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Individual and societal contexts in the perception of risk

The way that society perceives risk has an impact on the way emergency incidents are managed. In this section you will see how this has changed over time and what measures can be implemented to reduce it.

Not too long ago, disasters were viewed as acts of God (Glickman 1992) and emergency service workers were perceived as heroes intervening.

In recent times many cultures have started to perceive risk as something that should be mitigated by government or civic institutions (Fischhoff 2013).

Let us look at some examples

In 1974 a fire occurred at the Worsley Hotel in Paddington. The fire spread to all parts of the building and many people were trapped. The London Fire Brigade rescued dozens of people with individual firefighters taking enormous personal risks in order to save lives. Such action was very much an expected part of the role of the firefighter at that time (Ewen 2010).

Some time into the incident, a crew entered the badly damaged building to search for more casualties, seemingly irrespective of whether more lives could have been saved and, crucially, irrespective of the potential danger.

Subsequently, part of the upper floors collapsed onto the firefighters, killing one and badly injuring the other three.

It could be argued that the attitude to risk exhibited by this crew mirrored that of the earlier search and rescue phase of the incident where there was a clear lifesaving imperative (Paton, Smith and Violanti 2000) despite that imperative not being so evident in the later stages of the incident.

Their actions would have been perceived by the wider community as almost expected. This was reflected in the legal implications for the fire service at that time in that there were no prosecutions or imposed corrective actions on London Fire Brigade despite there being sufficient laws/frameworks to do so.

Contrast this incident with a blaze that occurred in 2007 at Atherstone-upon-Stour, in which four firefighters were killed while attempting to prevent the development of a major fire in a large food processing plant (Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service 2007).

Subsequent to this incident, the fire authority was prosecuted under safety legislation and three relatively junior officers were unsuccessfully prosecuted for manslaughter.

The shift towards a more risk-averse perspective

The differences between the response to these incidents is significant and reflects a changing attitude within some cultures towards a more risk-averse perspective (Fischhoff 2013).

Increasingly, we see societal pressures on governments and civic institutions to reduce risk and to remove uncertainty, and this is often reflected in legislation, legal actions and media interventions.

Arguably, such a shift has a negative impact on emergency risk managers, resulting in uncertainty and confusion with potentially disastrous consequences (Devitt and Borodzicz 2008). So much so, that in the US, the UK and Australia, guidance has been produced for police and fire services to enable them to strike a balance between the benefits and risks involved.

In many parts of the world, this is the new normality. Emergency risk managers need to act within a complex operational environment. One where the evaluation of hazard and likelihood, and the decisions taken in time- and risk-critical situations, are subject to immediate scrutiny by the various forms of media and can later be examined by law.

The way that emergency risk management responds to this environment is through comprehensive policies and procedures, well-established standards and guidance, sound leadership and effective decision making before, during and after the incident.

Your task

If the Worsley Hotel fire occurred today, what would the likely level of scrutiny be?


Devitt, K. R., and Borodzicz, E. P. (2008) ‘Interwoven Leadership: the Missing Link in Multi‐Agency Major Incident Response’. Journal of Crisis and Contingencies Management 16 (4), 208-216

Ewen, S. (2010) From Fighting Fires to Fighting Firemen: A Fractured Fire Service, 1947–78. Springer Link

Fischhoff, B. (2013) ‘Risk Perception and Communication’. In Risk Analysis and Human Behavior. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 17-46

Glickman, T. S. (1992) Acts of God and Acts of Man: Recent Trends in Natural Disasters and Major Industrial Accidents. DIANE Publishing

Paton, D., Smith, L., and Violanti, J. (2000) ‘Disaster Response: Risk, Vulnerability and Resilience.’ Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal 9 (3), 173-180

Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service (2007) Report on the Fire at Atherstone-on-Stour [online] Leamington Spa: Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service. available from https://apps.warwickshire.gov.uk/api/documents/WCCC-954-385 [11 May 2018]

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This article is from the free online course:

Emergency Management: Risk, Incidents and Leadership

Coventry University