Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

UK Emergency Preparedness: A Step in the Right Direction?

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

UK Emergency Preparedness: A Step in the Right Direction?

Article excerpt

In an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world, preparedness, at all levels, for a range of threats is a key aspect of effective emergency management and of public reassurance. Preparedness is a combination of structural and non-structural measures designed to reduce known risks but also to ensure effective responses to a range of threats. At the beginning of the millennium a series of events exposed the fragmented approach to UK emergency management and triggered a wide-scale review aimed at making the United Kingdom more resilient, that is, more able to withstand and cope with disruptive events. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States occurred during this review and affected the outcome, leading to an approach more focused on institutional resilience than promoting it at all levels of society. Yet the bombings of 7 July 2005 in London demonstrated that no matter how well prepared, it appears almost impossible to prevent such atrocities, particularly if the terrorists themselves have no interest in surviving the attack.

The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century saw the world enter a new era in terms of emergency preparedness. Though there are still many instances where the triggering agent for disaster can be predicted, such as the hurricane season, there are many instances when we have little or no warning. Climate change represents only one example of threats for which we have no experience upon which to draw and from which there can be no return to the earlier status quo. Rapid technological change, the increased risk of diseases spreading globally through air travel, the looming energy crisis, changing geopolitical trends and the threat of terrorism with no regard for life represent a new set of challenges for which we have to prepare. Arguably we now have to think creatively; new approaches to civil protection are needed. Ignoring the new realities is perilous and not engaging the wider public in the process of preparing for such possibilities is a denial of responsibility.

Terrorism, repugnant though it is, seems to have transfixed the government in the United Kingdom. There is now a danger that civil protection in Britain and other developed countries will simply focus on fortifying against such attacks. Such a focus could lead to the sacrifice of approaches that promote a more resilient society that is able to respond to, and cope with, a range of threats. This article evaluates the changes to civil protection in the United Kingdom. In doing so it identifies a clear institutional focus and posits that such an approach neglects to engage the public in the wider debate surrounding societal responses to the changing landscape of risk.


Risk assessment and management involve both institutional preparedness and societal attitudes. Risk assessment underpins emergency preparedness and requires a clear understanding of both internal risks, such as the location and management of hazardous industrial facilities, and external risks, such as terrorism or human-induced climate change. Risk management characterizes systems that both mitigate risk and deal with consequences should an emergency occur. Societal attitudes, however, shape the ways we respond to information, including warnings of possible danger. Increasing skepticism or disbelief in official pronouncements undermines attempts to ensure the public is properly informed.

Profound changes took place during the 20th century that shaped the risk landscape and societal attitudes to risk. The United Kingdom saw great social and technological changes in the latter half of the 20th century: Individualism rose with the information revolution and the emergence of a highly educated and increasingly mobile information society, and was typified by the declaration by Margaret Thatcher that there was "no such thing as society. …

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