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UCL IRDR 11th Annual Conference: Why Warnings Matter, and the UCL Warning Research Centre Launch, Part One

Joshua Anthony3 November 2021

Following a challenging year of managing natural hazards, including COVID-19, this one-day online event provided thought-provoking talks, interactive discussions and online networking opportunities on why warnings matter. In addition, the UCL Warning Research Centre as part of the Department of Science and Technology Studies was launched. The event explored the role, design, use, and evaluation of warnings for different hazards from different stakeholder perspectives to examine how effective people-centered warning systems can be developed and help to be prepared for both the expected and unexpected. The event was hosted by the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction and the Warning Research Centre.

On the 23rd of June, the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction welcomed researchers, students, practitioners, policymakers, the media and the general public to a day of thought-provoking discussions on why warnings matter, and how we can do better at warnings both prior and during crises for all hazard types. Our in-house and guest experts presented a global perspective on the latest research and analysis through talks, interactive discussions and in conversation. We explored multi-dimensional aspects of warnings, considering their physical, social, economic, environmental, institutional, political, cultural and gendered dimensions, and the challenges involved in making warnings successful to mitigate against losses.

This blog is part one of a series presenting the key findings from the conference proceedings. The rapporteurs whose notes form this material are Calum MacKay and Simone Phillips who are both from the University of Glasgow on the MSc Earth Futures Programme.


Part One.

Panel Discussion 1: Warning Systems ‒ Exceptional versus expected events


 

The presenters for this session were Dr. Mickey Glantz, University of Colorado, Dr. Daniel Straub, Technical University of Munich, and Rebekah Yore, UCL. The session was moderated by Dr. Joanna Faure Walker, UCL.

Summaries of each presenters’ arguments are as follows:

Mickey Glantz

Not everyone considers a warning a warning. There are 5 key factors to warning hesitancy: complacency, convenience, confidence, low levels of trust, calculation of individual engagement. We don’t research the risks, collective responsibility is lacking as people focus on themselves. Emotional responses are common, not rational. There are also two types of people in hazard scenarios: risk averse people and risk takers.

Early warning systems are a chain. To make them more effective the lead time needs more attention. We need to create more lead time in order to get the warning to people earlier and through the system quicker.

Forecast hesitancy also plays a key role in effective early warning systems. We discount previous disasters we don’t learn from them, therefore we reinstate old vulnerabilities.

Readiness is also missing, society doesn’t have resources for long term preparedness.

Daniel Straub

Calculating the effectiveness of warning systems. If people think it’s a false alarm they won’t comply. This then creates a child who cries wolf scenario for future hazard warnings. We must find the right balance between detection rate and false alarm rate.

It is challenging and near impossible to quantify effectiveness but can still help the study of warning systems.

Rebekah Yore

It is important to identify the vulnerable population when deploying early warning systems. Failure in one element of the warning system can cause failure for the entire system.

Her research focuses on 3 case studies, all islands that are used to hazards: Japan 2011- Tsunami, Philippines 2013- typhoon and Dominica 2017- Hurricane. In all case studies not one warning system reached everyone, therefore these places need multiple types of warning. Some of the issues with the current warning systems were that interestingly modern smartphone warnings did not reach people. There was also mixed messaging from different agencies and government sources leading to room for interpretation from locals. Furthermore, issues such as poverty were not taken into account.

Finally, it must be noted that Individual and group risk perceptions are always changing and are dynamic.

This discussion was then followed by an address to questions from the audience, which are summarised thus:

How do we deal with both false alarms but also misinformation particularly in the context of social media or governments giving misinformation? How can we include groups who are not familiar with local warning systems like tourists or newcomers?

Mickey Glantz

Tourists have never seen a false alarm so unlikely to be affected in the same way in a real event by locals who have faced false alarms. Use of drills is helpful because one of the issues that comes up in the social sciences is that we all recognise that warnings need to be built into our everyday lives. We need to practice them as a way of living rather than just facing them when a hazard approaches. What has become practice then takes over and people are able to respond really quite calmly and really quite cohesively as Mickey thinks drills are a really good mechanism for embedding some key practices that help to familiarise through everyday life with some lifesaving rules.

What can we do to protect assets and livelihoods in the context of warnings?

Rebekah Yore

It is something that requires more research. Preparation mechanisms such as micro insurance for example are very important. So it may be that a mechanism that allows people to put things out and places structures in place before it occurs can help to protect some of those assets and livelihoods. Whether this means the ability to be able to pack things up and leave a location, or ability to be able to move, or an ability to be able to put certain protective measures in place. Maybe not save everything but save something or save enough.

Mickey Glantz

We don’t understand probabilities. We don’t understand nature. Many people don’t really understand the risks in their area. These perceptions become reality, if our perceptions are wrong the actions we take based on them have real consequences. So we tend to look at disasters as in many cases one and done.  But that’s not reality.

In one sentence what change do you think needs to occur to help with warning for exceptional events in an environment that does have expected events?

Daniel Straub

Understanding things through quantification is also to make use of all the data that we can now collect. The social sciences have a better understanding and also have models of factors that make a difference, and it would be useful for social science to do more with quantification in their research.

Rebekah Yore

Addressing structural inequality and addressing why people are disadvantaged and why other people aren’t. I think let’s just put our money where our mouth is; preparation is key.

Mickey Glantz

We have to put more emphasis on readiness and preparedness. People can get ready more easily than they can get prepared because they don’t have the resources. So, warnings are very important to them, I feel we have to push readiness as tactical responses to warnings and threats, as well as long term preparedness which seems to fall to governments and larger organisations. Readiness is for me and preparedness is for the community to deal with.

Next up in this blog series will be notes on “Warnings and the launch of the Warning Research Centre”, keynote speech from Assistant Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction in the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Mami Mizutori.


Watch the full conference on youtube here!

Conference URL:

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/events/2021/jun/ucl-irdr-11th-annual-conference-why-warnings-matter-and-ucl-warning-research-centre

Conference Rapporteurs: Simone Phillips and Calum Mackay

Conference Convener: Dr. Carina Fearnley


Please email us for any further information at IRDR-comms@ucl.ac.uk

Or check out our website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/

Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR), University College London (UCL)

Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, United Kingdom (UK)

Corona Wars: The Cost of Calling Disasters ‘Wars’

Patrizia Isabelle Duda4 May 2020

Written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda and Navonel Glick

War on Coronavirus poster

On March 17th, U.S. President Trump began calling the Covid-19 pandemic a “war”, to wide acclaim by supporters and scathing condemnation by critics.

The reasons for using the war metaphor are straightforward. By calling the pandemic a war, Trump is appealing to a familiar scenario that we feel we ‘know’ how to relate to. It ostensibly simplifies the crisis, mobilises the public, and calls for unity.

The war metaphor is a powerful and effective tool that is often used in politics, but it is also pervasive in the world of disaster risk reduction and response. The historical links between disaster management and the military are well-documented. Today, from operational frameworks like the Incident Command System (ICS) that were inspired by military management structures, to the extensive use of military terminology like ‘deploy’, ‘mission’, or ‘surge’ by even the most ‘military-averse’ NGOs (e.g. IRC, Plan International), the connection remains.  Even the widely revered (and much maligned) ‘logical framework’, meant to improve transparency and accountability in the aid sector, originated in planning approaches for the U.S. military.

At first glance, the war metaphor makes sense. The chaotic images from disaster areas that make the headlines are reminiscent of war zones, and the associated urgent, high-stress, life-and-death decisions demand composure, bravery, and decision-making attributes that we have learned to equate with our armed forces.

Yet, the analogy quickly crumbles. For one, as most disaster practitioners would confirm, the period immediately following a disaster which might require such an approach, at best, represents only a fraction of any disaster response effort, let alone long-term recovery or disaster risk reduction (through sustainable development).

In addition, as our experience in the field shows, armed forces are notoriously poor at interacting with vulnerable civilian populations, particularly in complex situations of unrest. More importantly, the war analogy is plagued by a core contradiction. While it can be argued that armies engage in war to ‘defend’ or ‘protect’ a population, destruction is often their main tool for doing so. This is not what disaster response or humanitarian aid are about, much less how one reduces disaster risks and builds disaster-resilient communities.

So why does the war metaphor continue to dominate the field? The simple answer may be because it works. It appeals to the pleasure-pain principle, triggers our basic fight-or-flight instincts, and provokes a reaction.

Yet, this strategy may be poorly suited to pandemics. We rightfully celebrate our health-care workers and other front-line personnel as ‘heroes’—yet another war term—and many of them may be faced with ‘war-like’ situations of urgency and life-and-death situations. But for the rest of us, “wash your hands” and “stay at home” are woefully anti-climatic ‘weapons’ to ‘fight’ the ongoing coronavirus ‘enemy’.

Photo credit: hairul_nizam / Shutterstock.com

Furthermore, the ‘war metaphor’ may succeed in the short-term during a crisis, but such bursts of energy (or adrenaline) cannot be maintained over time. Pandemics are not addressed by acute, short-term measures or bursts of adrenaline, but instead, by a complex web of systematic health and public health initiatives, drawn out over a long period of time.

The most damning trait of the war metaphor is, therefore, the focus on the disease itself, instead of the systemic issues that allowed it to become a pandemic. Diseases, much like earthquakes or hurricanes, are natural hazards. They only become disasters when we are left exposed and vulnerable to them by insufficient preparedness and poor risk reduction measures. Thus, tackling the underlying social, economic, and political systemic issues that drive disaster vulnerability should be our priority.

The analogy of a marathon instead of a sprint comes to mind, except that in this case the race has no end. In fact, it never was a race to begin with. This may be the biggest fallacy with using the war metaphor for disasters: wars are arguably won or lost; at least they (should) end. Disaster preparedness and reducing risks do not—they are an ongoing process of achieving and maintaining sustainable practices.

The war metaphor, therefore, from the very beginning, begs to disappoint, because there will not be the closure it promises. Calling our health workers and other frontline workers ‘life-saving heroes’ is an admirable title they deserve, but were they any less worthy of it before the pandemic? And will they not continue to perform the same essential role once the coronavirus pandemic has passed?

In this time of acute crisis, when the lack of preparedness and risk reduction is painfully exposed, we may be glad to have the war metaphor for the action that it catalyses. But by continuing to prioritise response over prevention, and perpetuating the myth of the ‘race’, what social habits will we continue to reinforce, and at what cost?

What would an alternative look like?

Could Arctic disasters create diplomacy?

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi12 June 2019

Post written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda, PhD researcher at UCL IRDR

Fancy lodgings with outdoor Jacuzzis, brand-name clothing outlets, a Thai massage centre, restaurants offering haute cuisine, a supermarket that displays all manner of fresh food and electronics items—one would have thought that I landed in a First World urban setting. But the Norwegian-governed settlement of Longyearbyen on the Arctic Svalbard archipelago is anything but that.

Longyearbyen’s main street with fancy restaurants and hotels during Svalbard’s dark winter season – Copyright Patrizia Isabelle Duda 2019

Rather, it is a small settlement north of the Arctic Circle, the size of a thumbprint viewed from on high – plunked down in the midst of a valley, surrounded by mountain ranges and a vast road-less expanse of rock, snow, and glacial ice that is prone to avalanches, landslides, flooding and extreme weather conditions. The archipelago is roamed by polar bears, geographically isolated from the Norwegian mainland that governs it (it is halfway between Norway and the North Pole), and reliant on good weather conditions to access it. Thus, Svalbard is especially vulnerable to disasters, from which response mechanisms, no matter how well planned, may not always deliver.

The landscape of Longyearbyen – Copyright Ilan Kelman 2009

 

A photo of Longyearbyen taken on a winter climb to a mountain top nearby in -47 °C – Copyright Patrizia Isabelle Duda 2019

As far as disasters go, there is a gamut of factors besides its remote location and its dicey weather that impinge on Svalbard’s ability to respond. A lack of communication between its settlements is problematic. Its possible overreliance on national response structures which must both be able to react with adequate resources within narrow time frames, as well as have the political will to do so, further compounds the precarious situation. In addition, the present restricted ability of Svalbard’s small hospital to treat more than minor-level injuries, necessitates an over-reliance on aeromedical evacuation to the mainland.  Thus, the capacity for major trauma scenarios is missing.

Given both the existing gaps as well as clear developing and future challenges, it is critical that we take stock of Svalbard’s emergency preparedness and response capacity and develop robust policies that are adapted to the local realities on the island. This means that not only search-and-rescue capacities are needed, which it seems Svalbard has well understood (albeit these are and can only be imperfect); but that improved governance on a much wider scale is urgently required. It must be remembered that disaster efforts do not always happen formally. Both when formal disaster efforts fail, but also when they do not, informality is often a key element of disaster preparedness and response.  In Svalbard’s particular case, this means cooperation and coordination between the two main players on the island—formally, Norway and Russia, and informally, Norwegians and Russians—for efforts both to prevent disasters, as well as to address them when they happen.

These are the questions I pondered together with a team of nine researchers from London, Moscow and around Norway who assembled in Longyearbyen to launch our new project. Generously funded by the Norwegian Research Council, we initiated a 2-year investigation into disaster diplomacy’s potential to foster cooperation (or not) between Svalbard’s Norwegian and Russian stakeholders in their formal and informal responses to disasters. To this end, the project will be looking at three hypothetical disaster scenarios: an oil spill emergency, a crisis involving radiation release from a ship, and a disease outbreak in (Russian) Barentsburg—the second of the only two permanently inhabited settlements on Svalbard.

View of Longyearbyen – Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019

The importance of this project is startingly clear. Moving on from its early days as a coal-mining settlement, Svalbard is now home (albeit a transient one) to a growing population of scientists and tourists. Moreover, this group of islands is currently being re-imagined and re-developed into an Arctic Ocean emergency management hub.  This new hub will act like a magnet, drawing yet more scientists, tourists and job-seekers to an island of roughly 2600 inhabitants, requiring quickly built new infrastructure to support these activities. Coupled with the effects of the already changing environment, Svalbard’s vulnerable settlements, not to mention, the whole region and its ecosystems, are further at risk.

Additionally, some fear that it may also spark a new round of disputes and conflicts between Norway and Russia, (and looking out on the broader horizon, between other nations that have stakes in the Arctic region). Transnational cooperation will be more crucial than ever in tackling the already compromised possible disaster responses. Thus, from a different perspective, this emerging reality might, at least in theory, pave the way for greater diplomatic and practical collaboration on disaster issues and may, by extension, improve many aspects of relations between these two countries that share vested interests in Svalbard.

It is clear from research on disaster diplomacy in other global settings that this second idealistic and much more hopeful perspective is not supported by actual results. Disaster diplomacy has not yet been shown to lead to better relations between countries. But can these findings be applied to Svalbard, and to the Arctic in general, an area which is held to be ‘off the charts’ in so many spheres? As researchers, we hear the often-recited mantra that Arctic players have already come up with uniquely successful and often unprecedented cooperation schemes. Thus, could the Arctic prove to be an exception in the universe of unsuccessful disaster diplomacy case studies? And might the various factors that were present in the particular Arctic situation be extrapolated and applied in disaster conditions elsewhere in the world?

“Welcome” – Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019

I ask myself these questions, as I gaze out past the high-end stores and entertainment centres, to the beautiful but forbidding mountain range just behind them, looking off into the polar-night sky. Svalbard is fragile, vulnerable to disaster, and may well become even more exposed to danger.  But might it not also hold the seeds to plant future opportunities for cooperation and improvement in international relations? Or, will the research results elsewhere in the world be confirmed? Our team hopes that our research will be able to begin to answer some of these questions.

Gender and Disasters – What causes the risk gap?

Joanna P Faure Walker11 March 2013

On Friday 8th March 2013, the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction hosted an open panel discussion on ‘Gender and Disasters’.  The panel was chaired by Dr Ellie Lee (Reader in Social Policy and expert in gender issues from the University of Kent), and comprised: Paula Albrito (Head of the Regional Office for Europe for the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction), David Alexander (Professor in Risk and Disaster Reduction, IRDR UCL), and Linda O’Halloran (Director of NGO Thinking Development).

The three panellists provided examples of various natural disasters in which women showed a greater risk to the event than men either through active discrimination or through pre-existing factors.  This greater risk has been demonstrated through death rates, reported injuries, and post-disaster violence. Questions were raised regarding how this inequality should be addressed.  Suggestions were made regarding specific gender-related issues into risk and disaster management and the need for education in such programmes.  However, how this should be done and whether there should be a gender-specific programme – either formal or informal – within resilience programmes remained unresolved.

Questions were asked whether differences in behaviours between the genders in disasters could affect their relative vulnerabilities; however, I did not hear any evidence-based or convincing arguments to support this.  It was highlighted that an individual’s economic status will likely affect their risk to a disaster: the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake clearly showed an example of this as cheaper properties on lower ground were more susceptible to tsunami than more expensive housing in the hills. It was also noted that there was effectively no gender risk bias for disasters in Sweden, a country with one of the most equal societies with respect to gender.  More research is needed comparing the relationship between gender equality and the gender-related disaster risk gap.

My belief is that, in relation to disasters, there would unlikely be any significant gender risk gap if there were absolute socio-economic equality between the genders; I am thus suggesting the gender risk gap is a consequence of socio-economic inequality rather than gender. Hence, by directing efforts towards promoting gender equality, specifically addressing the gender-related disaster risk gap becomes unnecessary.

Members of the Panel