Rethinking emergency management

Rethinking emergency management 

“Emergency management is no longer all about the people with the red and blue lights on their vehicles; it’s the government, it’s the community, and it’s the private sector that all have to work together. Emergency management is everybody’s business.”

That astute statement by Craig Lapsley (the State of Victoria’s Fire Services Commissioner in Australia) aptly sums up the evolution that emergency management has undergone over the past few years. And he should know; Victoria is one of the most fire-prone areas in the world.

Broadening the view

Where people once tended to think of emergency management simply as fire and rescue, today’s infrastructure and civic leaders are now taking a much more holistic approach to the way they plan, prepare and execute their emergency management programs.

“In the past, emergency management has focused primarily on responding to the immediate threat. Preserving life is our number one priority, of course, but you also have to look at the disruption that these events cause in people’s lives, and how they displace people from their homes and businesses,” Lapsley told me in a recent discussion on emergency management.

Looking at emergencies in this new light, an additional set of needs surface. It is no longer just a question of dealing with a specific threat, it is about understanding and planning for the full range of threats, recognizing the potential impact and responding to their consequences. For example, a heat-wave brings about excessive temperatures, potentially causing deaths. If wind is added, the bushfire risk increases, as does the potential for loss of lives. If bushfires then result in electricity failure, there will be a loss of air-conditioning, which in turn makes it difficult to keep elderly and vulnerable people cool and further increases the potential for loss of lives.

CK Ng, the Chief Operating Officer of Hong Kong International Airport, agrees with the need to think about and plan for the full range of threats. “When you talk about emergency management in the context of an airport, you need to look at many angles beyond the traditional considerations such as crashes, fires and floods. You really need to be taking a more proactive look at all kinds of incidents, even those that are not directly related to your particular operations.”

Enhancing coordination

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Murray Sinclair, Manager for Civil Defense and Emergency Management and Rural Fire in Christchurch, New Zealand, about how this new view of emergency management affected the response to the devastating earthquakes since 2010.

“I think that what was important was to get strong coordination between all levels of emergency management that had a role to play, including national, regional and local levels,” he noted. “During the earthquake in February 2011, for example, our national Minister of Civil Defense and Emergency Management brought everyone together in Christchurch as a single unit to ensure that there was one single line of command. That made a big difference and had an impact on how we approach emergency management in the city and across the country.”

Today, all of the critical stakeholders in emergency management have been physically brought together within a single building that – during emergencies – functions as the Operations Centre. The first such center recently opened in Christchurch with others expected to be rolled out in urban areas within the next few years.

Working across various stakeholder groups to deliver a cohesive and effective emergency management capability is not easy and often requires coordination across public, private and community audiences.

“Shared responsibility and shared obligation are important,” says Lapsley. “We try to take a systems approach to it that recognizes that government has an organizational capacity to facilitate everyone’s involvement in emergency management. I think the fundamental improvement in the last few years is that we have a much more effective communication flow among all the players.” In Victoria these players include state and local government, emergency service agency employees and volunteers, private enterprise and local businesses, not for profit organizations and the broader community.

Everyone has a role to play

Building a common understanding of roles and responsibilities is also key to ensuring an effective emergency management capability in this new environment. “Delegating authority to the right players so that they are empowered with the right structure to make the right decisions is critical,” noted Sinclair.

So too is ensuring that everyone knows where they need to be and what they should be doing in each situation. “There are a lot of players that have a role to play in emergency response from the fire authorities through to security and facilities. At the airport, we bring all of these stakeholders together – particularly after a major event – to review our collective roles and responsibilities and see where we can make improvements,” added Ng.

Not surprisingly, one of the key lessons for Lapsley, Sinclair and Ng has been the critical importance of ensuring that everyone has the proper training to fulfill their role. Ng reminds his people of their school lessons. “The teacher always said to do your revisions; go home, digest your lessons and do your homework and the same applies here. We don’t want to prescribe set actions for specific scenarios but rather help each person understand their role in an emergency and be able to go into ‘autopilot’ when and if they are called upon.”

Having the right resources and capabilities

But when facing an extended emergency such as the earthquakes in Christchurch, resources are often run into the ground working around the clock. “We’ve been working to identify people within our organization who have skills that we would need in an emergency and then we are cross-training them to be able to step into a role when our existing resources are too stretched out,” added Sinclair.

Lapsley and Sinclair also note the importance of community resilience and response when dealing with an extended or massive event. “One of the biggest learning I took from our recent experience was the value of having community response plans,” noted Sinclair. “If the community is empowered, they can often respond much faster than a centralized group and can deliver a range of services that are most needed in that particular community.”

Based on his experience in Victoria – and particularly during 2009, when 374 people died during a two week heat-wave period before 173 people lost their lives in subsequent horrific fires– Lapsley agrees that empowering communities and using networks as part of a community response is critical.  District nurses, who visit patients in their homes, for example, have a personal interaction with their patients and serve a primary role of addressing their medical needs. “But perhaps they know that some of their patients work in a heavily forested area,” says Lapsley. “They can talk to those people about being prepared in the event of an emergency and they can share that information with emergency management teams when an event happens.”

 Underpinning my conversations with all three emergency management leaders was one important message: never become complacent. “Once you start taking for granted that you know your role or can manage a particular event, you start to lose your edge, your training and your awareness of your accountabilities,” added Ng. “And then all of your hard work and capabilities are lost.”

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