Emergency Management’s Journey to Resilience: Using Our Words

by Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Where does the term “resilience” fit among these standard emergency management terms?

Mitigation. Preparedness. Response. Recovery. Prevention (how did that get in here?). Finally, Resilience.

Mitigation: efforts to minimize the negative consequences of a known hazard.

Preparedness: a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to assisting governments, businesses, and the entire community to be prepared to avoid or withstand the disruption of a known or even unforeseen hazard.

Response: accorded disproportional attention in disaster exercises, it is “what we do with what we have” in a crisis.

Recovery essentially means that whatever is not mitigated or sufficiently prepared for (and certainly not preventable) must be rebuilt, repaired, restored – this includes physical as well as psychological measures that address the realignment of a community’s social equilibrium. “Success” in recovery is frequently elusive, particularly when those with less influence are not returned quickly to normalcy, while the “privileged”  are.

Prevention:  a term introduced shortly after 9/11 to capture the objectives of the government’s counterterrorism initiatives, with the accompanying (and silly) notion that it would replace mitigation and even preparedness in our professional lexicon. Mitigation means recognizing that you cannot prevent everything but can minimize human and financial losses; Preparedness means one can minimize the disruption by anticipating essential requirements until normalcy returns; Prevention seems a poor choice for what emergency managers do: emergency managers exist because not everything can be prevented!

Resilience: I define resilience as “bending without breaking”  – to be resilient is to comprehend that disasters are not likely to be preventable, not everything can be mitigated or prepared for, and while response can be swift and effective, it will still be necessary to “recover” what has been lost or damaged post-event. Resilience is the byproduct of mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. A resilient community unflinchingly identifies what needs to be mitigated, works directly with its citizenry, business, and across government boundaries to prepare to counter predictable disruptions,  making the disaster response more targeted and a satisfactory recovery after the fact at least possible. So, resilience is an umbrella term for what emergency managers seek to achieve.

Government (bless its “heart” – if it had one) has parsed response, recovery, preparedness, and mitigation into different categories – partly for the sake of sanity in managing grant programs Congress approves. But this parsing has had the effect of portraying each of these elements as standing on their own without sufficient regard to the linkage between them. “Resilience”  as a concept is the byproduct of all of those activities, requiring a comprehensive approach (OK, “prevention” can be added not as a substitution but to recognize its existence as a  public safety objective!).

Addressed separately, even successful initiatives are unlikely to resonate as programmatic necessities as budget debates rage over priorities. Presented as links in a chain aimed at resilience, programs that mitigate known vulnerabilities, prepare the community, coordinate response protocols, and envision recovery challenges in advance constitute a commitment to resilience that can, and must, be sustained.