Risk-based Culture

Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard more and more people both in the United States and abroad discuss the need to move toward a risk-based culture.  Most recently, we discussed this topic at a workshop on Flash Floods in Mediterranean Climates as part of the World Water Forum in Marseille.  However, this means significantly different things for different people. I’d like to make this page available to collect opinions and thoughts on the following.

1-What is a risk-based culture?

2-How do we build one?

To kick this off, I’m going to post a great piece written by Terri Turner, CFM from Georgia.  She wrote this in response to this blog’s prior post on Residual Risk and I think many people should read it. Thanks for sharing, Terri.

Moving Toward a Risk-Based Culture

Terri L Turner, AICP, CFM

  Much has been written lately and even more has been discussed on the topics of “risk communication” and “communicating residual risk to the public” (e.g. the residual risk behind a levee).  These ideas can be morphed into a singular train of thought, that of ultimately “developing a risk-based culture”.  A risk-based culture may be defined as:

the beliefs, ethics, values and associated behaviors of society, as a whole, that  are so focused on risk and so risk-centered (ingrained in the public), that they result in sound risk-based attitudes, decision-making, beliefs and on-going sustainable and resilient actions

For example, mitigation in a risk-based culture is more proactive than it is reactive and should only be reactive post-event in response to the conclusions drawn (lessons learned) from the consequences of the event.  Mitigation in a risk-based culture is focused on:

  • Risk (less focused on incidents or events)
  • Hazard reduction (reducing the actual magnitude or severity of the event)
  • Property loss / loss of life reduction
  • Lessening the social, emotional and financial impacts on the community from the hazard/event
  • Community education and ultimately informed decision making
  • Prioritizing preparedness based on risk / hazards
  • Using a comprehensive approach that leverages community resources

A risk-based culture doesn’t just materialize overnight.  It is the concentrated efforts of a lot of “somebodies” doing a lot of “somethings” right.  Developing a risk-based culture should be centered around changing the mindset of human beings, who, for the most part, wholeheartedly believe that hazards will not happen, and if they do, they will absolutely happen to somebody else.  We also must remember that even if those same human beings believe that they are, indeed, at risk from some perceived peril, it doesn’t mean that they will do anything about it – somebody else will ultimately come in and save their ill-prepared behinds, because that is what we, as a nation, have always done in the past post-disaster.   And, finally, “scare tactics don’t work”, according to Dr Dennis Mileti, Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  You can throw all of the statistics and probabilities and profound science at these well meaning human beings and still it doesn’t shake them from their primary premise that “it can’t happen here” or “that it won’t happen to me”.  Personal beliefs and perceptions are hard cookies to break and then, if recent experiences prove them right, such as a hurricane that doesn’t make landfall as predicted by the “experts”, then risk perception goes out the window like the baby with the bath water.  People are more apt to change when they come to the conclusion on their own that they need to change, rather than when we, as the “experts”, try to bully them into changing.

So, knowing all that we know about the inner workings of the species, how are we going to develop that risk-based culture that we so desperately need to foster the sustainability and the resiliency of our society?  Well, let’s start with public education.  The message, in this case “the risk message”, must be clear and uncomplicated (“keep it simple”) and it must come at the public from a variety of sources (the experts, the local government and the guy next door), and a variety of media sources (tv, radio, social media).  The message must be the consistent from resource to resource and the message must repeat itself over the long-term (Who doesn’t know about “stop, drop and roll”?)  But there are other important factors about the message to keep in mind.  First, the message must be meaningful and must capture the public’s interest (with catchy phrases, bright colors, great graphics or even humor) and then must additionally stimulate the audience’s minds enough that they want to learn more.  You WANT them talking about your message over the water cooler tomorrow and singing your jingle in the shower at the top of their lungs.  More importantly, however, you have to keep coming at them with your message – with quirky keychains and grocery cart messages and let’s not forget the need to target our next generation.  Coloring books and school presentations excite young minds, who then bring home the risk-based message to Mom and Dad.  (From tiny seeds great trees are grown.)

Additionally, the message, while consistent, must be as diverse as the people who live within the community.  Therefore the risk message must be multi-lingual, geared at multi-levels of age and ethnicity and carried over a variety of sources (tv, radio, cable, word-of-mouth, brochures, newspapers, blogs, websites, social media).  The message must also be culturally appropriate so as not to offend or “turn off” a whole segment of the population.  People with disabilities and those with access and functional needs must be taken into account when designing the message.  Special populations, such as the hearing impaired, may require special communication needs and we need not forget those specific needs when we are “getting the word out”.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and nothing sells preparedness like the most recent disaster within the community, or the hazard event in the town just-down-the-road.  Recent disasters and hazard events are a fertile training ground for lessons learned and knowledge gained.  Additionally, lessons learned and knowledge gained are pivotal as the jumping off point for (successful) future risk-based mitigation actions within the community.

Local champions can make a huge difference in delivering the risk message, as well.  It seems like every community has (at least) one tenacious individual that is willing to share their time, their talents and their passion in inducing and stimulating others (from the guy-next-door, to the seat of the government, and everyone in between) to bring about change for the betterment of the community.

Partnerships are a key component in fostering a risk-based culture, as well.  Partnerships foster positive community processes – the efforts of the many working for the good of the whole – which in turn, can foster public approval, as positive results are seen and progress is made toward reducing the community’s vulnerability.

One must remember that developing a risk-based culture is not a race for the weary or the faint-of-heart.  I liken it to the race between the tortoise and the hare where the tortoise is carrying the weight of the world on his back.  Here we are, as idealistic believers, trying as hard as we can to change years of a lack of understanding about hazards and their associated risks, to change short-sighted and narrow-minded development practices, to change devil-may-care attitudes toward the natural environment and its impacts on where we live, and to change an entire culture – their social, emotional and behavioral (and quite possibly their economic and political) patterns – as it relates to risk.  Nobody said it was going to be easy.  But the late Dr Gilbert F White, often termed the “Father of Modern Floodplain Management”,  pointed out (as far back as 1942) our shortcomings on the subject to us, “Floods are acts of God, but flood losses are largely acts of man”.  More recently, in 1970, cartoonist Walt Kelley and his (Georgia native) cartoon character, Pogo, summed it all up in a poster done for Earth Day. Pogo is looking out over a spoiled landscape, trash, debris, litter; a virtual mess fills the swamp where he lives. Pogo looks at this atrocity and comments, “We have met the enemy and he is us”.  This mess has been with us for awhile, folks, and we’ve got nowhere to go from here in making progress on the issue, but up.

Measuring progress toward developing a risk-based culture can be as squishy as a lump of Jell-o in a toddler’s hands.  Multi-disciplinary indicators to evaluate progress need to be utilized keeping in mind that developing a risk-based culture is a long-term vision and not a short-term wind sprint.  Are mitigation decisions made within the community bearing fruit?  Is your community putting adequate man-power, money and other resources at the problem of the community’s natural and man-made hazards?  Does your community have “good bones” – is it developed around a framework of planning, preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery?   Is your community working to reduce factors that may contribute to your community’s propensity to suffer devastating loss during a hazard event?  Does your community continually evaluate their vulnerability and risk and then take actions accordingly?  Overall, is your community less vulnerable to natural and man-made hazards (remembering that natural hazards do NOT have to become your community’s next natural disaster)?

The results of a risk-based culture are greater risk management within the community, reduced loss of life and property, reduced damages, communities that adapt to ever changing risk-based needs (including climate-change-induced risks and needs), communities that are socially, economically, and environmentally more resilient and sustainable, and communities that are better able to bounce back quickly from a disaster, should one occur.  The goal of developing a risk-based culture is daunting, but with a clear direction for change, this new “awareness” can be achieved with perseverance and fortitude, converting one (it-can’t happen to me) naysayer at a time.


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