The best time to think and talk about disaster management is when there's no disaster. Unfortunately, most folks in the media, and on social media, don't do that. Instead, we wait until a hurricane is bearing down on the coast or Ebola virus is breaking out, and then all start shouting at the tops of our lungs. It's probably futile to try to change this pattern, but perhaps we can at least elevate the conversation a bit.
Unbeknownst to most of the people now yelling into the storm winds, disaster management is an actual field of study, with classes and everything. There are people who've dedicated entire careers to figuring this stuff out, but a lot of their wisdom gets lost in the din. Here are six of the field's insights that everyone from ordinary citizens to public health policymakers really should try to understand.
Anyone trained in incident response, from EMTs and cops to agency heads, understands the first rule of rescue: Don't become a casualty. Hollywood shows "heroes" charging in to save the day with reckless disregard for their own lives, but out here in reality that approach does far more harm than good. The most likely result is that the "rescuer" becomes another victim, putting even more strain on the beleaguered professionals who have to drag their sorry ass back to safety. Don't be that person. If you're not absolutely certain you can safely contribute to the situation, stay out of it. Just today I got an email from the US Coast Guard Auxiliary about the impending hurricane. The first line read "DO NOT SELF-DEPLOY." Wise words.
By definition, disasters upend the conventional order, but that doesn't mean the response should be chaotic. On the contrary, there are thoroughly-established procedures for managing such dynamic situations. The dominant one in the US, known as the Incident Command System (ICS), provides a flexible framework for managing anything from a car crash to a multi-state epidemic. Anyone planning to travel into a disaster zone should learn the basics of ICS, or stay out. It would be especially good to see more public health folks studying ICS before second-guessing policies or diving into ongoing responses.
A disaster is a "come as you are" event. Standing in a clinic surrounded by contagious patients isn't the time to think about getting a flu shot. Individually, everyone should have an idea of the disasters most likely to occur in their area, a plan for dealing with those disasters, and a small kit of appropriate supplies. Start here. Societally, we need to have adequately funded agencies thinking about and planning for disasters before they happen. After a disaster, we need to critique the response and improve it as necessary.
People being pulled off rooftops by helicopter, doctors and nurses in BSL-4 suits, and firefighters parachuting into a burning wilderness all make great television. Disaster response looks exciting. Having done a bit of it, I can attest that it's a lot duller most of the time, but the glory moments are pretty awesome. Anyone interested in volunteering for this type of thing can do so, if they've gotten trained beforehand (see the First Rule above). Groups such as CERT and the Red Cross are always looking for help.
After preparedness and response comes recovery. This starts right about when the TV cameras leave, and extends for months or years after the event. It involves cleaning up, rebuilding, and moving on. Sadly, this is the second-most botched phase of the disaster cycle. People who weren't directly affected by the event have forgotten about it, so politicians are loathe to fund expensive recovery efforts. These projects are often epic fails, but because those failures disproportionately affect the poor, nobody cares.
The fourth part of the disaster management cycle is called mitigation. It is easily the most mismanaged area. Mitigation is looking at past disasters to figure out long-term solutions and preventive measures. After Hurricane Katrina, one very promising mitigation proposal was to simply buy out the city's residents, giving them big checks that they could use to relocate. That didn't happen. A great way to mitigate the risk of Ebola virus outbreaks would be for wealthy nations to spend more on building public health infrastructure across Sub-Saharan Africa. That's not going to happen. We could mitigate a whole slew of disaster risks by addressing climate change like adults. That's definitely not going to happen.
Given the persistent leadership failures in disaster management, what can we do? Individually, we can be prepared - within reason. While "preppers" are mildly amusing, most of what they do is a waste of time and money. A storage tote or duffel bag of basic supplies, and a general plan for the most likely disasters, is enough. We can also agitate for change, especially at the local level. Finally, if a cop or firefighter knocks on the door and says to evacuate, do it. "Riding out" an emergency is a sign of stupidity, not bravery. The best rescue is one that doesn't have to happen.