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Celebrating Success as Part of Emergency Management

If media headlines and public concern are any indication, 2005 may be remembered as the year of natural disasters. Seemingly, every time media coverage of one disaster subsided into the background of public attention, another disaster struck and triggered fresh waves of concern, or yet another response activity. Much has already been communicated about the capacity, speed and effectiveness of public-sector response organizations. Yet, little has been said, or practiced, to celebrate successes of the response effort, let alone the survival of the community. The oversight is regrettable and needs to be corrected.
The need to celebrate success after overcoming difficult or extreme situations (i.e., crises, emergencies) is not new, and the justification for it may be obvious. However, for many reasons, response organizations and affected communities have typically neglected to commemorate their response (or recovery) effort and recognize their success in overcoming an often Herculean challenge.
A number of questions quickly come to mind: Why? What are the issues? Why do we need a ‘celebration’? What are the risk and benefits of such celebrations? How should one ‘celebrate’ in the wake of devastation and grief?

What Are the Issues
Crises, disasters or emergencies, which typically contain a degree of trauma, are events which attract attention at primal level. Survival is at stake, and even those who are not directly affected by the emergency or the crisis are inherently fascinated by the power (or impact-imposing force) of the event and its consequence. Real or potential, these consequences are best understood in terms of injuries, fatalities, and damage to property or the environment. That fascination is reflected in almost-immediate media frenzy. Predictably, it also leads to new research projects, conference presentations, publications, and the like.
The need to discuss disaster events is natural, practical and extremely useful. It provides meaningful context for more-effective emergency planning or response effort. It could, and occasionally it does, also motivate individuals and organizations to act in a manner which enhances their success in either preventing disasters or better responding to them.
However, a fundamental truth for emergencies and crises is that they are generally unpleasant. In fact, for those directly affected by them, these events are ‘disastrous’ or ‘catastrophic’. Not surprisingly, therefore, most disaster-related discussions (i.e., in the Media, at conferences, or through publications) often involve accounts of event-related experiences, coupled with statements of what worked and what did not.
Quite often, the emphasis in much of the post-event coverage is focused on what went wrong. If nothing else, this provides invaluable insight into the actual response effort, and often highlights a host of important lessons learned. Only on rare occasions, does the discussion continue through the next step, to highlight the successes of the emergency planning process or the response effort.

The Celebration is Necessary
Despite the many obstacles and issues, celebrations of the successes inherent to the response/recovery period are worthwhile because they produce many benefits at individual, organizational, community and profession level. For example, consider that regardless of their magnitude these ‘success stories’ offer a ray of hope to all, especially to the survivors, that crises can be overcome. The message being communicated is that even when bad things happen to good people life goes on and is or could be … good. That in itself is a critical message to keep in mind especially during emergency preparedness activities.

The Risks
As noted above, there are a number of risks. Key among them is the likely infringement upon the sensitivities of those who were victimized by the disaster, or the potential of reopening old (and extremely painful) wounds. Naturally, every effort should be made to ensure that the loss, sensitivities and intense emotions (including anger) are not ignored. However, these risks can not be the basis for avoiding the post-crisis celebration of emergency planning or response achievements.
Another important risk is the perception that the celebration is biased, focusing only on the successes encountered while ignoring all shortcomings. This will surely discount the message and its communicators (i.e., public officials and the response community). In short, one needs to establish a balanced view of the things that went badly, or less effective then desired, as well as those things that went well.

Celebrate!
The ‘celebration’ of a community’s emergency response success may take many forms. The more visible and common activities are the commemorative (e.g., anniversary) events. However, equally important is the need to celebrate through the media, and various public education opportunities (e.g., conferences, reports, articles and documents).
Let’s begin with the traditional commemorative events. There is no ideal time to conduct these events, but one should consider holding them as soon as possible while memories are relatively fresh and before life sweeps the affected organizations or their community’s attention in another direction. Often, the temptation is to wait until the dust settles down on the event. The trouble is, by then the event is often so far down memory lane, that people feel somewhat disjointed from it. Also, by waiting too long, the key message of “We did it!” may be lost in the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Post-event celebrations should involve the community as a whole and, where possible, include members of all key players who were involved in the response effort. While each affected organization, business, or response unit may wish to conduct its own post-event debrief and celebration, one must always strive to include the whole team. This effort reaffirms the collaboration and team-work that is so necessary during crisis situations.
These celebratory events should strike a balance between recounting the devastation or loss on the one hand, and celebrating success, heroism, devotion or preparedness on the other. They need note be elaborate, expensive or time consuming. They may be no more than a pot-luck lunch arranged to allow all members of the local team to get together informally, re-establish the camaraderie, retell some stories, joke, laugh and bring closure to their recently-shared trauma.
Another key facet of such celebrations is that they must unfold in the public’s view and reflect an active participation by emergency preparedness agencies. Where applicable, these agencies need to communicate the message that things could have been worse, but were not, because of some concrete steps taken during the preparedness or response phases. These messages need to be communicated clearly, accurately and simply (i.e., in a non-technical language that would be understood by the public).
Admittedly, the public may not always be eager to rehash the event, or to be told that the response effort to their disaster was a success. However, without that message, members of the public may have a distorted view of emergency preparedness and direct misplaced anger at response agencies. Not surprisingly, the public may then be reluctant to support or fund emergency-related organizations or effort.
Our failure to communicate our successes tends to perpetuate the preoccupation with the damage the event caused, or with lessons learned often from those things that did not work as expected. There is an obvious need to relate lessons learned from things that did not work well. However, emergency response agencies must take the opportunity after every disaster to promote their and the community’s success in responding to the disaster. The benefits can greatly enhance the emergency-preparedness capacity of the community as well as the visibility of the emergency management profession.

Ron Kuban, PhD is a retired Army officer and the president of Pegasus Emergency Management Consortium Corp. (www.PegasusEMC.com)

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