Definition: “Resilience – The Capacity to Bend Without Breaking”
By Jim Mullen
Emergency Once Removed
My favorite English professor at Western Washington, Arthur Hicks, taught Shakespeare. He administered daily, graded 10-minute snap exams on some aspect of the previous day’s reading – if you did well, he would write on your paper “so far, good…but” and he would then point out additional insights (channeling Shakespeare, I presume) the student might have incorporated into the exam response. When I asked why he did that, he said there was always something more to learn, something more to uncover – “so far, good” was thus an exhortation to dig deeper, become even more proficient. Perhaps that exchange influenced what became my typical response as an emergency management director to the question “is the state/city prepared for a disaster” by saying “no, we are preparing” – really, when is disaster preparedness a done deal? That response occasionally raised the ire of my superiors, who preferred a more reassuring, if less honest, answer. And my response bears heavily on the determination of whether an individual, or a community, is in fact, disaster resilient.
Posing the standard preparedness question to the average citizen (“are you prepared…”) may elicit a negative response, which serves neither the citizen nor the messenger because emphasizing the preparedness /resilience gap reinforces the notion that the effort to prepare for the worst case is too overwhelming for individuals to pursue on their own. It’s also the wrong question. A better question for the public is “how prepared are you” and “would you like to examine where you can increase your preparedness?
Communities can enhance jurisdictional resilience by establishing a recovery organization structure that anticipates, in advance of a disaster, the range of areas where recovery or restoration might be necessary and institute public/private discussions about priorities and challenges (legal and political) that will need to be overcome. That would be wise leadership in the context of a community’s overall resilience, but it would best be accompanied by a more personalized outreach to citizens, because the public, writ large, will bear the greatest post-disaster burden, and merits special attention if resilience of the entire community is the objective.
Emergency managers should enhance disaster resilience of individuals and families by engaging in a continuous programmatic dialogue with them: regular online exercises would help them focus on managing disaster-related disruptions effectively; or, euphemistically speaking, prepare them to “bend without breaking.” Fire and police and emergency management personnel exercise frequently, and still identify gaps and weaknesses they must correct. Why should citizens, with many other daily responsibilities, be expected to prioritize disaster preparedness without frequent opportunities to examine and celebrate their progress in becoming more resilient while receiving encouragement to maintain and enhance their progress. “So far, good…” in emergency management parlance conveys encouragement to the “beginner” while reminding those self-reporting themselves as “prepared” to explore maintaining and increasing their resilience further. I suspect Professor Hicks, and of course Shakespeare, might concur.
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Jim has spent 3 decades in emergency management, including 12 years at the local level as director of the City of Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management and 8 and a half years as Washington State’s Emergency Management Division Director. Jim retired from state service in March 2013. Jim also served as President of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) from January 2011 to October 2012. He is currently sole proprietor of “EM Northwest Consulting” based in Seattle.
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