The Word on ‘Resilience’ in Emergency Management

The meaning has evolved, but actions need to evolve as well.
October 2, 2015
By Raphael M. Barishansky  |  Contributor
Director of the Connecticut Department of Public Health's Office of Emergency Medical Services

A recent column in Governing focusing on the relative newness of the term "infrastructure" and tracing its evolution over the past 35 years got me thinking about the word "resilience" and how we in the emergency-preparedness realm have seen a significant uptick in the term, its utilization and even its inclusion in grant guidance. I daresay that even as recently as 10 years ago we would not have seen the coordinated effort of the Rockefeller Foundation to name the top 100 most resilient cities and fund these cities' resilience efforts, including the hiring of a chief resilience officer (CRO) for a two-year time period.

So what is resilience and how did it come to be the word that is shaping our efforts? A working definition can be found in Webster's Dictionary, defining resilience as "an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change." In an article published by Emergency Management magazine, the CRO of San Francisco provided an emergency-specific definition of resilience:, "It's how a city continues to thrive and bounce back from acute shocks and chronic stresses." Another emergency-specific definition comes from the National Academies of Sciences' 2012 text on disaster resilience, which states that resilience is "the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events."

The overall concept of resilience has even found its way into the Center for Disease Control's Public Health Preparedness Capabilities promulgated in 2011, with specific mention of community resilience efforts as undertaken by state and local health departments. This broad heading is then broken down into two subcategories -- community preparedness and community recovery -- highlighting the complicated nature of resilience. Additionally, several Department of Homeland Security grants, including the Intercity Passenger Rail Program and the Homeland Security Grant Program specifically, make mention of resilience efforts.

To get some additional perspective on the term's emergence, more research was in order. Utilizing Google's Ngram Viewer shows that, in English, the word "resilience" was hardly used until the mid-1990s and has climbed steadily in occurrence since then. A search of the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Security and Defense thesis database revealed that of all theses submitted in the master's degree program from 2001 to 2010, the word "resilience" was used in the title 255 times. From 2010 to July 2015, it was utilized 422 times.

Excelling in resilience efforts isn't easy and involves combining multiple initiatives and variables into a workable, comprehensive framework of deliverables that may eclipse a city and involve a county, region, state or even multiple states. Some of the more commonly reported challenges for the aforementioned CROs include developing resilience-specific goals and objectives, engaging the public in resilience efforts, combining preexisting data systems, and being the conduit to connect experts from both public and private sectors, as well as breaking down silos.

Additionally, resilience will mean different things to different communities and areas. What may be a large hazard or threat identified in one area -- say, the potential for earthquakes in San Francisco or flooding during a Nor'easter for an East Coast community -- may not even be thought of for another community, and what may be considered recovery in one area can be defined differently elsewhere. These variables make the concept of resilience even more difficult to define and measure.

It should also be noted that even though there has been a focus on a community's resilience, there are various institutions -- hospitals and college campuses come immediately to mind -- that must have systems in place to assure resilience during and post-disaster.

Possibly one of the best examples of this level of overall resilience can be taken from Israel. Not only do emergency responders have responsibilities during a disaster or crisis, but most citizens also take various classes in topics such as first aid/CPR, sheltering and emergency evacuation.

Additionally, many of the hospitals in Israel have dedicated areas that are protected from the various threats the area faces and can be utilized when traditional facilities are damaged or otherwise unusable. In the United States, there are specific areas, such as Fairfax County, Va., and Los Angeles County, that have concentrated efforts on community resilience. However, as a society, these efforts toward a community-based approach are few and far between, with much to learn from examples like Israel.

It's clear that the term "resilience" has become more than a word, but rather an emergency-preparedness concept with staying power. The question now is how to assure that our emergency-services agencies understand and incorporate the overall concepts of resilience into their existing emergency management framework, as well as assure that the public understands their vital role in community resilience. The challenge cannot be overstated.

A version of this column originally appeared in Emergency Management magazine.