Cover Image
close this bookAn Overview of Disaster Management (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - United Nations Development Programme , 1992, 136 p.)
close this folderChapter 7. Disaster preparedness
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentComponents of disaster preparedness
View the documentPreparedness for slow onset and sudden onset disasters
View the documentPreparedness within the United Nations 2
View the documentChecklist of basic information required by a UN-DMT 3



The concept of disaster preparedness is quite straightforward. Its objective is to ensure that in times of disasters appropriate systems, procedures and resources are in place to assist those afflicted by the disaster and enable them to help themselves.

The aims of disaster preparedness are to minimize the adverse effects of a hazard through effective precautionary actions, and to ensure timely, appropriate and efficient organization and delivery of emergency response following the impact of a disaster.

This definition establishes the broad framework for disaster preparedness, but it is worth dwelling on some of the points implicit in the definition.

“to minimize the adverse effects of a hazard”

Disaster risk reduction is intended to minimize the adverse effects of a hazard by eliminating the vulnerabilities which hazards otherwise would expose and by directly reducing the potential impact of a hazard before it strikes. Disaster preparedness in its starkest form assumes that certain groups of people will nevertheless remain vulnerable, and that preparedness will have to address the consequences of a hazard’s impact.

“through effective precautionary actions”

It is important to note that the term used is “precautionary actions,” for all too often the end product of disaster preparedness is seen as a static plan to be devised and then filed until it is needed. Disaster preparedness, to the contrary, must be seen as an active and continuing process. Of course, both plans and strategies are required, but they both must be dynamic ventures, which are frequently reviewed, modified, updated and tested.

“to ensure timely, appropriate, and efficient organization and delivery”

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of disaster management is that of timing. Timing also impinges upon the concept of disaster preparedness. Speed and timeliness have often been treated synonymously, a major conceptual flaw. Decisions related to timing must consider the relationship between relief inputs and their effects. In some types of disasters, flood, for example, there are certain basics such as shelter and clothing that may be required immediately. In terms of alleviating immediate distress, speed is critical. However, there are other forms.

Similarly, appropriate assistance demands careful scrutiny. The issue goes beyond the standard stories of canned pork and high heeled shoes to flooded, Muslim communities. The issue goes to the important and natural link between disaster preparedness, recovery and rehabilitation. Ultimately we need to ask if one of the key objectives of disaster preparedness - the provision of appropriate assistance - is designed merely to ensure the immediate survival of affected communities or, in ensuring immediate survival, to simultaneously pave the way for recovery?

“efficient organization and delivery”

Efficient organization and delivery suggest obvious criteria for effective disaster preparedness. Systematic planning, well executed distribution, clear cut roles and responsibilities are all vital. However, too often disaster situations create conditions of chaos. The best laid plans can mitigate but not eliminate the chaos. To the extent possible, preparedness plans should seek to anticipate the sources of chaos and equally as important should try to anticipate what to do when plans go awry. However, where a criterion of efficiency becomes particularly important is in the context of distribution. The key here is to ensure that efficiency is measured in terms of the ability to deliver needed assistance to those most vulnerable. All too often in disaster relief situations, food and non-food relief arrives at the scene of a disaster, but no system or structure has been established to ensure that those in greatest need are the beneficiaries. In the final analysis, the most important test of efficiency is that those in need are adequately provided for.

Components of disaster preparedness

There are nine major components involved in disaster preparedness which provide a framework upon which a national disaster preparedness strategy can be developed.

Disaster Preparedness Framework

Vulnerability Assessment


Institutional Framework

Information Systems

Resource Base

Warning Systems

Response Mechanisms

Public Education and Training


Assessing vulnerability

Fundamental to all aspects of disaster management is information. It is a point that may appear obvious, but it is frequently overlooked. The disaster manager may know that a particular geographic region or community is susceptible to the impacts of sudden or slow-onset hazards. However, in reality, until a decision is made on systematic ways to compile and assess information about disaster vulnerabilities, the manager is and will be working in a void.

Developing and compiling vulnerability assessments is one way of approaching a systematic means of establishing an essential disaster management tool. There will be more on this subject in the next chapter.


Throughout all the activities designed to promote disaster preparedness, the ultimate objective is to have plans in place that are agreed upon, that are implementable and for which commitment and resources are relatively assured. The plan itself will have to address other points in this framework.

Institutional framework

A coordinated disaster preparedness and response system is a prerequisite to any disaster preparedness plan. Each system design will depend upon the traditions and governmental structure of the country under review. However, without ensuring that there is “horizontal coordination” at central government levels among ministries and specialized government bodies and “vertical coordination” between central and local authorities, a plan will rapidly disintegrate. This requires a structure for decision-making, inter-ministerial committees to coordinate the plan, focal points within each ministry to be responsible for the plan implementation and communication, as well as regional and community structures to implement the plan at the local level.

Information systems

The preparedness plan must have an information system. For slow onset disasters this should consist of a formalized data collection process, and early warning system (especially for regions prone to famine), and monitoring system to update the early warning information. For sudden onset disasters a similar system must be in place for prediction, warning, and evacuation communication.

Resource base

The requirements to meet an emergency situation will clearly depend upon the types of hazards the plan anticipates. Such requirements should be made explicit, and should cover all aspects of disaster relief and recovery implementation. The range of relief requirements is too extensive to put in this module, but this list indicates some of the major requirements:

supplementary food
communications systems
logistics systems
relief workers
clearance equipment

Warning systems

For most types of rapid onset disasters, a warning system can save many lives. By giving a vulnerable population adequate notice of an impending disaster, they can either escape the event or take precautions to reduce the dangers. However, you must assume that functioning communications systems, such as telephones and telexes, may not be available in times of a major disaster. Begin to plan a warning system around that assumption. Consider what type of communications equipment will be needed and sustainable if power lines and receiving stations are destroyed. Preparedness plans should include provisions for access to alternative communication systems among police, military and government networks.

Warning is also critical for slow onset disasters and population displacements. In this case it is called early warning and has to do with information and its distribution regarding either:

giving timely notice of an impending world crisis in the supply of food
making ready for or preventing forced migrations of people.

Response mechanisms

The plan’s ultimate test is the effectiveness of response to warnings and disaster impacts. At a certain stage in the warning process, various responses will have to be mobilized. The staging of responses becomes an essential factor in designing a preparedness plan. Chapter 9 lays out the required responses.

Public education and training

The focus of a disaster preparedness plan should be to anticipate, to the extent possible, the types of requirements needed for action or responses to warnings and a disaster relief operation. The plan should also specify the most effective ways of ensuring that such requirements are met. Yet, the process will only be effective if those who are the ultimate beneficiaries know what to do in times of disasters and know what to expect. For this reason, an essential part of a disaster preparedness plan is the education of those who may be threatened by disaster. Such education takes many forms, such as: (1) Public education in schools for children and young adults, emphasizing what actions should be taken in case of a disaster threat (for example, earthquake tremors); (2) Special training courses, designed for an adult population either specifically or as an extra dimension of on-going programmes such as Preventive Health Care or Maternal and Child Health programmes; (3) Extension programmes, in which community and village-based extension workers are instructed to provide relevant information and trained for the tasks they should undertake during the event; (4) Public information, through mass media, be they television, radio or the printed word, will never really replace the impact of direct instruction. However, if sensitively designed and presented, mass media may provide a useful supplement to the overall educational process.

Rehearsals (drills)

Fujieda, Japan School children practicing an earthquake safety drill.

From Nature on the Rampage. Photo by Paul Chesley.

As military maneuvers cannot fully portray the reality of battle, neither can disaster preparedness rehearsals portray the full dynamics - and potential chaos - of a disaster relief operation. However, that fact should provide no excuse for avoiding the need to rehearse the disaster preparedness plan. Not only will rehearsals reemphasize points made in separate training programmes, but they will also test the system as a whole and, invariably, reveal gaps that otherwise might be overlooked. 1

1 The preceding part of this chapter is drawn from the UNDP/UNDRO training module, Disaster Preparedness. by Randolph Kent.

Preparedness for slow onset and sudden onset disasters

Preparedness activities for slow onset disasters often vary from those of sudden onset. Slow onset disasters may require more active involvement on the part of planners, especially in terms of monitoring early warning systems, for famine, war, and civil strife. The remedial response to problems indicated by the early warning (of potential disasters) is an extension of preparedness.

Preparedness for sudden onset disasters include the monitoring of the predictions and warnings of disasters that may occur within a matter of days or hours. The emergency may develop over a very brief time frame and depend on a very different set of procedures and resources than the slow onset emergency.

Q. On the following list of disaster preparedness components identify at least one responsibility that you, in your official capacity, can or should assume for that component. If you have none, list who is the most responsible agency in your country for that component.


Assessing vulnerability ___________________________________________

Planning ______________________________________________________

Institutional framework ___________________________________________

Information systems _____________________________________________

Resource base _________________________________________________

Warning systems _______________________________________________

Response mechanisms __________________________________________

Public education and training ______________________________________

Rehearsals ____________________________________________________

Preparedness within the United Nations 2

2 The remainder of this chapter is from the UNDP/UNDRO Disaster Management Manual.

The UN system at the country level must be able to facilitate and deliver appropriate and co-ordinated assistance in an emergency. The UN Disaster Management Team (UN-DMT) is the standing inter-agency body for this.

The UN-DMT should meet at regular intervals to:

· review prevention and preparedness arrangements within the country, including the progress of any relevant ongoing development projects

· review preparedness arrangements within the UN team of agencies (as described below)

· discuss the analysis and interpretation of data from in-country and external famine early warning systems

· decide on any specific actions to be taken by members of the group individually and/or collectively

Q. Match the list of disaster preparedness components with the list of examples of each component.


Disaster preparedness components

1. ____

Vulnerability assessment

2. ____


3. ____

Institutional framework

4. ____

Information systems

5. ____

Resource base

6. ____

Warning systems

7. ____

Response mechanisms

8. ____

Public education and training

9. ____



A. Updates to vulnerability assessments
B. Assessment teams and search and rescue
C. A map showing a population living in a flood zone
D. Practice
E. Designing the activities promoting disaster preparedness
F. The required material and logistical support for an emergency
G. Organizational arrangements to maximize coordination
H. A poster explaining what to do when an earthquake hits
I. Communications procedures as part of the system


1 - C
2 - E
3 - G
4 - A
5 - F
6 - I
7 - B
8 - H
9 - D

Checklist of basic information required by a UN-DMT 3

3 From UNDP/UNDRO Disaster Management Manual, Appendix 3B.

In order to facilitate rapid, appropriate responses to disasters, the following kinds of information should be readily available in advance to all members of the UN-DMT.

The Government should have much of this information incorporated and maintained up-to-date in the framework of a national disaster preparedness plan. This information should be made available to the Resident Coordinator, and member agencies of the UN-DMT.

If this information is not available, or only partially available, the UN-DMT should compile and maintain it as a team effort, normally in collaboration with national counterparts. The specialized agencies would each address respective areas of concern. The resident coordinator should see that all sectors are covered.

The check list presented here should be adapted to local circumstances. Special care and attention should be given to information relevant to areas and communities which are particularly vulnerable and disaster-prone.

This checklist often refers to agency or organizational contacts. To keep your information current, you should have for all contacts:

· name
· office address and telephone, fax, and telex numbers
· home address and telephone number
· electronic mail address, if the person has one

You should have the same information for any alternates or deputies.

Disaster profile of country

The history of the incidence and magnitude of particular types of disasters in different areas; their impacts on the population and the economy.

The types of emergency and post-disaster assistance provided from all sources in the past; the effectiveness of that assistance given the problems faced - the lessons learned.

The kinds of needs which can therefore be anticipated in particular areas and circumstances, and the kinds of assistance interventions which might be required.

National policies, objectives and standards

Policies with regard to the soliciting, acceptance and use of international assistance, including external personnel.

The authority delegated to local institutions, and the possible roles of national NGOs and outside assistance agencies.

Policies (both whether or not and how) regarding vaccinations, prophylactic distribution of drugs, the care of unaccompanied children, and salvaging of materials.

Policies and criteria for any distribution of relief: whether to be on a free, for-sale or on-credit basis; what, if any, differentiation should be encouraged within and between different population subgroups.

The particular objectives and standards which should be applied to ration scales for food and water, and any distribution of shelter materials and household supplies.

Specification of the kinds of food and other commodities which are appropriate and acceptable as donations, and those which are not.

General specifications for the kind of energy sources normally preferred for vehicles (diesel or petrol) and generators and pumps (diesel or electric).

General priorities for the restoration of infrastructure and services.

Policies and arrangements for importing emergency assistance supplies, such as arrangements for waiving fees and taxes, and for the clearance of special relief flights.

Government structures for warning and emergency response

The contact responsible for all national hazard forecasting and warning systems.

The government contact (and deputy) normally responsible for the management of emergency relief and post-disaster assistance operations in a central co-ordination body, if one exists. Contacts in individual ministries.

The address and telephone/fax/telex numbers of any national disaster co-ordination centre, and whether and how foreign donor officials will have access to the centre during emergencies.

The procedures established (at national and local levels) for assessing damage, needs and resources following the impact of a disaster.

The contacts in the national disaster management body or the sectoral ministries responsible for arranging and assuring:

· Coordination and liaison with the international community (UN system, embassies. NGOs)
· Search and rescue operations
· Post-disaster surveys and assessments
· Food supply assistance, where needed
· Medical and preventive health care
· Water supplies
· Environmental sanitation
· Emergency shelter and other relief supplies
· Communications
· Logistic services (transport, storage and handling)
· Information management (including records and reports)
· Security

Role of the national armed forces and relationship between the civil and military authorities in directing operations.

Other external and national assistance organizations

The contacts at the principal embassies and donor agencies, the potential contributions of their governments and organizations to post-disaster assistance operations, and the resources they have on immediate call locally.

The contacts at the national Red Cross/Red Crescent Society and the principal NGOs, their potential contributions to emergency and post-disaster assistance operations, and the resources (human, material, and financial) they have on immediate call.

Base-line data on each distinct disaster-prone area

Demographic details: the location, size and socio-economic characteristics of communities, including average family size, sources and levels of income, and any traditional patterns of seasonal migration.

Formal and informal leadership structures, any particular social or religious considerations, traditional community support processes at times of disaster, and any taboos.

General climatic conditions, including day and night temperatures at different times of year.

Local food habits, including weaning practices, of the various socio-economic groups.

“Normal nutritional status of children, including any normal seasonal variations.

Diseases endemic to the area, including prevailing patterns of mortality and morbidity.

Normal sources of water: sources and methods of extraction; treatment; and distribution.

Food supply systems and local production: types, seasonal production cycles and normal yields of both major crops and small gardens, and average on-farm stock retention levels.

Services operating (official and non-official): health, education, rural development, public works, and social welfare. This should include the location and specific nature of the services provided and the personnel employed.

Coverage and general condition of the infrastructure, including roads, telecommunications, and electricity supplies.

Resources: material and human

“Resources” include supplies and services which can be mobilized in-country for emergency and post-disaster assistance operations. Potential sources include government bodies, commercial companies (locally or in a neighboring country), NGOs and other aid organizations and development projects operating in or near the areas at risk.

Medical/health care 4

4 Information should be assured by WHO staff in the context of preparedness profiles issued by WHO headquarters.

Hospitals, clinics and other health facilities: number of beds, ambulances, availability of special equipment, number of trained doctors, nurses and nurses’ aides; contacts at all facilities.

Stocks and sources of medical supplies: names, addresses, and telephone/fax/telex numbers of all medical supply stores; manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and supplies; and laboratories producing vaccines and serums.

Food supplies

Location, capacities, and normal stock levels of food stores; telephone/fax/telex numbers of government marketing boards, food supply departments, commercial importers, food wholesalers, and food aid donors.

Details of existing food rationing and distribution programmes (including food-for-work), their organizational arrangements, procedures, and capacity to meet emergency needs.

Nutrition and epidemiology 5

5 Nutrition aspects may not be a priority concern in the immediate aftermath of a sudden natural disaster, but are crucial in all emergency situations of extended duration, especially droughts, famines, and in all cases involving population displacements.

Nature, location, and capacity of any nutritional rehabilitation (therapeutic feeding) activities; their organizational arrangements, procedures and capacity to meet emergency needs.

Extent and validity of any nutritional status surveys or surveillance programmes: in-country sources of nutritional expertise (with relevant field experience).

Location and capacity of epidemiological surveillance and survey expertise linked to communicable disease control programmes.

Water supplies, hygiene and environmental sanitation

Names, addresses, telephone/telex numbers of producers, large wholesalers, and retail outlets for the following types of supplies, including location and usual stock levels on inventory:

· Water pumps, tanks, pipes and fittings
· Road tankers for hire or purchase
· Lime or other chemicals for water disinfection
· Hard bar soap, detergents, and disinfectants
· Materials for establishing temporary latrines
· Supplies and equipment for vector control operations

The quantities of these supplies normally available in government stocks in specified locations.

The availability of mobile water treatment units and generators through the military or major contractors.

Sources of trained personnel and tools to undertake rapid repairs or to construct new or temporary installations.

Emergency shelter and relief materials

Names, addresses, telephone/telex numbers of producers, large wholesalers, and retail outlets for the following types of supplies, including location and usual stock levels on inventory:

· Heavy-duty tents, tarpaulins, thick polythene sheeting
· Corrugated roofing sheets, lumber, cement
· Blankets
· Cooking pots and utensils (household size, and institutional size for communal kitchens)

The quantities of these supplies normally available in government stocks in specified locations.

Construction equipment

Names, addresses, telephone/telex numbers of road and building contractors, including their approximate availabilities of bulldozers, drag-lines, hoists, cranes, hydraulic jacks, mobile generators, and pumps.

Contact points of government sources for the same types of equipment, for example, within the Ministry of Public Works or Defense.


Contacts within the responsible authorities for establishing telecommunications services, including the repair of normal systems and the installation of temporary radio networks, where needed.

Policies concerning the use of communications equipment by international teams and aid organizations.

Logistics systems and facilities

Logistics considerations include details of normal transport routes and capacities to and within the disaster-prone areas, and knowledge of the specific logistical problems likely to be faced moving supplies following a disaster.


· Have copies of the best available maps

· Identify essential road links and best alternative routes

· Mark potential constraints on truck traffic (such as bridge load capacities and ferry movement capacities), and any points vulnerable to occurrences such as flooding or landslides

Trucking capacity

· Government fleets: the number and condition of trucks of specified types and capacities in different departments and locations which might be available to transport relief supplies

· Commercial capacity: private transport contractors able to operate to or within the areas concerned, including details of their fleets, the locations of their offices and maintenance facilities, and normal rates


· Track gauges, wagon capacities, and any loading constraints on various lines

· Daily movement capacities on various lines, and the numbers of locomotives and wagons which might be available during each season

· Reliability and operational constraints, including any feasible measures to improve performance

Sea and river ports

· Harbor depths, quay lengths, cargo handling equipment
· Daily discharge capacity, and seasonal patterns of exports and imports
· Size of covered and open storage areas, and amount normally available at different seasons
· Normal offtake capacities: road and rail.

Coastal and river craft

· Government craft: the numbers and condition of boats, tugs and barges (of specified types and capacities) in different locations which might be available for rescue operations or to transport relief supplies

· Commercial capacity: contacts with private shipping contractors able to operate in the areas concerned, including details of their fleets and normal rates

Airports and air-strips

· The precise locations and the length, width, surface and load classification of runways in the affected areas

· Largest type of aircraft able to operate

· Fuel availability (avgas and jet fuel)

· Navigation and landing aids, and hours open for flying

· Cargo handling equipment and storage capacity

Aircraft and air transport

· Government: number and types of aircraft and helicopters likely to be available to transport personnel and relief supplies; the approximate costs of operation of military and other government aircraft and helicopters

· National airline and other companies: number and types of aircraft and helicopters likely to be available to transport personnel and relief supplies; approximate charter costs

Storage and handling

· Government warehouses: the location, size, and type of stores in different areas which might be available for relief supplies; the general condition of the stores, level of security, access to road and rail transport, the availability of pallets, hand trucks, and forklifts, and the adequacy of staff and record systems

· Private warehouses: as above for stores which might be requisitioned or rented.

Fuel supplies (diesel and petrol)

· The locations, capacities, and normal stock levels of government and commercial fuel storage depots; the arrangements by which fuel can be drawn or delivered from those depots.

Q. The information referred to in the checklist must be assembled from a variety of sources. Where would you be able to obtain the information requested under each main heading?


Disaster profile of country _________________________________________
National policies, objectives and standards ___________________________
Gov’t structures for warning/post-disaster response _____________________
Other external and national assistance organizations ___________________
Base-line data on each distinct disaster-prone area _____________________

Human and material resources:

Medical/health care ____________________________________________
Food supplies ________________________________________________
Nutrition and epidemiology ______________________________________
Water supplies, hygiene and environmental sanitation ________________
Emergency shelter and relief materials ____________________________
Construction equipment ________________________________________

Communications ________________________________________________

Logistics systems and facilities:

Roads ______________________________________________________
Trucking capacity _____________________________________________
Railways ____________________________________________________
Sea and river ports ____________________________________________
Coastal and river craft _________________________________________
Airports and air-strips __________________________________________
Aircraft and air transport _______________________________________
Storage and handling __________________________________________
Fuel supplies _________________________________________________

Q. In your opinion what agency should be responsible for collecting, up-dating and communicating this information.