Are local authorities better placed to respond to crises and disasters than central government?

Essay, 2013

17 Pages




1 Introduction

2 Definitions
2.1 Crisis
2.2 Disaster
2.3 Central government
2.4 Local authority
2.5 Decentralization
2.6 Crisis and Disaster Preparation
2.7 Crisis and Disaster Response

3 Conceptual Framework
3.1 Emergency Preparation Structures in the UK
3.2 Emergency Response Structures in the UK
3.3 Integrated Emergency Management (IEM)

4 Case study
4.1 Emergency Response in London - Strengths
4.2 Emergency Response in London – Weaknesses

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

When crisis looms or disaster strikes, adverse effects that affect a community or a nation are likely to emerge. To reverse these adverse effects to health, safety and property and restore the community back to routine functioning a swift and unencumbered response is required (Walker and Broderick, 2006: 55). Few would doubt that especially in times of crisis and disaster, central government is responsible for protection of life and property, and has a duty to provide for the protection of its citizens. O’Leary (2004: 1) points out the importance of local authorities in this process stating that virtually all disasters are experienced at the local level, where many communities and emergency response services can expect to be on their own for the first seventy-two hours after impact. Contemporary approaches to crisis and disaster management promote the view that central governments are partners with local authorities in disaster management (Levinson and Granot, 2002: 21). The advantages of these contemporary approaches to respond to crisis and disaster seem obvious, local authorities are ‘closer to the people’ and make better use of local knowledge (Treisman, 2007: 4). Considering this, the essay will take a nuanced approach to show that disasters are indeed best managed locally, but this has to be done within a nationally integrated framework supported by central government. It is appropriate to discuss this statement to test its veracity. For this purpose, a case study will be utilized, examining the London bombings on 7 July 2005.

This essay is divided into five main sections. Following the introduction, key terms in use throughout the essay such as crisis, disaster, central government, local authority, decentralization, preparation and response to crisis and disaster are defined. In addition to the general definitions, the terms are also considered in the UK context. The third section is comprised of theories around centralized vs. decentralized disaster preparation and response. These will be used to build a conceptual framework and demonstrate that a nuanced approach is necessary for an effective crisis and disaster response. Following the conceptual framework, emergency preparedness and response structures in the UK and their underlying principles are introduced, forming a prime example of a nuanced approach. The case study forms the fourth section in which the essay will discuss the effectiveness of responders during the London bombings and analyse the strengths and weaknesses of local and central government reactions. It will be shown that a nuanced approach was advantageous helping local authorities to respond rapidly and effectively, thus minimizing casualties. The essay concludes showing that local authorities are in place to respond to ‘everyday emergencies’. However, being faced with crisis and disaster, their actions must be enhanced by central government involvement and support.

To establish an answer to the question, the essay starts off by defining key terms in use throughout the paper.

2 Definitions

2.1 Crisis

Organizational definitions of crisis and disaster differ. Even more, the term ‘crisis’ is often used synonymously with the term ‘disaster’ (Boin and t’Hart, 2007: 42), as both concepts are clearly related. A disaster for one organisation may be 'only' an on-going crisis for another (Borodzicz, 2005: 77). Quarantelli, Lagadec and Boin (2007: 23) provide a short sociological definition of crisis focussing on the timely aspect of incidents and stating that a crisis involves an urgent threat to the core functions of a social system. Rosenthal, Boin and Comfort (2001: 7) provide a more detailed definition of crisis which contains most elements concurred by relevant authors, and reads as follows: “…one can speak of crisis when a community, e.g. an organization, a town or a nation, perceives an urgent threat to core values or life sustaining functions, which must be dealt with under conditions of uncertainty”. Hence, a crisis can set the stage for disaster (Boin and t’Hart, 2007: 42) or, when ill managed, can lead to disaster (Rosenthal, 1998: 153).

2.2 Disaster

There is no universally accepted definition of the term disaster, as there is disagreement about what kind of characteristics should be included in the definition (Perry, 2007: 13). One common aspect different organizations’ definitions coincide on, is that a disaster event threatens social stability and requires “extraordinary or emergency countermeasures to reestablish stability” (Porfiriev, 1995: 291). Considering the characteristics of the essay question, Gilbert's (1995: 231) definition will be adopted, which defines disaster as the result of impact of external forces, the result of social vulnerability or the result of crisis.

A clear definition of disaster lacks in the legislative framework created by the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (from herein further the Act) (Walker and Broderick, 2006: 68). However, considering that the incident in the case study took place in the UK, the definition of ‘emergency’ defined in Part I of the Act will be considered in addition to Gilbert’s definition while referring to crisis and disaster in the UK. This definition of ‘emergency’ reads as follows: An event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in the UK, the environment of a place in the UK, or war or terrorism which threatens serious damage to the security of the UK (Civil Contingencies Act, 2004).

Notably, the definition includes consequences rather than causes. This is done to enable responders to address a wide variety of disasters (Walker and Broderick, 2006: 64). The definition of emergency in the Act varies between Part I and Part II. Part I focus is on local authorities. Therefore, the definition of emergency is geographically limited to a ‘place’ rather than a ‘part or region’ (as in Part II) (Walker and Broderick, 2006: 73). According to the London Resilience Strategic Emergency Plan an emergency can deteriorate becoming a major incident, which can further worsen becoming a catastrophic incident, definitely requiring central government assistance (London Resilience Forum, 2005). Legislative limitations in conjunction with the Strategic Emergency Plan indicate that in general, local authorities are considered in the UK as being better placed to respond to localized emergencies, whereas during geographically widespread or high-impact incidents central government intervention is considered appropriate (Walker and Broderick, 2006: 73-74).

2.3 Central government

Generally, the term central government refers to the first tier of government, responsible for a wide array of tasks, including national policy-making, protection of life and property, national defence, foreign relations, national legislations on health and safety and other areas (Williams, 1998: 6). Central Government in the UK, consists of the Cabinet Office, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, the military and political ministerial masters (Walker and Broderick, 2006: 296).

2.4 Local authority

In general, local authority (sometimes referred to as local government) can be referred to as the lowest administrative tier in a state, delivering services to the community (Marxer and Pallinger, 2011: 157). In a unitary state like the UK, local authorities have no power to make laws and the powers they possess are defined by the central government (Rutherford, 2004: 29-30). Local authorities are defined in England as (a) a county council, (b) a district council, (c) a London borough council, (d) the Common Council of the City of London, and the (e) Council of the Isles of Scilly (Walker and Broderick, 2006: 83).

2.5 Decentralization

In order to understand the relationship between central government and local authorities and the distribution of powers among them, it is important to discuss the concept of decentralization. Decentralization is generally defined as the process through which authority and responsibilities for some substantial government functions are transferred from central government to local governments (Gupta, 2004: 458). The level of decentralization is defined by the level of delegation of powers and responsibilities from central government to local authorities (Gupta, 2004: 459), while the level of centralization is defined by the degree formal authority is concentrated on the central level (Gitman and McDaniel, 2008 :189). General advantages of decentralization are that it brings the government ‘closer to the people’ and devolving power to local authorities makes better use of local knowledge (Treisman, 2007: 4). General advantages of centralization include, that it reduces overlap, duplication and inconsistency (Bessette and Pitney, 2012: 72). The level of centralization/decentralization or delegation of responsibilities defines the level on which preparation to crisis and disaster is conducted.

2.6 Crisis and Disaster Preparation

Although, preparatory measures to crises and disasters cannot eliminate risks altogether, preparation is crucial for an adequate response. The goal of disaster preparation is to equip responders with the knowledge what to do, how to do it and the right tools to perform these actions (Coppola, 2011: 251). In the UK, a wide range of duties is placed by the legislative framework of the Act on local responders. Those duties include: risk assessment, emergency planning, business continuity management, cooperation, information sharing, advice to business, and communicating with the public (Walker and Broderick, 2006: 96). Considering the duties imposed by legislation on local authorities, it is clear that the core responsibilities for emergency preparation lie in the UK on local level. Central government advises local authorities through legislation, guidelines and training opportunities (Harrison, 1998: 161).

2.7 Crisis and Disaster Response

Generally, the aim of crisis and disaster response (similar to emergency response) is to limit injuries, loss of life, and damages to property (Coppola, 2011: 306) and to restore the community back to routine functioning (Webb, 2007: 436). In the UK, main responsibility to respond to all types of emergencies lies at the local level. Responders act according to pre-setup emergency plans. The Cabinet Office guidelines (HM Government, 2005) explain response actions as “…the decisions and actions taken to deal with the immediate effects of an emergency… At a high level these will be to protect life, contain and mitigate the impacts of the emergency and create the conditions for a return to normality.“

In sum, above definitions imply that crisis and disaster can be prepared for and responded on different levels depending on the level of centralization/decentralization. The following conceptual framework elaborates on the different approaches and their distinctive advantages and disadvantages.

3 Conceptual Framework

Preparation and response to emergencies, crises and disasters can be managed both, centralized or decentralized (Eikenberry et al., 2007). Considering the timely phases of disaster management, i.e. preparation and response, and the way, how these two phases can be managed, i.e. centralized versus decentralized, four different approaches to manage crisis and disaster become apparent. A matrix, consisting of these four basic approaches, will be used in the essay to discuss the pros and cons of the different approaches and form an answer whether local authorities are indeed better placed to respond to crises and disasters than central government.

Focussing firstly on response to crises and disasters, it becomes apparent that an advantage of a centrally managed response is the higher amount of resources available to central governments compared with local authorities (Schaeffer and Kashdan, 2010: 174). Another significant advantage of centralization is that in an actual crisis or disaster, personnel can be drafted according to needs and specialization from a wide range of personnel. In principle, this means that any situation could be faced with the best possible team (Gupta, 2009: 138-139). Lastly, a centrally managed response decreases the opportunity for conflict due to less fragmentation and less number of decision takers (Scott and Alam, 2011: 180).

Seifert (2007: 101) criticizes centralization highlighting that uncertain situations such as crisis and disaster require an approach that allows flexibility. In addition, Drabek and McEntire (2003) argue that knowledge about the affected population is a precursor to conduct a crisis and disaster response that meets needs. Also Browning and Shetler (1992: 487-488) highlight that the creativity, knowledge, energy and organization of local communities is a resource that is not adequately tapped during a centralized response. Seifert (2007: 184) points out experiences made in New Zealand where a high degree of decentralization, due to dispersed population and variation in terrain, made passive victims become active responders. She therefore implies that centralization can negatively affect communities. A high degree of decentralization to respond to ‘everyday emergencies’ can be observed on a daily basis. During most incidents that negatively affect communities, local emergency services such as fire, police and medical personnel respond most efficiently (Haddow et al., 2011: 165, 171). Their response actions depend on emergency plans, which account for local sensitivities and were developed in anticipation of a wide range of emergencies. However, a disaster is a low-probability, high-impact event that eventually overwhelms local responders capabilities and resources. Considering in addition the uncertain conditions most crises entail, a disaster can be hardly prepared for and responded to by local authorities without central government support.

Above discussion shows the importance of a decentralized response capability to locally contained ‘everyday emergencies’. However, considering that disasters do not respect boundaries, be they physical or organisational, and their consequences often have widespread ramifications (Daniels and Kettl, 2006 :8) the importance of central level support to prepare for and respond to reserved matters, such as terrorism, becomes apparent. This view is shared by Kreps (1998: 39-41) who advocates the establishment of organisational structures dedicated to deal with crisis and disasters, as in his view the same organisational structures used to deal with ‘everyday emergencies’ fail in responding to ‘major emergencies’. Kapucu and Oezerdem (2011: 63) further elaborate on preparation to crisis and disaster, pointing out that the majority of disasters cause tragic results due to a lack of coordination. They point out that during crisis and disaster preparation a strategy, preventive and preparatory measures and institutional arrangements need to be put in place so that an effective response can be initiated. In fact Kapucu and Oezerdem point out the need of centrally organized preparation to crisis and disaster.

In sum, the discussion about four basic possibilities to prepare and respond to crisis and disaster has shown that centralized preparation and decentralized response carries characteristics of the most common approach for dealing with ‘everyday emergencies’. However, being faced with a crisis or disaster, it becomes apparent that the ‘everyday emergency’ approach eventually fails, unless response efforts are further supported by central government. This nuanced approach seems the most preferable to cope with the overwhelming impacts of crisis and disasters, since it consolidates the advantages of both levels of government.

Having determined that crisis and disaster response is not per se better placed in the hands of local authorities, the essay continues to examine emergency preparation and response structures in the UK. It then continues examining the Integrated Emergency Management (IEM) approach being an example of a nuanced approach to deal with emergencies, crises and disasters.


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Are local authorities better placed to respond to crises and disasters than central government?
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Crisis, disaster, crisis management, disaster management, leicester
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