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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder3. Emergency Management
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe Key Emergency Management Functions
View the documentStages in Refugee Emergency Operations
View the documentKey References


1. There is no single blueprint for refugee emergency management; each refugee emergency is unique. However, experience shows that emergencies tend to evolve according to certain recognizable and documented patterns.

Good emergency management relies on knowledge of these patterns and of the effective measures to deal with them.

Emergency situations do not necessarily result in tragedy. The chance of this occurring will be greatly reduced if the emergency is well managed from the stage of preparedness onwards.

2. While emergency management shares many of the characteristics of good management in general, there are a number of distinguishing features:

i. The lives and well-being of people are at stake;

ii. Reaction time is short;

iii. Risk factors are high and consequences of mistakes or delays can be disastrous;

iv. There is great uncertainty;

v. Investment in contingency planning and other preparedness activities is crucial;

vi. Staff and managers may be under particularly high stress because of, for example, security problems and harsh living conditions;

vii. There is no single obvious right answer.

Organization of this Section

3. This section of the handbook (chapters 3 to 9) is structured to reflect the phases of emergency preparedness and response. Firstly, the preparedness activities of contingency planning and early warning are dealt with (chapter 4), followed by initial needs and resources assessment and immediate response (chapter 5). Operations planning, coordination and site level organization are dealt with in chapters 6 and 7. Next, implementing arrangements are discussed, including procedures for operations implementation and control (chapter 8). Finally, chapter 9 on external relations covers relations with the host government (including establishing a formal presence in the country of operations), relations with the donor and diplomatic community and handling media interest. Note that certain activities cut across the phases of emergency preparedness and response. This is particularly the case with external relations, coordination, and planning.

4. Figure 1 shows some of the considerations discussed in this section in diagrammatic form, in particular in relation to emergency response. The response activities of problems and needs assessments, operations planning, implementing arrangements and programme formulation are all very closely related. Some aspects treated separately may be indivisible in practice, and there is no single correct order or way in which an emergency operation should be formulated (but it must conform to established UNHCR procedures governing project submission and control).

Figure 1 - Considerations in Emergency Management

Capacity and Resources

5. Emergency management can be defined as:

the organization of capacities and resources to meet threats to the lives and well-being of refugees.

6. Preparing for and responding to refugee emergencies are tasks which require the availability of the right resources at the right time as well as the capacity to use these resources effectively.

7. Capacity is the internal organizational capability which includes planning, staffing, structure, systems, procedures, guidelines, information flow, communication, decision-making and administrative support. Resources are the financial and human resources, relief materials, support equipment, tools and facilities.

8. If capacity is weak, then the emergency response is likely to be weak, even if resources are adequate.

Strong capacity can sometimes alleviate resource shortfalls by making more effective use of limited resources.

9. Capacity is an aspect of emergency management which is sometimes not given adequate priority. Resources are often given more emphasis during both the planning and operational stages since they are a more tangible element. But it is capacity that determines the quality of an emergency response. A well-capacitated organization is more likely to be able to mount a credible and effective operation, attracting the necessary resources.


Effective emergency management requires that the development and use of capacity be accorded correct priority throughout the different phases of an operation.

While much of the required capacity must be pre-existing, capacity can also be developed during an operation.