When I was a student I had to write a paper on Risk and Uncertainty. When undertaking my research I formed a conclusion that of the two challenges uncertainty was, for me at least, the more confronting and daunting. While risks can be many and various, it is usually possible to devise a response and plan of action. However, uncertainty, by definition, means that it may happen; on the other hand, it may not.
When it comes to firefighting and rescue operations, uncertainty comes in all sorts of guises. What might happen; when might it happen; where will it happen; what might cause it to happen; what are the implications if it happens today, right now, are questions that immediately spring to mind.
Who among us expected the catalogue of natural disasters that befell the Asia Pacific region in just the first ten days of this August? A 6.1 magnitude earthquake in Ludian County, Yunnan in southern China has, at the time of writing this editorial, a death toll of more than 600; over 12,000 houses have collapsed and 30,000 have been damaged. Three days later a massive landslide in the Barhabise area of the Sindhupalchowk region of Nepal killed 156 people. The following day flooding in southern Kandal province in Cambodia claimed the lives of eight people and more than 4,000 families had to be evacuated from their submerged homes. Elsewhere, the death toll mounted as a result of typhoons in South Korea and southwest Japan, and heavy rainfall and flooding in several parts of India.
Sure, history alone teaches us (or should teach us) that there is a risk of these events happening in our part of the world. However, what history does not tell us is the uncertain bit – when the next event is due or how ferocious it will be. So, the only sensible option, as any Boy Scout will tell you, is: Be Prepared.
But what is being prepared for the unexpected? In reality, it is a host of things. Training is obviously key to achieving the best possible outcome. But not solely training the professional emergency services personnel, vitally important though that is; training those that could possible to be affected is just as important so they know what to do and when to do it. Resources too have to be in place and, as we are dealing with uncertainty, these resources need to be mobile – available for deployment in swift order wherever they are needed.
A considerable amount of this training work does, of course, already go on, particular of those at the sharp-end of natural disaster response. In some cases, considerable efforts have also gone into ensuring that there is a quick response to such emergencies. I suspect the weak link in the chain though might be the depth of “big picture” planning that goes on at the policy and strategic levels. Politics, as it so often does, also comes into play, particularly when juggling with the allocation of funds.
The reality though is that natural disasters are getting more frequent, more severe and more costly to the public purse. And there is an old military adage attributed to the ancient Chinese general, Sun Tzu that goes: “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted”. Paraphrase this to: “Time spent in planning is seldom wasted,” and I think you have about got it right.
Uncertainty is always going to be with us, but the more we are prepared to anticipate the unexpected, and have tried and tested plans in place to deal with whatever comes along, the fewer the number of lives likely to be lost. And when we are thinking the unthinkable, we may also even come up with solutions that themselves either reduce the likelihood of the disaster taking place or reduce the resources that have to be committed in its aftermath. It is all about being prepared.
Natural disasters are getting more frequent, more severe and more costly. There is an old military adage that goes: “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted”. Paraphrase this to: “Time spent in planning is seldom wasted,” and you have about got it right.