Like baby birds frantically peeping to be fed, the public implores mother media to feed them details. We demand answers and want to know what will be done to prevent similar events in the future.
I’m sensitive to the feelings of those who have lost loved ones in these events. However, can we expect government, emergency managers, and public safety officials to do much more to protect the population in the case of sensationalized events? Despite efforts to inform, the impact of prepared media releases fade as fast as winter’s light. So too does the public’s interest in real calls for action. Is there a true need to expend effort to mitigate these events? No. I believe we have already defined our society’s standards of tolerable loss, even if it hasn’t been consciously done. Failing to admit it is what holds us back.
For example, about 100 people die in motor vehicle crashes in the United States each day. That’s the equivalent of 1,200 Washington mudslides, 153 missing flights, or 9,000 shooting events over the course of a year. Should we spend public funds to mitigate sensationalized events (slides, plane crashes, shootings) when we chose to accept the high probability events (car crashes) as the cost of living in society?
Even though there is risk, I still drive. But the consequences are tolerable, and the level of risk is agreed upon by most Americans. 35,000-40,000 dead every year due to car crashes is our consensus standard of tolerable loss.
Achieving zero risk is an unattainable goal. Bullet proof vests, for example, are merely bullet resistant. They are not bullet proof. When mud slides, plane disappearances and shootings occur, it’s fair to investigate and identify weak links that need urgent attention. Gather data, ask subject matter experts where faults exist, and then share the findings so both the policy-makers and the public can make informed decisions.
Defining reasonable expectations of tolerable loss will help us to develop realistic preparedness capacity and to build resilience. Are we prepared to agree that in an earthquake-prone city with a population of 100,000, a tolerable loss of life is 0.2% or 200 people? Or that in a local economy of $10 billion dollars, we take a hit of 0.2% or $20 million? These are the discussions we need to have.
The point is not to achieve the lowest possible impact, but to find the acceptable impact of a given event. By setting realistic tolerable loss limits now, we avoid the emotionally charged atmosphere that happens after an incident. Emotional spending is wasted spending. It also raises false expectations that there won’t be more slides, plane crashes, or shootings. We know these will occur despite our best efforts or money spent.
Let’s calculate possible life risk threats from natural hazard events and then compare them with the risks we face in everyday life. Let’s identify the level of economic impact that towns, regions, and the nation could withstand. When our risk assessment shows an impact potential greater than our tolerable loss, let’s reevaluate current plans and agree to fund mitigation and preparedness efforts.
If it proves difficult to make a financial case to mitigate rare events, set a benchmark of ten times our tolerable loss limit for more probable events. That should provide a measure for a catastrophic impact and show whether there is a clear need for mitigation and preparedness activities.
The next steps are discussions that involve subject matter experts, the public, and policy makers. Science will give us evidence based data that looks at the cost-benefit ratios of particular mitigation strategies for specific events. The public offers their expectations of safety, and policy makers are tasked to fund efforts to balance the two.
We need to move beyond emergency management and public safety policies that are driven by knee-jerk reactions. There is a cost to living on this planet and it is not risk free. Quantifying that risk and setting tolerable loss limits will serve to take emotion out of the discussions. Only then can we set realistic goals and move forward.