Picking the Right Team: Who Needs to Be Involved in Disaster Risk Reduction?

By Peter Williams, Chair, ARISE- US

Dr Peter Williams is Chair of ARISE-US, part of ARISE Global Network, the UN DRR's vehicle for public-private collaboration in disaster risk reduction. He was also the lead author of the UN City Disaster Resilience Scorecard, now used by over 330 cities globally, and a further Scorecard for the resilience of industrial and commercial buildings. He retired from IBM as a Distinguished Engineer in 2018.

Aug 3, 2021 | Governance, Society | 4 comments


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Introduction

Cities and communities are “systems of systems”: they are complexes of interacting physical, environmental, infrastructural, economic and social systems. Each system may have a different owner and management chain, yet each needs to interact with the others to minimize risk from hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires and the like – as well as from pandemics.  This means that disaster risk reduction (DRR – defined as disaster adaptation, mitigation, planning, response and recovery) is a “team sport”.  In any community, let alone a large city or state, multiple “players”, from the public and private sectors, will be needed to complete the team. In my experience with DRR activities in cities and communities, however, key players may be omitted. This article identifies who the players are, and why they need to be involved as well as what that involvement should include.

Who Should Be on the DRR Team?

Having worked with many cities over many years, I have found that when most people think of DRR, the roles that come immediately to mind tend to be the emergency management department, plus first responders (police, fire and ambulance). Think a little bit longer, and the hospital, electricity, water, sanitation, and perhaps highway and transportation systems will be affected. Many will realize that none of these systems can function without telecommunications.

DRR cannot function without the active engagement and participation of the owners and operators of these systems. But if we think a little more widely, other key players come forward for selection to the team, including those on the list below:

Local Government

  • Planning departments. Planners control land use and building codes, key aspects of disaster mitigation.
  • Finance departments. What is the financial strategy for investing in DRR? Where will funds be sought, and by whom? How will post disaster funds be disbursed and accounted for?
  • Human resources. What skills are needed throughout the city or community government, and how will these be acquired?
  • Public health, where separate from healthcare, listed above. Quite apart from pandemic disasters, post disaster health issues may affect as many people as the disaster itself.
  • Education. Schools are often used as shelters, but just as crucially, they play a critical role in educating children in DRR issues ranging from environmental awareness to how to prepare for a disaster. Children are a channel to their parents.
  • Trash collection. Uncollected trash is a massive disease vector, so the trash collection agency or company needs to be involved where separate from sanitation.

Other Public Sector and NGOs

  • Neighboring towns and cities. Disasters rarely respect urban boundaries, so for reasons of simple mutual aid or because there may be shared infrastructure (water systems, roads, hospitals for instance) there needs to be collaboration.
  • Other tiers of government. State, provincial or national governments may be required to participate in making each city and community resilient. For example, where they control funding or access to additional emergency resources.
  • Environmental interests. Cities and communities may depend on ecosystem services for disaster resilience, such as tree cover for urban heat reduction or wetlands for flood prevention. Who is looking after those services? (Keep in mind that the ecosystem in question may be many miles from your city or community).
  • Universities. If research or study is needed on DRR issues for a city or community, a university may offer a way to get this done cheaply.

Private Sector

  • Private sector operators of public infrastructure. Any of the key infrastructure and healthcare systems may be privately owned. Have the owners been engaged in DRR and are they actively participating?
  • Large local businesses. Large businesses have a stake in DRR. Unless the local government does its part to protect infrastructure and enable workforces to get to work after a disaster, the business will be damaged. Businesses can be leveraged to communicate DRR awareness and knowledge to their workforce, and refrain from damaging ecosystem services. In some countries, arrangements exist for businesses to supply equipment, warehousing or skills in the event of a disaster.
  • Small local businesses. Small businesses are often the economic “heartbeat” of a community, and yet may have only a few days’ cash on hand with which to survive a disaster. If these businesses go away, the economic recovery post-disaster will be undermined.
  • Retailers. Of all businesses, as Walmart has repeatedly demonstrated in hurricane responses in the US, retailers of food and essentials have a critical role to play in the aftermath of a disaster. How prepared are they?
  • Insurers. How are insurers measuring, pricing or even just covering risk in the city or community? How complete and accessible is that cover?
  • Chambers of commerce. These can play an important intermediary role in engagement between government and business interest.

Community Organizations

  • Community groups. Saving perhaps the most critical of all until last, community groups have two broad roles.
    • Citizens in general need to be aware of what might happen, what emergency responders can and cannot do, how to prepare and how to react when a disaster takes place. This is a continuous aspect of “team training” – not a one-time exercise.
    • Cities and communities need a way to understand the interests and differences of different minorities – different risks (by virtue of where an ethnic minority may tend to live, for example), different languages, different physical abilities, different social customs and expectations. Community or interest groups can enable this understanding, without which DRR may fall dramatically short of what is needed.

How Do We Build the DRR team?

Cities and communities very likely won’t be able to persuade all of the players above to engage immediately. In my own experience, this may include persuading private sector infrastructure operators (notably, telecommunications companies) to play their role, for example. But there will be others.  However, even knowing that there is a gap in your planning can be step forward. You can perhaps plan around that gap, and in the meantime mount a lobbying campaign to get them involved.

For those players that are on the team, however, there are two key considerations:

First – do you have the right organization and discussion forums in place? Not every player will need to be engaged to the same degree, but do you have the right mechanisms in place for the engagement that is required?  Perhaps some kind of core group, with a surrounding coordination group might be the right tactic for your DRR team. Engagement will need to be regular, and in the case of community groups, small businesses and others, engagement needs to be managed as a continuous process to ensure that awareness and knowledge is maintained over time.

Second – do all team players share access to consistent data? Are they operating under consistent (and credible) assumptions about risks, and about how each other is preparing for, and how they could or would respond to a disaster? Without exception, every DRR workshop I have ever facilitated has revealed potentially critical shortfalls in this area – where conversations between various “players” were required but had not yet happened.

Conclusion

This article has attempted to identify who needs to be involved in disaster risk reduction (DRR) activities and how that engagement needs to be built and maintained. Each city and community, of course, needs to work out how best to do so in light of its own organizational configuration and its own circumstances.

Discussion

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4 Comments

  1. Great article and point of view. Too many times those who are left out of the planning process have information that, if considered earlier, could prevent technical and change management problems that threaten the utility of the solution.

    Reply
  2. Often the emergency management department is one person. Often a part-time person with other responsibilities. No matter, the Professional Emergency Manager is the most important participant.

    I use the term Professional Emergency Manager or PEM to differentiate from every other person. Every person is an emergency manager; every person manages hazards and the effects of emergencies and disasters. Also, ideally, the PEM should be a paid employee.

    The PEM is even more important than the chief elected official. This is because, while every person is an emergency manager, the PEM is the only participant for whom creating & maintaining integrated emergency management systems is THE priority.

    It is true that communities are “systems of systems.” It is also true that the systems that comprise communities are not built for coordinated emergency response. Coordinated emergency response is built on integration.

    Reply
    • Ray – may I tweak that a little? The PEM is one possible convener of all of these stakeholders and clearly is a key player (or THE key player) in emergency management and perhaps emergency planning per se. However, disaster risk reduction is not just about emergencies and planning for these. It is also about mitigation, in areas ranging as widely as revising building codes, protecting wetlands, community outreach, law and order capabilities, medical response capabilities, and so on. It also involves finance and insurance cover. The PEM obviously has a role in these areas, too, but may not be the most important person in some of them.

      Reply
  3. Peter –

    Excellent article identifying the comprehensive and diverse team necessary for effective disaster recovery and Disaster / Domestic Resilience. An invaluable framework.

    Needed for execution will the the dynamic, knowledgeable, connected, and effective leaders who can coordinate such a group. Whether the elected leader or the PEM this catalyst is essential.

    Reply

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