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close this bookCommunity Emergency Preparedness: A Manual for Managers and Policy-Makers (WHO, 1999, 141 p.)
close this folderChapter 3 Vulnerability assessment
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe process of vulnerability assessment
View the documentThe planning group
View the documentHazard identification
View the documentHazard description
View the documentDescribing the community
View the documentDescription of effects and vulnerability
View the documentHazard prioritization
View the documentRecommending action
View the documentSummary
View the documentReferences

The planning group

Why a planning group is necessary

Once a project definition has been developed, forming a planning group is the second step in the vulnerability assessment process. Why is a planning group essential to the development of appropriate vulnerability assessments and emergency plans?

· Firstly, rapid access to diverse information is essential. It is possible to gather this information through correspondence, interviews, and telephone calls, but this will take time. Assembling the people who can provide information will make information-gathering more efficient.

· Secondly, no one is expert in everything and the contributions of experts in particular fields are required. Local experts may become the greatest critics of a vulnerability assessment if they are ignored.

· Lastly, if the vulnerability assessment is to be taken seriously, the commitment of all relevant personnel is essential. Allowing people to contribute to the vulnerability assessment objectives and to work together towards a common goal are effective means of gaining this commitment.

Before a planning group is selected it is important to find out whether one already exists. There may well be a group of people who are responsible for safety and crisis or emergency management in a given community. If such a group exists, it may be ideal for the purposes of preparing a vulnerability assessment because it may already have sufficient resources, the necessary authority, appropriate representation, an efficient reporting system, and sufficient expertise.

The suitability of any existing emergency management group should be assessed on the basis of the above criteria, as well as by reference to the project definition. Any shortcomings in the planning group will need to be addressed.

A planning group need not be fixed in its membership. The group will evolve according to its activities, and the end result will be a group of people committed to emergency preparedness in their community, who will be able to work together during actual emergencies. However, changes in the planning group composition, although desirable, may cause problems. Groups of people who work together will often develop a strong sense of unity and newcomers may often find it difficult to win the group’s acceptance or feel comfortable working with it. Understanding this potential problem is already a partial solution; group members must welcome new members and avoid forming barriers between themselves and the community.

The planning group may also serve as a formalized emergency committee. Each member must therefore have sufficient authority to represent his or her organization in preparedness and response.

Working with the planning group

To work effectively with the planning group, the following should be considered. Firstly, the project definition will provide the group with a description of its aim, objectives, scope, and authority to take action. The group should be informed of the process for developing the vulnerability assessment. It will need to know the benefits of the assessment and the nature of the final product. The group will also need to understand how long the vulnerability assessment will take to develop and what resources will be used.

The following aspects of planning group meetings should be resolved:

- the authority of the group;

- the method of reporting;

- the means of communicating meeting dates and times;

- the frequency and timing of meetings;

- the conduct of meetings (chairing, agenda, minutes, recommendations, and follow-up actions);

- any educational requirements of the group.

It is essential that the planning group members discuss the project definition and make alterations if they see fit.

Once a planning group is assembled, it may be found that the individual members, coming from varied backgrounds and with different responsibilities in emergency management, have remarkably different perceptions of risk.

Risk perception

Risk perception is about the relationship between hazards, knowledge, and people’s attitudes. It is impossible to be totally objective when assessing vulnerability or developing emergency plans, and so it is necessary to understand some of the different ways people approach the subject - they may have very different views on the nature and extent of the risk that a particular hazard presents, and on what constitutes vulnerability.

It is important to consider people’s perceptions and attitudes in vulnerability assessment because these will strongly influence their actions. This inevitably leads to the question of whose perceptions of risk are right - and, indeed, whether there are right and wrong perceptions. Some may suggest that the opinions of experts in a given field must be correct, but such opinions are still based on individual perceptions. In addition, experts are not always exposed to the risks they are studying, unlike members of the community.

Table 2 shows some of the reasons for differences in risk perception between technical people and the general community.

Table 2. Factors relevant to the technical and cultural attitudes to risk

Technical attitude

Cultural attitude

Trust in scientific methods, explanations and evidence

Trust in political culture and democratic process

Appeal to authority and expertise

Appeal to folk wisdom, peer group and traditions

Boundaries of analysis are narrow and reductionist

Boundaries of analysis are broad; includes use of analogy and historical precedent

Risks are depersonalized

Risks are personalized

Emphasis on statistical variation and probability

Emphasis on the impacts of risk on the family and community

Appeal to consistency and universality

Focus on the particularity; less concern about consistency of approach

Where there is controversy in science, resolution follows status

Popular responses to scientific differences do not follow prestige principle

Impacts that cannot be specific are irrelevant

Unanticipated or unarticulated risks are relevant

aReproduced from reference 1 by permission of the publisher.

People with technical training or inclinations will tend to view hazards and vulnerability in terms of abstract risk. Risk is often described by the likelihood of a given harm, for example the probability of fatality from a hazard. Table 3 illustrates some typical individual fatality risks.

The general public, however, which does not have access to the data that permit numerical calculations of the probability of harm, will tend to use factors like those shown in Table 4.

If a hazard is characterized by a number of the factors on the right-hand side of Table 4, the public is likely to perceive it as a serious problem. This is not an irrational response, but a response based upon people’s feelings and experience.

Different people think about hazards and vulnerability in different ways, and may use different criteria for judging their seriousness. The uncertainties of risk and vulnerability preclude correct perceptions of risk, although some perceptions may be more realistic than others. It is important to understand people’s perceptions in order to develop appropriate emergency management strategies and to work with a diverse planning group.

Table 3. Risk to individualsa


Individual fatality risk levelb


Individual fatality risk levelb

Smoking 10 cigarettes a day (UK)

5000 × 10-6

Taking contraceptive pills

20 × 10-6

Cancer (all causes - Australia)

1800 × 10-6

Homicide (Australia)

20 × 10-6

All natural causes, age 40 (UK)

1200 × 10-6

Working in radiation industry (UK)

17.5 × 10-6

Any kind of violence or poisoning (UK)

300 × 10-6

Homicide (Europe)

10 × 10-6

Influenza (UK)

200 × 10-6

Floods (northern China)

10 × 10-6

Accident on road (driving in Europe)

125 × 10-6

Floods (USA)

2.2 × 10-6

Accident at home (Australia)

110 × 10-6

Accident on railway (Europe)

2 × 10-6

Struck by motor vehicle (pedestrian - USA)

50 × 10-6

Bushfire (Australia)

1 × 10-6


50 × 10-6

Earthquake (California)

0.5 × 10-6

Earthquake (Islamic Republic of Iran)

43 × 10-6

Bites of venomous creatures (UK)

0.2 × 10-6

Playing field sports (UK)

40 × 10-6

Storm and flood (Australia)

0.2 × 10-6

Accident at home (UK)

38 × 10-6

Hit by lightning (UK)

0.1 × 10-6

Accident at work (UK)

23 × 10-6

Wind storm (northern Europe)

0.1 × 10-6

Floods (Bangladesh)

20 × 10-6

Rupture of pressure vessel (USA)

0.05 × 10-6

aReproduced from reference 2 by permission of the publisher. Copyright John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

bA fatality risk of 1 × 10-6 means that there is a 1 in 1 million chance of an individual being killed as a result of a particular hazard in any given year.

Table 4. Factors relevant to hazards that may affect people’s perceptiona

Perceived as unimportant

Perceived as serious







Not memorable






Controlled by individual

Controlled by others



Morally irrelevant

Morally relevant



Visible benefits

No visible benefits

Trusted source

Untrusted source

aReproduced from reference 3 by permission of the publisher.