RL 32631 California University Disaster management and intervention Discussion PART 1 – After reading the articles in lessons 2.2 – 2.3 in module 2, please

RL 32631 California University Disaster management and intervention Discussion PART 1 – After reading the articles in lessons 2.2 – 2.3 in module 2, please answer the following questions:

Why cooperation and leadership should be effective in managing emergencies? How can it be achieved?
How can governments use the emerging interoperability approach to address unexpected emergencies during an emergency response?
Why do experts advise that donations should be cash/money in times of crisis?

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RL 32631 California University Disaster management and intervention Discussion PART 1 – After reading the articles in lessons 2.2 – 2.3 in module 2, please
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PART 2) Reply to classmate’s post Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management
Volume 15 Number 1 March 2007
Preparing for Critical
Infrastructure Breakdowns:
The Limits of Crisis Management
and the Need for Resilience
Arjen Boin* and Allan McConnell**
*Leiden University Crisis Research Center, Department of Public Administration, PO Box 9555, 2300 RB
Leiden, The Netherlands. E-mail: boin@fsw.leidenuniv.nl
**Discipline of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia. E-mail:
Modern societies are widely considered to harbour an increased propensity for breakdowns of their critical infrastructure (CI) systems. While such breakdowns have proven
rather rare, Hurricane Katrina has demonstrated the catastrophic consequences of such
breakdowns. This article explores how public authorities can effectively prepare to cope
with these rare events. Drawing from the literature on crisis and disaster management,
we examine the strengths and weaknesses of traditional approaches to crisis preparation
and crisis response. We argue that the established ways of organising for critical decisionmaking will not suffice in the case of a catastrophic breakdown. In the immediate
aftermath of such a breakdown, an effective response will depend on the adaptive
behaviour of citizens, front-line workers and middle managers. In this article, we
formulate a set of strategies that enhance societal resilience and identify the strong
barriers to their implementation.
Introduction: Imagining the
Consequences of Infrastructural
odern society relies on the effective functioning of
CI networks to provide public services, enhance
quality of life, sustain private profits and spur economic
growth. This growing dependence is accompanied by an
increased sense of vulnerability to new and future
threats such as terrorism and climate change (OECD,
2003; Perrow, 2006). With some urgency, the question
is being asked – in Australia, Europe and the United
States – how modern societies can prepare for a
breakdown in CIs.
Definitions of CI vary widely, ranging from hardware
such as cables and wires, through to networks for the
generation and supply of energy sources, food supplies
and public order.1 The degree of criticality is bound to
differ across systems and cultures (see Egan, this issue),
but it is widely thought that a breakdown of one or
more of these critical systems has the potential to
cause very serious problems.
We know relatively little about the causes of infrastructural breakdown. It is commonly agreed that
complexity and tight coupling allow relatively small
disturbances to rapidly escalate into compound crises
(Turner, 1978; Perrow, 1999). And as CIs become
increasingly massive and complex (due to scale requirements) as well as dependent on other CIs, there
is an increasing likelihood of multiple infrastructural
breakdowns that reach beyond geographical and
functional borders (Rosenthal, Boin and Comfort,
& 2007 The Authors. Journal compilation & 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.,
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main St., Malden, MA, 02148, USA
Preparing for Critical Infrastructure Breakdowns
2001; Quarantelli, Lagadec and Boin, 2006). Yet, it
remains unclear at best under which conditions these
systems actually break down and what engineers can do
to prevent breakdowns from happening (LaPorte, 1996;
Baer et al., 2005). Worst-case scenarios do not always
take into account the adaptive behaviour of system
managers (the Y2K scare comes to mind).
The most complicating factor, however, is that we
cannot predict with any degree of precision the potential consequences of infrastructural failure. Relatively few
major infrastructural failures have actually occurred in
Western societies. Most of these were single breakdowns (grid failures in the US, Canada, France and New
Zealand). While these breakdowns were not without
consequences (Scanlon, 1999; Newlove, Stern and
Svedin, 2000; Lagadec and Bertone, 2003), they do not
approximate the level of affliction envisioned to be the
result of compound failures – when multiple infrastructures break down more or less simultaneously. This
happened when Hurricane Katrina wiped out most if
not all CIs for a considerable amount of time in New
Orleans and large parts of Louisiana and Mississippi,
which effectively crippled recovery operations both in
the short and long term.
The aim of this article is to peruse the crisis and
disaster management literature to formulate lessons
that may enhance societal preparation for such breakdowns. This body of research suggests that conventional prevention and contingency planning approaches,
as well as traditional top-down crisis management
responses, have major limitations in the face of critical
infrastructural breakdowns. Given these lessons, our
contention is that public authorities should focus on the
long-term promotion of societal resilience.
We set out by relating critical infrastructural
breakdowns to key concepts in the crisis and disaster
literature. We then identify the key lessons of this
research and formulate practical steps towards
furthering societal and administrative resilience. We
are realistic in recognising that there are significant
barriers to a rapid upgrading of societal resilience
capacities. We conclude this article by identifying
pressing research needs.
CI Breakdowns: Rare Events with
Catastrophic Potential
In wealthy and well-functioning societies, it has become
hard to imagine what happens – or fails to happen –
when nothing works. What does it mean to reside
in a society that is suddenly beset by multiple and
cascading failures, power blackouts, transport gridlocks, telecommunications breakdowns, overwhelmed
emergency services and civil disorder? Most habitants
& 2007 The Authors
Journal compilation & 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
of Europe, Australia and North America probably have
no idea.
The chaos and disorder that overtook New Orleans
in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (August 2005) provide
us with some clear ideas of what a worst-case scenario
may look like. Yet, CI breakdowns are not necessarily
accompanied by the deadly mayhem witnessed in New
Orleans and its surrounding areas. Some breakdowns
remain isolated events and are quickly remedied, others
have cascading effects and cause great harm. These
breakdowns can range from mere emergencies to fullblown catastrophes. Let us briefly consider how this
sliding scale of threat relates to key concepts in the
literature on crisis, disaster and emergency management.
Emergencies are ‘unforeseen but predictable, narrowscope incidents that regularly occur’ (Perry and Lindell,
2006: 29). These events are delineated in time and
space. As they are knowable and follow fairly predictable patterns, emergency services can train and prepare
for these events. Emergencies can be tragedies for
those involved, but have no wider consequences and
can usually be brought rapidly to a closure. Examples
include the blocking of a main highway by a chemical
spillage, or a small radiation leakage at a nuclear power
Crises are of a different magnitude and character.
A crisis may be defined as ‘a breakdown of familiar
symbolic frameworks that legitimises the pre-existing
socio-political order’ (‘t Hart, 1993: 39). It entails a
threat to the core values of a system or the functioning
of life-sustaining systems, which must be urgently dealt
with under conditions of deep uncertainty (Rosenthal,
Boin and Comfort, 2001). CI breakdowns that depart
from known failure paths and ‘behave’ in seemingly
erratic ways, jumping from one system to another, tend
to generate a deeply felt sense of crisis. The breakdown
of the electrical grid across the north-eastern US
(2003) caused more than just an emergency; it constituted a real crisis – broadcast live on the major
networks – and posed operational and strategic challenges to both governmental and private actors.
But the 2003 blackout hardly qualifies as a disaster.
This is, of course, yet another contested term (Perry
and Quarantelli, 2005), but it tends not to be used in
reference to extreme situations where life, property
and infrastructure remain intact. To label a situation in
terms of disaster implies loss of life and severe, longterm damage to property and infrastructures. A disaster, in other words, is a ‘crisis with a bad ending’
(Boin, 2005: 163). CI breakdowns easily generate a
sense of crisis, but, it is fair to conclude, rarely result in
disaster (see for example the 1998 Sydney water
contamination crisis: Healy, 2001; McConnell, 2005).
Some disasters are clearly in a league of their own:
we refer to these as catastrophes. In some respects, the
difference between a disaster and a catastrophe is
Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management
Volume 15 Number 1 March 2007
merely semantic. Moreover, it is affected by cultural
dispositions (what is a disaster in one country may be
perceived as catastrophic in others). Nevertheless,
catastrophes are at the furthest end of the scale in
terms of the language we use to describe threatening
events and their (potential) consequences. A catastrophe is defined as an ‘event that is believed to
have a very low probability of materializing but . . . if it
does materialize will produce a harm so great and
sudden as to seem discontinuous with the flow of
events that preceded it’ (Posner, 2004: 6).
Some agents of catastrophe – think of asteroids and
super volcanoes – are unlikely to materialise in our life
spans, but we cannot rule out their occurrence
(Clarke, 2005). However unlikely, a catastrophe can
happen any day, as demonstrated by the Asian tsunami
and the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane
The question is whether infrastructural breakdowns
can cause unprecedented damage (in terms of property
and lives lost), paralysing life-sustaining functions for
long periods of time. Many scenarios have seen the light
(with a notable spike during the pre-Millennium
months), but catastrophes caused by infrastructural
breakdowns have yet to emerge. They fall in the
category of ‘future crises’ (Rosenthal, Boin and Comfort, 2001) and ‘worst cases’ (Clarke, 2005). Discussing
CI breakdowns in terms of potential catastrophes is,
therefore, somewhat of a theoretical exercise.
Yet, mapping out the sheer devastation and chaos
that may ensue, we get a real sense that an infrastructural breakdown may present challenges that are well
beyond the routine contingency planning and
management capacities of public authorities. If we
have serious aspirations to deal with the consequences
of these future crises, we need to identify both the
weaknesses of traditional crisis and disaster management practices, as well as the seeds of a strategy for
enhancing our capacities to cope with worst-case
The Limitations of Prevention, Planning
and Traditional Top-Down Crisis
The overwhelming tendency in both theory and practice is to view crisis management as a holistic process
involving prevention, planning, acute response, recovery and learning (Comfort, 1988; Nudell and Antokol,
1988; Coombs, 1999; Fink, 2002; Regester and Larkin,
2002; Curtin, Hayman and Husein, 2005). In this section, we consider whether traditional crisis management approaches and practices are likely to be effective
in the case of an infrastructural breakdown with
catastrophic consequences.
Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management
Volume 15 Number 1 March 2007
Arjen Boin and Allan McConnell
Prevention and its limits
There are many successful instances of crisis prevention. For instance, the Dutch have built an elaborate
defence system against the catastrophic potential of the
North Sea. The segregation and destruction of birds
harbouring the H5N1 bid flu virus has proved reasonably successful in preventing the spread of the disease
to Western Europe and the Americas. The American
and British Governments have foiled several major
terror plots aimed at transatlantic flights, Heathrow
Airport and the Brooklyn Bridge. More in general, we
can observe that many types of disasters no longer, or
rarely, occur in modern societies that used to be
commonplace (think of bridge disasters, theatre fires
and polio outbreaks).
We should, however, temper our expectations.
Preventing all extreme threats from materialising is
not only implausible, it is simply impossible (cf. Wildavsky, 1988). We cannot know every conceivable
‘worst case’ that may unfold. Terrorists can become
inventive beyond our imagining. The 2004 Boxing Day
tsunami reminded us of nature’s power to produce
swift devastation. Prevention requires that one knows
the source and dynamics of threats, but the literature
shows that this is impossible for most if not all organisations (Turner, 1978; Reason 1990, 1997; Pauchant and
Mitroff, 1992; Anheier, 1999; Gauld and Goldfinch, 2006).
Preventing threats can also meet with political repercussions because prevention strategies can damage
powerful interests (Drennan and McConnell, 2007).
The BSE crisis in the UK is indicative of this phenomenon. A powerful agricultural lobby was instrumental in
building alliances with ministers and risk-averse civil
servants in order to thwart demands from leading
scientists that more needed to be done to recognise
and prevent the possibility of transmission to humans
(Phillips Inquiry, 2000; Beck, Asenova and Dickson,
While there is ongoing debate between ‘normal
accident’ theorists and their ‘high reliability’ counterparts (JCCM, 1994; Rijpma, 1997; Perrow, 1999; Weick
and Sutcliffe, 2002) about the capacity of organisational
reforms to reduce the propensity for ‘internally’ induced significant failures, these authors seem to agree
that it is impossible to eliminate all errors or suppress
every deliberate act of destruction. In short, the lessons
of crisis management research hold that there are
political, cognitive, informational, cultural and resource
barriers to being able to prevent every possible threat
to our CIs.
Contingency planning: necessary but not sufficient
Planning for emergencies and crises is to be lauded.
There is much to be gained from the prior specification
& 2007 The Authors
Journal compilation & 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Preparing for Critical Infrastructure Breakdowns
of roles and responsibilities; the allocation of materials,
equipment and information systems; and the testing
of systems under ‘trial’ conditions through simulations
and exercises (Rosenthal and Pijnenburg, 1991; ‘t Hart,
1997; Boin, Kofman and Overdijk, 2004). For example,
the city of Madrid was able to resume normal operations only twenty-four hours after the 2004 bombings
(Cornall, 2005); Australian authorities responded effectively to the 2002 Bali Bombings (Paul, 2005), and the
response to the 9/11 attacks by New York’s emergency
services worked reasonably well because of long-established planning and exercises (National Commission on
Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, 2004).
Planning is no panacea, however (McConnell and
Drennan, 2006). In fact, planning for crisis is almost a
contradiction in terms. How can we plan for a phenomenon that, by its very nature, violates the very regular
patterns upon which planners rely in order to prevent it?
Indeed, the range of potential crisis and disaster triggers
that we may plan for (ranging from tsunamis and
hurricanes through to plane crashes and terrorist
attacks) constantly expands as we discover new and
potent threats. Developing plans that work for the
endless array of complex, chaotic and destructive scenarios that arise from interlocking and often mutually
dependent infrastructures may be all but impossible.
The planning process itself has some in-built vulnerabilities. For instance, planning requires multi-agency
cooperation and coordination (Hillyard, 2000), which
often strand in the realities of bureaucratic politics
(Rosenthal, ‘t Hart and Kouzmin, 1991). The barriers to
cross-agency collaboration include differences in organisational goals, professional cultures, lines of accountability, political control styles and decision-making
cycles. To complicate matters, many of the organisations involved in crisis planning involve actors in the
voluntary and private sectors. In the case of CIs, it
should be realised that vast networks of formerly public
utilities are wholly or partly in the hands of privatised
or semi-privatised companies (cf. Boin and Smith, 2006).
Then there is the matter of costs. The conversion of
‘paper plans’ into organisational readiness through staff
training and crisis exercises can be expensive and time
consuming. Investing resources to plan for a multitude
of extreme events that may never happen is no easy sell
in a time of budget constraints. Other organisational
factors such as cultural complacency, resource limitations and shifting priorities conspire to derail or deadend a crisis plan.
Hurricane Katrina is a clear example (Dyson, 2006;
Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006). Despite a major
exercise (‘Hurricane Pam’) in 2004, the response of
local and state authorities proved insufficient at best.
This planning failure was shaped by a combination of:
(i) psychological pathologies on the part of public
authorities (overvaluation, overconfidence, insensitivity
& 2007 The Authors
Journal compilation & 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
and wishful thinking); (ii) bureaucratic complexity and
conflict in the US federal system, and (iii) a post-9/11
homeland security agenda that focused on terrorism
(not natural hazards), leading to a trickle-down effect in
terms of resource allocation and sub-federal institutional agendas (Parker, Stern and Paglia, 2006).
This failed planning for a major hurricane illustrates
the wider argument by Clarke (1999) that contingency
plans often amount to little more than ‘fantasy documents’. In other words, they signal a state of preparedness that bears little relation or relevance to the
challenges that emerge with a crisis. It would be unwise
to completely disregard planning as a preparation tool
for CI breakdowns, but we should not be overconfident with regard to the capacity of a plan to prepare
operational responders and crisis managers for the vast
range of extraordinary, complex and critical threats
that they are sure to encounter in times of crisis.
Top-down responses in the acute phase: useful
up to a point
If crisis and disaster research teaches us that prevention
and planning come with serious shortcomings, an
alternative might be to put our faith in traditional
top-down crisis management responses. After all, in
times of extreme threats, power and authority tend to
shift up hierarchies to converge in the hands of political
leaders and chief executives (‘t Hart, Rosenthal and
Kouzmin, 1993). This ‘centralisation reflex’ can be
defended on the grounds of expediency (authorising
crucial measures and approving emergency resource
allocation) and on the grounds of societal expectation.
During a crisis, citizens, media representatives, lobby
groups, public administrators and private organisations
all look to government to make sense of what is going
on and to ‘do something’ to restore order.
Even in the absence of hard and fast rules for judging
successful coping patterns (McConnell, 2003), it is clear
that leadership can prove a crucial factor in facilitating
an effective operational response and managing (at the
political-symbolic level) the fears and anxieties that
typically accompany crises, disasters and catastrophes.
Recent examples include Mayor Giuliani in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the German
Chancellor Schröder after the 2002 Elbe floods.
Such instances may be the exception rather than the
norm, however. In fact, we should not invest too much
faith in the capacity of political leaders to ‘deliver’…
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