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‘Culture of risk’ proponents seek to improve societal resilience

By PATRICK STEPHENSON

BRUSSELS – In the broadest sense, ‘culture’ refers to how different people use different means to achieve the same goals. For example, some will grow rice to eat, and others will grow wheat. And in a crisis, different groups of people tend to respond differently. Some people will call a national telephone hotline. Others will walk to the local pub, to see what their neighbours are saying or doing. As floodwaters rise, some will wait for government action. Others will grab a shovel and a sandbag.

Exploring how individuals and communities respond to crises, and how such different cultural responses can help societies remain resilient, was the focus of ‘A Culture of Risk,’ a recent workshop in Brussels. Held as part of the European Commission’s 14-16 March Community of Users forum on crisis management, the workshop presented more questions than answers on how to handle local and cultural differences regarding disaster response. But the questions were well worth asking.

Dennis Davis, former UK fire engineer and currently vice president of the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services, led off the workshop with a presentation of how local and individual cultural norms can help or hinder disaster response.

“The citizen is the first and last person involved in crisis management,” he said. “They’re there when the crisis happens. After support disappears, they’re left with whatever’s left behind.”

He noted that the culture of disaster response in Western European countries differs from those farther east. “The Western idea is that if it comes from authorities, it’s believable,” he said, adding however that “some of my eastern colleagues don’t necessarily believe that” — a fact that can complicate disaster response.

Cultural differences extend to age groups. “For the young, social media is the answer,” he said. “If you send out an alert, the first thing young people do is go on social media. But older people go to TV, to see what the official warning is.”

Davis surmises that mass urbanisation has rendered us more vulnerable by making people more reliant on official government responses to crises. “Most of the safety and response in an urban area is done for you,” he said. “It’s been a great transfer of responsibility that the authority will look after you.” The result, he posited, has been to make societies less, rather than more, resilient.

Workshop participants deplored that ‘politically accepted’ and bureaucratically entrenched crisis response procedures often proved less than optimal when disasters unfolded. Davis noted that rather than wait for the official government response — for example, during floods or fires — local villagers often met in pubs and decided what to do. When asked by SECURITY EUROPE how he would implement a more culturally attuned disaster response plan, he suggested trying to quantify cultural variables into response models, the way that insurers quantity disaster risks.

In the following presentation, Laura Petersen — an environment, resilience and risk engineer at the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre — described the results of IMPROVER, a survey of critical infrastructure operators.

The surrey’s objective was to measure public expectations about the minimal levels of acceptable services in the aftermath of disasters such as earthquakes or floods. “The willingness to tolerate a disruption appears to be linked to the amount of inconvenience a given disruption would inflict upon the respondent,” she said.

For example, after a crisis, 78 percent “strongly agreed” that they would expect to receive information via traditional media such as telephone. Only 30 percent expected to be able to get such information on the telephone. Meanwhile, 72 percent expected authorities to provide a means of evacuation, while a full three-quarters expected that facilities would be available for emergency sheeting. Recommendations for critical infrastructure operators included knowing the expectations of the public, setting appropriate targets for CI resilience implementation, and sharing disaster-related information.

Two other presentations wrapped up the workshop.

Dr Çaǧlar Akgüngör, project manager at Turkey’s AKUT Search and Rescue Association, described ways of accommodating disabled persons during a crisis. The key is to listen to disabled persons’ concerns ahead of time, while providing the simplest instructions possible with audio and sign-language translation.

Zulf Choudhary, managing director of Sparta Digital software, presented STORM, (“Safeguarding Cultural Heritage through Technical and Organisational Resource Management). STROM aims for non-invasive and non-destructive methods of protecting cultural heritage sites from natural hazards, human use or intentional destruction.

     THE UPSHOT: The ‘culture of risks’ workshop allowed plenty of scope for big-idea thinking, although not much of it will be of immediate (or medium-term) use for practitioners. But it was a worthy discussion.
     The central insight is that by making localities and individuals a bit more responsible for their own security – while maintaining strong top-down measures such as quick police response and solid natural disasters procedures – then overall societal resilience would be greatly strengthened. As one workshop participant noted, a better term for the process would be creating a ‘culture of resilience,’ rather than a ‘culture of risk.’
     How could this be implemented? The first step, perhaps, would be to better connect European citizens to the governmental institutions that they have the most contact with: not national authorities, but their municipalities.
     Cities cannot replicate the deep personal connections that people in villages tend to have. But they can lessen the societal alienation that separates so many city dwellers, and that can make crisis response more heavy-handed and less effective. Sponsoring voluntary neighbourhood discussions on safety and security issues at the pub on the corner might be a good step. Building better relations with disaffected communities in European cities would be another.
     Better a shared whisky, than a wall.

     ps@securityeurope.info

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