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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

Describing the community

Why describe the community?

The purpose of vulnerability assessment is to describe the interaction between hazards, the community, and the environment in order to develop programmes and strategies for protecting the community and the environment. Without knowledge of the community and environment, it is impossible to describe their vulnerability.

The characteristics shown in Table 13 are among those that can be used to describe a community.

Table 13. Some community characteristics






Population and age distribution



Communication networks





Transportation networks


Useful skills

Social values


Essential services


Hazard awareness



Community assets


Vulnerable groups

Attitudes to hazards


Government structures

Flora and fauna

Health level

Normal food types

Resource base

Education level

Eating habits

Sex distribution

Power structures


Demography is the study of the statistics of human populations. Of the large quantities of data often available on the population of any given community, only some are relevant to emergency management. These concern the number of people in the area of study, their distribution across the area, and any concentrations of vulnerable groups. Such groups may be vulnerable because of age (young or old), mobility (availability of transport), or disabilities. However, most people - not just these easily defined groups - are vulnerable to emergencies to some extent.

The following indicators are important as regards the community’s capacity for response and recovery:

· Health indicators, which determine how much resistance people can offer to the health effects of an emergency; for example:

- infant mortality rate indicates the health service coverage;

- vaccination coverage rate indicates the extent and effectiveness of preventive programmes;

- disease pattern indicates potential outbreaks of new disease or worsening of existing disease after an emergency;

- malnutrition rate indicates how quickly and for how long feeding programmes may be needed.

· Educational indicators, which determine how sophisticated the role of the community can be in participating in response activities and the level and type of public message that can be used; for example:

- literacy rate, which is important for assessing the level of community participation and response that can be planned for;

- female literacy rate, which is important for the success of health education and public preparedness.

The best way to obtain demographic data on a community is to contact the government organization responsible. Data may be available in printed form or as computer files.

Another aspect of vulnerability is the ability of the community to manage hazards. Those who have a realistic perception of the hazards around them and are aware of the measures necessary to manage those hazards are better able to cope with emergencies. Certain communities will have particular skills that are useful in emergency management. For example, a mining community would probably be better able to cope following storm damage or an earthquake than urban dwellers, owing to the available technical skills, and rural communities would be more resilient than urban communities because of their greater self-sufficiency in normal times.


A community’s culture, including its traditions, ethnicity, and social values, is highly relevant to emergency management. Attitudes towards hazards and vulnerability will be strongly influenced by attitudes towards nature, technology, the causation of accidents and emergencies, and the value of mitigating or contingent actions. Some communities, for example, accept that lives will inevitably be lost in emergencies and may be unwilling to take preventive, preparatory, or response actions.


The economy of the community requires protection, and the more sensitive and vulnerable sections of the economy require careful consideration in emergency management. It is likely that an emergency that causes considerable structural and environmental damage would devastate the local tourism industry, for example. Investment may also suffer because potential or current investors would regard the risks in the area as too high. Industries and trade might also suffer if disruption to transport and communications were to restrict access to goods and markets. Thus, the wealth of a community may also determine its resilience or its likelihood of sustaining harm.


The infrastructure (both physical and organizational) of a community is often highly vulnerable to hazards, particularly natural hazards. A vulnerability assessment should consider any possible damage to power generation and distribution systems, water supplies, communications systems, etc. These are often referred to as “lifelines”, and relevant considerations include:

- effect of loss of services on the community;
- possible extent of the damage;
- alternative means of supplying the service;
- time required for repairs;
- cost of repairs.

It is also important to have a basic description of the government structure, and of service and community organizations, since they will provide the mechanism for emergency management programmes and strategies.

Any other characteristics of a community that are relevant to emergency management should also be considered.


The environment is an important determinant of settlement patterns and lifestyles of communities; it can be defined as the natural surroundings, including plants and animals, water, air, and soil. Damage to any of these elements may affect other elements of the environment. Many hazards can adversely affect the environment, including chronic (continuous and low-level) or acute (sudden and high-level) pollution by hazardous materials.

Paradoxically, while the environment nurtures the community it can also be the source of some of the greatest natural hazards. Describing the environment in a vulnerability assessment will often identify some hazards that have not yet been considered.

Community and environment mapping

As with hazards, detailed information about a community can be documented effectively with maps. This is particularly true when the characteristics that describe the community vary systematically over a geographical area. The community information that can be mapped includes:

· Population density

· Particularly vulnerable groups - prisons, mental hospitals, orphanages, homes for the disabled, and new and unplanned settlements

· Potential emergency shelter sites

· Community preparedness focal points

· Emergency services - police, fire, ambulance, civil protection, and armed forces

· Residences of essential staff

· Proposed food distribution points

· Water and sanitation information

· Health centres

· Warehouses

· Utility networks and distribution

· points - electricity, gas, water

· Communication networks

· Essential businesses and factories

· Fuel storage points and distribution sources

· Transport systems and networks

· Road exit points from district

· Ongoing routine maintenance of roads and utilities