#2 – Transboundary Crisis – Essential Elements of Information for a Culture of Preparedness

The goal of emergency and crisis response is to reduce output variability in a context in which inputs are highly variable; to that end, crisis response is, in part, about creating an orderly arena within a chaotic environment. … research on High Reliability Organizations (HROs) has suggested that some complex, hazard-managing organizations, for which failure is not an option, can do precisely this through a process of relentless preoccupation with failure and ongoing training for the unexpected … Observations of HROs provide an important bridge between traditional organizational leadership and decision-making under complex conditions and the extraordinary complexity of the transboundary event such as a pandemic or a natural or anthropogenic disaster.

For a community to believe they have the wherewithall to “create an orderly arena within a chaotic environment”  would be the essence of a culture of preparedness, would it not? Disasters are often discribed as “local” no matter the level of state or federal participation, but in complex events, as stated above the event and the “arena” most probably  cross multiple boundaries of various nature.  To that end, our first element of essential information for a culture of preparedness introduces the idea of “transboundary crisis, transboundary response.”

>> What follows is a portion of the introduction to Transboundary Crisis, Transboundary Thinking, and the Team of Leaders (ToL) Approach: The H1N1 Case, by PWH advisor Dr. Dag von Lubitz of MEDSMART, and Dr. M. Jude Egan, Stephensen Disaster Management Institute, Lousisiana State University. (PWH Note: Opening quote from concluding remarks)

The typical transboundary event distributes impacts over multiple jurisdictions at once such that simply drawing a wider command ring around the impacted areas cannot “contain” its location. Transboundary events are, thus, by definition, multijurisdictional and nonlocal; they often involve “whole of government” response..

A recent New York Times editorial declares that all disasters are local and indeed most are (Ganyard 2009). The Incident Command Structure (ICS), a network of concentric circles of local, state and federal government responders is suited in many ways to respond to the classic local disaster type – an event, such as the recent Jesusita Wildfire in Santa Barbara County, begins with dry evening winds, high fuel and steep canyons dotted with million-dollar homes. First responders on the scene, a fire crew or two, one team leader assuming the command position, quickly realize that they need more resources. As they request more units to respond to the fire, and as conditions deteriorate, the incident command structure broadens to include more county responders.

 In turn, as demand outstrips the county units’ capacity, the incident commander sends out a request for assistance to neighboring counties, each of which faces its own similar wind and fuel conditions. They respond and serve under the Santa Barbara County incident commander. As the fire and conditions intensify, the county calls for state help and it establishes unified command composed of local, county and state fire, law enforcement and government officials. The Governor declares a disaster and reaches out, if the situation overwhelms state resources, to the President. Ultimately, the President brings federal resources to bear under the unified command structure, until they extinguish the fire. This same command structure may also be applied to similar localized events that may turn into disaster – such as earthquakes, weak hurricanes, and floods – layers of responders serve under the local incident command, command remaining local because local officials know residents, capacities and terrain best.  (PWH emphasis added)

But disasters are growing increasingly large and urban areas are at once growing increasingly dense and dispersed, meaning that the impacts of a single event are likely to be felt in multiple jurisdictions at once. These events have been called “transboundary” (PWH -see original footnote as inset below) crises (Boin and Egan, in press) because they trigger parallel responses from parallel jurisdictions that may call upon the same layers of outsiders for support, including state, federal, private and NVOAD entities.

We use the term “transboundary” in three ways: 1) impacting more than one political, geographic or legal jurisdictions; 2) impacting or requiring response from more than one agency, governmental or national sphere or silo of influence; 3) implicating two or more potentially conflicting legal rules or procedures, whether statutory, common law or procedural. Thus, a transboundary crisis is one that impacts multiple political or legal communities such as a hurricane that makes landfall at the Texas-Louisiana border, while transboundary response may implicate several traditional action “silos” such as FEMA, HUD, ICE, the US military and local law enforcement 

The typical transboundary event distributes impacts over multiple jurisdictions at once such that simply drawing a wider command ring around the impacted areas cannot “contain” its location. Transboundary events are, thus, by definition, multijurisdictional and nonlocal; they often involve “whole of government” response (von Lubitz, this volume) by bleeding over traditional organizational and governmental boundaries, making local command structures difficult to implement. Emergency response combines the need for flexibility in interpretation and the rule of law; as such, lawyers play an important role in response efforts …

… Increasing social vulnerability to natural and human-made hazards expands the nature and character of response operations presenting a massive coordination problem: it can pit governmental response efforts against one another as they compete for zero-sum outside support resources – Texas and Louisiana, for example, competed for available private sector resources during the Hurricane Gustav and Ike response efforts (Egan, in press). In response, there is increasing need for a new readiness model that emphasizes both an increased flexibility and deployment readiness in local and particular environments while understanding and working toward realizing the overall mission (von Lubitz, this volume; Bradford and Brown, 2008). Because federal laws often conflict with state and local laws, and the goals of one agency may differ from others; these conflicts are areas where lawyers traditionally litigate, and the threat litigation is the ultimate in paralysis for response operations. Law may thus, in fact, increase social vulnerability by reducing public and private sector response capacity. Therefore, the presence of lawyers, from multiple jurisdictions, in a facilitative manner, is a key to avoiding the litigation mentality and its attendant paralysis.

Where a wildfire is the classic local disaster, a pandemic is the ultimate transboundary event. The pandemic originates in a single point of origin and becomes a global concern, outstripping local, state and federal resources, from the infection of “patient zero.” Traditional ICS immediately becomes overwhelmed and may actually hinder efforts to limit the spread of the illness by requiring local responders to understand that their capacities are overwhelmed before they have identified the nature of the disease.

The need for expertise in a novel virus outbreak is immediate, but by the time local officials understand that an outbreak is the beginning of a pandemic, the disease will have crossed through many jurisdictions, as the H1N1 virus did in the first several weeks of its publicity, and all efforts to contain it locally are rendered moot.

The transboundary nature of the pandemic, thus, requires transboundary thinking from the outset; that is, it is not enough to develop a response plan based purely on containment through quarantine or treatment based on injection-delivered vaccines that suggest that officials could stay in front of a fast-moving virus, the planning must include the assumption that such a virus will already have spread throughout much of the world by the time patient zero has been identified.

Response strategies must engage the whole of government from the inception; this include thinking through legal ramifications, conflicts of laws, and developing approaches that are both flexible and adaptive and honor the rule of law.


Full article- white paper –  is one of 35 published in Collaboration in the National Security Arena: Myths and Reality- What Science and Experience Can Contribute to it’s Success.

It is a product of the Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA) effort. For those not familiar with SMA, it provides planning support to Commands with complex operational imperatives requiring multi-agency, multi-disciplinary solutions that are NOT within core Service/Agency competency. Solutions and participants are sought across USG. SMA is accepted and synchronized by Joint Staff and executed by STRATCOM/GISC and OSD/DDRE/RRTO.

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