Plan for the human element: Assessing and managing risk

Louise Lemyre and Tracey O’Sullivan assess risks and help governments, organizations and individuals pinpoint gaps in emergency planning

by Laura Eggertson

When Louise Lemyre hears “bronze, silver and gold,” she thinks, like most Canadians, of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. But unlike most of those cheering for the extreme accomplishments of Canadian athletes, this University of Ottawa professor was focused on extreme events that could disrupt the Games.

That’s because Lemyre, who holds the McLaughlin Research Chair on Psychosocial Risk, was an advisor to Canadian officials on how to plan for the psychological and social factors that affect human behaviour during emergencies.

Prior to the Olympics, Lemyre was involved in three major exercises in Vancouver dubbed Bronze, Silver and Gold. Participants from 350 agencies practiced emergency responses to scenarios ranging from blizzards to biological contamination. Lemyre attended the practices to ensure planners didn’t forget that sometimes people don’t respond the way we anticipate.

A specialist in psychosocial risk, Lemyre leads an interdisciplinary team at the University of Ottawa known as GAP-Santé. The team creates tools to help governments, organizations and emergency response teams eliminate gaps in their emergency plans and reduce their risks.

Gaps occur when public security officials underestimate the role people’s perception plays in how they respond to an extreme event, says Lemyre. “We behave in ways that are driven by how we evaluate and how we, individually, subjectively assess the risks or benefits of what we want to do,” she explains. “So perception matters.” 
During Hurricane Katrina, some people refused to leave their homes because they didn’t know where other family members were or they couldn’t take their pets with them. They assessed the risks and benefits to not only themselves but their family, which included pets. 

Lemyre and GAP-Santé also stress the need to coordinate and communicate clearly and honestly. Often governments focus on public information but forget to communicate well within different jurisdictions, such as federal and provincial departments, during health emergencies like the H1N1 pandemic. “The flow of information is always one of the gaps,” Lemyre says. 

GAP-Santé, whose research is funded in part by the Chemical, Biological, Radiological-Nuclear and Explosives Research and Technology Initiative (CRTI) of Defence Research and Development Canada and the Centre for Security Science, is developing online tools like PRiMer. Short for Psychosocial Risk Manager, PRiMer teaches people about risk management approaches that include psychosocial considerations, says Lemyre. The team also leads workshops for decision-makers. GAP-Santé is creating a tool based on GIS technology so groups can map assets and high-risk zones. 

Building on research by Lemyre and GAP-Santé, Tracey O’Sullivan, an assistant professor at the University’s Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences, is working on a pilot project with three Canadian communities to help them “map” high-risk people. The project, called ENRICH (Enhancing Resilience and Capacity for Health), will ensure that people who have suffered a stroke or suffer from dementia, who have visual or hearing impairments, who are handicapped or who have mental health issues will cope better during and after emergencies. This issue has become one of increasing concern for all communities, given Canada’s aging population and the increasing number of people with dementia, says O’Sullivan.

“We have a lot of information now about high-risk populations… being more at risk when there’s a disaster,” she says. “They may require transportation and mobility assistance if there is a need to evacuate or get to a shelter.”
O’Sullivan will work with a number of communities to create databases or other ways to identify high-risk individuals and to put back-up plans in place so people don’t fall through the cracks.

If you meet the needs of high-risk people, then you reduce their risk of harm during a disaster, she says. The key to meeting those needs is to develop networks and plans before an emergency occurs. One of the interventions O’Sullivan plans to test is the use of social media like Facebook to keep people connected. “We’ll be looking to the communities to tell us what relationships exist between organizations that help people on a daily basis and what their contingency plans are,” O’Sullivan says. 

A critical aspect of her project is to have each community decide which priority gaps they need to address. Home care agencies may need to develop plans to work with the Red Cross, other organizations or even neighbours to ensure clients are still served if regular caregivers get sick or can’t get to clients during an ice storm, for example. 

“It’s often community associations or neighbours that really help ensure resilience overall,” O’Sullivan says.

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