In every community, vulnerability emanates from poor or lack of access to resources or services occasioned by individual or group characteristics. Social factors determine or exacerbate vulnerability for individuals or groups by exposing them to more significant risk factors, hindering access to care, and culminating in higher morbidity and mortality rates compared to the larger population. Accordingly, identifying vulnerable people in the community and their protection when crises or hazards unfold is critical to disaster management because individuals and groups have different levels of exposure and resilience. In this respect, vulnerability denotes the circumstances and characteristics of an individual or group within a community or system that render them susceptible to the debilitating effects of a hazard. The most effective way of identifying vulnerable populations is to use the intersectionality model that examines diverse social variables such as age, sex, disability, ethnicity, immigration status, and social class because their mental, physical, and emotional conditions are not homogenous.
Disaster management should be conducted comprehensively and systematically by designing appropriate plans and policies tailored to meet the immediate needs of the communities they serve. According to Morrow (1999), disaster vulnerability is a social construct that emerges from the economic and social circumstances that define people’s lived experiences. As a result, there is a need to identify populations most at risk through vulnerability mapping, which entails plotting exposure to risk, sensitivity, and the capacity to cope with risks. Mapping is vital because it provides insights into the possible needs a community might require when faced with emergencies. For instance, vulnerability mapping informs the educational activities to be conducted, the most suitable intervention programs, the design of effective evacuation plans, the distribution of humanitarian aid, and related response services to mitigate an emergency.
Identifying vulnerable populations should consider the broader context in which a disaster happens and the circumstances under which the affected people live. Tierney (2006) observes disasters emerge from three juxtaposed factors: the agent of the disaster, the physical setting, and the population vulnerability. The disaster agent could be an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, or some human-induced activity, while the physical location includes all attributes of the built environment, such as the structures and environmental features. Correspondingly, population vulnerability is a highly complex construct that provides for several factors, including the closeness to the disaster impacts, availability of resources, the ethnic and racial composition of the affected communities, gender and age, the level of education or knowledge regarding the recommended response measures, availability of social support networks, and the measures government agencies are likely to take in response to the disaster. When preparing for emergencies, there is a need to consider the intersectionality of the above factors to ensure that the response plan is comprehensive and practical and guides the response and recovery efforts effectively.
After identifying vulnerable populations in the community, the emergency manager should identify specific organizations and agencies to ensure that the community’s needs are met before, during, and after the event. According to King and MacGregor (2000), knowing the level of a community’s vulnerability should start with an evaluation of the expectation of its needs by addressing various things, such as community relationships, insurance, the level of awareness, preparation for disasters, training, housing, recovery, and applicable planning laws. When armed with this information, organizations and agencies involved in disaster management should be well-positioned to respond effectively before, during, and after catastrophic events. Before a disaster, the community should be involved in the preparation, where the emergency manager should work with other stakeholders and government agencies to educate people about disasters and effective response measures. Public awareness of disasters is critical because it simplifies rescue efforts and eliminates the confusion often evident in emergencies (Kuran et al., 2020). Furthermore, the local disaster management under the local Emergency Operations Center should be involved in creating an Emergency Operations Plan that clearly outlines response measures. Including all stakeholders during a disaster is essential to ensure adequate response. For instance, the emergency manager could seek assistance from the State Office of Emergency Management to boost response efforts and minimize the loss. Other agencies involved in the response are medical teams, the Fire Department, and the Police Department, but all their efforts should be synchronized to ensure the unity of purpose.
After the disaster, it is advisable to include all stakeholders involved in the response and rescue mission to comprehensively analyze the operations, identifying areas of strengths and weaknesses that might serve as valuable lessons in preparing for future disasters. Notably, the pre-disaster and preparedness entail education, outreach, training, and emergency planning, while response entails response from immediate stakeholders guided under the command of the recovery center; however, the post-disaster phase focuses on recovery to ensure that people experience a semblance of normalcy they knew before the disaster struck (Vickery, 2018). Hence, including the local community and all stakeholders involved in the tragedy in one way or another is appropriate to assess the effectiveness of measures taken and learn from the experience.
Planning and communications processes are critical to emergency management because they determine the flow of information and facilitate coordination efforts. The information and communications systems should be flexible, reliable, efficient, and available to all stakeholders, which means the emergency manager should identify the agencies and organizations to include in the emergency plan. Accordingly, the organizations and agencies identified above will be included in the Emergency Operations Plan. Hence, the local Emergency Operations Center will have an internal communications process that outlines measures to be taken during disasters. Further, the plan will have external communications that facilitate communication among state, territory, or local emergency departments. However, it is vital to hold regular inter-agency meetings to ascertain that the emergency response will be effective when required.
In essence, an effective emergency management plan should begin with identifying vulnerable populations through mapping, identifying organizations and agencies to be involved in rescue efforts, and designing effective communication systems to facilitate coordination efforts. A holistic approach enhances resilience, reduces the impact’s magnitude, and ensures the community recovers quickly from the disaster impact.
King, D., & MacGregor, C. (2000). Using social indicators to measure community vulnerability to natural hazards. Australian journal of emergency management, 15(13); 52-57
Kuran, C. H. A. et al. (2020). Vulnerability and vulnerable groups from an intersectionality perspective. International journal of disaster risk reduction, 50 (101826); 1-8. doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.101826
Morrow, B. H. (1999). Identifying and mapping community vulnerability. Disasters, 23(1):1-18
Tierney, K. (2006).Foreshadowing Katrina: Recent sociological contributions to vulnerability science. Contemporary sociology 35(3):207-212; DOI:10.1177/009430610603500302
Vickery, J. (2018). Using an intersectional approach to advance understanding of homeless persons’ vulnerability to disaster. Environmental sociology, 4 (1),136-147, 10.1080/23251042.2017.1408549