Risk-based Emergency Management (sidebar)

(from Maine Townsman, October 2005)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

When Business Week recently listed the top 10 threats to Americans, both from other human beings and from nature, it came up with the following: nuclear bomb, biological attack, chemical attack, dirty bomb and “coordinated terror attacks” (in the first category) and Category 4 or 5 hurricane, earthquake, firestorm, pandemic flu and radiation leak (in the second).

In a more regional assessment, Maine is considered vulnerable to coastal hurricanes, hazardous material spills, airport crashes and, statewide, pandemic flu and severe winter storms.

And if that weren’t enough, in its emergency planning procedures, the Maine Emergency Management Agency also allows for the possibility of dam failures, bridge collapses, tornadoes, wildfire, drought and floods.

To a citizen, this kind of list is likely to produce fear and anxiety. To the professional, though, it calls for a more judicious and methodical response.

Marion Long of Woodard & Curran who, with her colleague Hunter Hild, made a presentation at MMA’s annual convention in early October, advocates an approach known as risk-based management to the daunting challenges of preparing for the (possible) worst.

While each natural or human-caused disaster has unique qualities, they also have similarities, and it is possible to evaluate risks and prepare for the moment when they become actual hazards to human life and safety, she said.

After making risk assessments all over the world for the last 30 years, Long says anyone preparing emergency plans can benefit from these surveys, which analyze risks both for probability and consequences. Though there are exceptions, common threats generally do relatively little damage, while catastrophic events are rare but extremely damaging.

One example she used at the MMA convention was a survey of the Panama Canal, where the risk assessment produced significant changes in the waterway’s disaster planning and the way it allocated its resources – an idea with much appeal for Maine’s local emergency agencies, which generally operate on thin budgets and small staffs.

“Emergency officials want to be able to sleep at night,” Long said. “They want to be able to defend what they’re spending money on, and show how it matches the needs of the plan in an objective way.” Rather than being driven by the latest disaster experienced elsewhere, each state, county and municipality can make its own assessment of what needs are greatest, and what problems are the most likely to occur. “We try to discourage the knee-jerk response, and make sure that there’s a rational and defensible approach,” she said.

A basic tool of risk assessment is to use a grid to plot the probability of occurrence against the potential consequences. The intersection of probability and consequences will provide a good idea of just how resources should be allocated.

This doesn’t mean cookie-cutter plans, however. “Each town’s going to have their own capabilities, and their own risks to assess,” Long said. Communities with facilities that produce toxic substances, for instance, must assess how likely it is that the toxins could travel off-site – a more threatening possibility than if they can be contained on-site. Large communities probably will have their own emergency planning professionals, while smaller ones will more likely hire a contractor to do an assessment. Good plans can help communities not only prepare for potential disasters, but lead to actions to reduce their frequency and the damage they do.

Planning and risk assessment have become more complex, Long said. In addition to hazards to life and property, plans need to consider business continuity. In an era when 15 minutes of trading on international markets can involve millions of dollars, this can be an important element.

In the end, things can go wrong unexpectedly, but that doesn’t mean planning is futile. “Showing that you’ve done the work, assessed the risks, and responded appropriately is a big part of being prepared for emergencies,” she said.