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How Social Research Can Help Emergency Managers Plan

The director of the Natural Hazards Research Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Kathleen Tierney, shares information about her research on the social impacts of extreme events.

by / April 9, 2012
Kathleen Tierney is the director of the Natural Hazards Research Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Photo by Allen Birnbach. Allen Birnbach

In addition to being director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado
at Boulder, Kathleen Tierney is a professor of sociology and has more than 25 years of experience in the disaster field. The center serves as a clearinghouse for information on the social dimensions of hazards, disasters and risk. It researches disaster events and hazard- and disaster-related topics, and holds an annual workshop to bring people together to discuss the issues.

Tierney’s research includes the community and organizational response in New York City to the 9/11 attacks; public perceptions of the earthquake threat in California’s Bay Area; and risk communication.

Question: How did you get involved in studying the social impacts of extreme events?

Answer: I was interested in that topic from the time I entered graduate school, and I was interested in individual and group behavior under conditions of uncertainty and social disruption. So that led me to begin getting involved in disaster research.

What are you currently studying?

Right now my center is involved in a number of activities. We are doing research on the provision of temporary housing after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Our center is collaborating with centers in the Netherlands to transfer emergency management knowledge and work on capacity building for disaster response [there]. I’m also working with researchers in China who are looking at a variety of topics, including the impacts of disasters and climate change.

In previous research, you said that post 9/11 policies made the nation more vulnerable to an attack or a disaster. Can you address that?

What I meant and hoped to say, was that when 9/11 occurred it really had such an impact on policymaking and planning that those activities were steered in an unbalanced way, in my opinion, toward dealing with disasters that would be caused by terrorism no matter how unlikely they were. And so many policies were directed at terrorist threats that, yes, we began to neglect natural disasters, and I think that when the DHS was formed and a lot of new people from different agencies were involved, they discounted the real threat that continues to be posed by natural disasters, which they found out to their regret when Katrina struck.

Do you think the pendulum has swung back to an all-hazards focus?

Not entirely. There are good moves in that direction, but there’s still — relative to what we know about the severity of the threat — a great deal being invested in terrorism preparedness to the exclusion of other kinds of events.

What’s sociology’s role in emergency management?

Sociology is a broad area, and sociologists are interested in a variety of things related to disasters and emergency management. They certainly do research and know a lot about individual, group and organizational behavior in disasters; a good deal about warning processes and warning systems; risk perception; the social factors that are associated with preparing for disasters, disaster recovery and some of the social factors that contribute to differences or disparities in the recovery process and outcomes; the politics and economics of disaster mitigation. These are some topics sociologists are interested in.

Have you done any research on what motivates people to prepare for disasters?

There’s been a lot of research on preparedness, especially household preparedness, and the research has [found] that being better prepared is associated with having higher levels of income, homeownership, to some extent with previous disaster experience, and having children in the home. These are all sociological factors that help to explain preparedness.

How has research in the field changed since you got involved?

Emergency management has become better understood in terms of the skills and capabilities that emergency managers need. When I was starting out, it was assumed that an emergency manager should be a retired military person who had a really good understanding of command and control issues and now there’s been a lot more thinking about what the skills and the competencies [are] that go into making a good emergency manager. I think the field has become much more professionalized as indicated by certification programs, the existence of many professional associations for emergency managers and also specialized journals in emergency management. Emergency management has become more diverse — there are more women emergency managers and members of racial and ethnic minority groups, which is a real change from when I started.

During your research, has there been a finding that most surprised you?

I found a lot of things that are contrary to common sense or the way most people might think about disaster behavior. One is the overwhelming altruistic pro-social response that most people engage in during disasters. It’s not like the disaster movies. I also think there are many important findings about the importance of volunteer groups and emergent groups in disasters. Ordinary community citizens can be very resourceful and can engage extensively in self-help and mutual aid when disasters happen. They don’t need to be told what to do by others. I’m seeing growing recognition that while we need experts in emergency management — we need well trained, well educated people — that the whole community is involved in mitigating, preparing for and responding to and recovering from disasters. That whole community approach was a big focus last year and will be this year from FEMA and other agencies. But it’s what sociologists have been saying all along.

So you’ve been waiting for everyone else to catch on?

You might say that, and for a while it was very difficult to make that point — that the public is an asset during disasters.

Do you have any advice for how agencies can reach out to the public or things they should consider?

Agencies like FEMA have a good handle on reaching out to the public through social media, which is becoming a necessity. There should be many more resources devoted to working with community-based organizations, working with neighborhoods and local communities. Maybe [we’ve spent enough money on] specialized equipment, uniforms, decontamination suits, night-vision goggles and mobile command posts — and everybody has all that they need and we should concentrate much more on community outreach, especially outreach to organizations that serve the most vulnerable populations.

Because of the number of large-scale disasters last year, do you think perceptions are changing about emergencies and how the public might be impacted?

People were very surprised by the amount of inland flooding [Hurricane Irene] caused. The March 2011 Japan earthquake was a huge wake-up call for a lot of people that disasters can be devastating even in well-off and well prepared societies. There are some new reports coming out about the connection between climate change and more extreme weather events that are garnering attention, and it’s causing people to think about possibly worse disasters in the future.

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.

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