Hollywood loves a good disaster.
Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions, nuclear meltdowns—the drama that follows, as humans grapple with the aftermath of the disaster, is always entertaining.
But emergency management experts like Thomas Poulin, PhD, core faculty in Capella University’s School of Public Service Leadership, say Hollywood usually gets it wrong. In most cases, there’s not a brash commander leading the recovery operation from a central post. The feds almost never take over, and federal emergency workers and military assistance often take days—not hours—to arrive.
When Poulin watches movies like Contagion, Armageddon, or The Day After Tomorrow, he frequently rolls his eyes, and thinks, “Real emergency management doesn’t work this way…” He also worries that such films can create problems for emergency managers in the event of an actual disaster, creating unrealistic expectations among the public and the media.
Myths vs. Reality
Screenwriters get lots of details wrong. Poulin cites three common myths they perpetuate.
1. Myth: Aid and assistance arrive immediately.
In fact, reaction times depend on the nature of the event. If the event is predictable, such as the arrival of a hurricane, emergency managers can make some preparations in advance. In other cases, depending on the location of the disaster and the impact on local infrastructure, it may take aid workers days or even weeks to arrive in substantive numbers.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises that state and local governments are equipped to deal with a disaster state for at least five days before depending on federal assistance.
2. Myth: The federal government takes over.
“All disasters are local events,” Poulin says, “and they require local input and expertise to respond to them.” FEMA has approximately 2,400 employees, so while they can help organize disaster workers, they cannot handle all the operations necessary to deal with disaster situation. Military personnel, likewise, play a supporting role in disaster response. “Technically, all federal employees are there to support state and local government—not to run things,” Poulin says.
3. Myth: Decision-making is tightly controlled.
In disaster movies, tough guys like Tommy Lee Jones make brash decisions on the fly and take risks that endanger defenseless people and expensive equipment without regard to budgets, community input, environmental impact, etc. In reality, emergency managers usually take a team approach, taking stock of community priorities and resources before acting. Solo action is almost impossible, because collaboration is essential to the success of a multifaceted emergency response action.
Read more about myths in emergency management from Dr. Poulin in EM Myths: Dealing with Public Misperceptions.
How to Fight the Fiction
Disaster movies are meant to entertain. But Poulin is concerned that the misconceptions such films perpetuate could have an impact on public support and expectations in an actual emergency. “If we don’t meet expectations, local managers will be criticized by media and politicians, and that could result in less funding or less authority,” he says. To counter the myths, Poulin suggests that emergency managers:
1. Acknowledge that the myths exist.
“Yes, they’re misconceptions,” Poulin says. “But perceptions are often reality.”
2. Educate your community.
When disaster strikes, there’s no time to bring people up to speed on how the process works. Emergency managers should take time beforehand to host open houses offering insight into how emergency management actually works. Visit schools. Publish op-eds. The more you engage the public, the more support your community will provide you in an emergency—or when your budget comes up for review.
3. Create allies.
Talk with local government leaders. Host a media academy. Give thought leaders in your community an inside look at the levers of emergency management. “The more we prepare our communities to deal with disasters ahead of time, the more resilient they’ll be when trouble hits,” Poulin says.
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