Building Resilience in our Communities: Going beyond infrastructure

We’re focusing on the wrong problem.

There I said it. Ahhh… so buckle up while we dig into it.

As emergency managers, we talk a big game about disaster and community resilience. But our resiliency-building efforts almost exclusively focus on civil preparedness for disasters that negatively impact our infrastructure, our resource management, our emergency response protocols, and our communication networks, among other place-based things.

This is good, but it is not sufficient. What happens to the humans who are impacted? What happens to our societal structures after a disaster?

Is the push on infrastructure preparedness really enough?

Anticipation and the Psychology of Uncertainty

Preparing without knowing if, when, where, or how a threat will occur is psychologically challenging. Trust me, as an emergency manager who has spent over 20 years doing this exact thing, I can tell you, it weighs on you.

Uncertainty causes angst. It is linked to decreased motivation, focus, cooperation, and sense of purpose. Need an example? Runners are most likely to slow their pace and “give in to pain” when faced with uncertain conditions during a race.

According to neuroscientists Heidi Grand and Tal Goldhamer, “[t]hreats of uncertainty literally make us less capable, because dealing with them is just not something our brains evolved to do.”

Fortunately, people can learn to navigate uncertainty. 

Top athletes (and dare we say emergency managers) intentionally train for it. Performance expert Steve Magness writes: “Similar to how we adapt to the stress of a physical workout by increasing the strength of our muscle fibers, building mitochondria, or producing more red blood cells, our brains adapt to the stress of uncertainty, by adjusting our stress response, establishing and reinforcing memory connections, and being better equipped to handle that formerly uncertain situation.” 

With exposure to uncertainty comes more psychological preparedness, not necessarily for specific incidents, but for the discomfort that unanticipated incidents may bring.

I love a good ‘How Might We’ question and this seems the perfect opportunity for one: how might we encourage our residents and their neighborhoods to become more psychologically resilient? Can we deploy these same principles here?

One way to develop this capability is through interagency training and scenario planning and simulation that intentionally injects elements of uncertainty. Keeping in mind the public-based approach this not only helps our residents learn procedures and practice their individual and family-based responses, but it also provides a forum for participants to develop important relationships with others involved in planning and preparation processes. Is it time to expand how we exercise in order to fully address the physical and psychological impacts of disaster in our communities?

This approach would require fostering extended and deep relationships across government entities and civilian sectors of society (community-based organizations, religious leaders, and societal influencers) to serve a critical role in coping when an event occurs but more importantly to lead the shift in conversation before an event, therefore, changing what we perceive preparedness to be.

The Psychology of Acceptance and Unity

Resilient people display two essential coping skills during a crisis:

  • the ability to accept what is happening, and
  • the ability to adopt a unified front to implement solutions

Psychological acceptance, or “the active embracing of subjective experience, particularly distressing experiences,” is cognitively challenging.

When facing distressing events, suppression and denial are often more attractive than acceptance because avoidance offers temporary comfort, but acceptance of our circumstances is absolutely critical for action.

We, as responders and residents, must also be prepared to innovate in the face of unanticipated circumstances. Organizational resilience research underscores the importance of bricolage or the “capability to improvise and to solve problems creatively.” Coordinated actions are even more impactful. The most successful groups are those that can unite to achieve a common goal. 

There are four conditions of intergroup contact that can maximize effects:

  • establishing common goals
  • dedication to cooperation
  • the development of equality in status; and
  • the presence of institutional support. 

Successful cooperation involves the recognition of team members’ strengths, skill sets, and expertise. Leaning on expertise diversity can lead to more successful, unified action.

Let’s take athletics as an example. The typical baseball team is made up of very different types of individuals from different regions, backgrounds, ethnicities, beliefs, etc. Oftentimes, these various social identities might not easily mix. But the teams that can put aside these individual identities and focus on their team identity and their unified strength will win more games. Developing a team-centered approach to community preparedness is essential to greater disaster resilience and survival.

human hand holding baseball, players in red and white uniforms

The Psychology of Change

After each crisis comes a period of learning and adaptation. Reflection and learning require cognitive capabilities to evaluate a crisis and enact change based on “lessons learned.” This is a technique we use often in response circles and frankly a technique we individually use (whether we recognize it or not) after something goes wrong.

Now, it’s easy to ‘beat ourselves up’ over what went wrong, what we should have or could have done. That’s playing an internal blame game, and while we may engage in that, it isn’t what we are talking about here.

This process of learning post-crisis is described as an “ongoing process of reflection and action characterized by asking questions, seeking feedback, experimenting, reflecting on results, and discussing errors or unexpected outcomes of actions.”

Its organizational-level learning also comes from observing others’ successes and failures and as we know simply identifying lessons learned does not necessarily mean effective adaptation or change. In order to adapt we must determine the individual and group drivers of resistance to change and address them.

Change is a process. People resist change.

As a community, preparing for the next big thing (and the next after that) we cannot ignore this inherent resistance to change.


    The psychological components of preparedness are incredibly important. We need to focus on developing the skills necessary to accept and work through these difficult times, while still maintaining a unified front in order to create successful solutions.

    We must also be ready to innovate when needed and make changes that are due, regardless of any resistance we may receive. Understanding how these psychological components of preparedness work are the key to getting through any crisis. With this knowledge in hand, we can ensure that our communities are better prepared for whatever comes their way.

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