Saturday, January 3, 2015

Disaster Management: Introduction to the Stages Involved

The next few blogs will explore aspects of disaster management as this is a primary focus of this course.  This first post reviews some of the key points included in the study guide (Dunham 2014, pp.  26-28) for my knowledge and understanding moving forward and begins to touch a bit more on the principles of the Sphere project.

As outlined in the study guide for the course, modern disaster management is founded on the four following factors:
    1. Prevention - involves developing and enacting plans to avert disaster situations whenever possible (for example, preventing famine during a drought or proper water management and drainage systems to prevent flooding in an area).  In scenarios when a disaster cannot be avoided (for example, a hurricane or tsunami), implementing measures  in anticipation of such occurrences to reduce the amount of damage that will occur, particularly loss of life, injury and destruction of property/environment however possible.  For example, building homes, business districts and city centres in elevated areas and/or away from the coastline in low lying areas.  Hazard resistant designs also help to mitigate the impacts of disasters.  For example, some buildings in Japan are being constructed based on the architectural structure of pagodas, which are very adept at withstanding earthquakes.
    2. Preparedness - encompasses a community's state of readiness to protect their people, assets, infrastructure and institutions in the event of a disaster.  It includes the planning and public education of emergency procedures, the training of civilians and professionals regarding the proper courses of action as well as the allocation of appropriate resources to mount a disaster response.
    3. Response - the immediate course of action taken by vested parties (government bodies, local authorities, emergency response teams, volunteer organisations, civilians and any other factions that may apply) to manage the risks and counteract the effects associated with a disaster.  The response period begins as soon as it is clear that a disaster is expected.  The response itself should be quick and decisive and will be the most involved aspect of health emergency risk management.  It encompasses search and rescue, efforts to minimise deaths and injuries as well as the prompt restoration of important infrastructure (health system, etc).   Local responders will be the first at the scene and are therefore very important in regards to building response capacity with external assistance arriving after the main disaster has occurred. 
    4. Recovery - the return to normal or new normal for a society impacted by disaster.  Normal could be similar to before the disaster, different or better (the latter of which is preferable).  Recovery begins after the response to the initial emergency situation has finished, but the timing of the transition from one state to the next is not necessarily black and white.  It involves the restoration of the economic, cultural, social, physical and environmental states of the affected communities.  It can be broken down into: (1) short-term recovery (or early recovery according to the Sphere Handbook), which is a temporary state of stabilisation that follows relief and sets the community up for the process of (2) long-term recovery.  The length of time for short-term and long-term recovery can vary depending on the capacity of the communities affected.  Recovery is the least researched and organised component of disaster management but covers the widest range of activities as the facets of overall recovery are the most varied and extensive.
On the ground, the components of disaster management will not necessarily occur sequentially as various aspects of all four may be performed before, during and after the primary disaster event.  In addition, subsequent disasters (for example, earthquake aftershocks), will necessitate a reevaluation of circumstances and quite probably the regression to a previous state of disaster management.

Assessments are key and should be performed to evaluate the process of disaster management after an event so that areas needing improvement can be highlighted, examined and strengthened in the event of future disasters.

The all-hazards approach to disaster management is the course of action that is now recommended.  It involves the consideration of all probable risks in emergency scenarios and encompasses planning, early warning systems, evacuation, coordination of activities (between and within sectors), health services and recovery.

Personal reflections:

The different stages of disaster management makes complete sense to me and I also understand why they may not happen in a linear fashion.  My perception is that much like research, disaster management is a working progress and sometimes it's necessary to go back a step and deal with a new problem that has arisen in order to proceed in the best possible way.

I strongly believe in the evaluation process of plan implementation, especially when it comes to actions that impact the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities.  Critically assessing what you have done, both as an individual and as a team or organisation is paramount to improving your method of operation and optimising your ability to respond in the future.  It's not always easy to examine how you have handled a situation or what your process has been because of the risk of opening yourself to outside criticism or even litigation.  But, it really is an essential part of operating as a professional individual or organisation, especially in the public health arena.


Dunham J 2014, Health Aspects of Disaster, Course study guide, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

The Sphere Project 2011, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, 3rd edn, The Sphere Project, Geneva.

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