Community Role in Disaster Management

This article discusses the immediate social response to a disaster incident by the affected community. The literature suggests that victims respond in an active rather than passive manner following a disaster incident and that altruism and volunteer behaviour is generally found, which results in increased social cohesion. See also this article on The Public as First Responders.

This article is an extract from my 82-page report "Psychological and Behavioural Responses to CBRN Disasters: Implications for emergency response, community, and business continuity" Get the full report...

Topics discussed here include:

  • Community cohesion – increased strength of identification with the local community leading to integrative behaviour and altruism;
  • Emergent Groups – groups that emerge in the aftermath to help with a particular problem or to provide social support;
  • Convergence – the influx of help from outside the affected area;
  • Role Conflict – as a possible limitation on altruistic behaviour.

Research into both natural and technological disasters suggests that the behaviour of affected communities is mostly adaptive and problem focused, with affected residents proactive and willing to help each other (Tierney, Lindell, & Perry, 2001a).

Community cohesion

It has been suggested that during the initial response to the disaster, traditional relationships are replaced by survival behaviour, in which pre-existing community barriers (such as social class, or local conflicts) break down in favour of interactions based on the need for assistance (Eraenen & Liebkind, 1993).

Connected to this, is an increase in community cohesion, or strength of identification with the local community, which is associated with socially integrative responses and altruistic behaviour, evidenced by decreases in crime rate and other anti-social behaviour, and increases in offers of help (Kaniasty & Norris, 2004).

Examples of altruism and community cohesion

Examples of such altruistic behaviour and increased community cohesion in the aftermath of many disasters have been reported, including the World Trade Centre attacks of 9/11 (Grant, Hoover, Scarisbrick-Hauser, & Muffet, 2003), Flixborough (Westgate, 1975), and the Tokyo Sarin gas attack, where the altruistic acts of local individuals compensated for the lack of emergency staff (e.g., the majority of victims were taken to hospital in private vehicles or taxis rather than by ambulance) (Murakami, 2003; Okumura et al., 1998) .

In addition to individual acts of altruistic behaviour, the ties binding existing community groups may strengthen in response to disaster situations, and boundaries dividing different social groups may be overcome. For example, in the aftermath of the devastation caused by Hurricane Andrew, neighbourhood groupings were strengthened and ethnic barriers were surmounted (Drury & Winter, 2004; Yelvington, 1997).

Emergent groups

Research has also identified the emergence of new groups in disaster situations that come together to offer help and assistance. These emergent groups often occur because of the sharp increase in demands accompanied by a degree of organisational impairment prevailing in disaster situations (Parr, 1970). Emergent groups are characterised by new behavioural norms and expectations geared towards specific goals (Gillespie & Perry, 1976; Tierney, Lindell, & Perry, 2001a).

A study in the 1980s investigated approximately fifty pre- and post-disaster emergent citizen groups in a variety of US incidents, including some involving radioactive waste. It was found that these groups typically consisted of a small active core, a larger supportive circle and a number of nominal supporters (Stallings & Quarantelli, 1985).

Emergent groups are likely to be fostered in conditions that provide a legitimising social setting, a perceived threat, a supportive social climate, and available resources (Drabek, 1986). They can fill the gap left by inflexible official structures that fail to meet the needs of specific minority groups and can also provide an important source of social support that moderates stress and PTSD in disaster victims (Boin, van Duin, & Heyse, 2001; Drury & Winter, 2004; Eustace, MacDonald, & Long, 1999; Neal & Phillips, 1995; Tyler & Hoyt, 2000).


A similar altruistic reaction has been noted in members of surrounding communities, private organisations and larger political groups who are not immediately affected by the disaster. This results in a ‘convergence’ response of individuals, equipment, and goods to the affected area, that is often unannounced (Tierney, Lindell, & Perry, 2001a).

Early research classified those individuals likely to converge into five categories:

  • returnees;
  • the anxious;
  • the helpers;
  • the curious;
  • the exploiters

(Lowe & Fothergill, 2003).

This mobilization of social support immediately after impact, by communities of victims, professional supporters, and empathetic witnesses rallying to rescue, protect and help each other can deteriorate over time as realisation grows that the need for assistance outweighs the availability of resources (Kaniasty & Norris, 2004).

Moreover, although altruistic behaviour is the norm, not all members of the community will participate equally and some will not show altruism (Kaniasty & Norris, 2004; Oliver-Smith, 1996).

One possible explanation is that convergence and altruism may be confined by social boundaries and related to ties of identification (Drury & Winter, 2004; Lowe & Fothergill, 2003; Westgate, 1975). An alternative explanation is that of role conflict.

Role conflict

Role conflict is premised on the idea that individuals belong to multiple groups and that the roles associated with these groups can come into conflict, e.g. types of role conflict could include family versus community or employment group (Barton, 1969; Dynes & Quarantelli, 1976).

The suggestion is that, in a disaster situation, role conflict becomes salient because individuals are most concerned about their families, which is in conflict with other group roles that demand attention.

However, after studying over one hundred disasters and interviewing 2,500 different organizational officials, one group of researchers has concluded that role conflict was not a significant problem that created serious loss of manpower (Quarantelli, undated). Moreover, role conflict or strain is a normal part of life and may even be eased in a disaster situation, where many roles (normal work etc.) are temporarily lifted.

Individuals who search and rescue initially are often unattached with no other role responsibilities, or else their actions lie within the scope of their occupational role. In addition, families rather than individuals often make decisions about who can be released to help (Dynes & Quarantelli, 1976).

An alternative source of conflict is possible between those who may overreact to a situation and those who under-react to the same situation (Stokes & Banderet, 1997).

Possible overreactions to a CBRN incident include:

  • excessive anxiety,
  • hoarding
  • inappropriate self-administering of antidotes;

Possible under-reactions include:

  • denial,
  • fatalism,
  • over-confidence.

Conflicts of this kind could increase difficulties in mobilising appropriate levels of community social support.


In general, it has been reported that disaster victims react in an active, rather than passive manner and do not wait around for offers of help from organisations or outsiders. Moreover, convergence and altruistic behaviour by local and wider communities is common, at least in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

Only limited evidence exists on these characteristics in the event of a CBRN incident (e.g. the Tokyo Sarin attack), so conclusions about reactions to such an incident must be tentative. However, it is suggested that similar reactions would occur, at least to some extent, but the consequences may be different. For example, some altruistic behaviour, such as convergence, could result in further victims due to wider exposure to a CBRN agent (Fischer, 1998).

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