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Resilience in Airport Risk Management (Case Study: Miami), Part 2

By Wesley Long

Applicable EM Theories
The gap between theory and application in emergency management can be bridged with education and experience. A deep understanding of the various types of theories that can be found in emergency management and how they pertain to risk, planning, and resilience is essential in a successful risk assessment strategy. Below are a few theories that apply to the four phases of emergency management:

  1. Mitigation
  2. Preparedness
  3. Response
  4. Recovery

There are many more theories that can be found applicable to the field of emergency management for airport and community alike, and several directly relate to one another. Therefore, it is important to have a broad understanding beyond the scope of this article. It is necessary to look at every potential angle and future decision trajectory through theory before applying resource allocation and risk management.

Chaos Theory
In the terms of emergency management, if something can go wrong, it probably will, and this can be confirmed by any Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) team. It is incredibly important to plan for disaster through risk assessment, resource management, and training. The dynamic nature of disaster makes it impossible to plan for the trajectories of actions, decisions, and events too far in advance because the dynamic nature of these issues are, by their very nature, unpredictable. Fundamental chaos theory includes sensitivity to initial conditions. A system progresses from a starting point along a nonlinear trajectory where it modulates inputs and outputs to adapt, transforming from one state to another. In terms of the systems involved in disaster, chaos theory adapts to the current situation and changes outcomes until the event is mitigated or overwhelmed.

Important to consider is that, in terms of planning and risk management, the slightest variation of conditions can be damaging. During a disaster response however, any variation in the system can become catastrophic if not handled with both fluidity and a calm approach. The system is generally seen on a spectrum ranging from stagnate to chaotic, and this theory is the pendulum on which that balance hangs. Continually increasing the systems complexity is the best approach at being able to meet the changing needs and dynamic nature of chaos theory. Keep in mind, however, that planning in this regard can go only so far in and of itself and is an important lesson to consider in how to approach this theory in the realm of emergency management at airports, or anywhere for that matter. 

Constructionism and Social Constructionist
Constructionism and its byproduct, social constructionism, comprise an incredibly complex yet interesting theoretical application that involves society, community, and even the emergency manager and can be seen in detail within the airport environment. The social phenomena of traditions, culture, and societal norms as they pertain to the context of reality perception make up the framework of these theories. These two theories go hand in hand and, in fact, branch out into other diverse and compelling theories as well such as social cognitive theory. Other theories found within the development and application of emergency management can be positively and negatively impacted by them, specifically in the recovery phase of a disaster or terrorist event. In fact, social constructionism can be viewed as a virus that infects the social cognitive fabric of a population until they are virtually identical (this allows for great prediction in two ways: 1. Airport population management and 2. ARFF response and recovery efforts).

When it comes to constructionism, there are often many misrepresentations or confusions considering the overarching ability of this this theory. To begin to untangle the vast web of constructionism, it is important to first address the inconsistency in terminology, which adds to the confusion of what precisely (social) constructionism and constructivism means. It appears as if the social aspect of constructionism is often used as an interchangeable term for which every potential airport study is being observed. The very generalized way in which research is gathered regarding constructionism is the learning of the world around a society (community or airport), as the construction of reality. Social constructionism comprises this on a more societal level as information pertains to the group, for example, how the data is applied across the entire spectrum (with this knowledge, you can determine how and where passengers would disembark a down aircraft or how and where they would evacuate the terminal, which gives you the upper hand on preplanning strategy).

This can be relatively dangerous in terms of manipulation by the media or other outside sources during a terrorist event or natural/manmade disaster. When reality is shaped by the group and not the individual, there could be major implications if the power of the group is not assessed appropriately. On a positive note however, social constructionism can be incredibly beneficial as well when information management and communication tactics take this into consideration in an effort to support emergency management decisions. During disaster preparation and recovery, the inclusion of social constructionist theory in the affected areas may provide incredible insight into decision making trajectories. If those trajectories cannot be manipulated to suit a positive implication of the local reality, then at least that is known at the predisaster planning level and that information can be woven into information management programs.

In Part 3: Systems Theory, Vulnerability Theory, and National Policy

WESLEY LONG works at the Glacier Park International Airport as the fire chief, operations director and is a certified emergency manager, certified professional manager, ACE trusted agent, and Airport Security Coordinator. Prior to the 13 years he has worked at GPIA, he spent 10 years as a firefighter in the United States Air Force, spending six years in the Pacific Rim and four in Space Command.


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