Can Resiliency Be Learned?

This article will show how resiliency has been expanded to include actions before, during, and after a disaster.

ARTICLE | Mar 18, 2014

Definitely, with collaboration, know-how, and hard work

A new hurricane starts to build its strength in the ocean during the late summer months and begins a direct path toward the mainland. Two communities are within the target zone of the massive storm and will fall victim to its wind, rain, and tidal surges. After lashing the two populated areas for hours, the storm moves on, leaving in its path a number of victims that may include the communities themselves.

One community responds well to the disaster and begins recovery immediately. Following plans developed well before the crisis occurred, residents, industry, and businesses join city efforts to help remove debris, open roadways, and return life to a state of pre-storm normalcy.

The other community seems to languish. Its residents become increasingly frustrated and angry. They lash out at responders, various levels of government, industry, businesses, and anyone willing to listen.

Why can there be such disparity when it comes to recovering from human-made and natural disasters and crises? Work by researchers, responders, and government officials (local, state, and federal representatives) during the past three years has shown that prevention and mitigation, which leads to building resilient communities, must occur before a disaster or crisis hits.

The subsequent studies resulted in updates to the National Response Framework guide that included redefining each of the five mission areas covered under the framework: response, recovery, mitigation, preparedness, and protection.

Resiliency, simply defined, is the ability to overcome challenges of all kinds and bounce back stronger and wiser.1 Communities that wait and attempt to undertake resiliency planning while responding to and recovering from disasters are often destined for a lengthy, if not impossible, undertaking. As self-help author Alan Lakein would say: “Failing to plan, they have planned to fail.”

Planning Framework

  • A focus on resiliency began with the issuance of Presidential Policy Directive 8 (PPD-8)2 in 2011 that includes these two points:
  • Threats that pose risk to the security of the nation include acts of terrorism, cyberattacks, pandemics, and catastrophic natural disasters.
  • National preparedness is the shared responsibility of all levels of government, private and nonprofit sectors, and individual residents.

Following release of PPD-8, the five mission areas that had been redefined as part of the National Planning Frameworks—prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery—were used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to establish the National Preparedness Goal. While similar to past efforts, the new definitions rely on knowledge gained through response to disasters of all types since the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created following September 11, 2001.

All of the directive documents involved numerous revisions by a host of interested parties, including ICMA, and have now been published on the FEMA website at

When looking at how communities can engage stakeholders to reduce risk and prevent catastrophic outcomes, the five study groups established through PPD-8 sought to encourage resiliency and build resilient communities. While preparedness normally focuses on pre-disaster actions to survive the crisis, resiliency should be undertaken at all stages and focus not only on survival but also on creating full or better conditions following an event.

Two terms are often used interchangeably in the area of crisis management: sustainability and resiliency. The topic was discussed during a 2013 ICMA Annual Conference session presented by the Community and Regional Resilience Institute (CARRI), which stated, “A community’s resilience is demonstrated by how well the community continues to meet its citizens’ expectations even in the face of adversity. Sustainability is about maximizing efficiency; resilience is about optimizing the balance between efficiency and redundancy.

“In this sense, sustainability and resilience are not antipodes [opposites], nor at right angles, but they are complementary concepts, both important to community success.” ICMA views sustainability with a similar lens, focusing on actions that help communities thrive over time.

Role of Leadership

Community efforts to recover from crisis have been distinguished by the presence of—or conversely, lack of—strong leadership. Most important to planning how a community will handle a disaster is to ensure the community is challenged to think of how it will respond, exercise plans that have been created, and then use those plans to assist the community through response and recovery.

In some communities, a vacuum in elected leadership may lead to informal groups, faith-based organizations, nonprofits, private or corporate entities, public groups, and associations taking the lead. When I was starting out as a city manager, the community where I was hired was experiencing such a vacuum.

A group of business leaders, spearheaded by the presidents of two local bank-holding companies, formed a nongovernmental organization that ultimately passed a bond issue to build a new high school/community college, established a recreational organization, revitalized the downtown, and attracted or retained several new industries. The community ultimately elected a new mayor and council that took the reins from the private organization, and the local government administrators continue to lead the community to this day.

Collaboration and Partnership Building

The same groups that may fill gaps when there is not a strong elected leadership should also be consulted when a community evaluates how it will handle crisis situations. Ideally the collaboration will be led by local government but in the absence of strong local leadership, guidance may be headed by representatives of the business, industry, or nonprofit community. An all-hazard community risk assessment should be conducted that will involve many of the same individuals.

A robust all-hazard community risk assessment begins with identifying what hazards a community might face (human-made and natural) followed by identifying what may be at risk from each hazard. “At risk” factors may include specific populations, strategic industry, historic assets, critical infrastructure, or various combinations of each.

It is from this hazard and risk assessment that plans are developed to protect the at-risk areas or minimize to what degree they may be impacted by a crisis. The plans must also include who will be in charge of this risk reduction effort as well as who would respond should a crisis occur.

The goal of any planning should be a minimization of impact from each hazard a community will face, with carefully choreographed plans of what will happen should pre-crisis efforts be insufficient to deal with the hazard. Examples of the community risk assessments can be found at these websites:

Of particular importance is the involvement of major businesses, industry, nonprofit organizations, and other governmental agencies. The closure of a major industry could be just the crisis to which a community must respond; having some ideas of how and what industrial leaders could do if such an event happened may help in the response to such a loss.

All-hazard community risk assessments are finding their way into the United States through a group called Vision 20/20 (, which originally began with funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Assistance to Fire Fighters Prevention and the Safety Grant Program, Institution of Fire Engineers-U.S. Branch (

The work done by Vision 20/20 builds on efforts in the United Kingdom (UK) to focus funding in the fire service on efforts that prevent incidents from occurring. The system of most U.S. and Canadian departments uses a concept known as Standards of Response Coverage (SORC), which was developed in the UK beginning in the 1930s to respond to an anticipated attack by Germany.

In order to survive the attack and deploy resources, communities developed SORCs to deploy emergency resources. The last iteration of SORC guidance was published in the UK in 1985, when research began on the outcomes of this standard deployment. The research found that when an incident occurred, loss was the likely outcome.

This finding led the UK to move toward a new concept called Integrated Risk Management Planning (IRMP). IRMPs were required for all fire and rescue services with a goal of preventing incidents from occurring (The UK Fire Rescue Service, which serves England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, has approximately 50 agencies that are similar to fire departments in the United States. Larger entities are known as brigades, which may have subdivisions for specific services.)

Since adopting IRMP, research and experience have shown substantial decreases in the number of fires, injuries, and deaths to residents as well as responders, and a greater awareness of risks by the general public. Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, recently learned about the IRMP process and integrated the model into its strategic plans following a presentation by Retired Chief Tony McGuirk from Merseyside Fire District in the UK, who described the value of the process to his fire district.

Comprehensive community risk assessments must involve input not just from local government but also business, industry, nonprofits, and even state and federal (national) agencies. Identifying what hazards a community may face can be time-consuming and agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or United States Geological Services may have detailed information relevant to the hazard and specific community.

As defined earlier, the process for outlining what is at risk with each hazard is likely to be more robust with contributions outside the normal local government organization. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, has a good deal of information on its website for helping the business community to become resilient, which can be found at

Before Seeking Funding

Funding is limited for conducting community risk assessments and creating all-hazard risk assessments as well as moving towards IRMP ( The business community, public utility systems (water, sewer, storm sewer, electric, and gas), and community associations (particularly tax increment financing districts) may be excellent partners in helping create all-hazard risk assessment plans and integrating those plans with risk prevention and mitigation efforts.

All have substantial financial risk and a lot at stake should a disaster or crisis occur; so it is in their best interests as well as the public’s for the community—its residents and its service providers—to know how to recover quickly and at a higher level.

Testing Emergency Plans

Plans as outlined in earlier portions of this article and those on various websites are excellent, but only if they have been exercised. The problem with most community risk assessments and community risk plans is that they are never exercised and applied. Response efforts that resulted in well-documented failure were caused not from lack of planning but from failing to become knowledgeable about what was in the plans through a well-prepared exercise.

These efforts remind me of the gymnasium to which I belong and which fills to near overflowing around the second week of January. Fortunately by the second week of February, the numbers have tapered off and returned to normal, so once again the machines, weights, and classes can be used. Community risk plans are no different: Managers have to take them out, conduct exercises, and evaluate the results, which may lead to changes for future response.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security had indicated it would begin requiring communities to have completed all-hazard risk assessment plans (also known as threat, hazard identification, and risk assessments (THIRAs) in federal documents) prior to applying for pre- and post-disaster funding. But THIRAs are best when they have been tested and deficiencies identified before being required. Leaders do not want to find out they have not identified weaknesses during a disaster or when a response is necessary.


Can Resiliency Be Achieved Alone?

One often-asked question is, where will communities find the money to do everything that is needed to become resilient and recover from a disaster? Some resources for funding pre-disaster work have been identified in this article.

In addition, your state emergency management organization may have funds for preparing all-hazard risk assessments from its annual federal appropriation through the Department of Homeland Security or from disaster declarations, of which a certain portion must be targeted toward mitigating future events.

Your state may also present free programs and classes on crisis leadership. Other areas to research are FEMA and the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) located in Emmitsburg, Maryland ( Programs from these organizations can be taken online with successful completion leading to certification as a professional emergency manager (PEM).

Communities should also be aware of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), which provides resources when a community exhausts its own response capability. The EMAC system is managed by the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) and is a state-to-state mutual-aid network that delivers assistance through pre-negotiated contracts.

These contracts have identified mission-ready packages that may include people or equipment designed to respond to the needs of a community in another state. Liability and payments are handled at the state levels, thereby freeing local communities to concentrate on response. Communities should arrange to meet with their state emergency management representatives to discuss EMAC.

If a community wishes to contribute to EMAC efforts, specific guidelines have been established to prevent unsolicited or freelancing by responders, and legal documentation, including training, education, equipment, skills, and insurance filed with your state emergency management officer, is required. ICMA sits on the EMAC Advisory Board and can arrange for webinars or workshops on how to use EMAC.

EMAC was created because no one can afford all of the resources that are required to respond to a variety of incidents. Collectively, communities can respond as demonstrated by the response to Hurricane Sandy, which drew mission-ready packages to the east coast from as far away as California and Oregon.

That storm recovery was one of the largest uses of EMAC to date. Mission-ready packages are being proposed for assisting with after-disaster response, particularly for continued operations.

Developing all-hazard risk management plans, integrating risk assessments, collaborating with the business and industry sectors of your community along with nonprofits and other local governments, and getting to know them along with your state emergency officials are the building blocks to successfully prepare for and respond to crisis events.

Finding yourself in the response mode without having done planning—or exercised your plans or even discussed them—means that your focus is not limited to the end result of recovery. Rather, you have to attempt to catch up with events that may already be unfolding with a focus on recovery that has in many cases been undefined.

Resilient communities don’t wait for the event but, rather, have planned for it and thus the response becomes almost routine. It is that distinction that results in the distinction of how communities emerge from disaster.

1 Online source:
2 Standard Blog Post, Resilient Institute, Community and Regional Resilience Institute, P.O. Box 6856, Oak Ridge, Tennessee:

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ICMA Resource

ICMA’s book titled Emergency Management: Principles and Practice for Local Government, 2nd Edition, focuses on the areas of response, recovery, mitigation, preparedness, and protection that are described in this article. For more information, search for item number 43482 on the ICMA bookstore’s website at


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