The past, present and future of emergency management

Analytics Solutions Social Specialist, IBM

Originally, emergency management (EM) was almost purely about reaction. At its inception, it was the responsibility of the military, so it focused on responding to wars or externally initiated attacks. Its primary focus was managing post-event response, and it paid minimal attention to preparation or optimization. Toward the end of the Cold War, however, EM expanded to include consideration of natural and manmade events. In 1979, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was founded, and regional and local EM officials followed. At this time, the four-phase cycle was put in place.

Today, thanks to the opportunities presented by new technologies, we are seeing another stage of emergency management. This new stage balances the historical approach to emergency management with the potential of technology to unify resources and adapt plans in real time. Read on to see how each of the four phases of emergency management will change in a tech-supported world.

Preparedness This phase incorporates preparation in advance of an event. It includes identifying and distributing personnel, resources and training, as well as understanding how different departments or jurisdictions communicate and work together in the event of an emergency. It often includes drills, outlining of plans and threat assessment.

Now: Software allows many of the aspects of planned emergency drills to be automated, increasing the speed at which they can be run and decreasing the number of resources required to complete an effective drill. Information management systems help manage the increasing complexity of emergency planning and response, allowing quicker assessment of current capabilities.


Then: During this stage, immediate action is taken to save lives, prevent damage or loss and initiate the short-term recovery process. This is when the plans outlined in preparation are enacted and the reserved resources need distributing.

Now: Response is the most visible part of the cycle. It is what members of the public think of when they hear “emergency management.” Because of this, failures or success in this stage “can dramatically impact the political and financial support for an EM system.” Reactions need to happen instantaneously and effectively. This is where an EM tech solution can really shine. Dr. Gary Nestler, IBM's global leader for emergency management, and Dr. Andrea Jackson, managing consultant specializing in emergency management, explain how “rapidly deployable data and information-sharing systems can use secured cloud solutions, allowing communication to continue even when infrastructure is damaged or limited in scale.” Especially in the midst of an emergency, having open lines of communication and access to accurate information at the right time is crucial to making effective decisions quickly. On top of this, mapping software and geographic information systems can help in processing and visualizing information. To take things a step further still, industry-developed software can help in understanding the options available and using analytics to predict the outcome of choosing each one.


Then: Recovery involves both short-term repair actions and long-term strategic plans. Everything from debris removal to home rebuilding to restoration of economic structures falls into this phase. Officials will also evaluate the response phase to decide what, if any, adjustments are needed to the EM system and infrastructure.

Now: The same information sharing tools that enabled a prompt reaction in the response phase aid cross-departmental communication in the recovery phase. They help apply resources where they are most needed, maximizing the effectiveness of what may be a limited resource pool. Big data tools can analyze post-event reports to determine how successful the response was and how it could be improved. They can also track the success of recovery plans over the course of years to aid re-evaluation of long-term strategy.


Then: Mitigation takes place after recovery to minimize the losses that may be sustained from future events. But it also encompasses any actions taken throughout the other three phases to reduce long-term damage, including infrastructure updates and regularly scheduled risk assessments.

Now: Technology performs an evaluative role. Predictive analytics can run simulations to calculate the effects of improved structures and planning. Flood mapping and geographic information systems can assist in floodplain analysis and insurance planning. For example, after a hurricane devastated the Philippines in 2013, the need for a centralized command center to improve emergency response was clear. See how IBM worked with the Philippines through an Impact Grant to improve emergency response and mitigate future risk: 

New technologies are creating incredible opportunities for each phase of the EM cycle, but the real effects of these new solutions are felt when they operate cohesively across all four phases. Breaking down silos of communication can revolutionize how emergency management operates. To learn how to bring your EM system into the modern era, read Gary Nestler and Andrea Jackman’s report 21st Century Emergency Management.