Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Disaster Preparation: You're Probably Doing It Wrong

Subtitle: This is a blog entry it should not be so confrontational- I apologize.

A little background: E.L. Quarantelli is one of the leading scholars in Disaster Research. He is a Sociologist, and his work combines Sociology with Emergency Management practices. He has been studying disasters since before there was a FEMA or a Hurricane Katrina or a September 11th. A large portion of what we know for sure about how people respond during disasters and much of what we know about disaster response has come from him and his students and colleagues at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. He is brilliant, and if you ever want to know more about him and his work drop by Google or come sit by me.

Although Quarantelli does not specifically work in the area of Leadership, many parallels can be drawn between his work in disaster preparedness and that of the theorists we have studied this semester. In particular, the ideas of visionary leadership and leadership as a process are especially applicable.

First, Quarantelli stresses that disaster preparedness in an organization is a process that requires a vision from the outset. Quarantelli (1991) tells us that if your organization is planning for disaster and your goal is to produce a plan, you're doing it wrong. There should, of course, be a plan in place, but that plan should only be a reflection of the vision of the leader and the preparation that has occurred- an indicator of what steps will be taken in the event of a disaster, not a step-by-step how-to.

So what is the most effective way to prepare for a disaster? The first step, of course, is to understand your risk. The primary person who should take on this task is the leader of the organization, both because not being destroyed in a disaster (literally, figuratively or financially) is so important a factor in the success of an organization, and also because it should be the leader of the organization who does the visioning for the way that the organization should respond (Sashkin 1989). That vision should then be communicated to and carried out by other members of the organization.

Of course, a vision is one thing, but as is the case in all organizational activities, conceptualizing is one thing- real-life implementation is another. This is where disaster prevention becomes a process, and in this case, the reasoning behind preparation as a process is entirely practical. Although a disaster is technically any event that overwhelms existing resources, we'll use a fire in your organization's building as a basic example. If and when this fire occurs, not only do you want Brian and Jane to be able to get up the stairs and out of the building in the fastest possible time, but you also want to practice so that you are able to foresee any obstacles they might face. Does the emergency exit have to be manually unlocked? Will the stairwell get too crowded for people to get out? Is there enough light in case of smoke or a power outage. None of these things can be foreseen if your main preparation is drawing an arrow on a map of the building. The preparation is in the process.

Thus, we come back to Selznick's vision of leadership as a "work" to be done to fit the needs of the situation. This is the essence of good disaster and emergency preparation- doing the work. The plan comes after.

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