Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Transformative Lectures by a Disaster Researcher - Challenges in the Arctic and Beyond

How often do students get to hear from a disaster researcher who has written 20 books, some of which are science-based Nordic disaster novels, with one of his books being commissioned now for a TV series?!

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of hosting Mr. Rasmus Dahlberg, who is Fellow at the Center for Disaster Research at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Mr. Dahlberg presented two talks yesterday (but, then again, he is a marathoner and is running the DC marathon next Sunday). He was coming to the Isenberg School from the University of Colorado Boulder where he had been conducting research for a month.

His first presentation, which was given in my 8:30AM Humanitarian Logistics and Healthcare class (after he had had a 7:30AM  interview with a Danish radio station on Tom Clancy, a writer that Dahlberg is an expert on),  was titled: "Offshore is Onshore" Building a Scalable Search and Rescue (SAR) Infrastructure in the Arctic.

This presentation of Dahlberg can be downloaded here.

Dahlberg also works with the Danish Emergency Management Association as well as with the Danish Red Cross so he has an immense amount of practical experience, which, coupled with his research, provides him with amazing narratives to share with audiences.

His first presentation focused on how to handle uncertainty and unpredictability in emergency management. He began with a possible crisis of a cruise ship with thousands of passengers sinking between Greenland and Iceland. He has been advising Greenland and Iceland on emergency management. He says such potential disasters keep him awake at night. He mentioned the Costa Concordia which sank in the Mediterranean in January 2012. When it comes to Arctic regions, the survivability of those in such a cruise ship disaster would be questionable. Fishermen know, for example, that, without protective gear, if they fall into such waters, they die in 2 minutes. He spoke of covered lifeboats (and also made references to the Titanic) as well as protective gear but said that what would really work, but which is not popular, would be to have two cruise ships transiting together in proximity. If passengers needed help on one, there should be sufficient capacity on the other to provide rescue and assistance.

He also spoke about Iceland, which has been the site of erupting volcanoes and earthquakes. Now the former US military base is being used as a potential triage site and not just a hangar in which to store blankets. He is working also on a big Nordic project to mitigate the affects of climate change, which will last until 2020. The Iceland Coast Guard has only 3 helicopters and 3 ships and, of course, Greenland, is even more short of transport equipment. He mentioned one big helicopter which he has flown in, in which 96 mushing dogs were transported once for a dog sled race in the middle of Greenland. What an image.

We got to hear stories of polar bears (they love Nutella)  and how Iceland is building up capacity for search and rescue missions in the region. It shocked us when he said that Iceland alone could handle no more than 7 hypothermia patients at a time. Greenland can handle no more than 8 trauma victims at a time!  All the search and rescue folks in Iceland are volunteers and they were the first country to respond to Haiti post the 2010 earthquake disaster. They are incredible and digging out folks, often using dogs for assistance, in avalanches, and clearly can even respond to earthquakes in warm climates! He noted that many hospitals in Scandinavia are specializing which can create capacity issues in disasters.

He told us that "safety science is driven by events" and  we all know of some major disasters that spurred new policies and actions afterwards. He emphasized Nassin Taleb's work and black swans and not just dealing with risk in terms of probabilities and impacts but also thinking of possibilities and worst case scenarios - just like a cruise ship with 4,000 passengers sinking in the Arctic.

He envisions a Search and Rescue Academy in which practitioners and researchers can be working together, side by side. I loved this.

He also noted that what is needed in disaster relief and emergency management - and disasters are those events that can't be managed by existing resources - is a coordinator of coordinators. This also very much resonated with me.

We took a group photo with the Professor for a Day plaque that was presented to Dahlberg.

Then Dahlberg and I went out for coffee and delicious scones at a downtown Amherst cafe and it was time for lunch at the University Club, which I hosted. It was extra special to have both undergraduates and graduate students make time (it was a Tuesday and not our usual seminar day of Friday) to attend.

At 2PM it was time for Dahlberg to present in our great UMass Amherst INFORMS Speaker Series. His presentation was: Bridging the Gap: Preparing for Long-Term Infrastructure Disruptions and it can be downloaded here.
 In this presentation, Dahlberg focused on what is critical infrastructure and emphasized multidisciplinary perspectives. He had a lot of great quotes from anthropologists including that infrastructure is "matter that enables movement of other matter." This brought out vividly that infrastructure may be invisible until it fails - we lose power, a bridge collapses, water is undrinkable, etc.

In doing his research on the importance of bridges and especially the Oresund bridge that he studied deeply, he spent days riding the train on the bridge which connects Malmo, Sweden with Copenhagen, Denmark,  interviewing people as to what they would think if the bridge was inoperable, say, for one day, one month, or a more extended period of time.  The knowledge workers could work at home for a period. The sewer truck driver told him that "he does not take his work home." To have a 20 minute commute each way change to a two and a half hour commute because with a bridge closure one would have to make use of multiple modes of transport, including a ferry, over greater distances, would clearly have an impact. However, this bridge was not considered a European Critical Infrastructure and, in fact, nothing in western Europe was! A small airport in Bulgaria, nevertheless, was.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Dahlberg at the Dynamics of Disasters conference, which I coorganized last summer with Professors Panos M. Pardalos and Ilias Kotsireas in Kalamata, Greece. He was the first speaker and made such a powerful impression that when he said he wanted to visit me I knew that having him come and speak would be a transformative educational experience. And I am thrilled that his work on the topic that he spoke on is now a finalized chapter for the book that Kotsireas, Pardalos, and I  are co-editing on the conference.