Reassessing the Effectiveness of All-Hazards Planning in Emergency Management

By Peter A. Gregory
2015, Vol. 7 No. 06 | pg. 1/2 |

The field of emergency management in the United States has grown and changed significantly in the past several decades. In the 1940s, for example, with the onset of the United States' involvement in and all throughout the years of the 1960s, emergency managers acted primarily under a “civil-defense” mindset and were seen essentially as “air raid wardens and civil defense directors” (Waugh & Streib, 2006, p. 131). Since then, “the field has evolved quite extensively from its Cold War-civil defense origins” (Wilson & Oyola-Yernaiel, 2001).

In response to a series of natural disasters that occurred during the three decades following WWII, the federal government gradually enacted various legislative initiatives that allowed it to be more directly involved in relief efforts throughout the country. While these efforts were helpful, critics were quick to point out that there was still an intense lack of coordination by government entities in responding to emergencies because “at the Federal level, no single entity was responsible for coordinating Federal response and recovery efforts” (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2010a, p. 6). Thus, on April 1, 1979, President Jimmy Carter created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The creation of FEMA ushered in a number of changes in the field of emergency management, the most significant of which are the growth and spread of the field as a profession and a paradigm shift in the creation and implementation of both emergency management policies and the organizations that create and use them. This paradigm shift consists mainly of a transition to the use of an “all-hazards” approach to emergency management, an approach that, after September 11th, came to include in addition to natural disasters as factors to consider in the management process.

This all-hazards approach is currently seen by most organizations and experts throughout the world as being the most effective method for dealing with the various risks and hazards faced by nations and their communities (Adini et al., 2012; Ayyub, McGill, & Kaminskiy, 2007). In the United States in particular, the National Response Framework chose to make this approach mandatory for all government entities, further increasing its influence (McQuire & Silvia, 2010). What many fail to realize, however, is that while an all-hazards approach to emergency management does have advantages, it also has disadvantages and weaknesses. Public managers must be aware of both if they are to utilize the all-hazards approach at its fullest potential while simultaneously protecting themselves and their jurisdictions from the approach's inherent weaknesses. The purpose of this paper is to highlight and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the all-hazards approach to emergency management.

The Strengths of All-Hazard Emergency Management

Perhaps the most cited advantage of the all-hazards approach is that it “has the virtue of being cost effective in terms of time and money” (Waugh, 2005, p. 9). This particular advantage can be attributed to the fact that the approach requires coordination between all organizations involved in the four parts of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery (Petak, 1985). Coordination of this sort prevents the confusion and waste of resources that occurs when multiple organizations act independently of one another to achieve common goals.

Rather than each organization creating its own unique plan, organizations are able to consolidate resources by creating a single, common plan; rather than each organization having to individually bear the costs of training its personnel, an all-hazards approach allows these costs to be shared by the organizations involved and also reduces said costs in the process.

The same coordination that makes the all-hazards approach to emergency management so economically attractive and efficient also yields a number logistical and managerial benefits, particularly when responding to an emergency. When left to themselves, organizations will tend to develop emergency response plans specific to them and their resources. This can be problematic for several reasons. Firstly, such plans may be in with the plans of other organizations. Secondly, plans created by independent organizations may make use of a specific terminology or jargon that inhibits communication between that organization and other responders.

Thirdly, said plans will most likely each end up being managed by a different manager, leaving no clear chain of command and a potentially large number of managers with different objectives. An all-hazards approach addresses each of these problems through its use of the Incident Command System (ICS). Elements of ICS include “standardized job descriptions” and “common terms for equipment and supplies” for emergency responders, “a structured chain of command,” and an organizational structure where all parties report “to one boss” (Buck, Trainor, & Aguirre, 2006, p. 1). ICS provides a way for all organizations involved to work together in a unified manner, a manner that allows them to respond to emergencies more quickly and with an increased level of precision.

A third advantage of an all-hazards approach that further serves to increase both its previously mentioned economic and logistical benefits is the fact that the approach is comprehensive in its design. It fosters an underlying infrastructure of management and resources that can theoretically be used to respond to any emergency or disaster. As was alluded to earlier, it alleviates the need to have multiple and separate plans for responding to each aspect of a potential emergency. In this case, specifically, rather than simply consolidating and focusing the plans of several organizations, the all-hazards approach also consolidates the several plans that a single entity, such as a government, might have in place to respond to different threats.

These “consolidated action plans” are one of the “key principles of any incident command system,” and allow governments to save valuable time and resources in areas where multiple plans would have previously overlapped (Hammond, 2005, p. 270). Instead of the government needing a specific plan in place for every possible scenario, the all-hazards approach provides a general framework on which all of the government's emergency management operations can be based. Consolidated plans increase efficiency and, once again, allow for resources to be saved and used more effectively in the process.

The advantages of the all-hazards approach to emergency management, as discussed thus far, have all focused on the potential the approach has to be used as a tool of lowing costs and instituting effective measures for preparation and mitigation against emergencies and disasters. Additionally, however, for many of the reasons already discussed, it also has the potential to increase the speed of the government's response to emergencies. As Hammond (2005) points out, “the initial response to a disaster will be chaotic,” almost regardless of whatever plans have been set in place before hand, but “the sooner chaos is replaced by the institution of command leadership and reorganization, the more effective the response, and the more lives likely to be saved” (p. 268).

In other words, the faster an organization can respond to an emergency, the less damage will occur. The same organizational structure, action plans, and command system that allows organizations to coordinate and lower operation costs prior to the occurrence of emergency events also enables them to respond to emergencies sooner and in a more unified and effective fashion, thus indirectly reducing losses and decreasing the time and resources necessary for recovery.

Weaknesses and Challenges of All-Hazard Management

Having discussed the major advantages of the all hazards approach, it is time, now, to discuss the disadvantages and potential weaknesses that also exist and are inherent in its design. One of the most argued weaknesses of the all-hazards approach is that it attempts to simultaneously mitigate against both natural disasters and terrorism, hazards that belong to two separate and very distinct categories. It is often argued that “the principles of disaster resilience are the same for both” of these categories (Godschalk, 2003, p. 139); however, as Zhuang and Bier (2007) point out, “protecting targets is fundamentally different from protecting against natural disasters because attackers can adapt their strategies in response to defensive investment” (p. 976).

More specifically, while the resources and policies necessary to respond to and recover from either a disaster or an attack may be similar, the same cannot be said of processes used to mitigate initial damages prior to events belonging to either category. Many natural disasters, for example, have some degree of predictability based on a previous history of events, geographic location, or information obtained via satellites or seismic sensors, but “the unpredictability of terrorist attacks” and “the indefinite nature of violent threats” make terrorism an all-together different problem that deserves separate consideration (Fremont, 2004, p. 388).

Another disadvantage of the all-hazards approach is the fact that, ironically, the approach is not what its name implies: a system of preparation for and against all-hazards (Bellavita, 2008, p. 4). Rather, it is a general plan that addresses the fact that “there are many things that commonly occur in many kinds of natural disasters” (Waugh, 2005, p. 10). As FEMA explains it, “while the causes of emergencies can vary greatly, many of the effects do not. Planners can address common operational functions in their basic plans instead of having unique plans for every type of hazard or threat” (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2010b, p. 1-2).

The use of a general, consolidated plan that can be applied in a wide variety of situations has already been presented as one of the advantages of the all-hazards approach to emergency management. This remains true in most situations, but in some circumstances, such as a potential terrorist attack or another kind of unique emergency, a general plan may simply not be sufficient or as effective as a specific plan tailored to a particular type of event. In such a case, the “generalness” of an all-hazards approach might easily become a weakness; it simply may not be totally suited to or adaptable enough to be used in the event of an emergency that is not “general.”

Admittedly, it should be noted here that, whatever the situation, whether general or not, the ICS would be expected to remain intact, and it would most likely play an important role in the government's response efforts, and this in spite of whatever difficulties might arise from only making a general plan. In this sense, the ICS infrastructure of all-hazards emergency management should almost always be considered a strength. Even here, however, there is potential for weakness.

As previously stated, the ICS relies heavily on all parties involved in response efforts reporting to “one boss,” a boss known as an “Incident Commander.” If said Incident Commander were simply not qualified or not prepared to respond to an incident not covered by his various action plans, his or her entire organization may be immobilized. Here, again, the issue of terrorism arises and can be used as an example. Given the fact that natural disasters are far more common than terrorist attacks and that, accordingly, “anti-terrorism” training most likely receives little or no attention in comparison, Incident Commanders may be ill prepared to take charge in the event of a deliberate attack. This is not an inherent weakness in the all-hazards approach per se, but it certainly illustrates how important Incident Commanders are and how vulnerable operations may be if the incident commanders are unsure of how to proceed.

Such a situation may be hypothetical, but it is certainly not outside of the realm of possibility. One example of such a situation is the way FEMA responded to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The government was slow in responding, and the director of FEMA at the time, Michael D. Brown, later admitted that he had come to the job with little or no experience with emergency management (Sylves, 2006, p. 33). After Katrina, such a lapse in leadership at the federal level of emergency management has been made less likely due to imposed job requirements, but similar problems may still easily occur at state and local levels of government. As such, emergency managers and those who appoint them must be aware of the abilities Incident Commanders need to possess if they are to do their jobs effectively.

A third disadvantage of all-hazards planning is the fact that those who create an all-hazards plan in a given area typically decide which general emergencies and hazards to prepare for. This being the case, there is a very real danger that “the media, political leaders, influential residents, or influential participants in the planning process” may become involved in creating the all-hazards action plan and deciding which of all hazards are most pressing (Waugh, 2005, p. 8). This is dangerous because the media can capitalize on certain disasters, making them seem worse and more common than they really are, and because persons who have experienced “personal or family traumas” due to a particular kind of hazard or disaster may be biased and become “champions of lesser risks” (Waugh, 2005, p. 8).

Even without these biases or skewed perceptions of reality, however, emergency managers will tend to base their plans solely on the largest and most obvious hazards and neglect hazards that appear smaller. Thus, whether from bias or from natural tendencies, the all-hazards approach, in its generalness, once again fails to show a capacity to actually enable communities to effectively respond to all hazards because of its lack of scope in certain areas and the several ways it shepherds emergency managers to focus only on the most “popular” hazards (Waugh, 2005; Burton, 2010).

The general lack of knowledge concerning the potential weaknesses and disadvantages discussed thus far gives way to another problem with the all-hazards approach to emergency management: it can make leaders over-confident in and arrogant about the ability of their organizations to cope with any emergency that might arise. Again, as the name, “all-hazards,” is misleading, leaders who know little more than that their government or organization has an “all-hazards” plan may feel as though they are safe and secure with little to worry about. The opposite is true, however.

Often, as organizations “attempt to implement all-hazards plans, they often create strategies and documentation that are either too ambiguous or focused exclusively on facility loss” (Burton, 2010, p. 32). An emergency management plan is not something that should be ambiguous. Emergency management plans need constant maintenance and attention. Additionally, to act effectively in the event of an emergency, emergency managers must always be aware of changes in their area's environment, and should plan for the worst case scenario, not simply the scenarios most frequently encountered.

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