To prepare or not to prepare…

Enhanced preparedness for disruptive challenges is at the heart of attempts to improve urban resilience. In recent years municipal and national governments have sort to increase the sophistication of contingency planning undertaken by an array of stakeholders, intended to decrease their vulnerability to and increase preparedness against high risk events, be they terrorist attack or natural hazards.

On 11th April  2012 a large earthquake and aftershock struck in the sea off Indonesia triggering a Tsunami alert. The institutional response to these highlights both the positive and negative aspects of such contingency planning. In this instance there was no repeat of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the same area in 2004, casualties and structural damage were minimized and reports have highlighted the relative success of pre-emptive contingency planning in enhancing public awareness of the risk faced and the appropriate responses to take. The tremor passed without any immediate reports of casualties or major damage and was met with greater public awareness as a result of successful earthquake drills. In many locations evacuation plans and evacuation points had been detailed and clear signs put up with emergency instructions for residents and tourists.

The relatively recent 2004 tsunami which killed excess of 200,000 people had acted as a catalyst for pre-emptive contingency as well as educating local people to learn about what to do in an emergency. In other words, lessons had been learnt. The tsunami early warning system introduced in 2008 appeared to work well in most areas.

However, there are weaknesses still to address. Despite the Indonesian Government’s attempts to properly resource resiliency efforts, there were reports that many provincial areas felt they were not properly equipped or trained to deal with a serious tsunami incident.

In this part of the world – an earthquake/tsunami zone – where the likelihood of disruptive challenges is relatively high, preparation is a government and civil society priority. But where low frequency, high impact events are not deemed a priority this is not the case and this risk competes with other, more pressing, risks and can be inadequately planned for. Like it or not, the way managers and communites prepare for and ultimately respond to incidents is shaped significantly by recent events in a locality. For the public, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is often at the forefront of emergency preparedness. For emergency mangers this raises a dilemma: what risks do they focus attention on when multiple disruptive events are possible (albeit with different degrees of probability) and when financial and human resources are tight? Does this mean that certain risks will be ignored? In 2003 the Guardian newspaper published an article by an emergency planner commenting upon the changing state of the profession in the post 9/11 world where multiple threats and hazards were seen, new institutional infrastructure was being deployed, yet resources were not keeping pace with requirements. Here, the following scenario was outlined:

Consider: if you wanted to protect yourself from the ravages of misfortune or random chance what would you do? Would you:

  • Choose to ignore them and trust to fate and more fortunate circumstances
  • Choose to ignore them and trust that some passing good Samaritan would come to your rescue in the “unlikely” event that something actually did go wrong
  • Take the threats at face value and assume that they are as likely to happen to you as to the poor unfortunate you just saw in the news?
  • Look around you and try to determine what the actual threats were?
  • Look at what has happened elsewhere and in times past and try to make a best guess at what risk these threats represent to you? And then would you buy the best insurance policy you could based on benefits and cost?
  • Try also to prepare yourself as best you could? or . . .
    -Would you simply throw money at a situation you would want to avoid if at all possible?

Planning for urban resilience is not a simple task. It is not just a matter of being prepared but of thinking and prioritising what risks you are enhancing resilience against and then intervening appropriately. This is easier said than done, but ignore at your peril!

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