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III. Multicultural and Regional Preparedness

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Emergency Preparedness in Urban Centers

By John Cavanagh and Anne Malia

Nearly two thirds of Americans spend most of their lives in urban environments&*8212;an interesting fact when one considers that these urban areas occupy less than two percent of the nation’s land area. With such a vast population living and working in metropolitan areas, it is imperative that these cities remain secure, and the key to security is emergency preparedness. Despite all of the resources available to a city (money, supplies, workforce, etc.), urban areas have their own unique vulnerabilities to both natural and planned disasters. According to, an organization specializing in the study of urban development, there are several significant factors that make a city vulnerable to disasters, including:

  • Hazardous Exposure of the Location
    Sixty-five percent of the world’s cities with a population of more than 2.5 million are located directly on a coastline. Port cities are particularly vulnerable because of the increased frequency and severity of storms and any potential rise in sea level.
  • Economic and Political Relevance of a City
    A city’s concentration of political, economic and administrative activities has become another important factor in determining its vulnerability, as it makes these areas potential terrorist targets.
  • Physical Vulnerability
    The physical characteristics of buildings and infrastructure of a city itself can create hazards in a disaster situation.
  • Density of the Population Population density is one of the variables that determine the severity of a disaster. Where people are concentrated in a limited area, any single disaster event can cause massive injuries and deaths.
  • Poverty Level
    People with different income levels are likely to be affected differently by the same event. An individual’s vulnerability to disaster tends to lessen with increasing income. The poorest people often live in the most vulnerable housing and in the most hazard-prone locations. In many cities, the population of poor is expanding, which aggravates this trend.

Urban Search and Rescue:
In large cities there are many structures that could collapse during a disaster and trap people underneath. Many cities also have extensive subway systems in which people could be trapped during an emergency. Urban search-and-rescue (US&R) missions involve the location, rescue and initial medical treatment of victims trapped in confined spaces. Urban search-and-rescue is considered a “multi-hazard” discipline, as it may be required for a variety of emergency or disaster situations, including:

  • Earthquakes
  • Hurricanes
  • Typhoons
  • Storms
  • Tornadoes
  • Floods
  • Dam Failures
  • Technological Accidents
  • Terrorist Activities

If a disaster calls for national US&R support, FEMA will send out the three most closely located task forces within six hours of notification, and will deploy additional teams as needed. The role of these task forces is to support state and local emergency responders in their efforts to locate victims and manage recovery operations. Each task force consists of two 31-person teams, four canines, and a comprehensive equipment cache. US&R task force members work in four areas of specialization:

  • Search: Experts trained to find victims trapped after a disaster.
  • Rescue: Specialists sent to safely dig victims out from under tons of collapsed concrete and metal.
  • Technical: Structural specialists who make rescues safe for the rescuers.
  • Medical: Specialists who care for the victims before and after a rescue.

In addition to search-and-rescue support, FEMA provides hands-on training in search-and-rescue techniques and equipment, technical assistance to local communities, and in some cases, federal grants to help communities better prepare for urban search-and-rescue operations. FEMA views these first responders as a national resource that can be deployed to a major disaster or structural collapse anywhere in the country, while possessing knowledge that can serve their local communities as well.

Cities Unprepared
Surprisingly, even six years after the tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, most cities are still not prepared for disasters. A recent survey from the U.S. Conference of Mayors reveals that eight in 10 cities report that their first responders do not have communications interoperability, and 44 percent of cities report that they have not created or updated emergency evacuation plans. Nearly 200 cities participated in the survey. Of this number, 104 had populations of fewer than 100,000 people and 30 cities had populations greater than 300,000. Almost seventy-five percent of participating cities said they were not prepared to handle an influenza pandemic, and most said federal homeland security funding does not adequately meet their needs. This is a warning that must be heeded. Every individual city dweller can help their cities take a step in a positive direction by learning personal preparedness essentials and then volunteering their services where needed.

Resource 20 – Regional Preparedness:

Education for Emergency Preparedness

The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response has established an organization called The New York Consortium for Emergency Preparedness Continuing Education. The mission of this group is to extend and strengthen the competency of health professionals in New York to respond effectively to emergency events of all kinds. Their website contains information regarding the competency-based continuing education offered through the Consortium.

All articles in Bridge Multimedia’s 30 Days, 30 Resources series are available for publication in whole or in part without further permission, free of charge, with attribution to Bridge Multimedia and


About the Writers

John Cavanagh is Communications Director for Bridge Multimedia and Chief Researcher for Emergency Information Online.

Anne Malia writes about technology and emergency preparedness for people with special needs and has contributed to the production of and

Article inquiries welcome. On request, we can provide feature-length articles tailored to your audience and requirements. Please contact John Cavanagh at Bridge Multimedia: or .

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