We’ve been having the old disaster versus emergency debate at work recently. “How long have we got?” I hear you ask. It’s come about for two reasons. One is through our strategy planning process where we talk about responding to disasters and significant emergencies. The other is through framing our campaign messaging with our marketing people.
“We just need to define what we mean by disasters and emergencies”, say the people. We all give a little knowing laugh. The poor guys, not in on the in joke. “If we do that, we’ll probably get the Nobel Prize”, we answer.
Disaster is an interesting term. Generally deriving from ancient greek, it means bad stars. The concept arising from planetary alignments causing bad things to happen. However, we see that is used in a number of different ways, fashion disaster, poll disaster, disastrous Olympic campaign, my hair is disaster, “it’s a complete disaster”. Jonathon Moreno makes an interesting point in his blog, the Disaster Disaster it when we start to use a word loosely, it starts losing its impact. I recall my good colleague Ruth Wraith expressing similar sentiments about describing everything as traumatic, when people meant stressful.
Marketing people love disasters. Big, bad, mean; means poor people, victims, sadness, which in turn means heartstrings are tugged, and wallets are opened. We often have rein in some of the language and imagery that marketing people want to use.
The State of Victoria banned disasters in the 1990s, when Displan was thrown out and the Emergency Management Manual Victoria was created. A common refrain was heard, we don’t have disasters in Victoria, we have emergencies. The way it was described to a young emergency manager at the time, starting out in his career was, disasters imply things are out of control, emergencies imply they are something to be managed or dealt with. It was something that has stuck with me.
We see the definition of disaster from Red Cross internationally
A disaster is a sudden, calamitous event that seriously disrupts the functioning of a community or society and causes human, material, and economic or environmental losses that exceed the community’s or society’s ability to cope using its own resources
Or similar from the UN
A serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources.
One of the key concepts here is exceeding ability (I have also heard the term overwhelm the capacity). The worry I have about this, is it sets up the white knight scenario. The community can’t cope, we must help. Which, may be needed. But it comes with a rescue mindset. But to my mind, it doesn’t take a strengths approach, which recognises that there are strengths or resilience in everyone.
To my mind, emergencies, and emergency management have a more positive, strengths focus. This is something, we can deal with, together (as long as we get our shit together). We talk about emergencies being urgent, and serious and requiring attention. This gives us our riding instructions, rather than describing the circumstances.
Why is this important? We often the question of when do we respond. Or “we respond only to natural disasters” (if there is such a thing). OR that you only get out of bed for an event of a certain scale. I like to think of things from the individual perspective. A single house fire may not be a disaster, but it is personally catastrophic or disastrous for those affected. Hence the term disasters and significant emergencies. My view its one and the same. It really should be the consequences that are focussed upon. Over the past couple of days, our people have been responding to a stabbing in Queensland. It’s isolated event, happens everyday around the country, why here. It was witnessed by a large number of people, and has caused significant disruption to a small town.
Having said all this, I am pretty lazy, and use the terms interchangeably when it suits me ( I have become less of a pedant over the years!).
The Doves, might just have it right about the use of words.