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Task force urges policy makers to ‘operationalize’ the concept of resilience

A task force set up by the Homeland Security Policy Institute has issued an interim report which observes that it is time for the concept of “resilience” to move beyond semantic definitions and into the realm where federal, state and local governments – as well as private citizens – take concrete actions to brace themselves for “low probability,” but “high consequence” disasters.

“It comes down to being able to look at relative risk and evaluate the relative costs of different types of mitigation efforts and make an informed choice,” says the interim study issued by the preparedness, response, and resilience task force organized by HSPI, which is based at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.

The task force is co-chaired by Michael Balboni, a former deputy secretary for public safety in New York State, Daniel Kaniewski, the deputy director of HSPI, and R. David Paulison, an Administrator of FEMA during former President George W. Bush’s administration.

The task forth noted that resilience has become a popular buzzword among policymakers and homeland security experts, but argued that the term resilience must be “operationalized” to become effective.

“Otherwise, we run the very real risk of ‘resilience’ remaining a buzzword – something that is ubiquitously mentioned in academic papers and Federal policy documents, but that is not sufficiently tangible to drive decisions on government priorities and resources, or meaningfully influence the behavior of the American public,” says the 18-page paper, which was publicly released on May 16.

The authors point out that the concept of resilience has burrowed itself into the highest levels of the federal government -- the White House has consolidated preparedness, protection and response policies into the new Resilience Directorate of the National Security Staff, and DHS is thinking about re-naming its National Protection and Programs Directorate into the “Infrastructure Protection and Resilience Directorate” -- but it’s too early to know if these steps will lead to operationalizing resilience.

The task force members observed that different geographic areas of the country naturally become more familiar with the types of disasters that occur regularly in their areas. “However, these same communities may also be less resilient to the hazards they do not regularly experience,” says the interim report.

For that reason, the authors believe that the National Level Exercise 2011, which simulates a catastrophic earthquake in a portion of the country that rarely experiences such earthquakes, represents a step in the right direction, “because it pushes responders to address a scenario where they have little history to guide them.”

Such exercises can have other beneficial effects, notes the task force, by highlighting for first responders and citizens alike that some catastrophic events will exceed the capabilities of federal, state and local governments. “Therefore, individuals will need to take responsibility to fill the gap between their needs and the capabilities of government,” says the task force, which consists of three co-chairs and 23 other members.

The task force said the nation’s “biggest mistake” was not engaging in a “candid, systematic conversation” aimed at identifying the negative outcomes that can result from incidents that have a low likelihood of occurring, but which could cause huge consequences if they do occur. Instead, the public is treated to “political conversations that measure specific inputs which may have little or no impact on the end for which we are aiming,” said the task force report.

In a bit of an understatement, the task force dryly observed that “conventional wisdom does not hold that raising seemingly improbably or unfamiliar risks is a good way to win favor with constituents.”


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