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 11. UN response to disasters 1
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPrincipal elements and actions in response to a sudden disaster
View the documentSitreps - exchanging information with UNDRO
View the documentAlert message and field sitreps
View the documentThe importance of coordination and information


1 This chapter is condensed from the UNDP/UNDRO Disaster Management Manual. Chapter 4.

Principal elements and actions in response to a sudden disaster

The vast majority of international emergency and post-disaster assistance is funded by special contributions to the UN agencies, or is delivered bilaterally or through NGOs. Action by UNDRO, the resident coordinator/representative and the UN-DMT is therefore extremely important: information management and exchange, coordination, preparation of appeals, and the mobilization of resources. The extent to which the resident coordinator/representative and the UN-DMT are involved in these activities, and in the provision of direct operational support to the Government, will depend on the nature and scale of the emergency situation, on the capacity and wishes of the national authorities, and on the resources which can be mobilized.

The above applies in emergency situations which require action by a number of UN organizations/agencies (possibly including UNDP) and, in consequence, coordination by the resident coordinator and UNDRO. In situations which fall entirely within the mandate of one specific organ of the UN system (e.g. an epidemic or crop pest attack), primary responsibility rests with the appropriate agency (e.g. WHO, FAO) although the country-level UN Disaster Management Team may, if required, play a role in support of that agency. (The information dissemination services of UNDRO may also be made available to the agency concerned at the international level.)

The following is a list of the principal actions to be taken by the resident coordinator/representative and the UN-DMT immediately before and during a disaster.

Actions to be taken on receipt of a disaster warning

On receipt of a warning of an imminent disaster threat:

Ö Contact and exchange information with UNDRO: review need for precautionary measures.

Ö Contact the relevant government authorities: confirm readiness of UNDRO and UN-DMT to assist, if needed.

Ö Convene the UN-DMT, review preparedness arrangements, alert personnel and review the UN security plan.

Actions to be taken following the occurrence of a disaster

Immediate action in all cases:

Ö Ensure the security of all UN personnel: activate the security plan, if necessary.

Ö Ensure reliable telecommunications between the field office and Geneva, New York and the affected areas.

Ö Contact and exchange information with UNDRO: send an alert message and then regular field sitreps, and maintain telephone contact, if possible.

Ö Contact the government emergency management authorities: get information, offer UN assistance and reaffirm the capabilities of the various agencies; confirm arrangements for ongoing contacts and collaboration.

Ö Determine whether the Government requires international assistance and wishes UNDRO to launch an international appeal. Consider needs for:

· Search and rescue (SAR), or other specialist assistance
· Relief assistance.

Ö Convene the UN-DMT: review whatever information is available; confirm/define responsibilities within the team; arrange follow-up meetings and information-sharing.

Ö Gather and collate information on the situation; participate in initial reconnaissance visits to the affected areas. Mobilize and provide technical assistance for the assessment process.

If international emergency assistance is required:

1) Immediate needs and action

· Determine, on a provisional basis, the specific functions to be undertaken by the UN at country level in the light of the particular situation and the capacity of the Government.

· Define any needs for SAR teams or other specialist assistance; inform and consult with UNDRO immediately.

· Consult with UNDRO concerning the possible assignment of one or more UNDRO delegates.

· Ensure the convening of an early, broad-based coordination meeting to coordinate immediate responses and arrangements for assessment.

· Institute necessary organizational arrangements and systems within the field office: redeploy staff, define work priorities, and ensure the availability of office equipment and clerical and administrative support to staff engaged in emergency activities.

· Put information systems into operation to record and track needs and contributions of international assistance.

· Consider and, where appropriate, make recommendations for the provision of emergency grants by UNDRO and UNDP, and/or the release of supplies by UNDRO from Pisa.

2) Continuing action during the early days of emergency assistance operations:

· Maintain close contact and exchange information with the Government and other concerned parties (donors, NGOs); participate in and support in-country coordination mechanisms.

· Maintain a dialogue and frequent information exchanges with UNDRO (through field sitreps and by telephone).

· Help to define priority needs for international assistance:

- Participate in the overall assessment

- Make an independent judgement of the priority needs for international emergency assistance

- Help in formulating and screening requests

· Develop a concerted programme of assistance and a consolidated UN appeal including the proposals and requirements of all UN agencies.

· Disseminate information on needs for international assistance to local representatives of donors and NGOs, and help to mobilize resources to cover unmet needs.

· Help to monitor assistance operations, and provide operational assistance, where required.

· Make arrangements for relations with the news media, and the reception and servicing of visiting missions.

· Undertake a review (post mortem) of the UN assistance to the emergency operation as it draws to a close.

If there are political complications or humanitarian needs which are not being met, advise the Secretary-General through the office of Emergency Relief Coordinator. (See Appendix 1.)

Additional support functions (on a continuous basis) depending on the need and the capacity of the Government:

· Convening and providing secretariat services to broad-based coordination meetings.

· Providing operational support to management information systems, logistics, or communications.

Assistance to rehabilitation and reconstruction:

· Help to plan and introduce assistance to rehabilitation and reconstruction in phases from the earliest possible moment.

Assistance to populations in areas of conflict:

At present the UN has little role in active conflict areas for people in need caught in the conflict. This role is mainly left to the ICRC and certain NGOs. (See also Appendix 1).

Sitreps - exchanging information with UNDRO

This section describes the responsibilities of the resident coordinator/representative in respect of reporting to UNDRO, and provides guidelines for the preparation of the required field sitreps. It describes UNDRO’s reporting (information dissemination) system in the context of international information flows.

Contacting UNDRO, Geneva

UNDRO maintains a 24-hour duty system, 365 days-a-year. To contact:



(Direct line for use in case of an emergency: out of office hours the call is received by Air Call answering service which conveys the message to the UNDRO duty officer who then calls back)



(United Nations Office Geneva switchboard: ask for UNDRO duty officer)


414242 DRO CH



Electronic mail


Use the UNDP E-mail facility. (Message is delivered to UNDRO via UNIENET)

Alert message and field sitreps

To ensure a timely, appropriate, and coordinated international response, it is essential that the resident coordinator report rapidly to UNDRO any disaster occurrence, with an early assessment of damage and needs, however tentative. This must then be followed up by regular and systematic reporting of increasing detail.

Send an alert message to UNDRO as soon as information of a disaster occurrence is received, or an occurrence in a remote area is confirmed. This serves to let UNDRO know that something has happened and that the field office is following up. Do not delay while waiting to get more information.

Send the first field sitrep as quickly as possible, and in any case not more than 24 hours after the disaster occurrence. Send whatever relevant information is available: do not delay because certain information is lacking. Send information as it becomes available, indicating what additional information is anticipated and arrangements made to gather more.

Send field sitreps regularly, at least daily during the initial emergency period (typically 10-20 days) and until a reduced frequency is agreed with UNDRO. Always follow the basic format but, if necessary, adapt the sub-headings of the individual sections depending on the needs of the particular situation.

Send sitreps by fax (or Email) when possible. This takes full advantage of word processing facilities in preparing and updating the reports.

Involve the UN-DMT in the preparation of the sitreps to help ensure comprehensive reporting and a unified UN system presentation to the Government and the international community. The UNDP disaster focal point should normally be responsible for collating information from the various agencies and preparing the first draft. Arrange for copies of the field sitreps to be sent promptly to the headquarters of the UN agencies most directly concerned (normally the core members of the UN-DMT).

For detailed guidelines for the format of the field sitrep see the UNDP/UNDRO Disaster Management Manual. Chapter 4. Appendix 4A.

Main headings for field sitreps

1. General situation
2. National response
3. Country-level international response
4. Requirements for international assistance
5. Channels for delivery of international aid
6. International pledges and contributions
7. Other information

Fig. 11.1 Sitreps and international information flows

The importance of coordination and information

Coordination is even more important in emergency assistance operations than in development work: lives might be at risk, logistic and other resources are likely to be limited, and decisions are made quickly. There are many possibilities for duplicating effort, wasting resources, and leaving gaps in both geographic and sectoral coverage.

Timely, reliable information is crucial to planning and implementing emergency and post-disaster assistance operations, and to mobilizing national and international resources. The regular dissemination of relevant information is a precondition for effective coordination and co-operation - at national and local levels - between sectors and between Government, operational agencies, and donors.

Key action points in co-ordination and information management

Maintain frequent, direct contacts with government focal point, operational departments, donors, and NGOs.

Review within the UN-DMT and discuss with the government focal point whether help from the resident coordinator or UN-DMT is required in:

· Compiling and analyzing information and preparing reports on needs for and use of international assistance

· Establishing and operating more comprehensive management information systems in support of the responsible government authorities

· Convening information and co-ordination meetings involving government bodies, donors, NGOs, and the UN organizations and agencies.

Ensure the convening of regular, broad-based co-ordination meetings (probably weekly); encourage constructive discussion; promote consensus on actions by all concerned; provide secretariat service, if required.

Specify the information management functions to be fulfilled by the resident co-ordinator and UN-DMT, and the resources (staff, equipment, office space, budget) required.

Initiate the needed information systems and services using existing staff and facilities; inform UNDRO, the regional bureau, and local donor representatives of requirements to develop and continue.

Establish an emergency information and co-ordination (EIC) support unit, where needed, as a collaborative UN-DMT effort; encourage all UN-DMT members to second staff, co-operate in mobilizing other needed resources, and use the facilities.

Disseminate information regularly to all concerned government departments, donors and NGOs; fax copies to UNDRO.

Encourage all concerned to be consistent in the use of agreed criteria, standards, and terminology, and to harmonize reporting periods to the extent feasible.

Help direct the attention of NGOs to areas and activities where they can make the greatest contribution (not necessarily in the most affected areas).

Q. In your position with a UN agency what would you do in the event of the most likely disaster to strike your country in terms of the following:

A. Learning of a warning of an imminent disaster? _____________________
Would you be on the UN-DMT? ____________________________________
Do you know the UN personnel security plan? What would you do? ________
What would be your contribution to the field sitrep to UNDRO? ___________

What would be your role in an assessment? Concerning which sectors? ____