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Big Cost Needs a Big Risk Assessment

Between 2000 and 2009 natural disasters cost the federal government about $1.5 billion. Then in the following 3 years they cost $7.7 billion, $1.6 billion and $2.1 billion respectively. That’s right, in each of the last 3 years disasters have cost more than in the previous ten years combined.

This huge increase has not gone unnoticed, the federal government will initiate a Productivity Commission inquiry into national disaster funding arrangements later this year.

The inquiry will undoubtedly consider where governments are spending on disasters, but will it look at where that money is coming from?

Although state and local governments do insure some of their assets the predominant approach to funding disaster losses in Australia has been to rely on the federal government’s ability to borrow money at rock-bottom rates. This is clearly not sustainable in the long term.

There are a range of ways governments can deal with disaster costs and their variability, from public disaster funds to catastrophe linked securities. These methods can also make the cost of disasters something that’s up-front and thus give governments strong incentive to invest in mitigation.

Up-front spending requires knowledge of how much the government will need to pay in the long term. All existing estimates for annual disaster losses in Australia are based on statistics of past events. Leaving aside the future influence of climate change and demographic growth these figures are heavily flawed. Simple approaches based on historical statistics just don’t work. Disaster losses follow a power law and statistical predictions will always underestimate the probabilities of large losses.

Fortunately there is another way – a comprehensive, bottom-up National Disaster Risk Assessment.

This process would bring together the massive amounts of existing data and modelling expertise on disaster risk in Australia, identify and address gaps and refine tools to improve risk assessment. The results would enable the estimation of not only the annual costs of disasters, but also the cost of the worst disaster seasons.

Risk Assessment is more than just modelling. To get the best outcomes requires collaboration among stakeholders to share knowledge, experience and ideas for reducing disaster risk. Governments, NGOs, academia, businesses and communities all have unique abilities to reduce disaster risks and the risk modelling activities should meet their needs.

It’s in actually contributing to risk reduction that a National Disaster Risk Assessment could really see gains. Since the 2002 COAG inquiry into Natural Disasters in Australia there have been more than 160 government inquiries into disasters, producing a wish-list of close to 4000 recommendations. Though the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience has brought together key strategic priorities, the level of its implementation is unclear.

Coming out of the twin strands of data-driven risk modelling and stakeholder-driven risk assessment a more focussed approach to resilience could be taken: A 3-year National Plan with a small number of concrete, achievable priorities and clear deadlines for implementation. As these priorities are completed new ones can be added through the risk assessment process, ensuring that the National Disaster Risk Assessment is an ongoing project rather than something done once and then shelved.

A National Disaster Risk Assessment would need a custodian to ensure this continuity and ensure national risk assessment becomes a long-term activity of government. The Productivity Commission, with its modelling and consultative expertise and long history of influence of national policy could be one potential option. Or perhaps the creation of a new agency, say a National Disaster Risk Commission, could better meet this task.

Regardless, making decisions about funding future disaster losses without even really knowing what they could be is a risky game.

Risky Bites: Fukushima, is fear the real risk?

VOA Herman - April 13 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant-03Two new international and independent reports have been released on the health impacts of the Fukushima nuclear accident. They’ve found that there have been few health impacts on the workers in the plant and emergency responders. More importantly they’ve found that there are unlikely to be any attributable long term health impacts on the general population. As the Sydney Morning Herald article says: “This “perfect storm” hit a nuclear plant built to a 50-year-old design and no one died.”

Nevertheless, there’s been significant fallout (pun intended) in terms of the nuclear power industry in Japan and abroad. Japan has struggled to generate electricity over the last two years and public opinion on nuclear power has reached new lows. The psychological impacts cannot also be discounted for millions in the area and further afield. The report even found that many deaths were associated with the stress of the evacuation. In areas that weren’t highly exposed to radiation people may have been better off staying.

So here’s my question: is the fear of a nuclear accident a bigger risk than the risk of an accident itself?

Evidence based disaster management and the Triangle of Life

One of the big drawcards for me to disaster management is that it is such an interdisciplinary career. It brings together expertise in economics, geography, psychology, sociology, geophysics, meteorology, climate science, technology, business management, information technology, public policy, statistics, anthropology, gender and sexuality studies, culture and ethnography, engineering, environmental science, health, education, agriculture and more.

In a field that draws on so many areas of knowledge, research is critically important. This includes research that may not immediately be identified to have an emergency management impact.

As emergency management has so much knowledge to draw on I often ask myself why there isn’t a stronger engagement between practitioners and researchers in the field.

Conferences seem to be dominated by consultants and professional speakers (often those leaders who presided over emergency management disasters). Governments and NGOs in these times of austerity are cutting budgets and emergency management organisations aren’t immune. In any budget cuts, research is often the first to go.

Part of the problem is that large parts of academia, including many emergency management trade journals are walled off behind expensive paywalls. This problem is particularly acute for those working in developing countries who don’t have alternative means of access to this knowledge. Subsidised journals like the Australian Journal of Emergency Management are extremely important, as they enable any emergency manager to access high quality research and researchers to reach a broad emergency management audience.

Yet few publications see emergency management practitioners and researchers collaborating on papers, or indeed researching areas of interest to local practitioners.

The problem extends beyond that though. Emergency management lacks the culture of critical thinking common to the sciences. This tends to lead to an over-reliance on good ideas, historical practice and ‘common-sense’ which may in reality turn out to be ineffective or worse, actually harmful.

The Triangle of Life: Where’s the evidence?

In a place like Kathmandu earthquakes are never too far away as a discussion topic. In a couple of different conversations the ‘triangle of life’ idea has come up. This concept basically states that you should seek shelter next to heavy objects in an earthquake, as this will be where the survival spots are if the building collapses. I always thought that the concept had some utility in developing countries, without the enforcement of building codes in places like the US and Japan.

The concept first surfaced in an email chain letter (and continues to do the rounds, with elements of it popping up in this recent youtube video) authored by self-proclaimed rescue expert Doug Copp. The triangle of life idea has been thoroughly refuted by every government emergency management agency and experienced NGO I’ve been able to find. Some of the advice in the email is consistent with that of most earthquake preparedness experts, however most of it and especially the triangle of life are absolute nonsense. The credibility of the author is also highly questionable.

But what does the evidence say?

The Triangle of Life has an intrinsic appeal to some urban search and rescue practitioners who focus on rescuing people from collapsed structures. (On the other hand plenty have put together excellent rebuttals). However the people that these professionals rescue are not typical survivors. Most will either not be trapped or be rescued by other survivors using hands and basic tools.

By the time heavy Urban Search and Rescue teams arrive on the scene very few survivors will be found. Those that are found by these rescuers will be in voids within the collapsed structures – aka triangles of life.

This produces a sampling bias, the people in these voids are not representative of the total population of survivors.

The only experimental evidence for triangle of life came from an exercise in Turkey, which  Copp was involved with (Unfortunately the links to all the primary source material on this exercise are broken). Dummies were placed within a structure, which was then collapsed. They found that the dummies placed in ‘duck, cover, hold’ positions were crushed and those placed in ‘triangle of life’ positions were not. Now by collapsed I mean demolished with conventional demolition techniques. Unfortunately this does not simulate how buildings fail in earthquakes, so little can be drawn from the results.

The other aspect of a controlled collapse is that the voids are much more predictable.  Now I’m not suggesting that the ‘experimenters’ deliberately placed the dummies in these locations but subconsciously the experimenter effect could have come into play.

So the only piece of evidence for this advice is seriously flawed at best. The ‘triangle of life’ is already on shaky ground.

The other problem with this concept is that as an earthquake survival strategy the triangle of life will only protect you in the event of a building collapse. Odds are a total structural collapse will very likely ruin your day, despite what the theory claims. Any survival strategy will only increase your chances of survival, not guarantee it, in the event of a building collapse.

But what about if your building doesn’t collapse?

Most of the injuries (and some of the deaths) from an earthquake are caused by non-structural items such as bookcases, shelves, cabinets and the items on them. Many injuries are also caused by people fleeing (often without shoes) and cutting themselves on broken glass and other falling debris. This is precisely what the ‘duck, cover, hold’ strategy is aimed at avoiding.

For example in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake most fatalities were caused by building collapse, most injuries by falling over and being hit by falling objects. There were about 4 times more injuries than fatalities.

Researchers in Iran calculated that for a large earthquake there the number of people in areas exposed to falling debris (and not building collapse) would be 12,000 times the number of people exposed to building collapse. (Unfortunately this is the only scholarly article that I’ve found that directly compares ‘duck, cover, hold’ with ‘triangle of life’.)

So when the shaking starts, odds are that ‘duck, cover, hold’ will be the most appropriate strategy.

But what about community education? Could ‘triangle of life’ be explained too,allowing people to choose their own strategy?

Trying to communicate anything about earthquake preparedness is difficult enough. You could take a mixed strategy, that attempted to explain where the limited applicability of the triangle of life might be useful. However, this would only end up confusing most of the target audience, who may end up doing nothing or panicking. To reach the broadest audience any disaster preparedness message needs to be simple and the advice that will be applicable to the largest number of people is ‘duck, cover, hold’.

There’s no evidence to suggest that the triangle of life is any better than chance.

Which brings me back to my initial discussion:

Many career paths into disaster management don’t provide a strong background in research methods or critical thinking skills. When you combine this with the poor engagement between researchers and disaster managers and the difficulty in accessing scholarly publications its no wonder that rumours like the triangle of life to continue to circulate, even among disaster management professionals.

Research accessibility, critical thinking skills and cross sector engagement all need to be addressed to ensure disaster management is evidence based and thus successful.

The Census and Emergency Management

Yesterday saw the release of the first batch of data from the 2011 Australian Census and my inner statistics nerd was very excited. But the census is not just for demographers and statistics nerds – it has real practical uses for emergency managers. Here’s just a few areas where it comes in handy:

Risk Management

Risk is often characterised as Hazard X Vulnerability. Hazard is generally easy to determine and there are substantial studies on natural hazards in particular. Vulnerability can be much more difficult to determine, especially when talking about people. What makes someone vulnerable will ultimately depend on a host of complicated factors and relationships, but demographic data can provide some coarse indicators.

A description of a community and its vulnerabilities is grounded in solid demographic data, the best of which comes from the census. It can suggest specific issues in a community and allow researchers to target further work to better reveal and understand its vulnerabilities.

The census reveals a raft of data about socioeconomic status, education, age, family characteristics, motor vehicle ownership, English language ability and employment. It can help identify communities where there are concentrations of people who may be more vulnerable in the event of a disaster and thus at higher risk. This can inform risk assessments and ultimately target mitigation and preparedness measures at these communities.


Modern evacuation management depends on demographic data to ensure that the population of an area can be evacuated safely in the event of an emergency. It is particularly relevant for emergencies where there is some warning such as floods, tropical cyclones and bush fires. Here are some key items useful in evacuation planning which can be derived from census data:

Total Population: This number isn’t as important as you might think, but it’s a good starting point. Evacuation centres need to be able to cope with evacuees who go there, but most people who evacuate prefer to stay with friends and family. Still the total population can give an indication of the number of people evacuation centres may need to assist.

Number of households: Although technologically based systems, such as Emergency Alert in Australia, are being increasingly utilised by the emergency services doorknocking remains a mainstay of evacuation warning. It is an effective means of warning, particularly when combined with other methods such as mass media and new technology. Doorknocking is resource intensive in terms of personnel and time. To know how many teams you need or how long it will take you need to know the number of doors that need to be knocked. The census provides answer in the number of households in an area.

Number of cars: In Australia and most other developed nations motor vehicles are the traditional method of evacuation. Australian emergency managers pioneered simple methods for calculating the time required to evacuate an area along a limited number of routes. The number of motor vehicles is a key factor in this calculation. Most households will take all their cars with them, so you can’t just rely on household numbers. With the rise in number of motor vehicles per household, knowledge of the number and growth over time in an area is critical to ensuring safe evacuation.

Number of households without cars: This is a critical factor to ensure that sufficient alternative transport is provided to evacuate those without a vehicle.

Number of vulnerable people: Those who are elderly, have a disability or are from a Non-English Speaking background may find it difficult to either evacuate on their own, or understand the evacuation warnings. These people are present in all areas, but if the census identifies a particular concentration this can allow for emergency planners to take their needs into account and plan accordingly.

Census data can also show changes in population in an area over time indicating when evacuation routes may reach capacity. This should trigger the need to either curb development or increase the capacity of these routes.

Community Engagement

Community engagement material and programs will function best if they are targeted and tailored to the at risk communities. Some of the useful census data for community engagement includes:

Language: A common and relatively cheap option is to reprint preparedness materials in different languages and then distribute these materials among the communities who speak that language.

Non-Private Dwellings: The census doesn’t just count people at home. It counts people in hospitals, prisons and other institutions. This can help emergency managers identify areas with a large concentration of facilities like nursing homes and hotels, which need to be targeted with education materials specific to their circumstances.

Private Dwelling types: The types of private dwellings in an area and the number of people in them can also suggest how community engagement should be targeted. For example caravans are a high risk group combining both high hazard (caravan parks are often in hazard prone areas) and high vulnerability (long term residents of caravan parks often have low socioeconomic status and may also be elderly or have a disability). Census data can identify at a broad scale areas with large concentrations of caravan residents enabling emergency managers to locate the individual parks and target education efforts.

New features in the 2011 census

There have been some changes to the way the census data is packaged for use. Of particular relevance to emergency managers are changes to the geographical areas on which census data is reported have improved in granularity. This allows emergency managers to examine demographic data on much smaller areas. Over time this will enable approaches that are increasingly customised towards communities.