Humanity in disaster response: book review and interview with author

Putting people at the heart of the crisis response is something I talk about a lot and was a thread through my book. So, when a new book was published Managing the Human Dimension of Disasters it was a must on my reading list.

The book does much more than just document many of the humanitarian disasters and emergencies from recent years. It gives a thought provoking insight into the impact of crises on people including the bereaved, survivors and the first responders.

For anyone involved in emergency response, crisis management and communication it is essential reading that will question current practice and plans. That is what is needed in the post-Covid world. Crisis plans, business continuity and risk management all need to be reassessed in light of events during the last 16 months.

Reading through the learning points, the recommendations and the best practice I found myself agreeing with Kjell Brataas the author. I am lucky to have met Kjell who has worked on the front line communicating during some of Norway’s crises. His practical experience has, I believe, helped to keep the book rooted in the reality of the responses rather than disappearing into theory.

“Writing this book has been a learning experience combined with an emotional toll as I have dived into a large number of disasters and scrutinized their aftermath.”

Kjell Brataas

It is also one of the first crisis management books that has been able to tackle the issues highlighted by the pandemic. The final chapter looks at learning from Covid-19 including organisational challenges, communication and providing case studies of approaches around the world.

As Kjell writes in the opening of the book “Assisting after a disaster is not rocket science…..It is my hope that after reading this book….we can all be better prepared to manage the human dimension of disasters.”

Even if you are not likely to be at the forefront of a disaster, and we never know whether we will or won’t face that, this book is a must read to put communication into context.

Interview with the author

Kjell Brataas

1. What was your motivation to write the book?

I have several reasons for writing this book.  My main goal was to document all the good work that is being done around the world to help and assist those affected by a disaster, so that others can learn from best practices. Another reason was that I realized there are few books out there on this particular subject, and I wanted to change that. My third reason was to highlight personal stories of courage, grief and resilience – and most of my book’s contents is therefore based on personal stories from people who have experienced a disaster.

2. What impact has it had on you?

Writing this book has been a learning experience combined with an emotional toll as I have dived into a large number of disasters and scrutinized their aftermath. I am really impressed that so many people wanted to share their stories with me so that others can learn from their experiences. Researching the book also made me realize the wide consequences a disaster has, and its long lasting effects on individuals. I have come to understand the importance of crisis communication with a personal focus, which means that those who comment on a disaster in the media always have to first and foremost consider those directly affected.

3. What is the biggest failing you have identified in the work to support people after a crisis?

My book includes many examples of failed attempts to handle a crisis. They are included not to ridicule, but because I believe there is much to learn from things that have gone wrong in the past.

I would like to mention three examples that are all explained in detail in my book:

1) The Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea in 2014 was handled exceptionally poorly by the media as well as national authorities. Several TV stations chose to broadcast the sinking of the ship live (304 people died, including 250 students from one high school), and the authorities did a poor job with informing next-of-kin and shielding them from journalists when they arrived at the Incident Assistance Center.

2) After the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in 2019, those in charge did not handle the accident site with the respect and dignity the bereaved expect. Not all human remains were collected, and a mass burial was organized without the families’ consultation or consent. Authorities also rushed a process of building a monument, which they wanted finished with the first 1-year mark of the disaster.

3) To commemorate the 77 people killed in the terror attacks in Oslo and on the island of Utoya in Norway in 2011, the government started a process to design and build a national monument. The organizing committee failed to consult with everyone involved, and the neighbors – who would see the monument on a daily basis – were not invited to have their say. The result was delays and several court cases, and in the end the original monument concepts had to be cancelled. A new kind of monument is now being built at a different location (at a cost of about 50 million GBP), but it will not be finished by the 10 years mark on July 22 this year.

4. What do you see as the next challenge for crisis responders?

I think it is hard to predict the future, but I believe social media will be an even bigger factor in the next disasters. Unfortunately, we have seen examples of live coverage of mass murders broadcast on Facebook Live, and I am afraid we need to be prepared for this kind of challenge. I describe several past experiences of live feeds in my book, and I have also written about the concept of VOST – Virtual Operations Support Teams – that consist of social media savy people from around the world who volunteer their time to monitor social media during and after a disaster.

5. Who in your view has done the humanitarian support during Covid well? What is it that others should have done?

I know many others have mentioned this, but I do believe the prime minister of New Zealand has done a good job with handling the pandemic. She has been frank and open about the need for serious restrictions being enforced, and she has used a variety of communication channels to get her messages across.

Without being too braggy, I would also like to mention various Norwegian ministries which in my opinion has done a good job with organizing several live Q&A sessions with the public through Facebook Live.

6. Do you think Covid-19 will be a turning point in the way crises are managed?

Yes, I believe – and I hope – that the pandemic has taught us the need for preparations and for educating key staff in the importance of crisis communication and victim support. For many organizations and countries, COVID 19 has been a wake up call that has reminded us that we need plans in place, they need to be rehearsed and constantly improved, and we need to have the right people to do the job.

7) Your book includes a wide definition of first responders. Why?

During my research, and after talking to so many people affected by a disaster, I came to realize that first responders are more than those who arrive in vehicles with blue lights on top. There are so many other individuals who handle a crisis that also have their lives changed afterwards, and they too need follow-up and emotional support. This large group includes ministers who talk to the bereaved, DVI experts who identify the dead and human remains, photographers who take pictures at the scene and even communications experts who write about the disaster for days and weeks.

8) Is there anything special European countries can learn from the United States when it comes to victim support after disasters?

Unfortunately, the US experiences a large number of mass shootings every year. They have a good system for organizing an Incident Assistance Center afterwards, but what I think is even more impressive are Resiliency Centers that offer emotional and practical support to those affected for several years afterwards. I have visited such centers in Newtown (set up after the school shooting in Sandy Hook in 2012) and in Las Vegas (established after the mass shooting in 2017), and both centers still offer services.

I would also like to point out that European countries can learn from the very strict regulations in the US regarding family support after an airline accident. Already in 1996 the US imposed detailed requirements for airlines, which include plans for telephone support systems, for organizing an Incident Assistance Center and for storing and returning personal belongings.

Kjell’s book Managing the Human Dimension of Disasters is published by Routledge and is available now.

This entry was posted in communication, Covid-19, Crisis book, crisis communication, emergency services, PR, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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