The Relationship Between Emergencies And Disaster Risk

Disastrous events often cause emergency situations to arise. The severity of one isn't always tied to the severity of the other, but that doesn't discount the possibility of one leading to the other. The relationship between the two is well-established. Being able to properly use Disaster Risk Reduction tactics requires an understanding of that relationship and what impact emergencies can have on the outcome of DRR.

This article will take a closer look at DDR in emergencies and further explore the relationship between the two. Topics of discussion will include the role that disaster risk plays in an emergency situation, what actually constitutes an emergency, and the circumstances that often cause an emergency to develop during a disaster. The concept of emergency preparedness in disasters and what influence it may have on any DRR will also be discussed.
When Does A Situation Become An Emergency?

Emergencies are often situations that develop suddenly or unexpectedly, typically with little to no warning preceding their onset.1 They are disruptive to the normal course of events that they enter into with potentially harmful results. The circumstances of an emergency often pose some kind of threat, such as that of injury, death, or damage to property, that involves an immediate risk. With an emergency, there is a need for action to be taken as soon as possible to address the situation and to prevent things from worsening further.2

There are numerous circumstances that can be described as an emergency, as well as the inclusion of certain factors that could transform a situation into an emergency. Categorizing an emergency often depends on what is being affected by the emergency-e.g. a person's health-or the source of the emergency-e.g. environmental forces. An emergency can fall into multiple categories, depending on the circumstances of the situation, but typically leans more towards one type versus another.

Four of the major categories of emergencies include:

Medical Emergencies-By definition, medical emergencies involve circumstances that pose a threat to a person's well-being and health. This can be a situation that can inflict injury/injuries on a person or cause them to develop an illness, with the potential to have short- or long-term effects on the person. Most people are a bit loose with their definition of a "medical emergency", but it does have a rather broad range as there are different kinds of medical emergencies that can pose harm to a person. The person experiencing the medical emergency, those around them, or medical personnel can determine if the situation is an actual emergency, so there is some degree of judgement and perception involved. The typical definition of a medical emergency is often accepted as the development of acute symptoms that are moderate to severe in intensity and may cause harm if medical attention is not administered in a reasonable amount of time.3 This includes things that are debilitating at their onset, like severe pain, broken bones, impaired functions (e.g. breathing) and bleeding wounds.

Environmental Emergencies-Environmental emergencies arise alongside natural disasters, instances where nature itself is the cause of the situation. Many experts identity environmental emergencies as instances where the environment is being harmed in addition to human populations.4 The damage caused in an environmental emergency has the potential to do serious and irreparable harm to the environment, and require specialized efforts to prevent the situation from worsening still. For example, sudden contamination of groundwater or major bodies of water that are also used as sources of drinking water may be considered an environmental emergency. If the contamination isn't addressed and treated properly, it carries the potential to spread to other parts of the environment and/or return later on.

Property or Structural Emergencies-These are typically instances where property or the structural elements of property are at risk for harm. This can be a result of other threats or emergencies (e.g. environmental) or as a result of the property itself. In many cases, emergencies related to the structural elements of a property can be extremely life-threatening for the people on the property. For example, structural damage that causes the walls of a home to become unstable can cause injury or death to anyone inside of the home at the moment of collapse. Those who are near the property can be harmed, such as in cases where a piece of a building or other structure (e.g. a bridge) falls off and strikes another building or a person. Property or structural emergencies often cause other types of emergencies to occur, such as environmental or medical, and can be caused by other types as well. There is also the potential for a person to experience a financial emergency, especially in cases of property loss, which can be cause for further harm.

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Chemical Emergencies-A chemical emergency is a specific type of emergency where toxic substances are released with the potential to cause harm towards those who come in contact with them.5 In many cases, a chemical emergency isn't caused by someone intentionally releasing the substance but instead as the result of an accident. For example, a truck transporting industrial waste for disposal crashes on the interstate and spills its contents. Many industrial accidents have been known to cause chemical emergencies as the substances used in plants and factories are toxic when they haven't been processed into a final product. There are instances where a chemical emergency can be the result of intentional actions, such as with terrorism or in warfare.

What Is The Connection Between Disasters And Emergencies?

Disasters and emergencies are often connected through the potential of one causing the other to develop. A disastrous event, like a tornado, can cause medical, property/structural, and environmental emergencies to develop in the community where the even took place. Likewise, certain emergencies like those that are environmental or chemical can cause a disaster. For example, corrosive chemicals entering into the local water supply will cause severe damage towards everything that they come in contact with. It's not so much of a connection in some cases as it is a chain reaction.

Due to how close the two are, it is not uncommon for people to equate disasters and emergencies as the same thing.6 Disasters, by definition, are phenomena that are significantly destructive on a large scale. Emergencies, on the other hand, are usually much more contained in their spread and to whom is impacted-or at least begin as such. An emergency can expand to the level of a disaster and a disaster can cause an emergency or emergencies to occur, but they are not one in the same. Situations for both, however, do need to be addressed seriously and with immediate action.

Do All Disasters Lead To Emergency Situations?-It is very rare for a disaster to occur and not cause some kind of emergency to develop as a result. The destructive nature of disasters means that a lot of damage can be done and the effects tend to linger for weeks, months, or even years after the fact-contrary to popular belief that things are able to quickly return to normal in a disaster-affected area with help.7 An emergency situation may not present itself until the aftermath of a disaster sets in, which can take time depending on the scope of the damage and the area(s) affected. Disasters that strike uninhabited areas may not cause a typical emergency, as there is no one there to be impacted by events and the environment can sometimes be only minimally impacted or quickly recover. Such an area may be ignored in a disaster or in the aftermath because it is uninhabited, and thus the possibility of an emergency occurring there may not even be considered.

What Role Does Disaster Risk Play In An Emergency?

Often, the same risks that can impact the severity of a disaster's outcome can do the same for emergency situations. This can include things like how prepared people are, the structural integrity of buildings and transportation routes, the availability and quality of resources, and the response strategies used in the situation. The impact of such things in both a disaster and in an emergency can be completely different due to the specifics of the situation at hand. Many disasters, like earthquakes and hurricanes, cause additional disasters or disaster-like events to develop, and may potentially put an entirely different set of risks and issues into play.8 This can make a situation very complicated and can cause additional emergencies to develop that are not commonly expected with the primary event.

Disasters often take a significant toll on the people who experience them, and are usually physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. This can unfortunately impact how they respond to emergencies that develop from the disaster and increase the risks that a community faces. First responders who are dispatched to the scene of a disaster can only work for so long before they need rest; many will push themselves past their personal limits and can inadvertently put themselves and others at risk in doing so. It's not just people who can be exhausted and contribute to risk's role in an emergency or disaster. Resources, for example, are often already limited in a disaster and may decrease in availability during the aftermath as time progresses. This is one reason why medical emergencies that follow disasters can sometimes drag on and be exacerbated, as supplies used to treat injuries and illnesses are often used faster than they are restocked.

It is recommended that whatever risk assessment a person, community, city, etc. does as a part of DRR or for disaster preparedness take emergency situations into consideration. Any kind of assets or hazards that can impact a disaster's outcome should be fully analyzed to determine the extent of their effects on the situation.9 This should be done for any kind of emergency situation that can be caused or influenced by a disaster event. As there are some emergencies that can impact the onset of a disaster-specifically disasters that are man-made-then emergencies should also be analyzed as a hazard in a risk assessment. As there are so many options for what can occur in both disasters and emergencies, it is wise to address every possible factor and outcome to ensure that you are as fully prepared as can be.

Emergency Management and Applying DRR

Emergency management or emergency preparedness is often viewed the same as disaster preparedness. It is defined as the organizational efforts to prepare for disastrous events and to reduce the potential for loss of life and injury through immediate response, relief, and rescue during such events.10 Basically, it is the execution of any preparations made before a disaster or emergency in the hopes of coping with the situation and reducing the damage it causes. The practice itself is often seen as the primary way to help a community ready itself for any kind of threat that may befall it, and to help improve and sustain itself against future threats.11

For many, DRR is applied to emergency management practices to give it an added boost and to ensure that everything is covered during an emergency or disaster. DRR's purpose is to help reduce the damage a disaster can cause, so the usage of both DRR and emergency management is often a harmonious pairing. For some, emergency management is how DRR is put into action and tested in real situations and thus it is common sense for emergency managers to use it.

The combination of DRR and emergency management is often strategic and with little disadvantage. An in-depth analysis of risks and vulnerabilities through DRR generates access to the information needed for preparedness planning.12 To some degree, prevention planning never really stops and there is often a need to re-evaluate circumstances after a disaster has struck. This allows emergency management plans and those that use them to become more sustainable, practical, and feasible in their longevity. For many, the only disadvantage that this may offer is that it can take time to analyze and produce a strong, DRR-assisted emergency preparedness plan.