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Do we need more ‘pre-emptive retrospection’?

By Chris Needham-Bennett, on 12 October 2023

If something went wrong and in two years’ time the investigative documentary, ‘Panorama’ or the like, made a programme about the sequence of events, hosted by the most antagonistic of interviewers, would my organisation and/or me, look prudent or reckless?

Risk and its popular acceptance are determined by whomsoever one might define as ‘society’. The intensely complex relationship of risk and society has been debated in detail by the likes of Ulrich Beck, and shaped by Anthony Giddens. The sociological perspectives and arguments available are lengthy and intricate but are basically about how a society responds to risk.

Titan

A recent tragic example was the Titan submersible in its final decent to the Titanic. A great deal of commentary has revolved around the ‘I told you so.’ retrospective, the lack of regulation, ‘certification’ and the alleged irresponsibility of the designer who also died in his own craft. The risks were, at least when measured in media column inches, unacceptable. Yet the development of flight, which we now almost take for granted and accept as being ‘safe,’ demanded a far higher death toll of its pioneers. Lilienthal, now regarded by many as the father of flight, (he invented the concept of the first modern wing) died of injuries suffered in a stall from 50 feet. The ‘Comet’, the first commercial pressurised jet passenger aircraft lost three aircraft in twelve months from catastrophic in-flight break ups. There appears to be a ‘balance sheet of fatalities’ required to achieve progress, and the terms used by society, ‘reckless’ or ‘pioneering’ are generally a product of the time in which the events occurred, and the relatively recent loss of two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft was not generally viewed with the same phlegmatic, post war acceptance of the Comet losses.

Making Progress

Based on the assumption that progress in any discipline, despite ethics committees, will involve some risk to someone at some time, the critical question is what degree of risk and consequent loss is acceptable to maintain progress in such a discipline. Remember that we are in the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (not its Eradication). Most disciplines have developed their own particular measures in line with their industry’s ethical milieu. The more familiar are medical trials and processes of drug licencing which are rigorous, expensive and time consuming for all the right reasons. Additionally, one can plainly see the evolution of such risk management measures from 1796 and Jenner’s retrospectively unethical but brilliant action of the vaccination of a single 8-year old.

Many other industries, food, cosmetics, and furniture all have some form of standards. The EU even has rules for makers of hot air balloons who rejoice in a publication Easy access rules for balloonswhich is a mere 345 pages long. But, where we are confronted by a plexiglass and carbon fibre submarine, metaphorically made in an inventor’s shed, the position is less clear. There is no real licencing authority for voluntary and informed consent pleasure trips into the Abyss; and if we are seeking to define the acceptable level of risk proportionate to progress in any field then it is equally apparent that it lies neither with the increasing imposition of banal risk/Health & Safety regulatory bureaucracy, nor a laissez faire arrogance as to genuine risks.

Reasonableness

How do we strike the right note on the spectrum between impotent over-precaution and wilful recklessness? First, as (Professor) James Reason humanely advocated, we need to guard against hindsight bias:

Before judging too harshly the human failings that concatenate to cause a disaster, we need to make a clear distinction between the way the precursors appear now, given the knowledge of the unhappy outcome, and the way they seemed at the time.

James Reason in Human Error, 1990. Cambridge University Press.

But as Reason implied some degree of judgement is required and the question remains what level of judgement should be applied. In English civil law cases the test of ‘reasonableness’ is long established as a principle of judgement. It was exemplified by the term, the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’. This was updated by Lord Steyn’s analogy of the “commuter on the underground”. The principle in this test is that what is deemed ‘reasonable’ in a legal context in a civil case, would be that which the normal person on public transport felt was reasonable. In other words, “What would a reasonable person of ordinary prudence have done in the defendant’s situation?”

However, the problem of reasonableness is that it seems remarkably easy to convince oneself as to one’s own reasonableness, how indeed could it be otherwise? Naturally, the test of reasonableness is almost always applied retrospectively and, as Reason notes above, the person taking the risk at the time of the event might have had little cause to appreciate the risk. Like Lilienthal, if you are the first person to successfully fly a glider there is no reason, a priori, to understand the aerodynamics of a stall. Therefore, one is left with a further question of how one might fail to appreciate a risk but nonetheless demonstrate sufficient reasonableness to still convince the reasonable commuter of your prudence, especially a commuter who has, by the time of the inquiry or trial, read all of the initial news reports.

Pre-emptive retrospection

At this point we introduce the new notion of ‘pre-emptive retrospection’ (PER). Mentally one goes forward in time from now to a point say two years in the future and one asks the question as follows. If something went wrong and in two years’ time the investigative documentary, ‘Panorama’ or the like, made a programme about the sequence of events, hosted by the most antagonistic of interviewers, would my organisation and/or me, look prudent or reckless? This notion introduces an introspection of the activity that goes beyond the test of reasonableness (of which it is easy to convince oneself). This technique, forces an emphasis on foresight as to how one’s action could be perceived in the future with the dubious benefit of hindsight, it is not merely the question, ‘does it seem reasonable to me/us right now?’ It can also be applied from a variety of perspectives, consumer opinion, victim perception, stakeholder interest, shareholder confidence, and the media influenced reasonable person; this goes beyond one’s contemplation of one’s own potential reasonableness.

Pre-emptive retrospection is not a legal test like reasonableness, nor does it inhibit risk taking, rather it simply demands a pause for objective thought as to how ones current actions could be perceived in the future.


Dr Chris Needham-Bennett is Managing Director at Needhams1834 Ltd and Visiting Professor at University College London.


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4 Ways to Improve Early Warning Systems

By Pauliina Vesaluoma, on 28 September 2023

This month, the UCL Warning Research Centre held its first-ever 3-day conference ‘Creating Effective Warnings for All’. In the face of extreme geophysical and meteorological hazards, and the complex interactions of multiple forms of risk, early warning systems (EWS) are crucial for boosting preparedness and emergency response to mitigate disasters rooted in everyday social conditions. Here are four key takeaways from the conference.

Panel discussion at the WRC conference. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

Integration

EWS extend beyond the technical mechanisms for alerting people about emergencies, such as sirens and instant notifications. Early warnings need to form part of an integrated process that strengthens multi-hazard education, risk perception, risk communication, and preparedness measures. This can help shift disaster management from being reactive to increasingly proactive.

Inclusivity

For EWS to be effective, they must be inclusive, incorporating local stakeholder knowledge. This type of approach recognises specific vulnerabilities and capacities for disaster risk reduction among communities. Solutions must be context-sensitive, resources need to align with needs, and projects need to be structured around participatory processes to determine what works, where, and for whom.

Timing

Timeframes are key, whether we are in a moment of disaster or in ‘peace time’. Norms can become entrenched in times of intensified uncertainty; however, disasters can also provide a transformative moment to reassess existing structures and emergency protocols. Equally, we should harness the time in between crises to strengthen preparedness frameworks and collaborative networks for future resilience.

Creativity

Creativity is a powerful tool for rethinking existing solutions or imagining new ones. Cartoons, graphic recording, cardboard theatre, acrobatics, and interactive workshops were among the creative approaches used in the conference sessions, encouraging exploration of interconnected themes, such as climate change and mental health.


Learn more about the UCL Warning Research Centre | Twitter | Linkedin | Facebook | Youtube


Pauliina Vesaluoma recently completed the MSc in Risk, Disaster and Resilience at IRDR (2022/23). Natural hazard preparedness, volcanic risk reduction, and future resilience are among some of her main interests. Pauliina is currently undertaking a Business Resilience internship at Holcim.

Connect with her on Linkedin.


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What is needed for national resilience?

By Robert Hall, on 14 September 2023

Whether a community struggling to keep its members buoyant, a business trying to stay solvent or a nation fighting to protect its citizens, adversity and crises impact us all. The resilient can pick themselves up, dust off, and not only bounce back but also bounce forward. Yet, this ability is not an obvious and natural one that is easy to acquire and retain. Rather, it needs careful nurturing and maturing. It is a mindset that can be honed and deployed to help manage shocks or stresses and those in-between challenges. There is no one model of resilience but there are pointers and lessons that can help apply resilience in its many variations to overcome adversity whenever it strikes.

Building Resilient Futures is a new book that takes a fresh look at what resilience means. It examines resilience under six ‘capital’ traits – personal, emotional, organisational, urban, communal, and national. It offers insights on how to manage the consequences of upheaval and trauma in those domains. Each trait is introduced by a profile that puts the subject into context with practical and human experiences. As leadership and stewardship underpin all these capital traits, a discrete chapter is devoted to these important issues along with diversity, trust, education and training. Similarly, a separate chapter is allocated to standards, indicators and benchmarking as they cut across all aspects of resilience but are critical in assessing impact. Through a mix of theory, case-studies and anecdotes, the book reveals the nuances of resilience in a digestible and thought-provoking way. Early reviewers say the book is a valuable read!

For the purpose of this blog, which will not attempt to condense the text into a superficial summary, focus is given to that chapter which examines national resilience. This subject is very much in the news, elevated by the inspiring levels of national resistance and resilience exhibited by the Ukrainian nation in its contest with the Russians. The consequences of that war have seen millions migrating far and wide, food and fertilizer stocks severely reduced worldwide, energy prices spiking, and geopolitical tensions escalating well beyond Ukraine’s borders. The interconnectedness of dependency means that any major disruption can readily cascade into corners that were hitherto immune. Hence, we all need to know about national resilience.

One aspect that has emerged recently is how to engage large sections of a population to prepare for and deal with major, nation-wide crisis. The UK Government has released an Integrated Review (2021, refreshed in 2023) and a Resilience Framework (2022), both of which talk about a ‘whole-of-nation approach’ to resilience. This term implies drawing on the services of more than a few specialists and officials but turning to the public and private sectors on mass, the full resources of the voluntary and charity sectors, as well as the trade unions, NGOs, religious groups, schools and colleges, communities, etc. To be commensurate with the level of a national threat, wide-spread societal engagement should be measured in the hundreds of thousands if not millions. This scale was evident in Covid-19, when 750,000 people initially responded to a national call. It could well be required again either in another pandemic or as the ravages of climate change bite, or even with the spread of a European war.

The preparation of a population cannot wait until the event when it will be too late. Work on identifying and organising people who are qualified to help, training others who are willing, educating others on the sidelines, and co-ordinating resources that may be necessary, are worthwhile activities in ‘peacetime’. All this comes at a price but one that is less than the cost of a delayed recovery and heavy loss of life. It should be a government priority: the conclusions of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry may reinforce this message, as other official committees have already done so. Perhaps the formation by 2025 of a UK Resilience Academy, built out from the existing Emergency Planning College, will be an opportunity to bring a wide range of people together and work up resilience plans across all four nations of the UK.

So far, Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) are seen as the main delivery platforms for resilience across the UK at the ground level. In the government’s Resilience Framework, it is proposed that the 38 LRFs in England are strengthened through three ‘pillars’: leadership, accountability and integration. The creation of a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) for each LRF, accountable to executive local democratic leaders, may help with wider local delivery and levelling up. Consideration will also be given to putting existing Resilience Standards onto a statutory footing for LRFs and all responder organisations.

We can certainly learn lessons from some of the Baltic and Nordic which are way ahead of the UK in preparing their populations to deal with disasters. Admittedly, these countries face the pressures of the Russian ‘bear’ to the east but having a generic plan for all eventualities is sound. In Sweden, for example, a government-appointed Commission (2017) recommended that a ‘Total Defence’ concept engaged all functions of society in the defence effort, both military and civilian. Accordingly, the parliament, the government, authorities, municipalities, private enterprises, voluntary defence organisations as well as individuals are all part of the Swedish concept. On 1 October 2022, a new structure for Swedish civil defence and crisis preparedness was announced with spending planned to increase to approximately €420 million by 2025. A publication titled ‘If crisis or war comes’ has been sent to every household and tells of practical measures to take in an emergency.

When such an idea has been proposed in the UK, it has not gained traction: it is seen by some as alarmist. Nonetheless, the government has introduced an Emergency Alerts service which was trialled for the first time this year. This may be expanded over time to include practical advice. The UK has certainly made some significant strides in national resilience planning in the past few years. But with the threat clouds darkening, we need to be much better prepared and time may not be on our side.


Robert Hall is the former Executive Director of Resilience First Ltd. He is currently writing a sequel to Building Resilient Futures looking at Natural Resilience: How the natural world can help us understand the key elements of resilience.


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How not to prepare for earthquakes: lessons from history

By Dan Haines, on 16 August 2023

Two devastating earthquakes hit India, Pakistan and Nepal in the 1930s. Can we learn anything from history which will help reduce disaster risk today?

The takeaway: colonial officials kept improvising their response to major earthquakes instead of preparing for future events or building resilience. After independence India, like many other countries, remained focused on response and rehabilitation. Despite legislative and policy changes since the 2000s, more can be done to mainstream disaster risk reduction. Several South Asian organisations are leading the way on this including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. We should support their work.


Map of the Bihar and Quetta earthquakes, indicating approximate locations of most intense damage in British India. Reproduced under a CC-BY license from Haines, D. (2023), Recovering the status quo: tipping points and earthquake aftermaths in colonial India. Disasters. 

The earthquakes struck in 1934 and 1935, when India and today’s Pakistan were still colonised by the UK. The colonial state reacted by organising search and rescue and calling for public donations to relief funds for survivors. It rebuilt roads, railways and telegraph lines.

South Asians mounted their own responses, which both supported and challenged the state’s. By the 1930s the Indian National Congress and a host of other organisations had generated a well-organised mass movement that opposed British rule.

Nationalists started their own relief fund after the 1934 earthquake in Bihar, North India. Colonial officials cooperated with them despite political differences and the worry that nationalists would gain greater public support by doing highly visible relief work. Many other civil society organisations which had less antagonistic relationships with the state also helped survivors.

After the 1935 earthquake at Quetta, Balochistan (now in Pakistan) the colonial government banned nationalists and other volunteers from even travelling to the ruined city. Instead they evacuated 30,000 people – almost the entire civilian population – by rail. Survivors were sent to refugee camps or their ‘home districts’ in Punjab and Sindh.

Nationalists protested against the travel ban and criticised the colonial army’s search and rescue operations. In response the state used repressive legislation to fine newspapers for ‘sowing dissent’.

Nervous of the challenge that nationalists posed to their legitimacy as rulers, British officials kept politics at the forefront of their response to earthquakes. The army worried that ‘the desire to make political capital’ motivated Indians who applied for permission to go to Quetta after the earthquake there. Even in Bihar officials focused on maintaining law and order, making a show of protecting state assets and private property against suspected ‘looters’.

Let’s look beyond politics. The colonial state lacked coherent policies on earthquake management. Search and rescue, relief, and reconstruction efforts were all ad hoc.

The government improvised every time it faced a big earthquake, even though it had had policy frameworks for managing frequent famines and recurrent floods since the nineteenth century: not just in the 1930s, but also after earlier quakes in the 1890s-1900s.

Sound familiar? After independence, India inherited colonial bureaucratic structures. For decades it continued focusing on emergency response and rehabilitation for survivors. That came at the cost of preparing and funding people, institutions and physical infrastructure for future crises.

The Government of India’s own Task Force reported in 2013 that response capacity was good. But major legislative and policy changes of the early 2000s needed better on-the-ground enactment to make holistic risk reduction really effective. State and district level disaster management authorities needed professionalisation and more resources.

The National Disaster Management Plan (2016, revised 2019) still speaks of the need to mainstream disaster risk reduction across sectors and departments.

So – the colonial state’s strengths in response have carried forwards through time, but so has its tendency to improvise during emergencies rather than prepare effectively for the future.

A recent assessment by Indian and UK researchers found that district-level disaster management is still stuck in responsive mode, though with improvements in efficiency.

Many NGOs in South Asia are proactively building resilience and rightly advocating for preparedness. Including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. These organisations are helping regional governments to improve existing approaches and correct colonial missteps.

My lesson from history? We should continue to support their work.

Read my article, just published in Disasters, to learn more about the history and politics of earthquake response in colonial South Asia. No paywall!


Daniel Haines is lecturer in disaster and crisis response at UCL IRDR. He researches historical hazards, dam-building and international river water disputes in South Asia. He tweets at @DanielHaines1.


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What is the Future of the European Court of Human Rights?

By Jasmine Andean, on 13 July 2023

Reflections on the 13th IRDR Annual Conference’s Conversation with Judge Mykola Gnatovskyy

With governments around Europe engaging in increasingly aggressive anti-migrant rhetoric and Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, the success of the European project and the role of international bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has come into question.

Dr Yulia Ioffe (IRDR) in conversation with Judge Mykola Gnatovskyy. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

With governments around Europe engaging in increasingly aggressive anti-migrant rhetoric and Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, the success of the European project and the role of international bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has come into question.

To explore this issue, the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) recently had the honour of hosting Judge Mykola Gnatovskyy of the ECtHR at the Institute’s 13th Annual Conference. The conversation was facilitated by IRDR’s Dr. Yulia Ioffe and explored the role of the ECtHR in the face of war, the distinction between international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and the role of the Court in safeguarding refugee rights.

The fate of the ECtHR itself may also come into question following the political developments of recent years.

When the European Convention of Human Rights was adopted in 1950, it was assumed that the Convention would apply only in times of peace, with international humanitarian law governing in times of armed conflict. However, the ECtHR has decided on the issues related to armed conflict, as seen, for example, from the case law on Chechnya and now again on Ukraine.

The ECtHR, set up in 1950 in the aftermath of World War II, was tasked with supervising human rights within the Europe and preventing war on the continent. Judge Gnatovskyy reminded the conference audience of some of the philosophical underpinnings surrounding the creation of the Court as a body safeguarding the human rights of individuals, following the belief that if the rights of individuals are truly respected, aggression simply cannot occur, as this would inherently violate these rights. In the practice of the Court, most cases have been brought by individuals in relation to alleged violations of their human rights. Of one thing Gnatovskyy was particularly clear: this liberal dream, unfortunately, has not come true in Europe.

The ECtHR is once again tasked with responding to a situation of warfare in Ukraine: a situation that the Court arguably was not designed to have jurisprudence over. Nonetheless, the ECtHR has accepted jurisdiction over claims arising in wartime, too. Thus, the Court has integrated concepts of international humanitarian law into the interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights, despite theoretical insistence that international humanitarian law and human rights law are separate. Although initially the ECtHR incorporated international humanitarian law into its practice subtly, without explicitly citing the 1949 Geneva Conventions, for example, the Court has since more openly acknowledged that international humanitarian law is being taken into account in international human rights cases.

Judge Gnatovskyy’s astute insights left me with several questions about the fate of the ECtHR, the legal disciplines of international human rights law, and international humanitarian law, as well as the wider fate of the European project. It is clear that international humanitarian law will continue to be incorporated into the Court’s practice, but questions remain about the extent to which this will take place, and what the consequences will be for other international courts around the world and for the wider discipline of international law.

The fate of the ECtHR itself may also come into question following the political developments of recent years. It seems that the Court has failed at the task that it was set out to complete: to prevent the war in Europe. With the death of the dream of a Europe free from war, the role of the international institutions safeguarding this dream is uncertain. Moreover, rising populist nationalism and aggressive anti-migrant rhetoric within several European countries may pose a further threat to the Court, with the UK for example threatening to leave the Court, including following an issuance of interim measures preventing the UK government from removing asylum seekers to Rwanda. If the UK, historically a cornerstone within the Court, does follow through with these threats, the authority and power of the ECtHR will be considerably undermined, and its future may be called into question.

In his closing remarks of the conversation, Judge Gnatovskyy left the conference with a combination of optimism that a change for the better is possible and bleakness in the face of the war in Europe:

“When there is an understanding that things must change, they will change; and it will be too late. International law is usually one war too late.”


Jasmine is an undergraduate student in UCL IRDR Year 2021-2024 on the Global Humanitarian Studies programme.

Reach out: jasmine.andean.21@ucl.ac.uk


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Ahead of the 13th IRDR Annual Conference: Drawing Links Across Conferences

By Joshua Anthony, on 19 June 2023

This week marks the 13th year of the Institute for Risk and Disaster’s annual conference series, continuing a tradition that yearly tackles cutting-edge ideas in risk and disaster science. Covid-19, drones for health emergencies, why warnings matter—no stone is left unturned. Conquering risk demands a look at its wide-ranging constituent parts, from the global scale down to the minutiae of everyday life. But these challenges are often not isolated, spanning geographical, social, and political boundaries. What impact do borders, physical and metaphorical, have on efforts to tackle these issues? A day of discussion at IRDR will examine this, endeavouring to look beyond them, towards Risk Without Borders. In the same spirit, we traverse the temporal border, looking back at the 12th Annual Conference to draw links across conference themes. How do borders affect Climate change – Disaster Risk, Loss and Damage, or Action?

It’s hard to ignore the relevance of borders today when divisions of vulnerability and governance can often have more of an impact than physical geography alone on risk outcomes. A major challenge to tackling this is defining loss and damage, which as Lisa Vanh pointed out last year, could significantly differ across cultural and social boundaries. Timmons Roberts, who has done extensive research on climate negotiations between global north and south countries, raised the issue of equity, how developing countries need the assistance of wealthier countries to overcome the challenges of climate change. Though early attempts at this had failed with proposals in 1991 from Pacific Island nation Vanuatu, there have been promising developments since then. It highlights the barriers that exist between divisions of wealth and power that ultimately come down to borders, be that the invisible lines with which we delineate them, or the diminishing shoreline of a small island developing state.

As important as economics are voices. During her passionate keynote speech, Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist, described the risks of climate change that Uganda is already experiencing, and the challenges that activists from the most affected countries face in having their voices heard on the international platform. Perhaps nothing is more symbolic of the arbitrary constraints of borders than the visa application system and how this has prevented young climate leaders from attending UN conferences. As Nakate puts it: every activist has a story to tell, every story has a solution to give, and every solution as a life to change. Not only unique stories, but shared ones across borders are just as noteworthy, as Lucy Easthope, author of When the Dust Settles, explains when reflecting on the similar challenges experienced by both her, a UK expert in emergency planning and disaster recovery, and a midwife working in Myanmar, Sudan, and Bangladesh.

Examining discussions from the previous conference demonstrates that their individual themes should not be viewed as distinct boundaries. Even where there was no explicit mention of borders built within the itinerary and theme, experts could not avoid the limitations that they place on risk research and experience. No doubt, themes from last year will spill over to this one. See it for yourself this Thursday 22 June!


Watch last year’s annual conference on the IRDR youtube channel.


Thank you to Heghine Ghukasyan whose rapporteur notes helped immensely in writing this blog.

Building Resilience with Decision Analysis

By Jeffrey Keisler, on 25 May 2023

I have the wonderful honour of being a MAPS Fellow at UCL. This came about through conversations with my friend and colleague (and now host), Prof. Gianluca Pescaroli. Although we bonded through discussions about used vinyl records, I will instead talk about our work.

My background is in decision analysis, a field that takes quantitative approaches involving probability, utility, and decision trees to identify the overall risks and benefits associated with actions under uncertainty. In the context of resilience, there is much uncertainty but most of the focus is on trying to improve systems.

Thinking of information as a separate dimension of protection–because information helps people make the decisions that lead to optimal recovery–can lead to lower cost ways to bring about greater resilience. But improving information itself is costly. It can be tricky to figure out which information-related efforts are worthwhile. There are different ways to bring information into a decision process.

By taking a concept from decision analysis, value of information (VOI), we can take a more strategic approach. We can actually quantify the benefit of different possible efforts. Basically, we characterise the mix of potential consequences of making the best possible choice given a limited amount of information and compare this with what would happen if the same decisions were made with the benefit of more information. With this analysis, we can improve resilience by making investments to ensure that relevant information will be available after disruptions. These can be just as beneficial as investments in physical assets which can also minimise the damage of disruptions.

In managing resilience, we anticipate possible disruptions, and consider what can happen before, during, and after them. With a VOI approach, we also consider what information will be available for which decisions before, during, and after disruptions, and then can take steps to make that information available during those periods. Examples include purchasing information, building better information systems and communication systems, performing experiments, or potentially buying time for information to arrive by speeding decisions implementation and freezing damage during the time we’re waiting for information.

During my time at UCL I am meeting with a number of researchers in IRDR to apply this idea efficiently to problems in several important areas where we are studying resilience. These include healthcare, natural hazards, and technological or business crises. With these results, we can look toward building more sophisticated analyses or refining the planning process to flesh out the informational dimension. The researchers here have backgrounds in quantitative areas such as risk analysis and systems analysis as well as in the social sciences and in the physical sciences. There are many different types of data and phenomena to consider as we pull together these models. My hope is this will lay the groundwork for future valuable projects and continued collaboration.


MAPS Fellow Jeffrey Keisler is a Professor in the College of Management at University of Massachusetts Boston, where he specialises in Decision and Risk Analysis. He thanks the welcoming and wonderful group at IRDR for their making this visit such a special experience. 

Insights on Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy: Reflections from the 16th Vaccine Congress

By Lan Li, on 14 March 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed major challenges to public health systems across the world. Meanwhile, vaccination has been developed and delivered at record speed, while its application has been limited by vaccine hesitancy, which refers to “a delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccination despite the availability of vaccination services”, defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) strategic advisory group of experts (WHO SAGE). This can be due to various reasons at various levels, such as misinformation, lack of trust in the healthcare system, or personal beliefs and values. It is a complex problem, resulting in challenges in understanding and designing targeted interventions to solve it.

A venue for all

The 16th Vaccine Congress held in Italy aimed to address vaccine-related issues and to build health system resilience by discussing the latest advancements in vaccine research, development and implementation. The congress brought together leading experts from the fields of vaccinology, public health, medicine, epidemiology, and social sciences, who discussed the challenges posed by vaccine development, vaccine delivery and vaccine hesitancy and ways to overcome them. 

As one of the early career researchers in vaccine hesitancy, it is a great opportunity for me to discuss this issue with researchers from other backgrounds and understand the hesitancy problem through a broader lens. During the conference, our discussions centred around the importance of promoting accurate information about vaccines, improving communication between healthcare providers and the public, and increasing public trust in the healthcare system. In addition, we also discussed whether vaccination is actually safe and what kind of vaccination is safer. Admittedly, these questions were hard to answer and the only reliable evidence is the data from RCTs (in short term). However, it opens a new way for understanding the vaccine hesitancy problem – the vaccine itself has created the ideal conditions for mistrust to thrive, due to its complexity and variability of development and evaluation. To solve this problem, more collaboration is needed between experts from vaccine R&D, health education, behaviour science and more.

Introducing my research to other peers

The role of social media

One of the most-impressed presentations was “addressing vaccine hesitancy:  integrating the Vaccine Trust Gauge and effective communication to advance confidence and uptake”, given by Prof Scott Ratzan, from CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy. His speech highlighted the role of media in shaping public perception of vaccines and emphasized the need for health organizations to engage with the public and correct misinformation about vaccines on mass media and social media. In particular, social media platforms have become a major source of information for many people, and the spread of false information about vaccines on these platforms can lead to confusion and fear. In turn, this can lead to lower vaccine uptake and increase the risk of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

However, the role of social media in shaping public perception of vaccines is crucial, and it is essential for health organizations to engage with the public on these platforms. Health organizations can use social media to correct misinformation about vaccines, provide accurate information, and address the concerns of the public, which is the way to build public trust and increase vaccine uptake. It can also be used to promote positive stories and experiences of people who have been vaccinated. By using social media in a proactive and strategic way, health organizations can counter the spread of misinformation about vaccines and help to increase public understanding of the importance of vaccination.

Slide summarizing our challenges for building vaccine trust, presented by Prof Scott Ratzan

Admittedly, it is also important to note that social media can also be used to spread false information and to promote anti-vaccine messages. Health organizations must be vigilant in monitoring social media and must take action to counter false information and misinformation. They can do this by partnering with trusted sources, such as public health organizations and scientific institutions, to provide accurate information about vaccines.

Challenges at community-level

Another key area of discussion was the importance of involving communities in the decision-making process about vaccines. In the second day of the conference, a roundtable discussion was held to make the statement on multisectoral actions for building trust to promote vaccine acceptance. I was fortunately involved in the discussion and shared my opinions. The discussion emphasized the need for health organizations to listen to the concerns of the public, provide clear and concise information about vaccines, and involve communities in the planning and implementation of vaccine programs. The challenges for addressing vaccine hesitancy at the community level includes:

  1. Misinformation and distrust: The spread of misinformation and false information about vaccines can lead to confusion and distrust among the public. This can be particularly challenging for health organizations, as people are often exposed to a large amount of information from a variety of sources, including social media, friends, and family.
  2. Personal beliefs and values: individuals may have personal beliefs or values that conflict with getting vaccinated. For example, they may believe that vaccines are unnatural or harmful, or that they are not necessary.
  3. Lack of access to accurate information: communities may not have access to accurate information about vaccines, or may not understand the benefits of vaccination. This can lead to misunderstandings and reluctance to get vaccinated.
  4. Healthcare provider distrust: individuals may not trust healthcare providers or the healthcare system, which can make them reluctant to get vaccinated.
  5. Barriers to accessing vaccines: communities may face barriers to accessing vaccines, such as poverty, lack of transportation, or limited access to healthcare.
  6. Resistance to change: individuals may resist getting vaccinated because they have always lived a certain way and are resistant to changing their habits or beliefs.

To address these challenges, several discussions were made between experts from different background, including researcher, healthcare workers, vaccine company staff, community workers and the public. They provided many insightful strategies to solve this problem.  A statement paper proposed the framework for engaging multiple sectors for building vaccine trust was under preparation and will be published following the conference.

The congress also discussed the importance of providing equitable access to vaccines, particularly for marginalized communities. The speakers emphasized the need to address the root causes of vaccine hesitancy, such as poverty, lack of education, and poor access to healthcare, in order to ensure that everyone has access to vaccines.

Strengthen health system resilience

The congress also highlighted the importance of building a strong health system in order to improve vaccine uptake. The speakers discussed the need for investment in health systems to increase access to vaccines, improve the quality of care, and ensure that health systems are prepared to respond to the next public health crisis. It provided a new way for me to reconsider the role of my research in the health system and DRR.

Firstly, vaccine hesitancy can have a significant impact on the health system, both in terms of public health outcomes and healthcare costs. When individuals are reluctant or refuse to get vaccinated, it can lead to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, which can put vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, young children, and individuals with weakened immune systems, at risk. Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases can also put a strain on the healthcare system, as more resources are needed to diagnose and treat cases and to control the spread of the disease. Secondly, vaccine hesitancy can lead to increased healthcare costs, as individuals who are not vaccinated are more likely to require medical care, including hospitalization, for vaccine-preventable diseases. This can put a strain on healthcare budgets, particularly in resource-limited settings, and can divert resources away from other important healthcare needs. In addition to the impact on public health and healthcare costs, vaccine hesitancy can also undermine efforts to achieve herd immunity, which is critical for controlling the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases. 

Overall, attending the 16th Vaccine Congress was a valuable and enriching experience for me as a PhD student. It provided a valuable opportunity to deepen my understanding of the current challenges and strategies for addressing vaccine hesitancy. During the conference, I had the opportunity to listen to leading experts in the field, and to engage in discussions with other researchers, healthcare professionals, and policymakers. This helped me to gain a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge on vaccine hesitancy, and to identify areas for future research and inquiry, and enhance my own PhD project. I am grateful for the opportunity to attend this important event, and I look forward to continuing to engage with others in the field to advance our understanding of this important issue.


More information about the Vaccine Congress Series, can be found at: https://eventsignup.ku.dk/needs2022/conference. Programme for 16th vaccine congress can be found here.


I would like to gratefully acknowledge the China Scholarship Council and University College London for funding my PhD study and the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction for funding the expenses for me to attend the 16th Vaccine Congress in Italy. I would like to appreciate my supervisors Prof Patty Kostkova and Dr Caroline Wood for providing guidance to support my PhD research. 


Lan Li is a PhD student at IRDR dPHE. Her research topic is integrating behavioural science into digital intervention to increase vaccine confidence. She is interested in social media research, digital public health, and vaccine hesitancy studies.

Learning from Fire and Rescue services in London and Bergen

By Joshua Anthony, on 17 February 2023

Author: Jarle Eid


Researchers from University College London, Haukeland University Hospital, National Defense University in Sweden and the University of Bergen met in January for a working meeting on a joint research project focusing on how operational psychology can inform municipality responses and resilience to disruptive events.


Research meeting at the Bergen fire station. Anne Bjørke (Bergen Fire and Rescue Services), Roar Espevik (National Defense University in Sweden), Guttorm Brattebø (Haukeland University Hospital), Jarle Eid (University of Bergen) and Gianluca Pescaroli (University College London). (Photo by Ilan Kelman).

What kind of operational situations are seen as most challenging and difficult to handle for fire and rescue workers? How did the COVID-19 pandemic influence operational capacity and resilience in the Fire and Rescue Services? What future training and educational needs are seen as most important to develop resilient fire and rescue services? What can we learn from cross national comparisons of fire and rescue services in London and in Bergen?

These and other questions are being explored based on in depth interviews with first responders in a cross-country comparison of Fire and Rescue services in Bergen and in London. The study is supported by a grant from the Regional Research Fund in Western Norway, the Fire and Rescue services in Bergen, and the Greater London Authorities.

Gianluca Pescaroli (University College London) and Anne Bjørke (Bergen Fire Services) discussing operational issues by the incident command vehicle. (Photo by Ilan Kelman).

We are very pleased to have this opportunity to collaborate with Professor Ilan Kelman and Associate Professor Gianluca Pescaroli on this new project. Here we are exploring three main issues. One is how the fire end rescue services were affected by the protracted covid situation, secondly we explore and collect examples of difficult operational situation, and thirdly, we explore training and development areas.

A particularly exciting issue is that in this project we have been collecting data both from Norway and from the U.K. and a cross national comparisons will be a true advantage to this project. In January we had the first joint working group meeting in Bergen, Norway and in April we will have the second working group meeting in London with our UCL colleagues.

 


Jarle Eid is Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology in the Department of Psychosocial Science, University of Bergen. 

Reflections on the Turkish-Syrian Earthquakes of 6th February 2023: Building Collapse and its Consequences

By David Alexander, on 9 February 2023

An interesting map was published by the US Geological Survey shortly after the Turkish-Syrian earthquakes.1 It showed (perhaps somewhat predictively) that there was only one tiny square of the vast affected area in which Modified Mercalli intensity (which is largely a measure of damage) reached 9.0, the ‘violent’ level.2 This is–just about–enough to damage very significantly a well-engineered structure (but not necessarily enough to bring it crashing down). Although the disaster of 6th February 2023 produced, in fact, stronger shaking than this, it should not have caused 5,500 large buildings to collapse. The disaster in Turkey and Syria is very obviously the result of poor construction. This is painfully visible in the video images of buildings collapsing. The patterns of collapse are also the same as those in the last 20 Turkish earthquakes, although they are doubtless more extensive this time around. 

Building codes in Turkey have been upgraded five times in the last 55 years and are now perfectly good enough. The tragedy lies in their non-observance and the paucity of retrofitting. It is a mixture of simple errors, lax procedures, ignorance, deliberate evasion, indifference to public safety, untenable architectural fashions, corruption and failure to enforce the codes. Many, perhaps most, people in Turkey live in multi-storey, multiple occupancy reinforced concrete frame buildings. It is these that collapse. Most of them are highly vulnerable to seismic forces. There is plenty of engineering literature on the typical seismic performance defects of such buildings in Turkey. Perhaps we can grant a small exception for Syria, although before the civil war it did have building codes and earthquake research. However, the comment by a leader of the Syrian Catholic Church that buildings had been weakened by bombardment was something of a red herring. This probably affected about 2-3% of those that collapsed. 

 To know whether a reinforced concrete building is safe to live in would require knowledge of:

  • the shear resistance (i.e., quality) of the concrete 
  • the presence or absence and connectivity of shear walls 
  • whether there are overhangs or other irregularities of plan that distribute the weight of the building unevenly or concentrate load on particular parts of it 
  • the presence or absence of a ‘soft-storey’ open ground floor which concentrates the load above columns that cannot support it during seismic deformation 
  • the connections between beams and columns, especially how the steel reinforcing bars are bent in 
  • whether there are proper hooks at the end of rebars on concrete joints 
  • whether the rebars were ribbed or smooth 
  • the quality of the foundations and the liquefaction, landslide or subsidence potential of the underlying ground 
  • the state of maintenance of the structural elements of the building 
  • any subsequent modifications to the original construction. 

 An experienced civil engineer could evaluate some of that by eye, but much of the rest is hidden and only exposed once the building collapses. A short bibliography of sources is appended at the end of this article. 

Many of the news media that have reported the disaster have presented it as the result of inescapable terrestrial forces. While that cannot be negated, it is less than half of the story. The tragedy was largely the result of highly preventable construction errors. Vox clamantis in deserto: to examine this aspect of the disaster one would have to face up to difficult issues, such as corruption, political decision making, people’s expectations of public safety, fatalism versus activism, and more. How much simpler to attribute it all to anonymous forces within the ground! 

A well-engineered tall building that collapses will leave up to 15% void spaces in which there may be living trapped victims. It was notable that, in many buildings that pancaked in Turkey and Syria, the collapses left almost no voids at all, thanks to the complete fragmentation of the entire structure. This poses some serious challenges to search and rescue. In some cases the collapse was compounded by foundation failure, leading to sliding or rotation of the debris. 

There was also an interesting dichotomy in the images on television between the “anthill” type of urban search and rescue, carried out by people with no training, no equipment and no idea what to do, and professional urban search and rescue (USAR), which sadly was in the minority of cases. Nevertheless, it remains true that the influx of foreign USAR teams is, sadly, both riotously expensive and highly inefficient, as they tend to arrive after the ‘golden period’ of about 12 hours in which people could be rescued in significant numbers. 

Among the damage there is at least one classic example of the fall of a mosque and its minaret, the same as that which happened in the Düzce earthquake of 1999. Mosques are inherently susceptible to collapse in earthquakes: shallow arches, barrel vaults, rigid domes and slender minarets. The irony is that the great Turkish architect of the 16th century, Mimar Sinan (after whom a university in Istanbul is named) had the problem solved. He threaded iron bars through the well-cut stones of his minarets, endowing them with strength and flexibility. It is also singular that one of the first short, stubby minarets in Turkey (located in Izmir) was built 300 years after Sinan died in 1588. 


Select Bibliography of Sources on Turkish R/C Construction Practices 

Cogurcu, M.T. 2015.Construction and design defects in the residential buildings and observed earthquake damage types in Turkey. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences 15: 931-945. 

Dogan, G., A.S. Ecemis, S.Z. Korkmaz, M.H. Arslan and H.H. Korkmaz 2021. Buildings damages after Elazığ, Turkey earthquake on January 24, 2020. Natural Hazards 109: 161-200. 

Dönmez, C. 2015. Seismic performance of wide-beam infill-joist block RC frames in Turkey. Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities 29(1): 1-9. 

Erdil, B. 2017. Why RC buildings failed in the 2011 Van, Turkey, earthquakes: construction versus design practices. Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities 31(3):  

Korkmaz, K.A. 2009. Earthquake disaster risk assessment and evaluation for Turkey. Environmental Geology 57: 307-320. 

Ozmen, H.B. 2021. A view on how to mitigate earthquake damages in Turkey from a civil engineering perspective. Research on Engineering Structures and Materials 7(1): 1-11. 

Sezen, H., A.S. Whittaker, K.J. Elwood and K.M. Mosalam 2003. Performance of reinforced concrete buildings during the August 17, 1999 Kocaeli, Turkey earthquake, and seismic design and construction practise in Turkey. Engineering Structures 25(1): 103-114.


David Alexander is Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction. He has conducted research on disasters since 1980. His main foci of interest are emergency management and planning, earthquake science, disaster epidemiology, and theoretical issues in disaster risk reduction.

Note from editor: We offer our commiserations to all those affected by the tragic events of this week. UCL staff and students can find support here. Find out where and how to donate to the earthquake appeal here.