Research on Disasters and Systems Thinking

IFSR Newsletter 2011 Vol. 28 No. 1 August
(some observations by Gerhard Chroust and Dennis Finlayson)
It seems that regional emergencies and disasters (many of them man-made or at least triggered by human activities) have grown in number, in scale and also in media coverage. Natural disasters, many of them triggered by human activities, seem to impact and threaten society in multiple ways and with increasing vigor.They endanger people, society, environment and economy in complex, interrelated ways and are in most cases multi-faceted, affecting numerous areas in varying ways. Typical examples are the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (Iceland 2010) suddenly interrupting air traffic and thus impacting the economy, the local break-down of electric transmission lines due a tsunami (Fukushima, Japan 2011), endangering the cooling and thus the safety of an atomic plant.
Preventing, eliminating or at least mitigating the negative impacts of such disasters is one of the key task for First Responders (fire brigades, ambulances, emergency personnel, etc.) but also for the general public, industry and commerce. Gradually we realize that adequate responses to such disasters must be based on systemic approaches.
Where these situations have persisted over long periods or repeatedly occurred conventional approaches to analysis would appear inadequate. These are precisely the contexts that systemic thinkers have the opportunity to offer richer approaches drawing on proven ideas within system theory such as requisite variety, for example.
Systemic approaches and the use of state-of-the-art Information and Communication Technologies offer improved ways of prediction, analysis and response by utilizing simulation, graphic representations (Virtual Reality), large data basis, artificial intelligence, and modern communication tools.
Similarly, critical thinkers might consider that the boundaries of relevant analyses might be redrawn and/or that a different vocabulary be sought. Clearly in any multi-faceted and multi-stakeholder crisis quantitative modeling would be expected to offer complementary tools to the more obvious applications of soft methods, but need to be non-naive in their assumptions, well researched in their information base and, as far as possible, expressed in accessible forms, if they are to find an audience beyond of the systems community, i.e. reach policy makers, emergency professionals as well as the communities they seek to serve.
In the last 2 years members of the IFSR were involved in several meetings and conferences where the issue of disasters and systemic reactions was one of the key topics.
ISSSS 2010: Waterloo, workshop: “Modeling Support for Disaster Prevention and Recovery Systemic Challenges for First Responders” (chair Gerhard Chroust)
A full-day workshop was held on July 18, 2010, specifically addressing the needs of personell of fire brigades, ambulances, technical support teams and police and the possibilities of improving training via Information and Communication Technologies.
ISSSS 2010, Waterloo, paper session: Several papers on issues of disaster were presented in different sessions, covering modelling both of disasters and disaster response organisation.
ISSS2011, Hull, paper session: ‘Systems Approaches to Conflict and Crisis’ (chair: Dennis Finlayson). 6 presentation in two 2 sections covered modelling of disasters, interventions in crisis, warning systems and problems of logistics.

University of Hull, Business School, Hull, UK (Site of ISSS 2011)

University of Hull, Business School, Hull, UK (Site of ISSS 2011)

ISSS 2011, Hull, workshop: ‘Systemic Approaches to Regional Disasters’ (chair Gerhard Chroust and Dennis Finlayson.)
ISSS 2011, Hull, workshop: ‘Systemic Approaches to Regional Disasters’
The workshop, held in two parts, provided an opportunity to follow-up on the issues brought up in th3 paper sessions and on other issues not covered there.
Fifteen to twenty persons attended each of the two sessions. On both days hot discussions, not always structured took place.
Some of the general observations were:
Are problems of changing one’s attitude ‘dynamic conservatism’ or simply ‘resistance to change’?
We could see ‚Re-solution‘ as in chemical reactions, but not as in mathematical activities.
One needs slack and redundancy in order to provide ‘resilience’ in projects.
One of the challenges is to staff a team with enough persons of different relevant and complimentary backgrounds.
Problems/issues needing systemic considerations (and solutions!): water supply affected by cracking shale for gas, military intervention in foreign countries, decline of bee-populations the lack of ideas and collective ignorance, de-forestation and its effects, USA budget crisis, flu pandemics (underestimation versus over-reactions), problems of cleaning/clearing culverts – seen as a community project, immigration and integration, phosphorus becoming a scare resource, etc.
EMCSR 2012, Vienna : Paper session: ‘ Systemic Approaches to Disasters and Crisis’ (chair: Gerhard Chroust and (t.b.a))
Some of the suggested specific topics are:

  • Classification of disasters and their interactions and effects (e.g. floods, air traffic breakdown due to volcanoes, …),
  • Analysis of typical emergency scenarios
  • Training support for First Responders using modern technology (e.g. Virtual and Augmented Reality, System Dynamics models, human evaluation models),
  • IT support for prediction, tactical and strategic planning, and interventions (victim detection by RFID, infrared, heat, pattern recognition, etc.)
  • analysis of deficiencies and improvement of organizational structures (e.g. Viable system Models, ISO standards),
  • protection of emergency personnel (e.g. early danger detection and warnings),
  • identification of road maps for further studies and investigations.

IFSR Conversation 2012: “Systemic Approaches to Regional Disasters” (chair: Gerhard Chroust)
This topic is one of the 4 or 5 topics to be chosen for the IFSR Conversation 2012.
We intend to discuss some or all of the following challenges:
How to

  • predict and anticipate potential disasters and and to design adequate avoidance strategies,
  • prepare appropriate emergency plans both for the general public and for the interventions of emergency personnel based on sufficient knowledge, logistic support, and best-practices
  • consider psychological and cultural differences and problems,
  • simulate and optimize interventions and interventions plans by appropriate support tools during the interventions, resp. training
  • provide realistic, but still safe training environments.
  • provide fault-tolerant communication means for status information and support logistics during an intervention,
  • plan and anticipate appropriate post-disaster recovery activities.
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