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Disaster Preparedness 2011: Preparing for natural and industrial disasters and enemy attacks in the 21st century

David Klain

The subject of disaster management and emergency preparedness has fundamentally evolved over the last 10 years.

Modern industrial society relies on physical or technological infrastructure to provide the goods and services necessary for day-to-day life. Disasters have frequently caused breakdowns in that infrastructure with significant effects as a result of the disaster itself, or due to cascading failures. All of this has the potential of magnifying an incident into a true disaster, not only affecting the local area or region, but also potentially crossing borders and impacting situations on a continental level.

October 4, 2011 marked the one-year anniversary of arguably the worst industrial accident in Europe’s history -- Hungary’s “Red Sludge” disaster. Whether we are talking about disasters stemming from acts of nature (Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the Japanese tsunami in 2011), industrial accidents (Red Sludge and Deepwater Horizon, both in 2010), or those caused deliberately by man (the attacks of 9/11 in 2001 or Saddam’s igniting the oil fields in Kuwait in 1991), they all have a number of things in common. 

First, while there was loss of life from the incident itself, the after effects had a far greater impact on the country where the disaster took place. Second, traditional national, state and local organizations had never planned for -- or even envisioned -- a scenario similar to what actually occurred. Finally, the size of the disaster necessitated a response utilizing resources from many different organizations (including from outside the country) creating enormous coordination challenges.

Today’s world reflects that globalization is a reality. Just-in-time logistics apply to everything, from toilet paper and food on the shelves at grocery stores to the fuel necessary to power everything from vehicles to emergency generators. Typically, there is only a few days’ supply at any given area and a disruption to the transportation and distribution network can create cascading shortages. 

A fundamental aspect of emergency preparedness and response is the “Plan, Prepare, Respond and Recover” cycle. In a time where constrained budgets are the new reality, tough resource allocation decisions have to be made and one-trick pony solutions are simply unaffordable. Fire departments now respond to everything from fires to hazardous materials spills to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents. When equipment is purchased or people are hired, “Swiss army knife” solutions capable of multi-tasking are attractive and cost-effective. While the 9/11 Commission identified a “failure of imagination” as the primary fault in preventing the catastrophic events of that day, reality tells us that there will always be incidents no one had ever conceived. Response organizations will have to be built and trained to respond adaptively in real-time to changing situations.

Dynamic, complex disasters will not only require actions from state, local and federal stakeholders, but also may require (and even demand) action from private entities, commercial enterprises, international organizations and non-governmental organizations. Ultimately, it was not the government closing the Deepwater Horizon wellhead or shutting down the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, but rather private corporations with priorities and concerns that intersected, but did not necessarily align, with those of government emergency responders.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that there will be another disaster in the future. While we cannot predict the where, the when or the what, we can safely say that the next disaster will likely be complex, with cascading effects, have consequences that were at least partially unforeseen, and demand a multi-layered and multi-organizational response that taxes available resources. It is also safe to say that key to an effective response will be flexible, adaptable tools, techniques and procedures, as well as effective communications (both voice and data) between organizations that previously may have never had a requirement to communicate before the incident took place.

Since 9/11, there have been efforts to get first and emergency responders on the same communications networks (or at least to create links between their different networks). Literally, billions of dollars have been spent on this effort which, in large part, has been a complete failure due to differing priorities and perceived operational needs. In some cases, things have actually gotten worse.

For example, the Washington, DC, police recently made the decision to encrypt their radios to ensure criminals could not monitor communications. This action has significantly crippled emergency response coordination in a national capital region characterized by a multitude of federal, state and local agencies, all with differing disaster response missions.

The 1983 invasion of Grenada was marked by an almost total lack of communications systems interoperability between the four services. One officer literally used his calling card to call back to the U.S. on a commercial phone in order to get a message to nearby forces from another service.

The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act was designed to force “jointness” down the throat of an unwilling military; the success of Desert Storm and operations since then is tribute to the successful adoption of joint standards and protocols. By the same token, the problems of effective disaster response and emergency coordination are not insurmountable -- many can be addressed through technical solutions that exist today and have been implemented by private industry. Common protocols leveraging IP-based data exchange technology provide a mechanism to achieve true “plug-and-play” communications interoperability. 

Recognizing, and planning for, incidents that do not match “The Plan,” and require engagement and participation from stakeholders and organizations both inside and outside of government is necessary to build an adaptive response capability that truly puts Swiss army knife-type solutions back in the toolbox. The National Level Exercises (NLE) are a step in the right direction, but more can, and must, be done.

David Klain is vice president of program management for Ultra Electronics, 3eTi. He can be reached at:

[email protected]



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