The Importance of Decentralized Response

One clear implication of diversity is that, especially in diffuse emergencies, detailed central control of emergency responses is impossible. Many decisions will require a knowledge of local attitudes, capabilities, and needs as changes in patterns of supply and use create a mosaic of localized gluts and shortages and as communities move to deal with their own problems. Because a central authority simply cannot manage the information flow and integrate the many pertinent factors with the speed and sensitivity that would be required, much of the troubleshooting in an emergency will need to be decentralized.1

The market system is one important mechanism for this decentralization. But it is important to recognize that social groupings, linkages, and stresses may be equally important during a serious emergency. Studies of communities under disaster conditions indicate that family groups, social relationships, and community organizations are often the focus of behavior (Dynes, 1970, 1972). In an emergency in which transportation fuel becomes painfully scarce, for example, friendship ties in neighborhoods and workplaces will influence the formation of carpools, and local nongovernmental organizations may take the lead in ensuring that community needs are met. Furthermore, attitudes and responses in a crisis situation are strongly affected by social interaction, as well as by the prices of goods and services. Individual opinions as to whether or not an emergency actually exists seem to be influenced by the behavior of close associates (Latané and Nida, 1981); emergency preparedness may also be influenced by social contacts and groupings. In a sense, it is a kind of social innovation, spreading through contact networks, which may be accepted or rejected. It is shaped by the salience of preparedness responses as alternatives and by the examples of others (e.g., Staub, 1974; Wilson, 1976), as well as by the norms of groups with which one is identified (Buss, 1980; Schwartz and Clausen, 1970).

Because of such phenomena, an effective approach to emergency preparedness must address itself to the diversity of local concerns. It may, in fact, even be able to take advantage of some of this diversity, both in preparing for an emergency and in preventing it. While centrally located officials are often unable to deal with rapid changes in attitudes, behavior, and structures in an emergency, spontaneous improvisation at the local level has often been a key to effective emergency response (Kreps, 1979; Quarantelli and Dynes, 1977; Barton, 1969). Decentralized initiatives come from local groups that sometimes represent neither conventional economic actors nor conventional government operations. An example is the role of automobile clubs during recent oil shortages: by providing accurate information about the local availability of gasoline, the clubs helped to reduce disruption by adjusting travel to energy availability.

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