What we can learn from a systems approach for emergency preparedness?

When we have to deal with disaster, and all that the word ‘disaster’ entails, we are subjected to the unexpected and, often, the unfathomable (i.e. 9-11, BSE, foot and mouth disease, natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 and Haiti’s earthquake earlier this year, etc).  Breakdowns occur when normally discrete institutions or sets of actors fail to come together to manage a given situation in an orderly and effective manner or when key components or pathways are overlooked in the disaster management process.

Take, for example, the foot and mouth outbreak in the UK in 2001.  Michael Quinn Patton addressed this in his keynote address at NORAD’s International Conference ‘Evaluating the Complex’.  According to Patton, the UK crisis is an example of a failure due, in large part, to the fact that focus was directed at one part of the system while the connections between key sub-systems (including biologic, geographic and economic elements) were largely ignored.  The economic rationalization of abattoirs and EU subsidies at the time had increased the interconnectedness of herds to a critical point.  Added to this, changes to the reporting rules for foot and mouth delayed the isolation of infected animals. The relationship between actions and the epidemiology of the foot and mouth issue was not fully appreciated in advance where it mattered because the industry was not viewed as an interconnected, interdependent system.


Photo source: The Associated Press http://bit.ly/aNF3tZ

Complex systems are everywhere.  They consist of a collection of parts with a range of dimensions that may share physical, economical or other types of space.  It is in this ‘space’ where overlaps and connectedness occurs.  We often underestimate or are even unaware of the effects of the action of one part on other parts or even the system as a whole. The result? In a crisis, we experience failure.


How can we work to mitigate some of the failures?  Patton suggests that mapping the system is one feasible step.  Mapping enables managers to capture a system’s key elements and their interconnectedness in order that, in the event of an emergency or disaster, collective response can be expedited, changes to structures or rules can be quickly introduced, communicated and established, and the situation can be better managed from a more holistic level.  The Indiana State Board of Animal offers up a good example of ‘mapping’ (2001):


Source: Michael Quinn Patton, Keynote Address, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) International Conference on Evaluating the Complex, Oslo, Norway, 2008.  Patton’s key note presentation can be accessed through the Aid on the Edge of Chaos website:  https://aidontheedge.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/international-conference-on-evaluating-the-complex-2nd-in-emergent-series-on-complexity-and-aid/

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