Appreciating Emergent Social Behavior in Disasters

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Courtesy of Harry Mayer
June 2, 2017

Communities frequently experience an overwhelming desire to return to normal in the wake of a disaster. This desire often manifests itself in the form of emergent social behavior at the scene of the incident. Spontaneous volunteers start showing up, neighbors start helping neighbors dig through rubble piles, local businesses provide resources to relief workers, civic organizations start raising funds, and donation boxes overflow with in-kind donations. A perceptive public manager will recognize this phenomenon and embrace it as a way to expedite relief to disaster victims.  

Sociologist Chick Perrow spent the majority of his career studying the Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident. In 1984 he published Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies. In his thesis, Perrow surmised that ultimately the failure at Three Mile Island was caused by complexities and the “baffling interactions” between tightly interconnected systems. Emergent social behavior can create eerily similar complexities if no forethought has been given to managing spontaneous volunteers. To prevent unwanted baffling interactions at the scene, emergency managers must develop new strategies to integrate the whole community into the response.

The catastrophic earthquake in Haiti provides an excellent example of emergent social behavior during a disaster. The 2010 earthquake left the Haitian healthcare system in shambles. The United States, along with other countries, deployed specialized government resources to the island nation to aid recovery. Within 48 hours the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had roughly 300 highly skilled doctors and nurses from the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) in country, staged and ready to engage in patient care. About a week into the response, the Navy’s Hospital Ship USNS COMFORT arrived in Port au Prince. Military medical providers performed lifesaving surgeries. However, they soon realized there were not enough hospital recovery beds onboard the ship to care for post-op patients. The U.S. military intended to create a field recovery hospital and optimistically predicted that it would be open within 96 hours to address this acute need. Unfortunately, almost four weeks later the military recovery hospital was still not ready to receive patients.

Through emergent social behavior, the need for a low acuity hospital to treat recovering patients was partially met by non-governmental organizations (NGO). A group of doctors from Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) found a Christian children’s mission near the border of the Dominican Republic with a 50-acre walled compound. This was an excellent secure site for a field hospital. HHI received an in-kind donation of six hundred eight-person tents that provided adequate shelters for recovering patients. Once HHI established a medical presence at the mission, other NGOs started showing up at the site. Soon Operation Smile was performing max-facial surgeries and Handicap International was providing durable medical equipment to amputees. Haitian Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts performed nursing assistant duties, taking amputees to the latrines and pushing them in wheel chairs. Outside the mission, family members gathered and formed a makeshift Internal Displaced Person (IDP) camp. The American Refugee Committee then showed up to help manage the camp. The camp needed drinking water so the missionaries quickly dug a well and HHI medical staff started making daily sick calls, providing primary care to camp residents. All of this occurred without direct government intervention and these uncoordinated efforts became part of the holistic international response.

All too often the value of emergent social behavior is under-appreciated in the first responder community because it conflicts with our domestic command and control based emergency management system. An underlying principle in American emergency management is that unity of command must be achieved to effectively manage a response.  While this may be true for government resources it does not adequately engage the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. This is particularly troubling because in the United States these sectors provide a large percentage of healthcare and human service delivery. Since the government has no legal authority to command these resources during a response, weaving them into a command and control model is difficult. Future public mangers must be willing to embrace the value of emergent social behavior and work toward better strategies to engage the whole community in the aftermath of a disaster.

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
3814 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326

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