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Book Review
Managing seismic risk:
Integrating organisational and community strategies

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2001-2

Review of:

Shared Risk: Complex systems in seismic response

by : Louise K. Comfort (1999)
Oxford, Pergamon Press.
ISBN: 0-08-043211-5.
Price: NLG 194; USD 98.50

Reviewed by: Douglas Paton
School of Psychology,
Massey University
New Zealand

The management of seismic risk poses several problems for emergency managers. For example, the large scale seismic events for which planning is required are rare. Consequently, emergency mangers and planners rarely have access to realistic information upon which to base their deliberations. The rarity of seismic crises also means that experience is often limited to one or two, often small-scale, events that can bias thinking and result in an underestimation of the complexity of seismic hazard activity or the overestimation of response capability (Paton et al., 1998). When seismic events do occur, particularly in urban contexts, there is a need for an urgent response in a context defined by diverse organisational and community interests and needs. The rarity and lack of experience in managing large-scale seismic crises makes it difficult for the planning process to anticipate the patterns of interaction between seismic activity and the organisational and community contexts that planning must address and within which response management will occur. This book provides a basis for managing such facets of the planning process.

The objectives of this text are fourfold. The first is concerned with identifying the inter-organisational interactions as they occur during disaster response. The second involves defining how information and communication management issues help or constrain this response. The third is concerned with documenting the dynamic evolution of inter-organisational response to disaster, and the fourth involves evaluating self-organising capacity within communities to facilitate their response and their future resilience.

Following a review of relevant disaster and organisational literature, Comfort develops a framework for the systematic assessment of communities that can be used to guide strategic response planning. In regard to the rarity of large earthquakes, Comfort uses the aforementioned framework to systematically analyse and evaluate the nature and implications of responses to eleven recent earthquakes to extract central lessons for emergency managers and planners. This combination provides valuable insights into the core issues likely to emerge when managing earthquake hazards and represents a major strength of this volume. By drawing upon disasters in both developed and third world countries, Comforts analytical framework also constitutes a useful resource for agencies required to plan for, and respond to, seismic crises in developing countries.

Another strong point of this book is its move away for rational and linear response thinking and modelling to, as the title alludes, providing a basis for the systematic analysis of the complex inter-relationships that prevail in an environment ultimately characterised by complex, evolving events that must be managed by multi-jursidictional and multi-disciplinary systems. Complex systems perspectives are essential to facilitating collective action and interdependent decision making and to construct and coordinate the inter-and intra-agency information management systems required to ensure the ability to hold and exchange information among multiple actors with different levels of responsibility and vulnerability to risk.

The book is sub-divided into three parts. The first part reviews conceptual and methodological issues that arise in examining relationships between emergency management agencies and communities, and between agencies. It commences with a definition of "shared risk" which essentially emphasises the need for communities and response agencies to work together to manage both their vulnerability to seismic risk and the disruption that can arise as a consequence of the occurrence of seismic activity. The context in which the subsequent discussion is placed is thus established. This approach facilitates one of the core tasks in contemporary risk management, namely the need for risk acceptance and collective action to manage risk. It would have been useful, given that the thesis of this text is concerned, at least in part, with the relationship between communities and emergency management agencies, to have had more discussion of the issues that arise in regard to the manner in which each of these constituencies perceive and define risk and to adopt an orientation to these complex systems that emphasise resilience and development.

Part one continues with a review of the literature pertaining to how complex systems respond to crisis. This section provides a framework for community assessment and response planning that is more accurately rooted in community functions, needs and capabilities. While it is important that this is not seen as a definitive process for such analyses, this framework provides a very useful basis upon which response management agencies can begin this complex task. Addressing this issue would also require a broader range of vulnerability factors (e.g., demographics, ethnicity etc) to be taken into consideration. While not discussed in specific terms, the need to develop community capability is consistent with contemporary initiatives geared to promoting community resilience. Realising the benefits of the process described in this text would require that some of the issues that have arisen within this literature are addressed, particularly those relating to promoting and sustaining action within communities and integrating hazard mitigation and preparedness within community resilience and community development frameworks (Paton & Johnston, 2001).

Another strong feature of this book is its emphasis on information management. Comfort rightly hones in on the fact that unless communities and response agencies can access pertinent information and render it meaningful in relation to their needs and capabilities they will be unable to define the problems to be addressed and response effectiveness will be correspondingly compromised. The value of socio-technical systems is discussed in this context. This discussion focuses on issues relating to developing the cultural and interpretative capabilities necessary to utilise information technologies to assist the complex task of processing data from seismically affected areas and to use these data to comprehend and manage complex and dynamic events. This issue is revisited in more detail in part three. While again providing a sound framework for this process, discussion of how individual and cultural interpretative processes function, and the training and development needs required to render complex data input meaningful, would have benefited from more comprehensive and critical coverage. Response agencies can underestimate the complexity of this task and can fail to address the fact that rendering data, often coming from diverse sources and which changes in nature and significance over time, meaningful is a highly interpretative process and one which requires high levels of staff training to develop the requisite capability. Similarly, when complex technologies are used, steps must be taken to safeguard against the assumption that the existence of these resources is sufficient to deal with response problems (Paton et al., 1999; Paton & Flin, 1999). Over-estimating technological capabilities without adequately considering the functions and decisions it is designed to support or inadequate liaison between system developers and users, can compound response problems and undermine response effectiveness.

Part two of this text demonstrates how the conceptual issues developed in part one can be applied to the task of understanding how complex systems respond to seismic events and how community analyses can be used to assist planning. This section, as a consequence of its systematic evaluation of several large-scale seismic crises, is particularly informative. Comfort subdivides this discussion into four parts. The first deals with “non-adaptive systems”; those that are low on technical infrastructure, organisational flexibility, and cultural openness. Next, the interaction between earthquake hazard activity and “emergent adaptive systems” is discussed. These are defined in terms of low technical structure, medium organisational flexibility and emerging cultural openness to the meaning of seismic risk. The third group of community-earthquake interactions involve “operative adaptive systems”. This described communities with medium levels of technical structure, organisational flexibility and cultural openness to new ways of perceiving and responding to risk. The final group, defined in terms of “self-organising systems”, are those that are high on the above dimensions and which, consequently, have a capacity for creative response to crises conditions.

The systematic analysis of eleven earthquake case studies provides lucid and highly informative insights into the complexity of responding to earthquake crises and how agencies can begin to impose the level of structure required to manage their consequences. Discussion focuses primarily on response, with, as a consequence of the timing of the case analyses (within three weeks of the event in question) limited coverage of recovery issues. The final part of this extremely informative text summarises the issues discussed earlier in the form of a socio-technical systems model that can be used to mitigate collective risk and to facilitate a response that is more closely tailored to the needs, perceptions and capabilities of specific communities.

Overall, this book provides an innovative and comprehensive analysis of a highly complex topic. While some issues dealt with here will be applicable to other rapid onset (e.g., tsunamis), but historic events, care should exercised in applying the lessons of these events to prolonged and escalating events, or those with more dynamic natural histories (e.g., volcanic crises) (Paton et al., 1999). Although it is important that agencies remain open to the subsequent development of analytical frameworks, this text contents provide a practical tool for emergency planning for seismic crises.


Paton, D. & Flin, R. (1999) Disaster Stress: An emergency management perspective. Disaster Prevention and Management, 8, 261-267.

Paton, D. and Johnston, D. (2001) Disasters and Communities: Vulnerability, resilience and Preparedness. Disaster Prevention and Management, in press.

Paton, D., Johnston, D., Houghton, B., and Smith, L.M. (1998) Managing the effects of a volcanic eruption: Psychological perspectives on integrated emergency management, Journal of the American Society of Professional Emergency Managers, 5, 59- 69.

Paton, D., Johnston, D., Houghton, B., Flin, R., Ronan, K., and Scott, B. (1999) Managing Natural Hazard Consequences: Information management and decision making. Journal of the American Society of Professional Emergency Managers, 6, 37-48.


Douglas Paton © 2001. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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