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Academic witnesses disaster response first-hand

Little could Duncan Shaw have imagined that he would see his research on disaster planning literally spring into action during a visit to Chile earlier this month.

The academic was en route to the South American country as head of an international peer review team assessing guidelines for community resilience and spontaneous volunteering, when two major tornados struck Concepcion, the very city where he was travelling to.

For the last year Concepcion - one of the biggest urban conurbations in Chile - has been implementing an international standard on involving spontaneous volunteers (SVs) in disaster response which was initiated by Professor Shaw at Alliance Manchester Business School. The standard provides guidelines on how groups can make best use of the enthusiastic volunteers who jump to the assistance of affected communities during disasters such as flooding, hurricanes or man-made catastrophes.

The standard provides organisations and services with crucial guidance which could make the difference in the event of a major emergency, as following a catastrophe SVs can make a huge difference in terms of relief efforts and support for those affected.


Shaw, Professor of Operations and Critical Systems, was heading a delegation of seven government officials from countries including the UK, Ecuador, Argentina and Iceland, which was investigating how Concepcion was implementing the standard.

As he explains: “We literally got off the plane after a 31-hour journey and were immediately taken to the disaster site where we found the army, navy, government, NGOs, and members of the community co-ordinating a response to the tornados, such as by boarding up broken windows and placing tarpaulins over roofs.

“Until we arrived the standard was just a shiny document. But this was the first time anyone anywhere had actually used its principles to respond to a crisis. As the Mayor said to me, we had travelled to Chile to see how they prepared for a disaster, but we ended up seeing how they actually respond to such an event.

“On the ground up to 750 houses were damaged by the tornado and the government deployed their SV guidelines and initiated the SV activity. Up to 320 SVs came forth and were deployed on various activities and we met the people who led the emergency response.”


However Professor Shaw says seeing his standard put to actual benefit proved a bittersweet moment. “While it was extremely interesting to witness our research being put into practice, it was tempered by the fact that one person died and Concepcion suffered huge damage from these tornados. What shone through from seeing how people responded on the ground was the fantastic resourcefulness of the local community, how well prepared they were in their response, and the general love they had for their community.”

During the rest of the week-long visit Professor Shaw and his delegation met a number of senior officials and politicians in the country as part of the peer review. This included a visit to Talcahuano, the scene of a devastating tsunami in 2010, and to the city of Valparaiso which suffered a major forest fire in 2014. The delegation also held a major workshop in Concepcion with NGOs and local politicians.

Now back in the UK, Professor Shaw says he will be reflecting on the experience and reviewing the standard. “We learnt a great deal by seeing the standard being put into practice which will further inform our research. As a review team we have a number of recommendations for Chile and our own countries on how to further strengthen SV activity.”

Meanwhile, he says the next country his team is going to peer review is Argentina (Neuquen) which is preparing to translate their SV guidelines into state law. “It was always intended that we would go from one country to the next in terms of implementing the standard. We are getting substantial political support for the standard across many countries. Politicians really see it as a way of connecting with citizens and showing that they are addressing their concerns.”