Myths and Realities of Disasters

Improvisation should not be part of emergency management. To improvise is to organize for emergency response during an event.
Warnings should be held until you are absolutely sure; otherwise you will panic people. People generally will not panic. Information should be disseminated.
People are often immobilized by disaster and need help with basic tasks. Residents of disaster affected areas respond actively. They are the rescuers of over 95% of those trapped and injured. They do not wait for government officials to tell them what to do.
Outside help is essential because local agencies are severely limited in their ability to handle emergency demands. Generally, there are enough resources in the area.  The problem is finding, mobilizing and coordinating them. The principle problem in caring for victims is not the lack of resources. It is from vague responsibilities, conflicting organizations and lack of communications.
Most citizens will not support expenditure of tax revenue on disaster preparedness. The public assumes that disaster preparedness programs are underway or are in place. Keep the public expectations in sight.
Looting is a common occurrence in disasters. Looting in natural or man-made disasters is rare. In civil disorder, it is a common internal community behavior.
Disaster planning should focus on creating strong authority, if necessary, by senior levels of government to overcome the subtle devastation of events. Communities mobilize rapidly to meet disaster demands.  Timely local coordination is more appropriate than para-military authority.
Emergency management staff and workers may not be available due to conflicting social demands. Role abandonment is not a common reaction by emergency services workers or managers.
The public will not respond to encouragement to be prepared. The majority of the public will prepare when they are encouraged by credible authorities to develop plans for threats that have a high probability of occurrence in a fairly short time. The focus must be on adaptive actions rather than danger.
Disaster planning should be separated from day-to-day processes because by their very nature, disasters require responses well beyond the needs of day-to-day activities. This is a common mistake of disaster planners. An essential element of successful preparedness includes the use of traditional institutionalized sources of power in the community.
Many citizens will not evacuate when ordered to. The likelihood of evacuation increases when the source is credible, the message is specific, and the message can be confirmed.
Most evacuees will go the community shelters. Evacuees prefer the homes of relatives or friends for shelter, even if they are further away than community shelters.
Many people panic in disaster situations. Panic is not a common response to disasters.  Most people will attempt to do very logical, constructive things. It does occur in conditions of entrapment or where there is a sense of powerlessness or isolation. People do not flee in panic; they flee from something.
The initial human behavioral response to disasters is mass chaos. Actions usually make sense, are directed at defining helpful activities and result in the most important care for victims.
Most injured people will be directed or transported to medical centres by emergency medical services. Most will go, or be taken by local citizens, to the centre of their choice.
Help from within and outside of the impacted community will arrive only when requested. There will be a convergence of unsolicited responders, volunteers and resources, both from within and outside of the community.
There will be a shortage of donated items and goods. Following a major disaster, large quantities of unwanted and unsolicited donated goods and items are likely to arrive unannounced.


While there are many unique characteristics of disasters, six will be of immediate and major concern. The Incident Command System was designed to specifically address these issues.  

  1. The scope will not be known.  The exact situation will not be known until well into the event.  Some of the worst-hit areas might be the last to be responded to.  Decisions will have to be made in the absence of complete information. 
  2. Communications will fail.  There are over 30 types of communications failures; most large emergencies will suffer multiple types of communication failure.   From infrastructure damage, to system overload, to information not getting to the person or not arriving in time to misunderstanding what someone else said, communications will fail. 
  3. Situation constantly changing.  What you are responding to might have significantly changed by the time you actually arrive on scene.  The events of 9/11 offer an example of how quickly things can change from the start to the finish of an event. 
  4. Emergency services will be affected.  A police car is no better than a passenger vehicle when whiteout conditions occur on a highway.   Flooding blocks the road for an ambulance as much as any vehicle.  A fire hall is equally likely to be damaged by a tornado as any structure. 
  5. Unusual response.  If the emergency services are affected, then alternate strategies might be required.  Disasters commonly have pictures of someone doing something unexpected, but successfully, when your regular response isn’t working. 
  6. Massive Convergence. Convergence of organizations, volunteers, off-duty personnel, government officials and outside media can be truly breathtaking, with hundreds of organizations arriving for a major emergency, let alone a disaster.   Emergency services are often unprepared for the size of the response in support of their operation.  

Suggested additional reading:

1. Disaster Response: Principles of Preparedness and Coordination, Auf der Heide.

2. Human System Response to Disaster: An Inventory of Sociological Findings

3. Emergent phenomena and sociology of disaster: lessons, trends and opportunities from the research literature, Drabek and McEntire

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