Human Resources during an Emergency: The Strength of the Aftershock Model
Disasters are primarily a problem of human resources. The Human Capital model suggests that ordinary people are the important asset of any country. Adam Smith first developed this idea near the end of his life and was later turned and expanded by Karl Marx. Since Marx no less than three economists and one sociologist have won Nobel Prizes using this useful theory. The Human Capital model tends to focus on the productivity or the lack of it and its effect on GNP and other economic indicators and suggest that it is important than technology, land, resources or others in predicting the wealth, diversity and complexity. FEMA, unlike the earlier Civil Defense program, has rejected the Human Capital model (as has the Department of Defense) instead putting their assets on technology, supplies and technocrats. The Aftershock Model is a return to the primacy of average citizens affected by a disaster, looking for ways to maximize people active involvement and problem-solving skills. Emergencies are events that are particularly dependent on human resources in order to avoid unnecessary disaster.
Staffing during a disaster is always full of problems. This shortfall in human resources can dramatically accelerate the negative impacts of an emergency and create a negative feedback loop. Despite decades of independent research and commonsense FEMA and other disaster professionals still seek to limit citizen involvement during crises. This destructive trend has continued in the US with the current budget '08 budget that savaged the only civilian emergency training program by 75% despite record numbers of people signing up for trainings. Institutional NGOs have followed this trend by sinking more and more of their budget into technology and specialists and reducing their budgets for public education. The Red Cross has doubled the resources available to technological budget items while whittling away their public outreach programs by nearly 80%. In the not too distant past 1 out of every 3 “disaster dollars” (money allocated by the Federal Government for emergencies and civil defense) was allocated to local groups and agencies; but today 19 out of 20 “disaster dollars” go to universities, private military contractors and technology corporations. Even the Emergency Broadcasting System (now called Emergency Alert System) has been reduced to about 10% of their budget compared to its height in 1966. All the broadcasters have been removed and it is nearly fully automated now. It went from employing hundreds of various types of workers to a couple dozen technicians. This represents the growing trend to replace human resources with specialists and technology to “manage” disasters. So what is the role of average people during a disaster? It seems clear their model is one of control and management. We have gone from active agents (neighbors helping neighbors) to just another thing that needs to be managed by technology and government specialists.
After a disaster, conventional full-time emergency services are dramatically overloaded, with conventional fire fighting response times often exceeding several days. Staffing levels for hospitals drop up to 70%, with an often dramatic increase in patients thus exacerbating the staff shortage. The emphasis of emergency managers to control, evacuate and contain whole communities has actually reduced effective response to disasters. The International Institute of Disasters Studies published an exhaustive paper comparing mandatory evacuations versus voluntary evacuations in 13 countries. The researchers found that mandatory evacuations actually slowed recovery efforts and perhaps more surprisingly led to more injuries and deaths than voluntary. They also found not surprisingly fewer people left during voluntary (only 22% left compared to 70% for mandatory that was enforced with law enforcement). They concluded this access to “in situ” human resources actually aided rescue and recovery efforts “despite the lack of resources and training”. Removing populations, breaking up communities and hindering self organization are sure recipes in during an emergency into a disaster. This absurd policy has not always been the norm even in this country. It is a recent development, promoted successfully by radical capitalists and rabid authoritarians.
The traditional response to disasters on civilian population centers is to maintain a mass-trained force of volunteer emergency workers. In the 1930's when the Civil Defense was first formed under FDR it had close to 500,000 participants and many more volunteers. The Red Cross and Salvation Army had nearly twice the staff and volunteers as they do today despite 30% of the budget in a adjusted dollars. Studies in World War II showed that lightly trained (40 hours or less) civilians in self-organized teams can perform up to 95% of emergency activities when trained. This was during a time when there was less education and access to resources as today. In this plan, the populace rescues itself from most situations, and prioritizes emergency services.
We can also look at the consolidation and elimination of volunteer fire/ambulance brigades in the rural Midwest. A study done in 1997 by Stokes & Peters Journal of Fire Professionals and Prevention, strongly suggests the consolidation and professionalize of fire departments over three states in the Us Midwest actually reduced services. They looked at injuries, building damage and response times and found the technological sophisticated and better trained fire departments provided a lower quality of service than the volunteer groups. I have heard the same thing said by volunteer paramedic in the Midwest. So why would professional fire departments with more money, better equipment and 20 times the training than volunteers compare so poorly in rural areas of the Midwest? Stokes & Peters put the blame on the lack of human resources. They argue that there were so many more volunteers and more logically distributed (where there were high instances of fires like in grain areas there were more volunteer corps than in less at fire risk areas) than their professional counterparts. One might also suspect that there was an inherent advantage about knowing the localities where they did their fire prevention work and even a greater commitment to helping fellow community members. What Stokes & Peters also found is there was a greater fire awareness in the general population prior to the operationalization of the fire departments makes common sense, since it was a volunteer force it was required to dialog with the community to get volunteers and resources and had an easier time to create effective local outreach and educational programs. The success rates of professional fire departments' educational/outreach programs are dismal despite spending thousands of dollars and engaging professional PR firms.
Another explanation for the success of volunteer, civil and other non-professionalized emergency responders might be that most activities required during a crisis are relatively simple (though essential) to perform. Nearly all emergency literature and research suggests the simple act of turning off utilities after a disaster (e.g. Flood) can reduce fires, injuries and property destruction. Most people can learn to turn off the water-main, gas and electrical power in their home in about 30 minutes of training and with a $3.00 commercial tool. This simple act could reduce the damage of a disaster significantly. All one has to look at it the role CPR has played in saving lives. While it is true forced air bags, new low voltage defibrillators and flexible molded alternative airways are more effective than CPR in saving a patient, there can be no doubt more actual lives have been saved by the simple CPR technique. Nearly ½ of Americans have had a CPR training of some sort or another. While there is no reliable data on how many lives are saved each year (since most CPR incidents are not reported) it is quite common. The majority of CPR classes are taught by community groups with less than 5% being sponsored by NGO's, corporate entities and government agencies. The average cost for a CPOR course is less than $5.00 because most are free. There is no centralized bureau or governing body that is in charge of CPR courses or the technique itself, yet it works. So ordinary people with a little bit of training by community groups and individuals can have a large impact on emergencies. In fact the more people you engage in emergency preparedness the greater success you will have in mitigating the negative effects. If that wasn't enough to suggest a commitment to decentralized community-based emergency preparations there is another good reason to do it. As stated earlier most work during a disaster is common-sense and unskilled with limited need for high tech gadgets. It allows and requires lots of different folks “pitching in”. This pitching in has the added benefit of decreasing the negative psychological impact of disasters on people. All Disaster Psychology textbooks and research acknowledge that meaningful activity offsets many of the detrimental impacts of disasters including the devastating post-traumatic stress disorder. If people feel needed, part of a team and are engaged in tasks they have confidence in, they are less likely to exhibit negative psychological symptoms during and even after a disaster. It is ironic that the emergency managers spend so much time worrying about “mass panic” when the solution is so simple, get people involved, let them be active in aiding their own communities. Research and commonsense suggest that during disasters there is an outpouring of volunteerism. Instead of thwarting this valuable human resource by corralling people and forcing them to be passive consumers of aid, we need to use this powerful force to protect and rebuild our communities.
So why would we move from a human resource and community based model to a less effective and more expensive centralized and technological approach to disaster control? There are two major factors that led to this devastating change: money and power.
The truth is that grassroots community centered relief training is very cheap. It involves average people training their friends, neighbors, families and co-workers and they will often do this for free. Successful civilian relief models are almost inherently low technology and rely on the common and available resources of their area. They are also by necessity open source, meaning they can not be regulated or controlled by corporate interests. There simply is no money to be made out of this type of emergency preparedness. It is not only corporate interests that are effected but also large NGOs that rely on donations and grants to provide relief and rescue efforts (the number one source of such monies from the public & private charitable sectors). There is also increasingly little difference between major international NGOs and international corporations. They often work hand and glove in reaping resources and profits from disasters. The ugly truth is disasters have become major revenue generating for both NGOs and corporations. It is not a surprise that many executive directors of NGOs were once major CEOs in the private sector and that most NGOs contract out equipment and other services to large international corporations. There simply is too much money to be made in disasters and the fear of disasters to support a community based model. The very effectiveness of community based models threaten the privileged position of bloated government agencies, NGOs and corporations.
Money and power always go together. Not only is there large amounts of money to be made from disasters (read the Naomi Klein's exhaustively researched Shock Doctrine for details)but governments, individuals and corporations can use disasters to increase their political power. Disasters engender a great deal of fear, and fear can easily be turned into political capital. Different leaders, corporations and institutions demand our loyalty in exchange for security. We acquiesce to their accumulation of power in exchange for aid. If we could provide for ourselves and our community their control over us would necessarily be limited and we could demand more from them. By pulling us out of our communities and putting us in situations where we can not even provide for our basics turn us into passive children. When armed National Guardsmen control our access to water, we our in a poor position to check abuses of power or even make legitimate demands. When we are dependent on impossibly expensive technologies and arcane expertise we have no choice but to surrender our autonomy to those who claim to protect us from disasters, especially when we have no knowledge on how to do it ourselves. Despite the new model of emergency management is less effective in relief and recovery than community or civilian models, it is more effective in consolidating power and generating huge profits for selected NGOs and corporations.
The Aftershock model, like the earlier civil defense model, attempts to support the creation of self-organized community approaches to emergency preparedness,relief and recovery. Aftershock recognizes the strength and the practicability of creating low-tech grassroots models of emergency management that not only protects our communities but also empowers them. The key difference between the models is Aftershock's reliance on the human capital of community. Even resource poor and politically marginalized communities can create effective emergency groups. Aftershock seeks to disseminate easy and replicatable models (like CPR ) that utilize the resources of the community to create sustainable and community enriching approaches to crises. We understand that NGOs, governmental agencies and corporations have the most too loose from the wide-dissemination of a community based model. We expect resistance from these groups to our efforts and are willing to fight for right to protect and provide mutual aid to our neighborhoods. We know we will need to not only develop alternatives outside the NGO,corporate and government spheres but also be ready to challenge their exploitive and dangerous models. A community-based model that highlights human resource can be a powerful force in not only protecting from the negative impacts of disasters but also in enriching our communities by building confidence and sense of real solidarity.