Social Cohesion and Community Resilience
Its day two of the IDCE 2012 and the one thing I keep hearing about is “resilience.” In general sessions, break-out talks, and around the exhibits, the idea of community resilience has emerged as one of the hot-button topics of the International Disaster Conference and Expo. The reason for this is simple: if communities are not adequately prepared for disasters the recovery process will, at best, be impacted negatively, and at worst, fail entirely. The take home message is equally as apparent: disaster preparedness must start from within communities.
The talk has been about resilience – but what is resilience? Simply put, resilience is a community’s capacity to absorb a disaster, initiate an effective recovery plan, and return to a state of equilibrium that is in fact stronger and more experienced than before the disaster in discussion.
In his break-out talk “An Award Winning Model for Community Disaster and Emergency Management,” Yair Miller offered three concepts that define resilience: resistance, recovery, and creativity. Resistance is the degree of disruption that can be tolerated by the community without forcing that community to undergo long term change. Recovery is the community’s ability to “bounce back” (not only to its pre-disaster state, but more specifically, leverage the experiences gained from the recovery effort to promote societal growth). Finally, creativity is the community’s ability to build on the experiences of the disaster. Creative communities gain an improved level of condition and preparedness from the disaster experience.
The concept of absorbing a disaster and learning from the experience is of vital importance. Every citizen, from top-level emergency managers down to the private citizen, must realize that disasters are inevitable. James Lee Witt addressed this in his opening-thoughts by introducing the acronym P.I.G., in which the G stands for God and the inevitability of the disaster scenario. Despite exhaustive prevention and protection endeavors a community will never be 100% prepared to absorb a catastrophe.
This is why the concept of societal resilience is so crucial in disaster management. The “bend-but-don’t-break” mentality is the corner stone of effective emergency management. Prepared communities have well developed contingency plans that marry previous experiences with an in-the-moment-adaptability to account for and address all possible scenarios. Furthermore, prepared communities share resources across geopolitical boundaries, increasing their ability to access vital assets in times of need.
Operational cooperation is a concept that must not be ignored. Communities must share resources as to improve sustained operational cooperation. The need for this is absolute. As such, this will most likely require the restructuring of current organizational cultures which stress insular preparedness over a connected network of readiness.
The technical implementation of this is a joint-communication system that asserts the responsibility and authority of centralized command and coordination between emergency managers, first responders, and the private sector. This last point stresses why prepared communities are active communities.
Active civic participation creates a culture of awareness and preparedness. Examples of active communities are those that organize well-trained, highly-informed volunteer corps made up of private citizens. These volunteers can be mobilized instantaneously to support first responders in a multitude of constructive directions. An active society is resilient, whereas a passive society is vulnerable.
Above all else an active society promotes social cohesion, a concept that Meir Elran, Director of the Homeland Security Program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute of National Security Studies, stresses is at the very core of effective disaster management. Social cohesion is required to address any and all disaster scenarios. In short, it speaks to an actively prepared community’s ability to communicate effectively, understand individual responsibilities, and act on those directives.
While state and federal level emergency management efforts are the key to wholesale recovery, that process must begin from within the community. It is important to note that the community must work within the context of the first responders so as to not impede the abilities of the first responders and create a more detrimental situation. However, recovery must start with the community.
Again, we can conclude that the partnership between the private and public sectors must continue to grow so as to share resources and experiences. Communities must bolster their preparedness as to not simply rely on federal governments to provide disaster relief. A true, “bottom-up” approach to disaster management must be realized.