Disaster Resilience: An Emergency Manager's Perspective

Resilience, as a concept, is still relatively new to the emergency management field. It first appeared in the 1990s, when discussions of disaster resistance, mitigation measures, and risk management were being more fully defined, designed, and discussed by the profession. Today, there are many examples both of best practices and of lessons learned, as well as improved definitions, a more complete understanding, and more effective use.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the protection of critical infrastructure became a flagship concept. As more time passed and there was a dawning realization that the vast amount of critical infrastructure throughout the United States could not be fully protected 24 hours a day, seven days a week – except by the expenditure of astronomical funding amounts – resilience has come to be recognized by many if not all emergency-management professionals as a better practical option that would be more sustainable over the long run as well.

Within the emergency-management field, resilience encompasses a very broad section of tasks and responsibilities, including but not limited to the following topics: preparedness planning; partnership building; education and training; mitigation measures; architectural design; risk management; continuity of operations; continuity of government; homeland security; law enforcement; physical security; emergency medical services; standards, certifications, and accreditation; auditing and assessments; numerous technological systems, equipment, and devices; sustainable development; the protection of critical infrastructure;  and the full spectrum of emergency services. In short, the planning, development, and building of disaster resilience is and should be an all-encompassing task that requires the best efforts of every participating professional involved. Here it is worth noting, though, that in times of sudden disaster almost all citizens can serve as immediate responders – in the only slightly restricted sense of assisting their own families, their neighbors, and their local communities.

Vulnerability: The Essential Prerequisite Resilience cannot be fully understood, of course, without first discussing and understanding another somewhat abstract and all-encompassing term: vulnerability, which is primarily a product not only of exposure to hazards but also of a community’s capacity to cope with, respond to, and recover from incidents – its resilience, in other words.

Dr. B. Wayne Blanchard, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Higher Education Program, used the word “resilience” as early as the mid-1990s when discussing various mitigation and disaster-resistance measures. Blanchard saw resilience not as a merely helpful abstraction but as a much broader, more concrete, more inclusive, and (of particular importance) probably more useful term, and was one of the first high-level government officials to mention, use, and help define the term.

Quite a few years later – in 2009, to be more specific – the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) moved the word another notch higher on the emergency-management vocabulary scale by publishing its “Standard Methods to Assess the Resilience of the Built Environment Project,” which many professionals consider the forerunner to the development of specific resilience standards. On that point, NIST said the following:

“Improved metrics that show the relative cost effectiveness of alternative combinations of risk mitigation and recovery strategies will be incorporated into draft ASTM [American Society for Testing and Materials] standards, along with models for evaluating losses and assessing disaster resilience. The mechanism for getting these standard metrics into practice is the ASTM Subcommittee on Building Economics. Finished standards will provide the basis for decision support software to be prepared by the OAE [Office of Applied Economics] for evaluating risk mitigation and recovery strategies.”

Gaining Traction – In the Media & With the Public at Large Also helping to promote the understanding of resilience in specific and concrete terms rather than as an abstraction are: (a) a new publication – the International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, launched just last year – which aims to communicate new practicaleas, applications, and details of education and training, thus building the capacity needed for self-sufficiency; and (b) a number of new books. Prominent among the latter are: Disaster Resilience: An Integrated Approach, by Douglas Paton and David Johnston, which fills several gaps in using both sustainability and resilience as practical concepts within the field of emergency planning; and Designing Resilience: Preparing for Extreme Events, by Louise K. Comfort of the University of Pittsburgh.

Resilience also is gaining traction on the Internet, both as an abstract concept and as a slightly “glamorous” new buzz word. Eric Holdeman, former King County Emergency Manager and former ICF Emergency Management Consultant, observed, for example, on his “Disaster Zone” blog, that it is very difficult to measure the disaster resilience of a specific political jurisdiction. He also cited a 2010 article (in the Journal of Homeland Security & Emergency Management) that focuses on some, but by no means all, of the “disaster resilience indicators” needed for “benchmarking baseline conditions.” 

That article, by several researchers – including Dr. Christopher Emrich of the University of South Carolina – makes several cogent points, including the following:

  • Emergency management programs are only one component of resilience;
  • Additional contributing factors include such variables as income, wealth, insurance, social networks, age of population, the functional needs population, social capital, adaptive capacities; and
  • Resilience is multi-dimensional.

Additional Evidence: Local, State, National, International There is, in addition to the preceding, considerable (albeit still somewhat anecdotal) evidence to support the belated recognition that resilience is no longer simply an abstract academic term but an inescapably substantive – and extremely important – component of a truly comprehensive disaster-preparedness plan. Following are a few random examples, from scores already available, of how resilience has been recognized – in numerous tangible ways – at the local, state, national, and international levels of government.

The Boston Children’s Foundation now provides integrated, community-based psychosocial stabilization initiatives that make effective use of various state-of-the-art trauma-specific intervention strategies that have been carefully designed to develop and enhance the personal and disaster resilience capabilities of young people.

The concept of disaster resilience also has caught on in Oregon, both statewide and locally. For many years, the University of Oregon has developed and delivered an international list for Disaster-Resistant and Disaster-Resilient Universities, in support of FEMA’s original mitigation program for colleges and universities. After the original federal funds for the university’s program were depleted, it should be noted, the university broadened the program to cover all emergency-management practitioners who directly serve campuses. The University also has established the Oregon Partnership for Disaster Resilience, an applied research center at the University’s Community Service Center, that includes a number of continuing blogs on the subject.

On the federal level, the National Academy of Sciences last month conducted a town hall meeting on disaster resilience in – very appropriately – New Orleans, Louisiana; the city and state are still recovering, of course, from Hurricane Katrina and their resilience efforts after that disaster are exemplary and were among the principal topics discussed. 

On an international basis, the Asia Pacific Collaborative Security Consortium (APCSC) has developed and is using an innovative Disaster Resilience Visualization and Assessment Tool. The APCSC is a virtual network of five Hawaii-based Department of Defense-funded organizations that have a common interest in sharing “enabling” information to enhance and improve regional security and stability. The organizations use the APCSC portal to exchange course-related information with fellows, a practice that is designed to “socialize” future alumni to the practical benefits of continued on-line collaboration after they return to their countries. The even longer-term intent, of course, is for APCSC, or its next-generation replacement, to function as an effective focal point for information-sharing during a future regional crisis and/or as a key information tool supporting collaboration asset available for use on longer-term regional security projects.  The assessment tool presents global information in a user-friendly visual format, allowing users to select their own preferred data layers and areas of interest.

Several nations of Southeast Asia are working on major resilience and recovery programs as a follow-up to the 2004 tsunamis that killed more than 150,000 and caused billions of dollars of damage, some of which is still being discovered. It is not always remembered that not one tsunami but several tsunamis struck and ravaged coastal regions all over the Indian Ocean, devastating numerous nations and entire regions, including: the Indonesian province of Aceh; the coast of Sri Lanka; coastal areas of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu; the resort island of PhuketThailand; and even countries as far away as Somalia – 2,500 miles west of the epicenter.

Following are three additional international tidbits demonstrating the still emerging global recognition of resilience:

  • The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) published a discussion paper in 2008 on its Project on Building Community Resilience to Natural Disasters through Partnership.
  • After the recent floods in Australia, 68 projects “to boost natural disaster resilience” were announced by the governments of the heavily ravaged Queensland area governments – which see the projects as the foundation for a new regional Natural Disaster Resilience Program.
  • In South Asia, the government of India is making “Disaster Resilience Audits” mandatory industry; India is the first nation to do so, according to the Daiji World newspaper and website.
Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.



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