Emergency management: how realistic are your plans? Effective risk management must be built on appropriate assumptions and understanding of people's reactions and responses in major emergencies. A sociologist explores key lessons from research and practice and asks us to revisit our plans and preparedness.(Risk Management)

THE EVENTS OF 7/7 AND the various reviews of the responses by victims and responders on that day have highlighted the importance of basing emergency planning on realistic understandings of how people react and respond in major incidents.

Rising public expectations and demands for the accountability of government and others require that we take seriously the business of risk assessment, management and response in all stages of contingency planning. The recent passing of the Civil Contingencies Act (2004) adds a legal imperative to this.

For those working within the Fire and Rescue Service and other agencies engaged in integrated emergency management frameworks, it has never been a more important time to review preparedness and response protocols and ask searching questions about our own responsiveness, resilience and readiness to meet the challenges of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) events and other major incident scenarios.

Disaster policies, plans and procedures are more likely to be appropriate and successful if they are based on experience and evidence about how people typically behave and respond in the impact and aftermath phases of disaster. However, researchers have long observed that contingency planners may be basing their efforts on myths about human behaviour with the result that they are more likely to be ineffective. Studies have shown that emergency plans often pay too little attention to behavioural elements or, when attention is given to public response, it is generally predicated on erroneous conceptions of public behaviour.

Eric Auf der Heide, an expert in disaster preparedness and response planning, has reinforced this observation: 'Disaster planning is only as good as the assumptions on which it is based. However, some of these assumptions are derived from a conventional wisdom that is at variance with empirical field disaster research studies. Knowledge of disaster research findings might help planners avoid common disaster management pitfalls, thereby improving disaster response planning' (2005). …

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