White House urges better response planning for nuclear attacks

July 28, 2009
The recently released Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation, developed by the White House Homeland Security Council, stresses that it’s “incumbent upon all levels of government” to prepare “through focused nuclear attack response planning.” Mayors, governors, emergency managers and first responders will be the first to deal with the consequences, and according to that same guidance, “local and state community preparedness to respond to a nuclear detonation could result in life-saving on the order of tens of thousands of lives.”
Ready or Not?, a yearly analysis of preparedness for health emergencies that’s released by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, found that “surge capacity remains the largest threat to the nation’s ability to respond to a major catastrophe.” Local, and specifically, regional abilities to care for the wounded will be vital just after a nuclear terrorist attack. Unfortunately many communities haven’t gotten the point.
Two assumptions prevail at the local level: 1.) Any nuclear explosion will completely destroy a major city; and 2.) The military is the only organization capable of responding.


A new report suggests that “surge capacity is the largest threat” to America’s ability to respond to a major catastrophe.

From the press release:

Ready or Not?, a yearly analysis of preparedness for health emergencies that’s released by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, found that “surge capacity remains the largest threat to the nation’s ability to respond to a major catastrophe.” Local, and specifically, regional abilities to care for the wounded will be vital just after a nuclear terrorist attack. Unfortunately many communities haven’t gotten the point.

The report notes that, “Two assumptions prevail at the local level:

  1. Any nuclear explosion will completely destroy a major city; and
  2. The military is the only organization capable of responding.

Because it often takes the military time to respond to catastrophic events, the report urges local governments to consider and prepare for what they would do if the military doesn’t arrive in time.

The report suggests that local decision-makers:

  1. Come to grips with the threat and understand that the military can’t arrive immediately to help.
  2. Realize that isn’t a problem for only large, high-risk cities, but one that requires a regional response.
  3. Actually make plans and co-ordinate with your neighbours.

The press release concludes that, “Such preparation isn’t necessarily specific to nuclear terrorism. Regional preparedness and response can be used for a range of catastrophic events, including hurricanes such as Katrina. Moving down the scale, preparing for the “big one” will help communities deal with the small disasters they face every year.”

Press release herefull report here.

Water crisis = food crisis

July 8, 2009
Australia's rice production drops to practically zero because of water shortages; Image via SF Gate

Australia's rice production drops to practically zero because of water shortages; Image via SF Gate

When water availability diminishes, food crops tend to suffer.

TreeHugger has an excellent discussion of the impact of drought on food production in Australia.

Rice is a water intensive crop, and when drought hits, production suffers.  In Australia, “production has dropped from 1.6 million tons in 2000 to a mere 18,000 tons in 2008.”

This has important implications for planning for climate change.

Taking the experience of Australia to heart now can help other areas be proactive about water use and avoid sharp changes in agriculture, and therefore economy, such as what Australia is now facing. Getting started today and reduce our water use to only what we need as well as make practical decisions in the agricultural sector, can help a region avoid a more dire crisis in the future.

Very few people changed their behaviour during the early stages of swine flu

July 6, 2009


A new study in the British Medical Journal reports that despite major media coverage, most people did nothing to prevent the spread of swine flu.

The research, conducted at the Institute of Psychiatry King’s College London and the Health Protection Agency, was intended to evaluate whether perceptions of the swine flu outbreak changed the behaviour of the public.  They conducted a telephone survey of 997 adults between 8 and 12 May 2009 and were asked asked nine questions about recent behaviours.

The results are dismal from a flu prevention perspective:

  • Anxiety about the outbreak was low, with only 24% of participants reporting any anxiety and only 2% reporting high anxiety.
  • 62% of those surveyed did nothing to change their behaviour.
  • Most people reported that they had not changed the frequency of their hand washing (72%).
  • 83% said that they did not change how often then cleaned or disinfected things.
  • Fewer than 5% of people reported that they had avoided people or places as a result of the outbreak.

What does this imply for public health standards and pandemic flu prevention?  The authors suggest that:

Factors associated with an increased likelihood of making these changes included perceptions that swine flu is severe, the risk of catching it is high, the outbreak will continue for a long time, the authorities can be trusted, and people can control their risk. In contrast, being uncertain about the outbreak and believing that it had been exaggerated were associated with a lower likelihood of change, say the authors.

In other words, the real world likelihood of personal prevention of swine flu is very, very low.

This suggests that stronger policy measures must be on hand to enforce preventative measures if they are to be effective.  Are our governments and institutions prepared for and ready to take such measures?

Before Disaster Strikes: Rate and Raise Public Preparedness Now

June 15, 2009


A new policy brief from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University concludes that American cities need to develop new measures of preparedness and rapidly roll them out across all major cities.

From the policy brief, found here:

The American public is not prepared for major disasters. That will prove costly, including to the federal government, as more and new types of disasters are expected to occur. The new Security Council Resilience Directorate – Preparedness, as one of its first initiatives, should task the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to work with federal and non-federal stakeholders and independent experts to:

  • Develop agreed measures of public preparedness, and
  • Develop and execute cost-effective, innovative approaches for ensuring timely progress in preparedness.

In the revamped federal agency performance measurement system, public preparedness should be deemed a high priority measure for DHS, as well as for selected other departments who need to be made federal partners in this effort. The new Directorate should monitor the establishment of and progress in these measures.

The brief concludes, “More, more severe, and new types of disasters can be expected to occur as a result of new types of threats (e.g., biological, cyber, nuclear/radiological) and more as well as more severe threats due to increased global interconnectedness and climate change. Yet, most Americans are not adequately prepared to respond to or recover from a catastrophic disaster, and many expect the government to take care of them.”

Mapping disasters in 3D

April 5, 2009

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Robin Murphy from Texas A&M University (TAMU) create software to reconstruct 3D scenes of disasters from 2d photographs taken by flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s).

Picture this; an earthquake devastates a major Chinese city.  Rubble is everywhere, no one knows where the survivors are.  

A team of researchers suggests a new system may help first responders gain a better understanding of their environment through the use of flying robots and 3D reconstruction software.  

[The system] deploys several small unmanned air vehicles (SUAVs), such as AirRobot quadrotors, to take snapshots of the rubble. The pictures are then uploaded to a software program called RubbleViewer, which quickly builds a three-dimensional map of the area that users can intuitively navigate. More efficient than drawing by hand, this system is also cheaper and more portable than the alternative–using helicopter-mounted lasers to map the rubble.

Last time I checked “using helicopter mounted lasers to map the rubble” was still a tad beyond most humanitarian budgets.  But who knows what wonders the G20 stimulus package might provide?  In any case, it’s an interesting proof of concept that could be scaled to market over time, thus lowering the price and becoming potentially useful to combat-style first responders in urban environments in the future.

Robotic warfare and humanitarian aid

March 27, 2009


CNET.com interviews P.W. Singer, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”

The interview describes recent developments in the use of robots and autonomous or remote vehicles in conflict environments.  One of the most interesting questions, from a humanitarian standpoint, was this one:

How will robot warfare change our international laws of war? If an autonomous robot mistakenly takes out 20 little girls playing soccer in the street and people are outraged, is the programmer going to get the blame? The manufacturer? The commander who sent in the robot fleet? 

Singer: That’s the essence of the problem of trying to apply a set of laws that are so old they qualify for Medicare to these kind of 21st-century dilemmas that come with this 21st-century technology. It’s also the kind of question that you might have once only asked at Comic-Con and now it’s a very real live question at the Pentagon.

I went around trying to get the answer to this sort of question meeting with people not only in the military but also in the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch. We’re at a loss as to how to answer that question right now. The robotics companies are only thinking in terms of product liability…and international law is simply overwhelmed or basically ignorant of this technology. There’s a great scene in the book where two senior leaders within Human Rights Watch get in an argument in front of me of which laws might be most useful in such a situation.

The quote, “that’s the essence of the problem of trying to apply a set of laws that are so old they qualify for Medicare to these kind of 21st-century dilemmas” could well apply to a range of issues faced by future humanitarian organisations.  And not just aid organisations, but any organisation grappling with the changing dimensions of technology, law, and ethics in a world of ever increasing change.

Of course these kinds of technologies don`t only have to be used for killing.  Imagine autonomous aerial drones equiped with devices to seek out, map and catalogue unexploded land mines and other ordinance.  Such a flying robot could not only map and identify the location of such hidden killers, but then communicate to other friendly robots to come and disarm or detonate them.  Or picture a world where Big Dog-like robots could carry aid and equipment to disaster torn areas that would be too difficult to navigate by truck?  There is then the familiar premise of the old Wim Wenders film, “The End of Violence“.

It all seems rather science fiction perhaps, and would require a shift in the values of production of deployment of such devices.  But then again it wasn’t too long ago when unmanned flying killing machines seemed a little bit science fiction as well.  As usual, these end up being cultural and political choices, not technological ones.

The full interview is here.

US researchers find disaster relief laws unsuitable for modern threats

March 25, 2009

New York University Professor Mitchell Moss suggests in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, that US Federal disaster relief legislation is dangerously out of date and must be reformed to provide for rapid relief after a catastrophe.

The paper argues that the main US Federal Disaster laws, in the form of the Stafford Act, is too cumbersome to be of use for today’s complex crises.  The report’s author argues that the laws:


  • Not recognizing 21st century threats such as chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological attacks or accidents as legal grounds for a major disaster declaration by the President; 
  • Fail to establish a difference between the scale of rural and urban disaster – the Stafford Act offers the same level of aid for a blizzard in a rural community as it does for a major earthquake in a metropolis. 

It goes on to suggest that US lawmakers should,

  • Amend the definition of a “major disaster” to recognize 21st century threats such as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks and accidents; 
  • Create a level of disaster specifically for “catastrophes” to cover incidents such as Hurricane Katrina and September 11 and to provide increased levels of aid beyond that provided at the “major disaster” levels

The press release can be found here and the full paper here.

Researchers link drought and urbanization to “perfect storm”

March 11, 2009

Researchers in a NASA-funded study have found that a rare mix of interacting conditions were responsible for a recent unprecedented urban tornado in Downtown Atlanta, Georgia, USA. 

One of the main agendas of the Humanitarian Futures Programme is to help organisations prepare for complex, interconnected crises unlike they have ever experienced before.  We call these synchronous, sequential and simultaneous failures, defined below:

  • Synchronous failures – major systems failures, eg, energy collapse, affecting infrastructure and basic survival mechanisms in transnational contexts.
  • Sequential crises – series of crises “feeding off” each other, like falling dominoes cascading into each other and magnifying their effects.
  • Simultaneous crises – major crises occurring at the same time, stretching existing resources and abilities to cope.

The downtown tornado in Atlanta (CNN coverage here) is an excellent example of how such crises can occur.  Researchers studying how and why this rare tornado occurred write,

“The Atlanta tornado, though forecasted well, caught us by surprise because it evolved rapidly under very peculiar conditions during a drought and over a downtown area,” said Dev Niyogi, an assistant professor of regional climatology at Purdue and lead author of the modeling study.

The press release can be found here.

Top three catastrophic risks for London in 2009

February 13, 2009


The London Fire Brigade just updated their series of forward thinking analyses about various risks in the Greater London area and how to prepare for them.  

It may sound a bit dry but their “Community Risk Registers” are actually a very exciting effort to cooperate and share information across agencies in preparation for future crises.  They  list a series of potential hazards by likelihood and impact, then sort them by what they might look like and who should take the lead in responding to them.  They update these lists quite often and just released their new registers for 2009.

The top three greatest risk for Central London in 2009?

  1. Human Health: Influenza type disease (pandemic) – High number of cases and consultations with healthcare providers threatening to overwhelm health and other services. All ages may be affected, but until the virus emerges we cannot know which groups will be most at risk
  2. Industrial Technical Failure: Telecommunications infrastructure, human error – Widespread loss of telecommunications (including public land line and mobile networks) at a regional level for up to 5 days. 
  3. Industrial Technical Failure: Technical failure of electricity network – Total shutdown of the electricity supply over an entire region occurring during working hours and lasting for 24 hours. 

Good to see the LFB is aware of these issues and already making preparations.  An excellent best practice example. HFP recently completed some similar scenario work for Oxfam UK outlining possible Avian Influenza outbreak scenarios, as well as conducting a serious game training simulation for ICVA in Geneva about the impacts of a complex technical failures and a major industrial accident in a politically unstable port city.

UPDATE – By way of background, the BBC did a report on the Avian Flu risk and the Registers back in August, 2008, which can be found here.  Also Charlie Edwards from Demos’ Resilient Nation project and contributor to Global Dashboard did a brief post on the background of the Registers in June, 2008, which has some interesting policy background on the effort and be found here.

“Virtual Peace” humanitarian training simulator

December 18, 2008

This project is a cutting edge example of collaborative technologies for humanitarian aid.

Duke University researchers have created an online world similar to Second Life, in which students can train for emergency humanitarian response situations.  The game is designed to help students learn disaster relief and conflict resolution skills through online simulation.

From an HFP perspective this project integrates new, online technologies with social networking to encourage collaboration in a cross-organisational context.  Players act as representatives of different groups, including the UN, local government, and international NGO’s, who must work together to understand each others goals and achieve a shared outcome.  There is also a great white paper online discussing the benefits of simulation in this environment, “Simulation and Game Environments Improve Learning”

From the website;

Virtual Peace: Turning Swords to Ploughshares brings together digital learning technologies and international humanitarian assistance efforts. Students and educators enter an immersive, multi-sensory game-based environment that simulates real disaster relief and conflict resolution conditions in order to learn first-hand the necessary tools for sensitive and timely crisis response.”