“A conference is a gathering of important people who singly can do nothing, but together can decide that nothing can be done.” – Fred Allen
Conferences provide important and interesting sessions, but attendees do not always take away actionable knowledge nor have long-term retention of the information. Even when conference participants take notes, gather business cards from new acquaintances, and make new connections on LinkedIn, those notes and cards can end up in a folder or piled into a desk drawer with little or no follow-up.
In April 2023, the author had the opportunity to go to ResCon International 2023, with the opportunity to organize and moderate one of the conference’s plenary panel discussions. The panel – entitled “Where Does Emergency Management Stop and Resilience Begin?” – included the following panelists:
- Marissa Aho, policy director and chief resilience officer, Washington State Department of Natural Resources
- Russ Strickland, secretary of emergency management, Maryland Department of Emergency Management
- Jonathan Gaddy, subject matter expert, Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS)
- Royce Woodruff, adjunct faculty, University of North Alabama
Unlike conferences that had little lasting impact, this time would be different. This group would not just decide that nothing could be done. So, while the panel took the normal format of questions to draw out essential thoughts on the topic, the author collected the live audience and online participants’ perspectives in addition to the moderator and panel members.
The author submitted an exempt Institutional Review Board (IRB) research proposal, which the University of North Alabama Human Subjects Research Committee approved, to allow for research as part of the panel process. The proposed methodology included a pre-conference/session quantitative online survey distributed to the conference panel attendees, live polling conducted during the panel session, and a qualitative open-ended comment card. Additionally, given the recent interest in and popularity of large-language models and artificial intelligence, the author also decided to add Chat GPT as a “fifth” panel member by running all the panel questions through the platform to get its perspective. This interactive method aimed to create a more engaging and memorable experience for conference participants and panelists.
Question 1: Dependency Between Emergency Management and Resilience
The first question for the panel was, “Arguably, you can have effective emergency management and response without resilience, but can you have resilience without adequate emergency management and response?” All panel members agreed with 73% of the survey participants who did not feel it was possible to have true resilience without adequate emergency management and response. They believe that effective emergency management and response is critical to achieving resilience in individuals and communities by reducing the impact of disasters and facilitating a quicker and more complete recovery.
However, the other 27% of those survey participants believe it is possible to achieve resilience even without effective emergency management and response and that, while the two were related and complementary, they were also distinct concepts. Interestingly, unlike the panelists, Chat GPT agreed with this assessment and stated that:
While effective emergency management and response can certainly contribute to resilience, it is not the only factor. A community or individual with strong social support networks and a robust economy may be more resilient and better able to recover from a disaster, even if emergency management and response are inadequate. Similarly, an individual with strong coping skills and a positive mindset may be more resilient and better able to overcome adversity, even if emergency management and response are lacking.
Question 2: The Nature of Emergency Management Versus Resilience
The panel saw the next question via a live poll of the audience:
Some would say that emergency management is inherently defensive or reactive in nature with an overarching focus on response. Resilience is seen by many as being more offensive or proactive, focusing more on the intersection of shocks and stresses, which leads to more prevention, preparedness, mitigation, and adaptation. Would you agree or disagree with this assessment?
The live audience, panel members, and online survey participants overwhelmingly agreed that emergency management is defensive/reactive and response-focused (see Figure 1). In contrast, resilience is more offensive and proactive, focusing on the broader view of the phases of emergency management. Chat GPT also agreed with the majority and noted that it saw:
Emergency management and resilience as related concepts, but they have different emphases. Emergency management focuses on responding to and recovering from emergencies and disasters. At the same time, resilience takes a more proactive approach, emphasizing strategies to prevent or mitigate the impact of disasters and build capacity to withstand future challenges.
QUESTION 3: RESILIENCE’S DEPENDENCY ON EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT
The panel then considered the question:
We know by its very nature that resilience is made up of many different components, with emergency management being only one of them. What percentage of resilience would you say that effective emergency management comprises?
In this case, the panel members clustered within the survey participants’ distribution range and outlined the reasons for their percentage choices. Figure 2 reflects 33 total responses, with the largest cluster below the mean between 15-40% and a more even distribution above the mean. Chat GPT, on the other hand, decided to punt on this question with a non-answer that included:
It is not possible to assign a specific percentage of resilience that effective emergency management comprises, as resilience is a complex and multifaceted concept that is influenced by many factors.
QUESTION 4: THE ROLE OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT IN RESILIENCE
The next question was about understanding resilience and the role of emergency management:
Some of the struggles we seem to be having in understanding resilience are actually debates about how emergency management (as a discipline and profession) should adapt and pivot to “operationalize” resilience as an objective or an end-state. This has led to a debate or open question on “What is our job, now?” in terms of where traditional responsibilities and mission focus of EM organizations need to change or evolve. Do EMs need to get more involved in issues like: building codes; social vulnerability; economic development; sustainable development?
In this case, the panel, Chat GPT, and 34 survey participants were in general agreement, with a clear majority of 62% responding yes, 12%, and 26% maybe. In line with the panel participants, Chat GPT concluded that:
Emergency management organizations may need to broaden their focus beyond traditional emergency response and recovery activities to effectively promote resilience. This may involve getting more involved in issues related to building codes, social vulnerability, economic development, and sustainable development, among others. By addressing these issues, emergency management organizations can help to build more resilient communities that are better prepared for future challenges.
QUESTION 5: RESILIENCE CHALLENGES FACING STATE AND FEDERAL OFFICIALS
The final panel question asked the following of the panel and participants:
In January 2023 the Pew Charitable Trust organization hosted a summit on the disaster resilience challenges facing state and federal officials. Out of the following areas they identified, which do you think is the most significant?
- Lack of planning and analysis capability,
- Lack of investment and funding,
- Poor data and analysis on threat and risk,
- Bureaucratic inflexibility, and
- Taking a reactive versus a proactive approach.
The participants ranked these items in terms of their relative importance as challenges. The ranking by the panel and the responding participants provided a weighted average for each item outlined in Figure 3. While differences were apparent in the top and the bottom resilience challenge areas, the middle three results were similar.
The resilience challenge that participants deemed most significant was lack of planning and analysis capability. Conversely, the resilience challenge with the lowest weighted average was poor data and analysis on threat and risk. The three resilience challenges that clustered in the middle were: lack of investment and funding, bureaucratic inflexibility, and taking a reactive versus a proactive approach. The takeaway from this question is that information and data were not as much of an issue as other areas that deal with what can be done with that data and the capabilities to do it. Interestingly, Chat GPT said that:
All of the areas identified by Pew Charitable Trust are important for addressing disaster resilience challenges, the lack of investment and funding is likely the most significant, as it can impact many other aspects of disaster resilience.
CONCLUDING PANELIST COMMENTS
The final activity for the panel discussion was a reflective “Your Take” comment card that all session participants received as they entered. It asked, “What would you consider the most important aspect of resilience to be? Why?” These cards were gathered near the end of the session and provided the focus for the panel members’ concluding comments. Each panel member was given about six cards, had a few minutes to consider them, chose one or two that spoke the most to them, and highlighted the card’s perspective in their concluding panel comments.
When Chat GPT shared its perspective on the participants’ comments on the most essential aspect of resilience, it identified the following themes as particularly relevant: community engagement and trust, defining the community, interconnectedness of systems, collaboration and coordination, and addressing vulnerable populations. It summarized these by noting that:
Defining the community being served accurately from the onset is particularly important; it goes beyond geographical boundaries and demographics because resilience depends on meeting communities where they are and involves the ability to learn, grow, and become stronger after facing disasters. Collaboration and coordination among organizations, agencies, and groups contribute to building social capital and cooperation between government and communities is essential for establishing long-term resiliency.
This conference session exercise was successful and exceeded the author’s expectations. The dialogue was lively and informative. Tapping into the live audience and the participants’ perspectives to help drive the panel members’ discussion proved particularly valuable. While Chat GPT did not reveal anything earth-shattering and often parroted much of the panel question and previous answer language (particularly further in the session), it aligned with the panel members’ and participants’ knowledge and perspective. While this methodology involving significant preparation and planning might not be the best fit for every conference presentation, it is worth considering this method for future presentations.