Trends in conceptualising and dealing with emergencies and disasters

We have discussed that ‘mega-issues’ can have implications for emergencies and disasters. Is it possible to identify any trends in research and practice over past decades?

This means looking for trends that both incorporate best practice goals for research and practice, and illustrate progress being made to better deal with emergencies and disasters.

We will now consider important trends in relation to five different aspects of emergency research and management. For each aspect we will examine, in broad terms, the effect it has historically exercised on emergency research and management and propose how where this is heading.

The fundamental issue of responsibility

It may be considered that, over time, society has moved from a traditional position, in which emergencies and disasters are considered to impact society, from a position that is essentially separate from society. For example, as acts of God, or the belief that events are driven by ‘forces of nature’.

Instead, practice is moving to a position in which, increasingly, it is considered that the effect of disasters on society are generated by humans, including slowly developing disasters such as environmental pollution with consequences for human health.

Policy context

It could be said that, as visibility, coverage and public knowledge of emergencies and disasters increases, so do public expectations of both public and private organisations.

There is increased scrutiny from the media and by the public of government policy and implementation failures and, particularly since 2001, concern has grown around the consequences of terrorism and with security and counterterrorism activities. Because of this emergency and disaster intervention activity is now increasingly located within the mainstream of governmental policy concerns.

Problem ownership and framing

A broad trend may be discerned in relation to problem ownership and framing. This refers to moving from a historical position in which society tends to implicitly and uncritically accept risk. This includes the view that, to the extent that risk is not acquiesced to, acceptance of risk should be a matter for individuals to decide for themselves.

Departing from this view, one could take the position that emergency and disaster problems are now viewed as inextricably linked to issues of community vulnerability and sustainability, and that various aspects of emergency or disaster problems range from local in nature to global.

For example, local flooding may partly be a manifestation of localised rainfall and poor drainage, however, it may also be a manifestation of global climate change. One consequence of this is the tendency to ‘share the ownership’ of emergency and disaster problems with those who are directly at risk, rather than claiming them as the exclusive concern of organisationally-employed professionals.

Policy style

There is also the aspect of what could be termed ‘policy style’. Although, in this case, the overall trend is arguably much less clear than for the other aspects. It may, somewhat controversially, be argued that society is moving away from emergency and disaster management being dominated by uniformed services towards an increased role being played by civilian organisations. This then leads to an increased emphasis on transparent, consensual, and routinely publicly-accountable decision-making.

However, in authoritarian states and in respect of matters of national security, the military arguably continues to have a predominant role.

Policy emphasis

Finally, there is policy emphasis. It may be considered that society is gradually moving from the sole use of hazard-focused managerial and technical policies for loss reduction and prevention, to endeavouring to deal with the underlying causes of emergencies and disasters and people’s vulnerability to them. This includes placing more emphasis on increasing resilience and on community safety.

The new emphasis reflects an understanding that solutions to emergency and disaster problems lie in the organisation of society and that, at a local level, they may require community development processes.


What are the implications of these important trends?

One implication is that many of the traditional assumptions that have guided emergency and disaster intervention in the past need not only to be made explicit but be challenged

Another implication is that we need to ask ourselves, afresh: what is the nature of the emergency or disaster problem? We shouldn’t assume that either our past answers to this question, or our current intervention practices, based on those previous answers, are still appropriate.

We can then ask, what we are trying to achieve in terms of dealing with a potential emergency or disaster’? and we should focus our thoughts and consider what objectives we want to set to guide society’s activities, so that we may appropriately address our newly-defined emergency and disaster problems.

Your task

Watch the video titled Environment Agency’s Lord Smith ‘will not resign’ over floods response from the Guardian Newspaper in which Lord Smith, Chairman of the Environment Agency defends the actions of his agency during a press conference, following the floods that occurred in Somerset, UK, in 2014.

In the video you can see the minister facing angry questions about what was considered to be a poor response to the flooding as result of bad planning and preparation. This highlights inadequacies in understanding and acting on the basis of the trends noted above.

Can you think of a specific emergency or disaster for which the intervention proved to be inadequate or inappropriate because the understanding of what was required for successful intervention did not take into account the changing trends highlighted?

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This article is from the free online course:

Emergencies and Disasters: Trends and Issues

Coventry University