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 show, 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.