We All Have a Role to Play

Jul 15, 2009

The 21st century has kicked off with a bang and opened the gates to an interconnected world where domestic and international borders are increasingly blurred. The last decade has witnessed the rise of transnational security threats posed by violent non-state actors, pandemics, climate change, ballooning economies, strains placed upon strategic, non-renewable energy resources, and significant technological advancements.

Schoold in Fargo, North Dakota closed so that students could volunteer in the sandbagging effort to hold back water from the rising Red River.

The recent global economic crisis only adds to this decorated milieu. In all, the collective nature of modern day challenges, encouraged by globalization, is a key characteristic of this era.

The reality is that we can expect risks to continue to multiply as the world becomes more complex due to ever-growing developments in information exchange, burgeoning populations, and stressed supplies – be it energy, food, land, water, medical or others. Confirming this complexity, Alex Evans and David Steven, authors of a report entitled “Risks and resilience in the new global era,” call this “a potentially toxic combination of unfamiliar stresses and demand constraints, with growing numbers of shocks of greater intensity.”

Furthermore, the impacts of today’s events are largely uneven. Community violence aimed at the oil industry in one country may result in higher global oil prices for all and supply disruptions for some. A virus that emerges in a remote part of the world ­suddenly becomes a pandemic – for which some will have access to vaccines while others go without. Climate ­pressures have led to changing weather patterns – resulting in more frequent, and at times ­catastrophic, flooding, hurricanes tornados, and other storm ­systems that disproportionately affect communities. In the face of such volatility and uncertainty, the probability for unforeseen emergencies will increase and be largely felt at the local level.

The question then becomes: How can we cope with it? In such a turbulent system, the concept of resilience has emerged and is gaining traction. Jamais Cascio, a senior fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, defines resilience as “the capacity of an entity – such as a person or an institution, or a system – to withstand sudden, unexpected shocks, and (ideally) be capable of recovering quickly afterwards.” This definition, in fact, fits within an orchestra of positions on resilience where the ability to absorb, withstand, and remain flexible are key components to surviving major disruption caused by nature or individuals.

Recognizing the daunting and frankly impossible task of preparing for all emergencies (especially sudden shocks that carry maximum damages, or ‘black swans’ as author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls extreme events), countries are increasingly searching for ways to enhance the resilience of not only critical infrastructures and technical systems but also their societies as a whole.

While emergency responders such as police officers, medical personnel, and others, are pillars to response and recovery efforts, governments often overlook the capacity and opportunities to engage and inform the individuals who populate a community.

Technology, such as mobile phones and the Internet, has ­created new platforms for communication, trust building, and coordination. Not only can such tools be utilized and leveraged by responders and government officials but they can also be used to create relationships and information sharing portals with civilians. Delving deeper into the world of societal resilience, this article examines how technology and the components of a resilient system can be used in planning and response.

Begin Locally  
In March 2009, images of citizens from Fargo, North Dakota filling sandbags to withstand record-level Red River flooding were circulated throughout every media outlet. These images documented emergency crews working with locals to build levees, assist with evacuations of the elderly and other vulnerable civilians – ultimately helping the community minimize damages and withstand the massive flooding caused by a confluence of heavy rain, snow and a river that was jammed with ice. Mayor Dennis Walaker resisted recommendations from state and federal officials to issue a mandatory evacuation of the entire area, choosing instead to put able-bodied men and women to work preparing sandbags. The end result was a successful, coordinated response and recovery in what was expected to be a catastrophic outcome and devastated city.

Florida Air National Guard troops continue the coordination of resources for the response to hurricane Ivan at the Emergency Operation Center. (FEMA Photo: Andrea Booher)

Working together, National Guard troops and volunteers filled and placed over 3 million sandbags along the river. Miles of rapidly created dikes added to the safety factor. This quick, coordinated reaction to a crisis was a clear an example of societal resilience.

This example brings to light three components found within a resilient community: strength and flexibility, a trusting community ready to act, and good leadership.

A resilient system can be described as a sponge. Rather than turning from an encroaching wave, a sponge prepares, responds and absorbs in a way that maintains its integrity. Fargo’s mayor saw the threat of flooding and the near certain destruction if they did not act collectively. The community rose to the challenge, and though damage was sustained, much was averted due to the response. The flexibility of the individuals to quickly adapt to the grim environment and trust both each other and their leader was paramount to a successful recovery. The element of trust between the public, private and local actors is a significant asset. In spite of recommendations coming from state and federal officials to evacuate, the citizens of Fargo trusted the leadership of their mayor and chose instead to participate in emergency response efforts. They all trusted each other to work collaboratively through this crisis.   

Another component to resilient systems is foresight and planning initiated at the local level. The Golden Phoenix of Los Angeles, California is a disaster training exercise held each year. This exercise involves local, state, federal, academic, nongovernmental, individuals and private sector entities in a simulated natural or human-caused disaster. This event, which is created and led by local stakeholders, provides opportunities for participants to prepare for future emergencies, identify local capacity and resources, develop relationships throughout the community, and enhance trust. Federal officials play more of an outside role by encouraging such exercises and developing strategies to support local and regional responses and recovery.

It must be noted that in many cases the danger can be such that people staying behind presents both a worry for busy first responders and an ethical dilemma when they later need rescuing. A situation can escalate to the point where a rescue presents a grave danger to responders.

Leverage Technology
Technology, such as mobile phones and the Internet, has unleashed a process of communication that promotes the flow, creation, and exchange of information between people. In fact, this trend is accelerating and represents an expanding global resource. By 2008, a reported 23% of the world’s population reported using the Internet and 60% own a mobile phone. As mobile phone technology continues to improve and offer additional cost-effective options (such as Internet access), the number of users will multiply, opening a variety of new doors for expanded access.

Most relevant to building resilience, such communication conduits can be leveraged by local governments and emergency responders to communicate with the ­public before, during and after a disaster. This includes sharing emergency action plans and providing high-quality information to civilians in an efficient and economically favorable way. This also helps facilitate the process of civilian reporting to authorities and relationship building within the community.

March 2009 - Fargo Dome in North Dakota. The city launched a massive volunteer sandbagging effort to hold back flood waters.

Looking first at mobile phones, the Los Angeles Fire Department offers a text message service called “LAFD Alert.” Given the frequency of wildfires in California, not only does such a service provide a rapid way for the LAFD to communicate fires but it also allows civilians to alert authorities to new fires or other related events. Such alerting systems provide an opportunity to engage the public before a disaster occurs and/or limit damage and casualties. Camera phones and video options also provide a tool for civilians to document emergencies (especially when journalists and responders don’t have access). Due to the limits placed on journalism in Iran, for example, much of the recent protests have been documented via personal mobile phones, and groups were able to get to safe areas via texting with family and friends. Thus, we are now seeing how this small device is moving from being an object of convenience and luxury to being a valuable asset in building community resilience and coping with crisis situations. In many cases, how well a community responds to a disaster will dictate the speed of recovery.

Communication is central to response efforts, and the Internet offers a wealth of tools to support this fundamental shift in how people communicate. Email, websites, blogs, podcasts, web 2.0 platforms (social media), etc. have become powerful tools that public and private sectors alike can utilize and create common virtual meeting grounds. Government websites, such as the United Kingdom Resilience website, increasingly offer web-portals tailored towards providing information to individuals and businesses on preparedness, pandemics, community resources, and other topics. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has also moved in a similar direction by producing video segments to be shown on their website, highlighting disaster stories, briefings, and vignettes of ordinary citizens who have lived through disasters. This broad array of approaches and information is to provide the public with a variety of opportunities to be informed and engaged. The goal ultimately is to get people involved earlier so that they are better prepared to weather a crisis and, hopefully, rebound quickly.

Social media sites like Myspace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Flicker and many others have proliferated at a rapid pace as they offer a virtual gathering space for individuals to connect with family, friends, colleagues, or others with similar interests. While such platforms are largely used for general consumer purposes, the emergency management community is now incorporating such affordable instruments into planning and response activities. As it has done with mobile phones, the LAFD has also begun using the micro-blogging site Twitter to post quick information about fires and a blog to discuss fires and other emergencies in greater detail. This local fire department recognizes the importance of tapping into all available channels with the community. FEMA’s regional offices also use Twitter and podcasts to communicate with the public about potential emergencies. But it also works both ways – Twitter users can notify FEMA about encroaching storms, giving authorities an early opportunity to communicate safety tips and mitigate potential injuries. In sum, these tools create bridges of communication and trust where individuals become a necessary component in the resilience cycle.

Public-private ventures to build social platforms around emergency planning are also in progress. In another example, Microsoft has been working with emergency management personnel to create “Microsoft Vine,” a local platform for cities to use and create synergies in communication during various situations, especially emergencies. Current beta-testing is occurring in Seattle, Washington, where users can share messages and utilize mapping functions and notification features. While the success of this venture is yet to be assessed, the effort is a step in the right direction. Indeed, more cities should explore the role of online community platforms, and technology as a whole, in their local preparedness plans. The numerous free platforms such a Facebook or Ning offer many simple tools to facilitate real exchange, partnerships, and relationship building between all stakeholders.

July 2009 - Some residents of the Kelowna, BC area refused to evacuate. Police have resorted to taking names of their next of kin and their dentists in case dental records are needed for identification.

All Hands on Deck
While we are in the global age, the role of the individual – or rather all actors - has never been more important. Powered with technology, and challenged by the variety of current and future threats to come, civilians and public and private entities all have a significant stake in ensuring the resiliency of their community. The main challenge, however, lies in engaging and organizing such capacity. The tools and guiding principles are there.

To prepare for the road ahead, local, regional, and national governments should begin discussing how to strengthen, if not integrate, the components of resilience system into society. Start from the base and leverage the information and collaborative revolution underway to create 21st century emergency preparedness and response strategies – we all have a role to play.  

Jennifer Giroux is a Researcher for the Crisis Risk Network at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich. She currently manages the targeting energy infrastructure project while also carrying out research on violent non-state actors, resilient systems, and critical infrastructure protection.
© FrontLine Security 2009