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Volume 2004-1

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2004-1

Douglas Paton, School of Psychology, University of Tasmania, Locked Bag 1342, Launceston, Tasmania 7250, Australia.. Email: Douglas.Paton@utas.edu.au

Volume : 2004-1

Douglas Paton

School of Psychology,
University of Tasmania
Launceston, Tasmania

Proactive response to contemporary hazards:
Perspectives from military peacekeeping, humanitarian aid
and emergency management contexts

Events in Iraq over the past twelve months have provided almost daily reminders of the demanding and often threatening nature of peacekeeping and humanitarian aid work. Unfortunately, the coverage of events in Iraq illustrates a state of affairs that is mirrored in many other countries. It has become a fact of contemporary life that if civil war, disaster or war occur in countries lacking the means to meet the unique needs of survivors and surviving communities, a response from the international community will ensue. Consequently, military, humanitarian aid, emergency service, mental health, and medical personnel and many others are increasingly becoming involved in peacekeeping, disaster relief and humanitarian aid roles outside their country of origin. When involved in this capacity, they operate within a context characterised by, for example, the performance of their professional duties in atypical contexts, exposure to death, personal danger, unique cultural attitudes and practices, isolation, poverty, and political conflict and instability. These conditions stand in stark contrast to the conditions that they are likely to encounter in the course of performing in their routine or expected capacity.

Military personnel, and increasingly law enforcement professionals, have a prominent role to play in peacekeeping missions in countries torn apart by the consequences of war and civil war. Despite the growing recognition of the importance of this role, Taylor highlights the paucity of systematic research on preparing peacekeeping personnel and on the kinds of organisational adaptation required to operate in atypical circumstances. Central to Taylor’s argument is the fact that, for military personnel in particular, the sharp contrast that exists between conventional military training and the operational expectations it creates, and the ‘constabulary’ demands of the peacekeeping role create a foundation for adverse stress reactions. To this can be added the consequences of dealing with the specific demands of peacekeeping. Taylor places what work has been done on military involvement in peacekeeping roles within its historical context and then proceeds to review current knowledge on the training and support strategies available to those performing in this capacity.

Peacekeeping is only one component of the international response to disaster and war. Managing the health and welfare needs of survivor communities are a vast army of humanitarian aid workers. Like Taylor’s review of the military response, McFarlane describes the fact that research into the nature of humanitarian aid work and the preparatory implications that it has for personal and organisational development has only gained currency within the research literature over the relatively recent past. McFarlane reviews the humanitarian aid literature and provides an evidence-based account of the issues that aid workers routinely encounter. This work provides a solid foundation upon which the development of training and support strategies can be developed and future research agenda planned. An important element in McFarlane’s work is that it focuses not only on members of the international community who work outside of their country of origin, but also on the local nationals who assist the process of recovery within their own country.

Both Taylor and McFarlane identify the paucity of research on their respective groups. The need for members of the international community to perform in such roles is unlikely to disappear any time within the foreseeable future. Indeed, as this edition of the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies goes to press, events in Sudan provide an all too familiar reminder of this need. Similarly, a recent spate of hostage taking and kidnappings highlight the plight of civilian aid workers in Iraq and underlines the risks that characterise the context in which those seeking to further humanitarian goals face. Consequently, it is beholden upon national governments, military organisations, professional and volunteer relief agencies, and the research community to increase their efforts to facilitate the well-being being of those working in disaster relief roles.

The final paper in this edition focuses on the prevention of disaster. On December 24th 1953, eight years after it erupted, a lahar emanating from the collapse of a barrier surrounding Ruapehu’s crater lake devastated the Whangaehu valley. Unfortunately, its arrival at the Tangiwai rail bridge coincided with the passage of the Wellington-Auckland express across the bridge. Of the 285 people on board the train, 151 people lost their lives.

The cause of this event was the construction, as a result of eruptive activity, of an artificially high barrier around that part of Ruapehu’s crater lake from which lake water would normally flow. This barrier effectively dammed the lake. However, eventually the weight of water in the lake resulted in a catastrophic breach of this barrier. This resulted in excess lake levels pouring down the Whangaehu valley as a lahar, creating the Tangiwai disaster. In 1953, knowledge of this particular volcanic hazard was non-existent.

Today, being forewarned is forearmed. While there is still a degree of uncertainty surrounding the timing and the likely magnitude of the event, the ability to more accurately predict when this particular hazard will occur has been used to good effect. Several structural and procedural strategies have been implemented to manage what is an inevitable event. Structural mitigation efforts include construction of a concrete barrier to prevent a lahar from flooding State Highway One and affecting communities and industry north of the volcano. An early warning system (the Eastern Ruapehu Lahar Warning System - ERLAWS) has also been installed. In addition to it automatically triggering lights and gates at the key road bridge and rail bridge at Tangiwai, this device will activate the emergency response.

Galley et al. provide an overview of the issues that emergency management and emergency response communities must address to ensure an integration of warnings and emergency response. Galley et al. discuss this in the context of the need to activate an integrated emergency response within a short time frame. This work has implications beyond this event. The information, decision management and team issues that arise within inter-agency planning and operational contexts render the training and development needs of this event being representative of those that characterise the operational aspects of the implementation of an integrated or coordinated incident management system.

Thus the crater lake event provides an opportunity for the systematic identification of training and operational response management procedures required for an effective multi-agency response to a crisis event. It also, and more importantly, affords an unparalleled opportunity to evaluate the response and response management to an actual incident rather than an exercise. It is to be hoped that responsible authorities and agencies take full advantage of this opportunity to ensure not just an effective response to this (foreseeable) event but also to lay the foundation for the effective response to events that do not signal their arrival in such an obliging way.


Douglas Paton © 2004. 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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