The disasters of the future are being designed by us here today.
Certainly, nature and accidents and terrorists will provide the raw materials. But when they do, the resulting breadth and scope and impact and cost of what happens will ultimately be determined, in large part, by decisions we make now—long (or maybe not so long) before impact.
How we fund emergency medical services is part of that. So is what we invest in things like rescue resources and hospitals and stockpiles of medication and equipment. But it goes beyond emergency medical care. Disaster readiness also encompasses things like building construction, the fortification of infrastructure (roads, bridges, utilities), redundancy in supply chains, absenteeism and continuity plans, and countless other aspects across dozens of diverse disciplines.
In these areas, we will be architects of our own fortune, says Dennis Mileti, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and former director of the school’s Natural Hazards Center, the United States’ clearinghouse for social science research on natural hazards and disasters.
Mileti will be among the experts speaking at the World Conference on Disaster Management, June 25–27 in Toronto. EMS World will attend this special event and offer exclusive reporting distilling its lessons for EMS professionals. In advance of the show, Mileti offered some thoughts on the current state of disaster readiness in North America.
Besides your plenary address at the show (on why disaster losses keep increasing and what to do about it), you’ll also be participating in a panel discussion on the erosion of government support for emergency management in Canada. Are we seeing that in the U.S. as well? And with so many recent high-profile disasters in North America and around the world, why would we cut here?
Well, it cuts across a lot of federal agencies, but fundamentally these things go in cycles. There’s no such thing as ‘Once we had a lot of money for emergency management activities, and now we have none.’ What happens is, as time goes on after major events, people forget. Other, more pressing issues come to the attention of political decision-makers, and programs are cut. That’s just the character of American government.
Just wait a while, and after the next large event, it’ll go on the upswing. That’s how it works.
That reactive mind-set was nicely demonstrated by the California earthquake study you were involved with. What did you find?
The California Seismic Safety Commission was participating in a 2006 commemoration of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and commissioned a timeline plotting more than 200 major pieces of state legislation that squarely addressed seismic safety. Then we placed California’s major earthquakes on the timeline. And we found 99% of the laws were passed within one year of major earthquake events.
What that means is, for people who make laws, from elected officials to the legislature, things like disasters and earthquakes are salient to them after they’ve occurred. That’s when it’s easier to get the legislature to pass laws for seismic safety. And that’s not just California; it’s characteristic of human beings, and it’s true wherever human beings reside.
So that kind of reactivity—the perspective of ‘if you haven’t used it, you don’t need it’—is more a human quality than cultural to us?
I’d suspect it’s cultural-universal. After major events occur, people want to do something, so that the things they just experienced don’t happen again. So laws are typically passed in the aftermath of major events, and then those laws become increasingly difficult to implement as time goes by, and sometimes they’re done away with. I think it’s characteristic of human beings.
You can put it this way: Most human beings can’t see past the hood of a car.
In our industry, I think there was a feeling after events like 9/11 and Katrina that we had a new, different long-term perspective. Did those events really change anything?