Beyond the four pillars

By David Etkin

Models are ubiquitous.  They provide a very useful way for people and organizations to perceive, understand and analyze the world.  It needs to be remembered, though, that models are not reality and to the extent that they misrepresent the world, all models are wrong. Thus reliance upon a specific model, though often useful, can become dangerous when it dominates thinking.

In this regard, the following quotes are both interesting and noteworthy:

  • “The fallacy of misplaced concreteness: “When one mistakes an abstract belief, opinion or concept about the way things are for … reality”.   Alfred North Whitehead.
  • “All models are wrong but some are useful”. George E.P. Box
  • “Make your theory as simple as possible, but no simpler.” A. Einstein
  • “For every complex question there is a simple and wrong solution.” A. Einstein.
  • “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” A. Einstein

Probably the most common model used in emergency management (EM) is that of the 4 (sometimes 5) pillars of mitigation (prevention), preparedness, response and recovery – also called Comprehensive Emergency Management (CEM). Numerous textbooks on the fundamentals of EM base their structure on this model and many government organizations have adopted it (e.g. Public Safety Canada and FEMA).

The development of this model represented the acceptance of a much needed and broader philosophy of emergency management from the traditional one, which had traditionally emphasized the preparedness and response pillars, because of the historical dominance of civil defence and first responders. It is the model that is probably most commonly used by emergency management organizations. CEM incorporates the notion of an all-hazards approach and emphasizes proactive actions to risk reduction. Even so, in terms of how it has been applied historically, there has been a tendency to emphasize the traditional hazards paradigm (see works written by Ken Hewitt) of engineering safety using a prescribed policy and a physical science approach.  There is no reason, however, why it could not be used within a vulnerability reduction framework, and much work is beginning to be done in this area.  Though it is accepted as best practice within many EM organizations it is beginning to be critiqued for its shortcomings, which include creating silos of the different pillars, which should overlap since they are very interdependent.

One of the missing elements in the CEM model is that it does not explicitly differentiate between and address issues of capacity (resilience and vulnerability), informal networks and formal arrangements. This can lead to, for example, the “paper plan syndrome”, which is the illusion of preparation based only upon planning documents.  Clarke (1999) presents an interesting discussion of extreme examples of this, calling them fantasy documents. The figure below is a modification of the CEM cycle that also portrays the platforms upon which the pillars rest. It still suffers, however, from portraying the pillars as separate, when in fact they have fuzzy boundaries.

Picture1Figure 1 EM Cycle and the Platforms that support it.

Also not explicit in the model is how vulnerable communities are created through complex social processes.  The book by Wisner et al (2004) presents a well-known model (called the Pressure and Release model) that describes this process in detail. Other models that are potentially very useful to emergency managers include the CARE[1] household livelihood model, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA-Q634-91) model for risk assessment (which can be adapted to emergency management), and Normal Accident Theory (Perrow, 1984)

By having a number of models in one’s toolkit and by using them selectively, depending upon the nature of the problem and the desired outcomes, the process of risk management can be made more effective.


Clarke. L. (1999). Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Hewitt, K. (1983). Interpretations of Calamity: From the Viewpoint of Human Ecology (The Risks & Hazards Series, 1). Unwin Hyman.

Hewitt, K. (1997). Regions of Risk: A Geographical Introduction to Disasters. Longman Harlow: London.

Perrow, C. (1999). Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Wisner, B., Blaikie, P., Cannon, T., & Davis, I. (2004). At Risk: Natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

David Etkin

Graduate Program Director, Disaster and Emergency Management York University

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