Emergency managers tend to focus inwards on our communities, as opposed to homeland security which is fixed on external threats outside the country. Our area of interest is on specific threats that directly affect the populations we serve and larger issues of national security are left primarily to the Federal government. But ultimately we deal in risk and one of the key factors in determining risk is social vulnerability. If we accept this, we really cannot afford to ignore the increased global connectedness of the modern world.
A scenario I read recently highlights how seemingly disparate events can combine to create catastrophic results. In this scenario, BRITEXT leads to additional defections from the European Union, weakening the EU’s ability to impose economic sanctions. At the same time, the election of Donald Trump in the United States leads to a weakening of NATO as the US becomes increasingly isolationist. The weak economic sanctions coupled with reduced NATO military deterrence encourages Russia to seize additional territory in border states, leading to armed conflict.
Clearly, this scenario has little bearing on day to day emergency management. However, it does demonstrate how things are connected and these connections can have an impact on social vulnerability. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, has led to a net increase in jobs for the country as a whole but has led to a loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, increasing unemployment and lowering wages in states whose economy are based on manufacturing. Increased poverty means increased vulnerability to disasters and reduced tax revenue to invest in preparedness. The conflict in the Middle East has produced the largest movement of displaced people since World War II. A large number of those refugees can be absorbed into the United States but since immigrants tend to cluster in communities, they will affect local demographics and present emergency managers with challenges related to cultural differences and languages. As both these examples shoe, the overall impact of an event on the country as a whole may not be the same as that on a local community.
I am not suggesting we spend our time playing useless “what-if” games or constructing doomsday scenarios. What I am suggesting is that we turn our focus outwards enough to be able to recognize events that could have the potential to affect social vulnerability within our communities and to begin developing strategies for dealing with them. This means thinking beyond day to day hazards to think both globally and long range, two things that, unfortunately, we have not done well at any level of government.
I’m just back from a family vacation and getting caught up. Part of my routine is to skim the newspapers that I missed while I was gone. I’m not so much looking for news as I am for some of the more interesting articles, such as the one that caught my eye today. It seems that Kenya suffered a nationwide blackout recently that lasted more than three hours (some sections of the country were still without power the following day). The blackout disrupted businesses and Internet service for most of the country. The cause? A Vervet monkey came into contact with a transformer, which tripped off and began a cascading outage. The monkey survived.
As you can imagine, I got a good laugh out of it and thought, “What a unique problem.” That is, until I did a quick bit of research and found that one of the leading causes of power outages in the United States is animal contact, primarily squirrels. In a 2013 article in the New York Times Sunday Review, author Jon Mooallem catalogued some 50 outages in 24 states over a period of just three months. And, remember, these were just the outages that were big enough to make the news.
The effects of these animal contacts were not confined to simple outages. Mooallem notes two instances in 1987 and 1994 when squirrel contacts shut down the Nasdaq. In 2013, a squirrel chewing into high voltage lines near a water treatment plant in Tampa caused authorities to issue a boil water order lasting 37 hours. A flaming squirrel carcass falling from a utility pole started a 2-acre grass fire near Tulsa, OK the same year. The cost is not cheap either: some utilities estimate that as much as 20% of all outages may be caused by animal contact and a 2005 California study estimated that animal contacts cost the state between $30 to $317 million each year.
Utilities are not being idle. They have been experimenting with physical barriers, fake owls, and spraying utility poles with fox urine. But if you’ve ever owned a bird feeder, you know how hard it is to keep a determined squirrel out. Success has been limited so far. In one ironic incident, a hawk attacked one of the fake owls and caused a substation outage.
So the next time you’re feeling smug, remember that the infrastructure we rely on so heavily is also extremely brittle. It doesn’t take much to cause problems. A one-pound bundle of fur and teeth may be all it takes to ruin your day. Preparedness for power outages is always a good thing.
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Last February Japanese prosecutors charged three former executives responsible for the Fukishima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station with criminal negligence related to the reactor meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The men are accused of failing to take measures that would have protected the plant from damage. This action raises an interesting question about who bears responsibility for failing to protect the public.
Contrast the Japanese action with the criminal charges stemming from last year’s Santa Barbara oil spill. In March prosecutors indicted Plains All American Pipeline and a single employee on multiple charges related to the oil spill. Four of the charges leveled at the company are felonies for spilling oil into state waters. The remainder, including those against the employee, are misdemeanors related to failure to report the spill in a timely manner. The company could face fines up to $2.8 million if convicted of all counts. The employee is looking at up to three years in prison.
Our tendency in the United States is to treat disaster events as civil rather than criminal actions. Companies are sued in civil court and must pay damages. It is rare that companies are charged criminally and even more unusual to see charges brought against individuals. This is changing somewhat as evidenced by the charges brought against one city and two state employees in the Flint, Michigan water crisis and the current Federal criminal investigation related to the Gold King Mine disaster in Colorado.
But cases like Flint and the Gold King Mine involve public agencies not corporations. In the US corporations are treated as individuals in terms of liability. The responsibility is fixed on the corporation as a whole rather than on the officers who made the decisions that may have precipitated a crisis. In the case of the Deep Water Horizon spill, only four individuals were criminally charged. Two of those cases were misdemeanors related to obstructing the investigation. Only two low level employees faced manslaughter charges directly related to the blow out. They eventually pled guilty to reduced misdemeanor charges. BP plead guilty to manslaughter charges and paid $4 billion in fines and penalties.
The corporate system exists precisely to shield individuals from personal liability in order to protect their personal assets in a civil suit. But should these protections be extended to absolve them from criminal responsibility? Is a fine that is ultimately paid by the customers and shareholders sufficient to redress criminal negligence? Maybe it’s time we started to rethink this issue.
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Toby arrives towards the end of our morning at the dog park as part of a dog walker’s pack. What makes him special is his love affair with a big red ball. Toby heads directly to it and proceeds to run it around the park with a skill that would rival a soccer pro. If the ball is outside the park and one of us tosses it in, the sound of the ball hitting the dirt is enough to grab Toby’s attention from anywhere in the park.
But Toby’s game, while admirable and amusing to those who watch him, had a distinct downside. By being so focused on the ball, Toby failed to socialize with the other members of his pack. In the absence of the ball, he didn’t really know how to interact with the other dogs and got into trouble from time to time. There was only one solution: Toby had to go cold turkey. At the request of his walker, we stopped tossing Toby the ball and no longer encouraged his play. It took a few weeks but Toby is now well-adjusted and enjoys playing with other dogs. He still gets to play with his ball but not every time he comes to the park.
Being focused is an admirable quality and can be important to success. But anything taken to extreme is not healthy. Many of us focus heavily on our jobs or other aspects of our life without realizing that doing so closes us off from personal interactions. And in the long run, those interactions are what gives meaning to our lives. This is why achieving balance in life is so important. If you’re too busy chasing that big red ball, you may be missing out on the social interactions that make life worth living.
I’m sure Toby would agree.