In Part 1 we discussed the various organizations that take part in international disaster response, including the United Nations and the Red Cross. In this post, we'll look at disaster response vs humanitarian aid, as well as the challenges that disaster response faces on the global stage.
Distinguishing Disaster Response From Humanitarian Aid
By their very nature, the timelines for providing disaster assistance versus delivering humanitarian aid are quite different. Disasters themselves are usually over within a matter of hours, while the bulk of the aftermath is over within a number of days. Humanitarian crises, however, are often the result of a prolonged series of events that cross some sort of threshold definition and are thus thrust onto the world stage. The difference, succinctly put, is short-term suffering as opposed to long-term suffering. However, as we have seen in Haiti, New Orleans and any number of locales, disasters are often degenerate into full-blown humanitarian crises.
The resources necessary to respond to one or the other are also quite different. For instance, the Urban Search and Rescue Task Force groups of the United States's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are self-reliant for up to 72 hours, the normal lifespan of a disaster. During the lifespan of a humanitarian crisis, the Task Force would soon discover itself without enough resources for the length of the event. Thus, it is important to accurately define the nature of the crisis before sending resources for response and relief, lest the rescuers find themselves in need of rescuing.
Challenges for the Future of International Disaster Response
1. A Real Unified Response
When an international disaster occurs, the responders consist of urban search and rescue (USAR) teams, disaster medical assistance teams (DMATs), transportation crews, and logistics coordinators from all levels of local, government, international and non-governmental organizations. What is often overlooked, though, is that "the burden of dealing with a disaster is never felt more intensely than at the community level." It is absolutely paramount that external responders can effectively interface with residents and government officials in the disaster area. This often means that local capacity must be developed and trained ahead of time in order to ease interaction in an emergency setting. In the United States, where protocols like the Incident Command System (ICS) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS) exist, cooperation is significantly smoother. On the international scale, however, language and political barriers make such cooperation and coordination more difficult.
2. Information Dissemination
Each responding organization has its own structure, and corresponding effectiveness, for sending information from the field to the command level, and from the incident commanders to the responders in the field. Most organizations share information with one another on the command level through liaisons and official channels; responders on the ground, however, must rely on word-of-mouth. Clear and effective systems for sharing pertinent information during a disaster maximizes the efficiency of relief efforts, as well as decreasing risk if responders' whereabouts are unknown to their fellow workers.
3. Volunteer Surge Capacity
In many cases, convergent (spontaneous) volunteers during a disaster are usually the "first" first responders, as described in the 9/11 Commission Report. Emergency personnel are able to take over response operations from these ordinary citizens, usually within a few hours. Inevitably, more volunteers will purposefully head towards the disaster scene intending to help, as with the floods of volunteers during Hurricane Katrina or the Haiti Earthquakes. Unlike urban search and rescue teams that are self-reliant for 72 hours, these volunteers often come with limited resources and inevitably draw needed resources away from disaster victims. Additionally, the volunteers are often untrained, or, if they are trained, are not used to working in the disaster environment. Hence convergent volunteerism must be effectively corralled so as to minimize the risk caused by these well-intentioned auxiliaries.
4. Integrating Medical Personnel
Beyond the initial rescue concerns of a disaster response operation, the immediate after-effects of injuries and potential disease outbreaks must be considered. For example, the relief efforts in Haiti saw a cholera epidemic during the recovery phase, which claimed thousands more lives after the initial disaster. Public health should be elevated to a command-level position in any response organization, allowing experts to consult on how operations could affect the health of disaster victims.
5. Transitioning to Recovery
Although the methods and timeline for responding to a disaster are distinct from those for responding to a humanitarian crisis, the operational protocols must allow for an ease of transition to a sustained delivery of resources for rebuilding and stabilization. For this to happen, the long-term responders must know what operations have occurred and what the short-term responders have accomplished. For response organizations that handle response along the entire timeline of a disaster, this transition can be quite seamless. However, when the transition is between specialized and unrelated organizations, there can be important information lost in translation.
See also: Part 1: The Players and stay tuned for parts three and four next week!