# 1.1: Introduction


There are many ways to describe emergency management and the importance of the tasks emergency managers perform. Indeed, in some respects, it hardly seems necessary to explain the need for a profession whose purpose is saving lives and property in disasters. It is likely that, while many people recognize their communities are exposed to environmental threats requiring a systematic program of protection, only a few appreciate the magnitude and diversity of the threats. One can introduce the study of emergency management by noting losses from disasters—in the United States and the rest of the world—have been growing over the years and are likely to continue to grow (Berke, 1995; Mileti, 1999; Noji, 1997b). Losses can be measured in a variety of ways—with deaths, injuries, and property damage being the most common indexes. The 1995 Kobe, Japan, earthquake killed more than 6000 people and left another 30,000 injured. In the previous year, the Northridge, California, earthquake resulted in approximately $33 billion in damages. These individual events are impressive enough, but the losses are even more dramatic when accumulated over time. Between 1989 and 1999, the average natural disaster loss in the US was$1 billion each week (Mileti, 1999, p. 5). Furthermore, many costs must be absorbed by victims—whether households, businesses, or government agencies—because only about 17% of losses are insured. Spectacular as they are, these past losses pale in comparison to potential future losses. Major earthquakes in the greater Los Angeles area or in the midwestern New Madrid Seismic Zone, which are only a matter of time, could generate thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of injuries, and tens of billions of dollars in economic losses.

Indeed, the daily news seems to suggest the world is plagued by an increasing number and variety of types of disasters, an impression that is certainly heightened by what seem to be frequent, very large scale natural disasters—including earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and wildfires—all over the globe. When we add to these events a wide range of severe storms, mudslides, lightning strikes, tornadoes, and other hazard agents affecting smaller numbers of people, one might conclude that natural disasters are increasing. Technological activities also initiate disasters. Hazardous materials are transported via road, rail, water, and air. When containment is breached, casualties, property loss, and environmental damage can all occur. Some technologies, such as nuclear power plants, pose seemingly exotic risks, whereas more commonplace technological processes such as metal plating operations use chemical agents that are very dangerous. Even the queen of American technology, the space program, has experienced disaster associated with system failures. Finally, we see terrorists operating on US soil—made forever visible by the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

At times, it seems as if humankind is living out the script of a Greek tragedy, with the natural environment exacting retribution for the exploitation it has suffered and an unforgiving modern technology inflicting a penalty commensurate with the benefits that it provides. Though such a perspective might make fine fiction—disaster movies are recurrent box office successes despite their many major scientific errors—it does not accurately portray events from a scientific and technological view. The natural environment is, of course, not “getting its revenge”. Geophysical, meteorological, and hydrologic processes are unfolding as they have for millennia, beginning long before humans occupied the earth and continuing to the present. Given the eons-long perspective of the natural environment, it would be very difficult to identify meaningful changes in event frequency for the short time period in which scientific records are available on geological, meteorological, and hydrological phenomena. Event frequency, from an emergency management perspective, is not really the issue. It is certainly true that, over the years, more people have been affected by natural disasters and losses are becoming progressively greater. The significant feature driving these observations, however, is the extent of human encroachment into hazard prone areas. With increasing population density and changing land use patterns, more people are exposed to natural hazards and consequently our accumulated human and economic losses are increasing. Much of this exposure is a matter of choice. Sometimes people choose hazardous places, building houses on picturesque cliffs, on mountain slopes, in floodplains, near beautiful volcanoes, or along seismic faults. Sometimes people choose hazardous building materials that fail under extreme environmental stresses—for example, unreinforced masonry construction in seismically active areas. Some exposure results from constrained choices; the cheap land or low rent in flood plains often attracts the poor. The point is that one need not precisely estimate event frequency to understand rising disaster losses in the United States. As Mileti (1999) writes in Disasters by Design, the increasing numbers of humans, our settlement patterns, the density with which we pack together, and our choices of location for homes, work, and recreation place more of us at risk and, when disasters occur, exact an increasing toll.

The pattern observed among technological disasters is somewhat different. Certainly more people are affected by technological threats simply because there are more people, and we often make unfortunate choices (as was the case with natural hazards) about our proximity to known technological hazards. However, the nature of the threat from technological sources also appears to be changing. The potential for human loss from technological sources increases with the growth and change of existing technologies and with the development of new technologies. For example, risks are rising from the increasing quantity and variety of hazardous materials used in industry, as well as from energy technologies such as coal and nuclear power plants and liquefied natural gas facilities. Such facilities and the processes they use pose a variety of risks for both employees who work in the facilities and those who live in nearby neighborhoods. Furthermore, as technologies develop it is sometimes found that what was thought not to be hazardous a decade ago does, in fact, have deleterious effects upon health, safety, and the environment. Yet, unlike natural events, advancing technology often produces an improved capability to detect, monitor, control, and repair the release of hazardous materials into the environment. Ultimately, as technologies grow, diversify, and become increasingly integrated into human life, the associated risks also grow.

Although terrorism has a long history (Sinclair, 2003), it has been a low priority that only recently become prominent on emergency managers’ lists of threats to their communities (Waugh, 2001). Recent events, especially the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, have made it obvious that the outcomes of at least some terrorist attacks can be considered disasters. Although some consider terrorism to be a hazard, this is not a very useful conceptualization. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (1996a, p. PH2.11), the Federal Bureau of Investigation defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”. That is to say, terrorism is a strategy, not a hazard agent. Most of the technological hazard agents (chemical, radiological/nuclear, or explosive/flammable) that could threaten American communities in terrorist attacks can also occur by means of accidents. As Winslow (2001) notes, terrorists have typically used explosive agents, sometimes used chemical agents, and have the potential to use radiological or biological agents. Thus, although radiological materials have not yet been used in terrorist attacks, emergency managers should be prepared to respond to their deliberate or accidental release. Similarly, concern has been expressed about terrorist attacks using biological agents, but these can also occur naturally. Biological hazards are normally the concern of public health agencies, but emergency managers should be knowledgeable about them because terrorist attacks involving these agents will require coordination between the two types of agencies.

It remains to be seen precisely how terrorism will be fitted into the lexicon of disaster research. Already, definitions of terrorism vary between the academic community and emergency managers (Buck, 1998). Nonetheless, emergency managers must address the consequences of terrorist attacks using the same basic approaches that are used in other emergencies and disasters. One major difference between most terrorist attacks and many other types of disasters such as floods and hurricanes is the uncertainty about the time, place, and magnitude of the event. Advance detection is a prerequisite for forewarning, but experience to date indicates detection accuracy is not high even for the timing of an attack, let alone the place, magnitude, and type (chemical, biological, radiological/nuclear, explosive/flammable) of agent involved. At the present, emergency management efforts must focus on prompt detection once an incident has occurred, along with preparedness for a timely response and recovery. Even these strategies are complicated because it is so difficult to anticipate the competence of the terrorists. For example, the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s attempt to disperse the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo subway during 1995 underscored the importance of agent quality and diffusion effectiveness. Cult members carried bags of the liquid form of the agent onto subway cars and cut the containers as a means of initiating the release. Although Sarin is extremely lethal, the attack resulted in only twelve deaths and approximately 1,046 patients being admitted to hospitals (Reader, 2000). If the Sarin had been effectively aerosolized, the death and injury rates could have been phenomenal. Ultimately, whether terrorism and its consequences are increasing or not seems to be a matter of many factors that defy meaningful measurement at this time.

Given the increasing toll from disasters arising from natural hazards, technological accidents, and terrorist attacks using technological agents, American society must decide whether the risks are “acceptable”. Moreover, given the limited amount of time and resources that can be devoted to risk management, decisions must be made about which risks to address (Lowrance, 1976). When individuals, organizations, or political jurisdictions reach consensus that a given risk is unacceptable, resources can be marshaled to reduce the risk to some level deemed more acceptable. Such resources can be used to attempt to eliminate the source of the danger, or, alternatively, change the way people relate to the source of danger. For example, building dams or channeling streams can eliminate the risk of seasonal floods (at least for a time). Alternatively, people and dwellings can be relocated outside the floodplain, or a warning and evacuation system could be devised to provide population protection (but generally not property) in times of acute flood threat. Emergency management is rooted in this process of identifying unacceptable risks, assessing vulnerabilities, and devising strategies for reducing unacceptable risks to more acceptable levels. Of course, emergency managers cannot perform all of these activities by themselves. However, as later chapters will show, they can act as “policy entrepreneurs” that propose strategies and mobilize community support for risk reduction.

In general terms, emergency management is “the discipline and profession of applying science, technology, planning and management to deal with extreme events that can injure or kill large numbers of people, do extensive damage to property, and disrupt community life” (Drabek, 1991a, p. xvii). Thus, emergency managers identify, anticipate, and respond to the risks of catastrophic events in order to reduce to more acceptable levels the probability of their occurrence or the magnitude and duration of their social impacts. In the United States, emergency management traditionally has been conceptualized as the job (if not the legal responsibility) of government—local, state and federal. Particularly since the middle of the 20th Century, private business organizations have taken an increasingly active interest in emergency management, especially as it relates to their own business continuity. Certainly as the 21st Century begins, emergency management is best conceived as relying on alliances among all levels of government and the broader private sector (including for-profit and nonprofit organizations with a wide range of missions).

Many factors have contributed to the increasing salience of emergency management in American society. One important factor lies in changes in the principle of sovereign immunity at the state level in the last quarter of the 20th Century and the establishment of levels of tort liability for local and state governments (Pine, 1991). Although some levels of immunity persist, it is important that government liability can be established under state and federal law, particularly in cases where negligence (failure to plan where appropriate) can be contended successfully. Another factor promoting the importance and visibility of the emergency management is the professionalization of emergency managers. A recognition of the need for specialized training and development for emergency managers has led to the establishment of professional associations, the use of training certifications (e.g. technician certificates for hazardous materials and emergency medical expertise, and general certificates in incident management systems), and of professional credentialing processes such as the Certified Emergency Manager program promoted by the International Association of Emergency Managers. These developments have contributed to the growth of an organized body of specialists who understand how to appraise and cope with a range of environmental threats. Still a third factor is a growing sensitivity to hazards on the part of the public-at-large that is driven by media attention to periodic catastrophes associated with the forces of nature and technology. Finally, private businesses have become increasingly sensitive to the fact that disaster losses can have significant negative consequences on business plans and performance, sometimes forcing bankruptcy, closure, or the loss of significant market share (Lindell & Perry, 1998). With such significant potential consequences, vulnerability assessment and disaster preparedness have become both imbedded in business planning and thriving businesses in themselves. Collectively, these factors have generated a social environment in which governments' ethical and legal obligations to protect citizens, and private sector interest in self-protection, have attracted attention to emergency management.

1.1: Introduction is shared under a Public Domain license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.