A voice for citizens in emergencies and disasters: the policy recommendations of the ENGAGE project

Alexandra Olson, EENA’s EU Projects Officer, sat down with David Wales, a researcher involved in the EU-funded ENGAGE project, to talk about the policy recommendations that the project has produced, the role that his background in the UK Fire and Rescue Service played in their development, and what implications the recommendations have for emergency services and disaster management as a whole.

Alexandra Olson, EENA’s EU Projects Officer, sat down with David Wales, a researcher involved in the EU-funded ENGAGE project, to talk about the policy recommendations that the project has produced, the role that his background in the UK Fire and Rescue Service played in their development, and what implications the recommendations have for emergency services and disaster management as a whole.

Can you tell us about the policy themes that the ENGAGE project is focusing on?

The ENGAGE project seeks to enhance the capacity of communities to prepare for, respond to, and recover from nature-derived and man-made adversities by identifying tools, technologies, and strategies to enhance collaborations between citizens, first responders, and public authorities. The policy recommendations of the project were developed with this “whole society” approach in mind, and we sought to look at the themes of communicating with citizens in a crisis and the role of spontaneous volunteers from multiple perspectives. For example, we considered what conditions were necessary so that spontaneous volunteers could be integrated into formal emergency response which involved taking into account not only the perspective of disaster management professionals but also the perspective of citizens and what their needs are.

Can you outline some key points from the recommendations themselves?

In terms of communicating with citizens, we felt that we needed to rethink the ecosystem that [communications] is operating in. We particularly want to encourage those with the local or regional responsibility to look at ways to ensure continuous communication with citizens, as their needs change before, during, and after an emergency. This involves moving towards a more balanced and equitable contribution to communications strategies rather than relying on top-down messaging and finding ways to further develop trust and connections with the community. These connections can be facilitated, for example, by listening to the voices of communities, hearing their concerns, what they’ve achieved, and their reactions in terms of emergencies. This collaboration will allow for the development of creative ways to communicate risk to citizens that are relevant for them. In terms of spontaneous volunteers, [local or regional authorities] need to recognise that, in order to effectively work with them, the professional side and the informal side of disaster response need to be seen as two complementary systems. It is unlikely that forcing spontaneous volunteers to fit into the environment that we’ve created as professionals will work as the ways they think and operate are different. In other words, an interface should be created to facilitate working with spontaneous volunteers in order to bridge the formal and informal sides of disaster response instead of seeking to create a single, homogenous approach. Overall, we have to be more ambitious in terms of what we’re trying to achieve. Each emergency offers an opportunity to be better prepared for the next time, but this is perhaps only being partially achieved with the current retrospective learning model. A progressive continuous learning and development strategy may be required. But, to achieve this, we as professionals have to be honest about what we may be doing to hinder or enable the development of community resilience. We need communities to be more resilient and they will only do that by learning and by proactively being given more opportunities to take action. We must also accept that, like us, they will make mistakes as they learn. If, through well intentioned and understandable risk aversion, we keep denying them these opportunities, we cannot expect community capabilities to grow in line with longer term needs.

Who are the target stakeholders for these recommendations and what was the rationale for this decision?

Our key audience is regional and municipal authorities. We investigated all possible audiences from international, national, to more local actors and although we recognised the important role that each of these stakeholders play, we felt for our work that the regional level struck a good balance between understanding the contextual and practical issues, having an awareness of the current political environment, and having the ability to bring about change where it’s beneficial. By “practical issues” I’m referring to the operational aspects of dealing with an emergency. For example, what resources they have available and who they could call upon [within the community] if necessary. Authorities on this level also tend to have an invaluable knowledge of the needs of the local community and its history.

Can you tell us a bit about your background, and in what ways that has influenced the perspective you’ve taken to the development of these policy recommendations?

I was in the UK Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) for 30 years and during that time I worked a lot with communities. Most of my career was spent working in community safety roles, which included partnership work with other agencies, developing Memorandums of Understanding and developing other relationships. What led me along this particular path [looking at the human side of emergency response] was a piece of work around understanding human behavior and why people didn’t do what we expected them to do in an emergency. While we [as professionals] were organized to comply with our statutory roles, we hadn’t sought to understand the citizen experience of an emergency in the same way. Surprisingly, there was nothing to guide us, and we didn’t have systems in place to hear about their experiences, which was more about their emotional experience, their decision-making, and the personal impact it had on them. Whilst what we did [as professionals] was necessary, citizens identified that there were other ways that we could reduce avoidable harm for them. This is how I became interested- not as a “who’s right” problem- but in how do you bring all of these aspects together in order to address both the regulatory and the citizen requirements. We recognised during our research just how much citizens were doing [in emergency response] that we weren’t aware of in the fire service. Overall, the research ran for 6-years starting as a local study with interviews, and eventually scaled up to a national knowledge partnership with a university that looked at the behaviors and motivations of citizens and how they reacted when there was a fire in their home. The findings led to me being appointed as the first Customer Experience manager in the FRS. Working on the ENGAGE project on policy recommendations was a way to continue this interest, especially since aspects of the ENGAGE research have demonstrated some of the same principles- in particular, that citizens shouldn’t be seen as a problem to be solved but as an essential part of the solution.

What do you think are some barriers that these recommendations might face when moving towards the implementation phase?

We recognise that change is always difficult, especially since there are many other ongoing challenges at the moment, and [encouraging] different ways of working is something that can feel daunting. However, we hope that by working with regional and local authorities we can find ways that the changes we’ve proposed can be introduced effectively, but at a pace and scale that is achievable. We also recognise that the language we use in the policy briefs may not always be familiar to municipal and regional authorities, which is sometimes the case when you translate concepts on a research level to the practical side. So, we are working hard to try and find the right terminology.

What wider applications do you think these recommendations might have for emergency services or disaster management as a whole? 

We don’t have a strong or formal voice for citizens in emergencies and disasters, and even when we talk about [spontaneous] volunteers it tends to be indirect knowledge e.g. through NGO’s. But for every stage of emergencies, it is so important to hear from citizens and so anyone involved in emergency services would learn a lot by just sitting down with people and asking questions about their experiences and expectations. It’s also important for citizens to have agency, and for those that are able to contribute to emergency response to take action that is in line with their abilities and needs, so we [as professionals] need to think about how we can support that. This is not only important in terms of the practical aspects of effectively dealing with an emergency, but also for the mental health and wellbeing of citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that, in some cases, professionals will be unable to deal with situations on their own. Therefore, it is also important for our own planning that we work with the local community in order to see what skills and assets they have and what activities they can undertake independently.  

Is there anything else you would like to mention about working on the ENGAGE project?

It has been really fascinating and encouraging to learn from the expertise of EENA and ENGAGE and keep pushing to have better outcomes and improve our abilities to deal with disasters. It’s refreshing to see the work that’s going on, particularly in the field of research, because sometimes this human side gets lost behind papers and reports.

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