Resilience & Emergency Management: All Hazards, All Phases, All Stakeholders

On the web, search engines find an estimated 3,200,000 references to “resilience” and 213,000,000 references to “emergency management.” What are the similarities, what are the differences? Numerous global and national dialogues, discussions, and seminars are and have been underway to find out.

Several professors of the Executive Master of Science Program in Crisis and Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas have started to explore the possibility of launching a PhD Program in Resilience. At the same time, it has become evident that, although the semantics are not quite clear about exactly what the term “resilience” means, most agree that it involves building the essential strength, stability, and capacity needed to retain certain capabilities throughout the course of a major disaster – and to recuperate as quickly and as efficiently as possible during the post-disaster recovery phase.

In this same vein, the United Nations’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction – an organization that oversees the development of disaster reduction policy – created a “top ten” list of actions that cities, states, and other political jurisdictions can take to reduce the risk of a major disaster. Included on that list (available in the United Nations Resilience Tool Kit for Cities, 2012) are the following overarching themes: (a) Budget for risk reduction; (b) Invest in the physical infrastructure; (c) Implement risk-compliant building requirements; and (d) Protect the ecosystems that serve as natural buffers for various hazards. Those requirements boil down to a longer list of specific actions that should be taken, including the following:

  1. Put in place the organization needed and the coordination required to understand and reduce the risk posed by various types of disaster. These actions should be based on the participation of specific citizen groups and civil society in general. Build local alliances and ensure that all of the government agencies and departments involved fully understand their own roles and responsibilities in disaster risk reduction and overall preparedness.
  2. Develop a realistic budget to build disaster risk reduction capabilities, and provide various incentives for homeowners, low-income families, communities, and businesses as well as the public sector to invest in reducing the risks they are likely to face.
  3. Maintain up-to-date data on likely hazards and current vulnerabilities. Prepare risk assessments, and use this information as the basic foundation for urban development plans and decisions. Also, ensure that the same information, as well as the city’s plans for resilience, are readily available to the public – and are fully discussed at public forums that are open to all citizens.
  4. Invest in and maintain the components of the critical infrastructure that reduce risk – flood drainage systems, for example – and adjust this information, when, where, and as needed, to cope with climate change.
  5. Assess the current safety systems of all schools and health facilities in the community – and upgrade those systems if and when necessary.
  6. Develop, apply, and enforce realistic, risk-compliant building regulations and land-use planning principles. Also, identify “safe land” areas for low-income citizens and upgrade informal settlements, wherever feasible.
  7. Ensure that current education programs and training classes on disaster risk reduction are in place both in schools and elsewhere throughout all local communities.
  8. Protect the ecosystems and natural buffers already in place to mitigate floods, storm surges, and the many other hazards to which a city may be vulnerable. Also, adapt to climate change, if and as needed, by building on the various risk-reduction practices already in place.
  9. Install early warning systems – and enhance emergency management capabilities – throughout the city, and schedule public preparedness drills on a regular basis. Also, encourage as many residents as possible to both attend and participate.
  10. After any disaster, ensure that the needs of survivors are given highest priority on the list of reconstruction requirements and responsibilities, and that community organizations help to design and implement the responses – specifically including the rebuilding of homes and personal livelihoods.


Minimizing the Downtime & Accelerating the Recovery

In short, disaster resilience – locally, nationally, and internationally – spans all phases of emergency management: preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery. Preparedness encompasses planning, training, higher education, exercises, and evaluations – as well as standards, technology, interoperability, partnership, and outreach – to the “Whole of Community” by the “Whole of Government,” FEMA’s current organizing principles. Mitigation, the flagship of emergency management, encompasses not only the risk assessments that id identify hazards, threats, and vulnerabilities but also floodplain management and dam-safety initiatives, mapping and warning systems, and – last but not least – rigorous planning, training, education, and the various drills and exercises that build on a strong preparedness foundation. When response is swift, efficient, and effective, the potential for a community to become and remain resilient is significantly enhanced – in large part because the downtime will be minimized and the recovery process can start immediately after a disaster strikes that community.

All of this comes with and is the direct result of practice: experiencing disasters firsthand; learning from disasters; planning and carrying out disaster exercises; creating strong social networks; and using the social media now available. At the top of the pyramid, dedicated professionals – public administrators, emergency managers, and both private and nonprofit-sector leaders – should be working in close collaboration within the community to build and maintain the resilience needed for effective long-term recovery and resilience.

One example: Two years ago, the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM) conducted a full-scale exercise, “NYC Resilience 2010.” A few months later, in February 2011, the OEM leadership carried out a no-notice tabletop exercise testing the lessons learned in Resilience 2010. The OEM leadership is now preparing “Facilitator Guides” for six different exercise scenarios, and is validating the Guides by using the NYC OEM’s Citywide Incident Management System Simulator.

A Firm Foundation & Some Heroic Examples

Numerous federal agencies also are putting greater emphasis on the need for improved recovery and resilience in the wake of a major disaster, natural or manmade. FEMA, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Community and Regional Resilience Institute, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration formed an ad hoc committee in 2010 that is overseen through collaborative efforts of the National Academy of Sciences’ Disasters Roundtable (DR) and the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP).

The committee conducted a study, titled “Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters” (2011), to build an actionable consensus report, integrating multidisciplinary information from the natural, physical, technical, economic, and social sciences to identify the most effective ways to build and improve national resilience to hazards and disasters across the United States – at all levels of government. By deliberately using a broad definition of resilience – basically, the phases of emergency management – the committee found that strong social networks, previous disaster experience, exercises focused on disaster preparedness, and strong local leadership are among the most important building blocks needed to create and improve resilience capabilities.

DHS, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense’s Wide Area Recovery and Resilience Program (WARRP) seek to build and facilitate a timely return to functionality, to restore basic services, and to re-establish social and economic order following a catastrophic event. The WARRP correctly focuses on a coordinated-systems approach to the recovery and resiliency of broad urban areas – including all types of critical infrastructures, key resources (both civilian and military), and high traffic areas (transit/transportation facilities) – in the period immediately following a CBR (Chemical, Biological, and/or Radiological) incident.

Interagency partners – including federal, state, local, and tribal governments; the U.S. military; private industry; and non-profit organizations – work together to develop the solutions needed to reduce the time and resources required for the recovery of urban areas, military installations, and other critical infrastructures. The training and exercises associated with this program, and others across the nation, certainly serve to build emergency management capability and result in enhanced resilience.

Among the better known examples of communities that already have distinguished themselves by demonstrating a high and rapid rate of recovery, return, and rebuilding are:

  • Princeville and Tarboro, North Carolina, both of which displayed an admirable devotion to historic preservation in the period immediately following Hurricane Floyd in 1999;
  • The Vietnamese fishing village within New Orleans, which – possibly because of its membership’s shared history of survival during the Vietnam War – manifested an uncommon ability, and the collective will, to recover from the wreckage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005;
  • Greensburg, Kansas, which demonstrated the ability to come back stronger than ever, and even to become a “green” community, after being the victim of several deadly tornadoes in May 2007; and
  • The indestructible determination of the citizens of Joplin, Missouri, to open their schools on time in the Fall of 2011 after tornadoes devastated their community that summer.

The real lesson learned from the preceding, and from numerous other examples that might be used, is simply this: Resilience is achieved primarily through bottom-up and top-down daily commitment – by all agencies, organizations, and other stakeholders in the community. That commitment starts with individual responsibility and rapidly expands to include robust, professional emergency management leadership and “Whole of Community” participation, with each component of the process, and of the community, working together to build individual, group, neighborhood, community, city, county, regional, and, at the top of the ladder, national resilience.

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.



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