Radix - Year One: Reflections on 2001 - page 3


Contributions from:

From civil defense to civil protection--and back again

by David Alexander

    The phrase 'civil protection' has gradually come into use around the world as a term that describes activities which protect civil populations against incidents and disasters. The USA stands out more or less alone for having adopted the alternative term 'emergency preparedness'. However, 'civil protection' has the advantage of translating more easily and literally into romance languages.

    Civil protection has gradually and rather haltingly emerged from the preceding philosophy of civil defense. Here, 'defense' implies the management of civilian populations in the face of actual or potential aggression. As with all means of directing operations under the duress of warfare and conflict, it gives considerable emphasis to authoritarian management techniques and the restriction of individual freedoms. In contrast, civil protection has gradually moved away from command-and-control methods to rely upon forms of collaboration and information sharing. This is one of the principal ways in which it has distinguished itself from civil defense.

    Civil defense was born out of wartime efforts to organize air-raid precautions, sheltering arrangements and alarms for non-combatants. It took a more debatable, and perhaps sinister, form during the Cold War (1948-89) with the development of plans to relocate large civilian populations in the event of a threatened nuclear attack. Many aspects of nuclear strategy were at best theoretical and at worst ludicrous, flying in the face of common sense or deliberately distorted in order to maintain a very profitable arms race. In the reality of a thermo-nuclear exchange, the plans to protect civilians would be the first to fail.

    One element of civil defense in the nuclear era has been a strategy to preserve a functional corpus of government by protecting key political and military leaders. Underground bunkers were set up with powerful dedicated communications systems, radiation shields and stockpiles of rations. This rather mechanistic approach could not, of course, determine what the situation would be like once the heavily protected leaders emerged from their bunkers, what there would be to govern and how easy it would be to re-establish control.

    Civil defense is administered by a combination of military and paramilitary forces acting under military regulations. As its plans and strategies are supposed to be kept secret from a putative enemy power, it is not usually subject to rules of accountability and freedom of information. Considerable risks therefore exist that civil defense become an instrument of repression, subtle or otherwise in character. Plans to manage civilian populations can turn into strategies for ensuring that protests are repressed and revolts subdued, even when these are stimulated by a desire to defend or restore democratic rights. In short, civil defense can be subverted to protect the state against its people: it is a potential instrument of coup d'êtat.

    The Cold War reached its zenith with the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. It did not end abruptly with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 but declined gradually during the 1980s with successive changes in the relations between the superpowers. Contemporaneously, civil protection emerged as a counterweight to civil defense: as demand for the latter slowly lessened, so demand for the former increased under the duress of more, and more serious, civilian disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and transportation crashes.

    Theoretical research also made a contribution to the increasingly civilian character of emergency preparedness. In the 1950s much social research on disasters was designed to test hypotheses relating to the possible effects of major armed aggression. Thus a tornado was viewed as a partial, small-scale analog for the sorts of destruction and disruption that modern war might bring--at least, that was the rationale of much of the funding and official support for disaster research. In contrast, by the late 1960s social research had matured and broadened such that it had begun to cast doubt on the efficacy of the usual military system of emergency management. Finally, from the 1970s onwards, disaster research has proposed alternative, non-military models of civil protection. One of these is the incident command system (ICS), which is distinctly different from the traditional command-and-control model derived from the direction of troops during combat, as it relies on information sharing and collaboration between task forces.

    As civil protection has come to the fore, it has become apparent that similar approaches to the management of natural and technological disasters can prevail in very different societies. Hence, both structurally and functionally, the Russian system of emergency preparedness now has much more in common with, for instance, its North American and Australasian counterparts than the corresponding differences in history and culture might suggest. This process of convergence was facilitated by the United Nations' International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR 1990-2000), which functioned as a means of sharing organizational expertise. At the moment, variations among national emergency management structures are based more on degree of evolution than fundamental differences in process: lack of political will, stability, or funds, have caused some countries to make little progress in demilitarizing their emergency preparedness forces.

    Civil protection has developed through the gradual realization that it is not efficient or effective to manage civil emergencies such as floods and transportation crashes by military means. Military forces have the advantages of great autonomy in the field, dedicated equipment (all-terrain vehicles, for example), unambiguous command structures, robust field communications, and a variety of useful skills (in civil engineering, for instance), but they tend to be rigid and authoritarian. Modern disasters are complex enough to require the utmost flexibility in their management. Indeed, adaptive management must be practiced if good results are to be achieved. The rights of victims and survivors are paramount and must be respected in all forms of decision making. The military record in this is at best ambiguous and at worst unacceptable.

    The drift of this discussion appears to be that modern civil protection should exclude military forces from disaster management. In reality this is not quite the objective, but rather there needs to be a redefinition of the role of the military in such events. In countries riven by a combination of warfare (usually low-intensity conflict) and natural disaster, peace-keeping missions may be essential prerequisites of the relief and mitigation of civilian disasters. Elsewhere, military forces can fulfill a very useful support role if their command structures can successfully be integrated with those of civil protection administrations. Moreover, civil protection forces usually contain a substantial component of pseudo-military or para-military organization. Most fire brigades are organized partly along military lines, though they are usually amenable to civilian command techniques. The Salvation Army is an example of a non-governmental organization that had adopted a pseudo-military image. Moreover, one of the lead organizations in any disaster relief operation is usually a police force, with its inherent objective of maintaining public order. Nevertheless, modern civil protection is not inherently authoritarian. For example, even when a city mayor signs an order that makes evacuation compulsory for citizens whose homes are in the path of an advancing floodwave, powers of arrest and forcible removal are seldom evoked if people refuse to comply with the order.

    And so to the events of September 11, 2001. On that day, a gigantic failure of strategic intelligence was revealed. Using the most rudimentary weapons--knives and razors--groups of terrorists transformed very ordinary equipment--civilian airliners--into devastating weapons capable, not merely of causing mass casualties on the largest scale so far encountered in any terrorist incident, but also of causing the massive disruption and losses that have continued in abated form ever since. As Ignacio Ramonet, Editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, has pointed out, no weapon so far invented has ever been used only once, and thus the potential for some form of repeat of the events of that tragic day remains high.

    The loss of the lives of 343 firemen and 78 policemen in the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 reveals a vast and tragic failure of civil protection planning. During the previous year, some commentators had suggested that too much emphasis was being given to 'routine' emergencies--the usual flood, the common air crash--at the expense of developing believable scenarios for events with very profound consequences but very low probability of occurrence. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks it is suddenly fashionable to contemplate the worst-case scenarios, though no one can yet say whether this is being done systematically and rationally enough to produce usable scenarios.

    Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall it has been apparent that there are many strategists and militarists who regard the Cold War as a Halcyon Age. Appalling though the idea is, they are not entirely unjustified in this, as it was at least a time in which mutual rivalry had some restraining effect on the superpowers' ambitions and the framework of mutually assured destruction imparted a sense of order to world affairs, however deplorable the consequences. Although it is neither possible nor in fact desirable to turn the clock back, the cold warriors have bided their time and have now returned to the limelight, reinvented as anti-terror strategists.

    It is a curious paradox that terrorism now dominates world thinking despite the fact that natural and technological disasters of the more usual kind have not become less serious and remain vastly dominant in terms of the size and frequency of their collective impact. Although terrorism has the potential to cause tens of thousands, or even millions, of casualties, that potential thankfully remains unproven. In contrast, the power of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions to cause death and destruction not only is fully proven, but it is demonstrated again and again in each new event. Moreover, the legacy of the Cold War is a series of pitiful 'complex emergencies' in which natural disasters act upon already disastrous situations. Thus the Congolese city of Goma was already in a parlous state before in January 2002 it began to face total ruin in the rifting eruption of Mount Nyiragongo volcano.

    September 11 may have had little impact on the situation in Goma, but it has galvanized emergency preparedness in the rich countries: the scenarios are changing; the equipment requests now include antidotes for anthrax, bomb detection devices, protective suits capable of resisting Sarin gas attacks, and other expensive hardware; the objectives and methods of medical and logistical training are under review; evacuation is topical once again; tall buildings have ceased to appear as safe, benign environments; and command structures are changing to reflect the need to manage huge numbers of people. It is no longer 'business as usual' in the world's emergency planning rooms.

    Many of these changes could in the end be cosmetic or transient, a matter of form rather than substance. Only time will tell. However, a profound change is taking place in the role and status of civil protection itself. President Bush, acting unilaterally on behalf of the rest of the world, declared war on terrorism. It is, of course, a phoney war, as there is no one to deliver the declaration to, no one to negotiate surrender with. The very real war in Afghanistan has acted as a surrogate for the 'war on terrorism', but with a noticeable difference regarding other recent wars: the United States has demonstrated that it does not feel bound by the international rules of warfare, especially regarding civilian casualties (General Powell's 'collateral damage'), anti-personnel bombs, and the treatment of prisoners. This is a bad sign for international relations, and indirectly it is also a bad sign for civil protection.

    In terrorist incidents the lead agency is usually a police force or a military unit. Military specialists such as bomb-disposal squads may also be called out. This is logical and efficient in that, first, civilians must be protected, and secondly military skills may be needed in order to neutralize the terrorists or their weapons. However, such was the magnitude of the September 11 outrages, and of the revulsion expressed by the U.S. public, that new powers are being sought all over the world. These powers refer to search, arrest, detainment, treatment in custody, trial and sentencing and can easily enter into conflict with basic freedoms and human rights.

    The terrorist incidents of September 2001 came at a time when civil protection had begun to face up seriously to problems of equity. For example, it had taken note of the risk of institutional racism in disasters (a form of discrimination in which an organization, but not its individual workers, is to blame). Efforts were being made to use emergency preparedness as a means of safeguarding democratic rights, not circumventing them. However, it was also a time in which non-governmental organizations working in humanitarian relief had begun seriously to re-evaluate the cherished principle of neutrality established with their prototype, the International Movement of the Red Cross, at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Increasing attacks on and subversions of humanitarian aid, and patent injustice in the areas that needed it, had put pressure cumulatively on the NGOs to adopt a more flexible attitude to the question of impartiality in the distribution of aid.

    Both the U.S. intelligence services and the various Federal emergency organizations had absorbed prodigious amounts of money over the years in their efforts to predict and prepare for national emergencies. Despite this, neither group was prepared for the events of September 11, 2001. New thinking was obviously needed, but what should it involve and who should be doing it? The answers to these questions are still not clear. The new emphasis on security may be swinging the balance in favor of a resurgence of civil defense and against the open, unauthoritarian methods that characterize civil protection.

    Whether it be a terrorist outrage or a natural catastrophe, the next large disaster to strike a Western democratic country will reveal the extent of changes in civil protection strategies wrought by anti-terrorism initiatives. All that is certain is that any resort to authoritarian methods of controlling members of the public will damage the truly civilian disaster response network that has been constructed so painstakingly over the last two decades. It would be a great pity to have to relearn the lesson that disasters can only be mitigated successfully if ordinary people are empowered to take responsibility for their own safety. Disasters, therefore, are as much about democracy as they are about security.


1. Mauro, A. 1996. We all are civil protection! Stop Disasters 29: 3-4.
2. Public Management, 1989. The value of emergency preparedness (special issue). Public Management 71(12): 2-27.
3. Anderson, W. 1969. Local Civil Defense in Natural Disaster: From Office to Organization. Disaster Research Center, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
4. Masri, A. and J.E. Moore II 1995. Integrated planning information systems: disaster planning analysis. Journal of Urban Planning and Development 121(1): 19-39.
5. Kerr, T.J. 1983. Civil Defense in the U.S.: Bandaid for a Holocaust? Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.
6. Jackson, A.A. 1994. Recent developments in civil protection and the implications for disaster management in the United Kingdom. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 12(3): 345-355.
7. Anderson, W.A. 1970. Military organizations in natural disaster: established and emergent norms. American Behavioral Scientist 13: 415-422.
8 .Dr Sergio Achille, Italian National Department of Civil Protection--personal communication.
9. Blanchard, B.W. 1984. American Civil Defense 1945-1984: The Evolution of Programs and Policies. National Emergency Training Center, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Emmitsburg, Maryland.
10. Fritz, C.E. and E.S. Marks 1954. The NORC studies of human behavior in disaster. Journal of Social Issues 10(3): 26-41.
11. Moore, H.E. 1958. Tornadoes Over Texas: A Study of Waco and San Angelo in Disaster. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.
12. Horlick-Jones, T., A. Amendola and R. Casale (eds) 1995. Natural Risk and Civil Protection. E&FN Spon, London.
13. Irwin, R.L. 1989. The Incident Command System (ICS). In E. Auf Der Heide (ed.), Disaster Responses: Principles of Preparation and Coordination. Mosby, St Louis, Missouri: 133-163.
14. Porfiriev, B. 1998. Disaster Policy and Emergency Management in Russia. Nova Science Publishers, Commack, New York.
15. Anderson, W.A. 1969. Social structure and the role of the military in natural disaster. Sociology and Social Research 53: 242-252.
16. Kartez, J.D. and M.K. Lindell 1990. Adaptive planning for community disaster response. In R. Sylves and W. Waugh (eds) Cities and Disaster. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, Illinois: 163-179.
17. Wright, W.E. 1997. Incorporating military civil affairs support into domestic disaster management. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 15(2): 283-292.
18. Gaydos, J.C. and G.A. Luz 1994. Military participation in emergency humanitarian assistance. Disasters 18(1): 48-57; Gordenker, L. and T.G. Weiss 1989. Humanitarian emergencies and military help: some conceptual observations. Disasters 13(2): 119-134; Kelly, C. 1996. Limitations to the use of military resources for foreign disaster assistance. Disaster Prevention and Management 5(1): 22-29.
19. Kennedy, W.C. 1970. Police departments: organization and tasks in disaster. American Behavioral Scientist 13: 354-361.
20. Ramonet, I. 2001. The world's new look. Le Monde Diplomatique December 2001: 1-3.
21. Alexander, D.E. 2000. Confronting Catastrophe: New Perspectives on Natural Disaster. Terra Publishing, Harpenden, UK, and Oxford University Press, New York: 216-217.
22. Alexander, D.E. 2002. Principles of Emergency Planning and Management. Terra Publishing, Harpenden, UK, and Oxford University Press, New York.
23. Nylén, L. 1996. The role of the police in the total management of disaster. Disaster Prevention and Management 5(5): 23-30.
24. See Robertson, G. 2000. Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice (2nd edition). Penguin, London.
25. Platt, R.H. 1999. Disasters and Democracy: The Politics of Extreme Natural Events. Island Press, Washington, D.C., 320 pp.
26. Alexander, D.E. Principles of Emergency Planning and Management, ibid.
27. Waugh, W.L. Jr. 1990. Terrorism and Emergency Management: Policy and Administration. Marcel Dekker, New York.

download Word file (41kb)

Back to the top

Radix: the source or origin; the root
Quick look up at Dictionary.com

For questions regarding this website, contact: maureen.fordham@northumbria.ac.uk | This page was last updated on 08 April 2003