies in design have led directly to avoidable damage and casualties. Many research institutions have developed programs for the critical analysis of failure, for example, by conducting post-earthquake surveys (Hays 1986). Furthermore, there is no shortage of expertise on seismic, volcanic, meteorological hydrological monitoring practices (e.g. McGuire et al. 1994). Similarly, there have been strenuous efforts in the development studies field to apply the results of studies and improve the work of safeguarding the world's poorer communities against disaster (Anderson and Woodrow 1989). There have also been widespread improvements in disaster medicine and epidemiology (Manni 1989).

Yet the situation is not so clear cut with respect to the social sciences. Given that there is no lack of mitigation technology, it is perhaps more important to learn how to apply it more widely and efficiently than it is to invent novel technical solutions. This is true even though the increasing technological complexity of society tends to demand intricate new means of safeguarding it. The social sciences therefore have a pivotal role to play in analyzing the conditions needed for the application of useful knowledge, examining why and where it is not being utilized, and helping to create the conditions for better mitigation. They can and should fulfill the role of critical watchdog on the use of technology in disaster mitigation. They should help determine the most appropriate balance between structural and non-structural measures (Denis 1997).

The rest of this section will consider four examples of the challenges and pitfalls associated with making the world safer against major hazards: the question of rising costs and losses; increasing diffusion of information technology to mitigate the impacts of disaster; the role of education and training for emergency management; and the delicate relationship between disasters and democracy.

Relentless Rise in the Cost of Disasters

Since 1970 the cost of the world's most expensive disaster has risen by one order of magnitude per decade (Alexander 2000, p. 157). Moreover, in the last half of the 20th century, the total cost of major disasters rose by a factor of 15.3 and insured losses by a factor of 16 (Figure 5; Munich Re 1999). It is widely recognized that the economic impact of catastrophes is out of control, and not merely because increasingly sophisticated methods of calculation now include more aspects of loss than was the case in 1950. In fact, in industrialized countries the spread of capital and technology across hazard zones has lead to increased risk-taking, while in developing nations debt repayments and armaments sales have led to increased instability and marginalization.

Rapidly escalating costs have come at a time of increasing fiscal stringency. The increasing tendency to devolve government powers for disaster mitigation has not been matched by ability to fund the initiatives well at lower levels of government (Roenigk 1993). The problem that has stimulated much creative thinking (May et al. 1996) but probably has no easy solution. Moreover, privatization is seldom an option, as companies are usually unwilling to assume the risks associated with confronting disasters. Yet benefit-cost ratios for majorhazard abatement are almost always positive and sometimes highly so (Ouellette et al. 1988). It is therefore paradoxical that mitigation has not kept pace with rising losses.

Third world countries have experienced conflict between the goals of short-term emergency management and long-term economic development (IFRCRCS 1999, pp. 52-3), while industrialized nations have not found adequate sources of capital to finance mitigation measures (Kunreuther and Roth 1998). In both settings, market forces have not proved efficient at guaranteeing individual freedoms while discouraging excessive risk-taking, and this is likely to remain so until the predicted $3.2 trillion Japanese earthquake sets the world's financial markets on end (RMS 1995) and the tide of risk management turns. In the meantime, disaster losses are evidently a supportable tax for investors but are an unavoidable—and increasing—burden for the poor. International assistance has declined since the mid-1990s to barely 0.2 per cent of donor countries' GNPs (IFRCRCS 1999, p. 102) and technology and expertise have not been adequately transferred to where they is most needed.

As these tendencies offer no hope of long-term sustainability, they will have to be reversed sooner or later. However, despite talk of debt relief, and despite many new global initiatives for hazard reduction, at present there is no sense that the problem of building community resistance to disasters is about to be solved (Hendrickson 1998). The world's financial markets have refused a 0.25 per cent tax on international capital transfers, which would have provided a substantial pool of funds for development and mitigation in the poorer countries (Alexander 2000, p. 131). At the same time, most of the sources of instability and unsustainability are still there and many have, if anything, continued to intensify (IFRCRCS 1998, Ch. 2).

Economic trends have become increasingly bound up with the electronic flow of data and hence it is apposite to examine the impact of the new information technologies on disaster preparedness and emergency work.

Information Technology Revolution

The increasing use of information technology is an almost universal trend in disaster management. Software has been written to assist functions during each of the phases of disaster (mitigation, preparedness, emergency management, recovery and reconstruction; Fischer 1998). For instance, there are programs to aid search-and-rescue missions and to log emergency communications. Geographic information systems, in particular, have become popular means of depicting both patterns of vulnerability to disaster and spatial aspects of emergency response (Coppock 1995). GIS has been combined with predictive models of building response and emergency actions to predict casualties for specific events such as earthquakes (FEMA 1997). Increasingly, expert systems are being used to improve decision-making in the stressful and difficult circumstances created by emergencies (Comfort 1999, pp. 177-8).

The main advantage of computerizing emergency functions is ability to process large quantities of data rapidly and efficiently. Intelligent use of well-designed computer programs is thus a substantial aid to disaster prevention and management. They help make sense out of apparent chaos by synthesizing and classifying data under the assumption that it is possible adequately to predict what will happen in disaster and to anticipate the main informational needs. The principal risk is one of over-reliance on abstract procedures, which can render emergency management artificial and therefore less, not more, efficient.

Disaster heightens the paradox of the information age: there is a plethora of data but a shortage of information on what one really needs to know. Though it is indeed probable that current forecasts will prove correct and civil protection will undergo a wide-ranging information technology revolution (Gruntfest and Weber 1998), there is a substantial risk that it will be a hollow victory, rich in quantity but poor in quality, for subtle problems that have defied neat solutions for centuries will not yield easily to abstract codification by programmers. There is no substitute for experience and direct contact with problems in the field. Nevertheless, there are signs that information technology will fill several important gaps in training. First, a large number of Internet sites which deal with hazards and disasters (at least 650 at present—see NOAA Disaster Finder at ndrd/disaster/) will help remedy a widespread shortage of basic knowledge. Secondly, distance learning offers a useful solution to the problem of how to train large numbers of people in the rudiments of hazard and emergency management. In this respect, progress is currently far slower than both the potential of the method and the forecast demand would warrant.

Mention of the potential for new methods of training and education prompts a closer examination of this topic.

Education and Training

A fundamental aim of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction has been to increase the quantity and quality of training programmes for disaster preparedness and management. There is currently intense interest in this objective, and courses are being inaugurated in many parts of the world. There are, however, problems, which are mainly those one would expect from a new field of enquiry.

To begin with, there are no international standards or protocols on what should be taught in courses and how people should be trained, even with respect to limited and specific goals, such as instruction for specific jobs. Something like an ISO standard is probably needed in order to specify the content of general emergency planning courses, and another for the training of disaster managers. There is currently immense variability in the duration, content, methodology and quality of training programmes. There is also much variability in what instructors know and what students learn. This inhibits the international—indeed, often the regional—exchange of technical information, expertise and personnel. It also means that, for the most part, professional standards of planning and management cannot adequately be guaranteed.

Counter-disaster training has burgeoned in diverse parts of the world: Australia, India, the Caribbean, northern Europe, the northern Mediterranean countries, North America, and so on. But even in the USA, where it is perhaps the most highly developed, only about 2 per cent of universities and colleges have degree, diploma, certificate or post-graduate courses on emergencies and 4 per cent offer lesser forms of instruction (Figure 6). In order to ensure the supply of adequately trained workers, stronger institutions are needed at the world level to promote and coordinate professional training with adequate standards.

One particular characteristic of counter-disaster training is that it depends on a complementary mixture of experience and theory. Many courses tend to have plenty of one or the other, but it is rare to encounter both in adequate measure in the same training scheme. International procedures have not yet been developed formally to evaluate and utilize experience of disaster planning and management in pedagogy. This is yet another area in which we are still feeling our way.

As the next section will show, training for professional disaster managers is linked to the question of public education and participation in mitigation efforts, and this in turn responds to the question of how disasters fit in with the exercise of democratic principles.

Disasters and Democracy

One of the lessons of the late 20th century is that disasters are about democracy (Platt 1999). The challenge of the next half-century is to ensure that democratic principles are applied to disaster management in order to guarantee justice and equity for the survivors of these events.

Democracy is also a fundamental consideration in the emergence of catastrophe mitigation systems. In many countries civil protection structures only matured after the end of the Cold War, which had inhibited their development. The main reason for this was that disaster management tends to require sweeping powers: laws for the maintenance of public order, special procedures for passing temporary or highly specific legal instruments quickly, means of increasing the strength of police forces, and so on. With respect to the progenitor of civil protection, civil defence, it is hard to dispel the lingering suspicion that the structures were often created, not to protect the people, but to protect the state, if necessary against the people. In Turkey, for instance, that situation has persisted into the present day: the national civil protection agency is headed by a three-star general and specifically exists to safeguard the integrity of the state. In many countries that were bound up with the Cold War, the forces in the field and the sophisticated communications systems associated with civil defence could have been used either to defend the state against a coup d'ĂȘtat or to promote one. Hence, many political leaders were reluctant to develop them beyond a certain point.

The end of the Cold War led to the widespread formulation or revision of basic legal instruments for civil protection, for example in Italy (Law no. 225 of 1992) and the United States (the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Assistance Act of 1993). Such laws are necessary in order to determine the extent of government liability for and involvement in disaster response. They are a fundamental part of any guarantee that survivors will be treated equitably.

The approaches to disaster relief tend to fall between two extremes. On the one hand assistance is offered to all who need it, irrespective of risk-taking culpability, while, on the other, only victims who have made specific efforts to reduce their exposure to risk are fully indemnified. It is generally considered that improvement in mitigation is represented by progress from the former towards the latter approach. This, however, tends to reflect North American concepts of personal self-sufficiency. It does not consider the use of disaster aid as a means of redistributing wealth from rich to poor people.

This leads on to a further problem, the relative extent of involvement in disaster response of the various levels of government (here considered in simplified form as national, regional and local, where regional may mean state, province, country, etc., and local usually means municipal or metropolitan). Faced with steeply rising costs of disaster reduction and management, national governments have tended to pass increasing proportions of the responsibility down to lower levels of civil administration, but not to increase funding commensurably. Problems of providing services at the local level have been compounded by equivocacy in the roles of local and regional governments, and even more so where there is more than one intermediate level (such as regions and counties), and where special forms of autonomy exist. The situation is fluid and offers no clear signs of what the final outcome will be. All that can be said with certainty is that further massive losses in disaster will stimulate greater expenditures on civil protection in a way that governments can ill afford, if they have made pledges to reduce taxation, but can ill afford to renounce, if they want the electorate to regard them as compassionate.

The challenge of the 2000s is to involve the general public more in disaster prevention. The Japanese lead the way, and the Chinese have worked hard at this problem in a less sophisticated manner. However, Western nations have not succeeded very well in such endeavours. Conceptions of individual liberty cloud the issue. As a result, freedom to take risks, especially voluntary ones, is not always matched by the obligation to take full responsibility for them. The so-called "forgiveness money"—disbursement of public money to voluntary risk takers who have suffered losses—is officially frowned upon but remains extremely common because of such people are also voters and their favour has to be curried.

A further challenge is to make full use of the political "window of opportunity" that opens when disaster occurs (Solecki and Michaels 1994). It is axiomatic that most significant legislation on hazards and disasters follows specific large events: for example, the Stafford Disaster Assistance Act (1993) came after Hurricane Andrew (August 1992), at that time the most expensive disaster to have occurred in the USA. When catastrophe strikes there is enhanced public and political support for mitigation measures, but programmes cannot be designed overnight. Given that the broad pattern of catastrophes is remarkably predictable, there is unutilized scope for foresightedness: not merely should mitigation plans rely on average circumstances, they should be flexible enough to take advantage of unusual opportunities for funding and participation. Despite initiatives like the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency's 'Project Impact', which brings together a wide range of participants in designing hazard mitigation measures, remarkably little expertise has accrued on how better to utilize the post-disaster 'window of opportunity'.



Although there are plenty of exceptions, as a rule, civil protection professionals in the field tend to have little time for academics, and the latter tend to have little appreciation of the imperatives of disaster management. This failure to meet half way is a tragedy in its own right. Theoretical and abstract thinking are useful to the practice of civil protection in ways that front-line practitioners may not realize. On the other hand, abstraction can benefit greatly for the injections of realism derived from field experience.

From the academic point of view, the study of hazards and disasters does not require an interdisciplinary approach, which implies respect for disciplinary boundaries, but a non-disciplinary one, which seeks to overcome the burden of academic territoriality. The approach should be determined by the exigencies of the problem, not the methodological mind-set of the problem solver. This requires a drastic change, not only in how disasters are perceived, but how novitiates are taught to view them. Once again progress has been slow, and it has been retarded by rearguard attempts to defend academic and professional territory against the lateral approach that links specific aspects of diverse bodies of knowledge over a broad compass. By compartmentalizing analysis along the lines of traditional academic disciplines, the traditional, linear view of disasters as proceeding from physical hazard, through human vulnerability to impacts (see above) tends to foster the wrong approach. New models should not seek to reconquer intellectual territory, but should look for new and more solvable ways of conceptualizing problems. An emphasis on culture and context may aid this by reminding us that even problem solving takes place within the context of specific academic and professional cultures.

From the professional point of view, more rigorous and universal standards are urgently required for both training and emergency procedures. In this context one is left with the feeling that more could have been achieved by the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, and one hopes that its successor, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), will do better. Exchange of information and expertise needs not only to be increased but also to be guided towards a more formal pursuit of common benefit.

Finally, all people involved in emergency management need to recognize that reducing the toll of disasters depends on creating and successfully launching new initiatives to improve political consensus, public participation, and economic commitment with regard to disaster mitigation. This is the challenge for the new century.


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The Value of Standards in Emergency Management and Disaster Risk Reduction

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Alternatives to standards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Existing standards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(g) US National Incident Management System standards (

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

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

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

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

How to create a standard

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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