Homeland Security and Disaster Preparedness

Introduction

Many needs and priorities regarding the nation's need for disaster preparedness were consistently reevaluated after September 9/11. Today, the need for disaster preparedness in a community, state, and federal levels is unanimously recognized. With the increase of the terrorist threat and under the influence of numerous natural and human-made disastrous situations, the importance of disaster preparedness and its implications for homeland security are widely appreciated. Numerous laws, regulations, directions, and frameworks were developed to enhance the state of disaster preparedness in the country. Still, many obstacles on the way to better emergency preparedness continue to persist. The emerging threats reaffirm the need for better financial, legal, and private community support in the federal attempts to ensure continuous and effective preparedness to the most serious disastrous situations. 

Disasters: Definition and Classification

Disaster preparedness can hardly be understood without shedding some light on the concept of disaster and its basic types. According to Markenson and Reynolds, "disaster is a situation or event that overwhelms local capacity, necessitating a request to the national or international level for external assistance, or an unforeseen and often sudden event that causes great damage, destruction, and human suffering". Disasters are usually classified as natural and man-made. Emergencies are often described in terms of mass casualties, which result in numerous injuries but pose no significant threat to the community in general. In the last few days, the United States witnessed several major incidents, which can be called as "emergencies". They lead to mass casualties and serious community damage. This is about the Boston explosions and the technological catastrophe in Texas, which took place several hours ago. These disasters present a huge preparedness challenge and, at the same time, exemplify an effective test to the federal, state, and community efforts in disaster preparedness. The extent of the damage caused by these emergency situations will have to be assessed both in terms of physical injury and the destruction of the community infrastructure. 

Disaster Preparedness and Homeland Security: Reconceptualizing the Link

The concept of disaster preparedness in the context of homeland security is related to the so-called "hazard cycle". In the hazard cycle, disasters are usually described as complex events comprising the four essential stages: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Emergency preparedness is the concept, which covers all actions and decisions that take place before the disaster. These actions are carried out by first responders and those, who can be directly affected by the emergency in question. Disaster preparedness should include numerous activities, decisions, and plans, which will facilitate disaster response and other activities. Generally, disaster preparedness means that the community can not only successfully respond to the disaster but also easily mitigate its consequences. In other words, disaster preparedness is directly related to all aspects of emergency management and homeland security. It shapes the basis for avoiding major consequences and losses during emergency situations. No disaster preparedness is possible without regular training and reevaluation of the existing plans. In this context, the two major questions are: (a) who should be included in emergency preparedness; and (b) how the population that is likely to be affected by the disaster is to be estimated.

In terms of the former, "responsibility for the preparedness of the nation's communities lies not only with governmental agencies but also with active, engaged and mobilized community residents, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations." Emergency preparedness is equally essential at all levels, from personal to federal. The federal government sets the direction for disaster preparedness, which is to be followed at the state, community, and personal levels. In almost all disaster preparedness operations, funding is top down, which is both beneficial and damaging to communities' wellbeing. On the one hand, federal funding guarantees that, once state resources for disaster preparedness are exhausted, first responders and personnel will not be left alone in their preparedness efforts. On the other hand, the bureaucratic line of federal funding can be extremely complex to guarantee the success of all disaster preparedness operations at the community and state levels. However, it is clear that disaster preparedness is impossible without a continued coordinated effort of multiple agencies and their personnel. What they need is to develop thorough lines of responsibility and define the boundaries of their functions to avoid confusion at the disaster preparedness level.

Today, the national disaster preparedness capabilities should include all possible specialists and personnel. The belief that first responders are the only viable force of disaster preparedness is no longer valid. According to the Homeland Security Act of 2002, disaster preparedness groups include but are not limited to law enforcement and public safety agencies, emergency medical and hospital facilities, as well as hazardous materials response teams, community emergency response teams, urban rescue assets and anti-terrorism units, bomb squads, special weapons teams, and private organizations that provide transportation, medical services, communication, public works, disaster assistance and construction capabilities. Apparently, disaster preparedness in the context of homeland security is essentially about effective public-private partnerships. Still, the backbone of any disaster preparedness framework is a continued cooperation between federal, state, and community governments, authorities, and personnel.

The first line of disaster preparedness efforts in the country is represented by the communities and the local governments. The locally elected officials assume the primary responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of their community members. The local governments are responsible for the quality and efficiency of all disaster preparedness efforts intended to minimize the damage and avoid major human and material losses. The state governments also have well-delineated responsibilities in terms of disaster preparedness and homeland security. State emergency management offices assume the primary burden of disaster preparedness responsibility and assist local governments in managing their response to disasters. Then the federal government and the newly created Department of Homeland Security come, whose basic function is to foster better emergency preparedness across communities and states at the federal level. Yet, even in the presence of diverse disaster preparedness resources, the United States of America is facing numerous strategic and tactical challenges.

Disaster Preparedness: Obstacles and Concerns

Despite the enormous resources invested in the country's disaster preparedness system, many obstacles on the country's way to safety and homeland security continue to persist, the chief one being the lack of funds and failure to estimate the likely size of the population to be affected by possible disasters. The fact is that the geographic units that can be affected by a disaster may not be equally relevant in the context of this disaster. In other words, population estimates should not be based on approximations but should always involve a detailed analysis of the disaster itself, its nature and scope of potential coverage. At the same time, even in the presence of all possible mechanisms, the risks perceptions of community leaders and those, who place communities at risk of major disasters (industrial enterprise owners, etc.), can be severely misleading. The most recent example of the Texas explosion suggests that, despite the presence of a large fertilizer plant in the West, TX, most community members and personnel appeared largely unprepared to deal with the consequences of the disaster of such scale. According to Fernandez and Somayia (2013), the explosion was preceded by a small fire, but the reasons why the explosion was not prevented remained unclear. The reasons of the fire and the explosion are also yet to be determined. Meanwhile, thousands of people are left to cope with the tragic consequences of insufficient disaster preparedness and inconsistent disaster response.

Unfortunately, many disaster emergency efforts in the country are based on conventional wisdom and theoretical assumptions, rather than actual experiences and evidence-based practices. More often than not, in their emergency preparedness activities, agencies and personnel anticipate orderly distribution of casualties and comprehensive community assistance. In reality, disasters always leave communities severely debilitated, and communities are much more dependent upon disaster preparedness activities and personnel than the latter depend on them. Given these difficulties, even the best funding can hardly help the country improve its preparedness for disasters. Based on the earlier experiences, it is high time disaster preparedness agencies gave up their misbalanced assumptions and emergency logic. This is because the number of such emergencies will hardly decrease in the nearest future.

Conclusion

Disaster preparedness covers all decisions and activities that take place before the disaster. It shapes the basis for the successful prevention of disaster events and facilitates the mitigation and recovery stages following the disaster. Despite the growing complexity of disaster preparedness operations, its current state leaves sufficient room for improvement. One of the chief problems facing the country is about the misbalanced risk perceptions and excessive reliance on conventional wisdom. However, the most recent tragedies show that conventional wisdom does not work during emergencies. First responders should not hope for consistent community support during disasters. The number of emergency threats to homeland security will hardly reduce in the future. Therefore, earlier experiences and previous failures should serve as a guiding light in the development and implementation of disaster preparedness activities at the community, state, and federal levels.

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