Perspectives: Crisis Management

Joseph Ryan, PhD, Pace professor and chair of the criminal justice and sociology department, is a national expert on community policing and police management related issues. Ryan is also a 25-year veteran of the New York City Police Department.

Since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, and of course, more recently the tsunami that devastated Japan, how well would you say the Tsunami Warning System functioned?

My simple response to that is: as good as any warning system can be. The Tsunami Warning went off three minutes after the earth quake and that gave people only about 20 minutes to get away. That’s not a lot of time. One thing that was interesting is that I saw film footage of this and it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, it’s a clear day, and then the alarm goes off and we’d look around and say “What’s going on?” It worked as well as it could, but obviously time is of the essence.

There are some sources that criticize an incomplete crisis management plan at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Drawing on your own expertise and media reports, would be inclined to agree or disagree?

It’s unfair to criticize a preparedness plan. My biggest pitch is that all of us should be involved in preparedness. When I speak to an audience, I ask the audience how many of them have a week’s supply of food as an emergency response; 99 percent of people say they’re not ready. The whole idea of an “incomplete crisis management program” is something I focus on with our master’s program. This isn’t something we can talk about once in a while; we have to talk about it every day. We have FEMA, waiting for something to happen, and if nothing happens, the federal government will cut their funding. The moment we cut funding, we forget about it. We must constantly be prepared. I think we take it for granted and we assume the government is going to step in.

What is the key learning for the United States in terms of protecting our own country from natural disasters and/or nuclear meltdowns?

If you look at Japan now, a few weeks after, there is still destruction everywhere. There is no government agency in the United States or in Japan that is responsible for rebuilding. There was one picture, of a woman surrounded by rubble—this was her home, all of her belongings—where do you go after that? This is a lesson plan. We’ve never really had this except for Chernobyl, which is just a giant sealed sarcophagus. It will be generations before people can go back to that area. These snowstorms we’ve been having the last few winters are examples of the limitations our government has. We need more lessons learned, on a purely Don Quixote level, I tell the students in my masters program that they are the generation that needs to begin to answer these questions.

What do you think is the greatest impact on the United States and the world?

Their emergency response is to pump the ocean water to cool the reactors… where is the water going? Back into the ocean. They thought about putting the water on ships, but then where do you send the ships to get rid of the water?

What methods of support, aside from financial, can we lend to Japan?

What can we do? Do we go over with heavy equipment and start rebuilding Japan? There was a photo in the newspaper yesterday. It was a major ship that was just on the ground. I mean, what do you do? I can’t imagine how many cranes you would need to get that ship back into the water… Just look at the pictures, they need a lot of support.

How far reaching are the effects of this disaster and how does this change their crises strategy going forward?

The things we’re looking for are lessons learned. Reassessments of all nuclear facilities—do we have good plans?

The Indian Point Energy Center is located just 38 miles north of New York City. In addition to being close to the Pace campuses, the Ramapo Fault line is a mere mile from the facilities. If a situation similar to Japan’s were to occur here, how might our experience differ from Japan’s?

This is a hot topic. What would happen if an earthquake happened near NYC and disaster was on the same level? I couldn’t even think about where to begin. These students are learning what triage would actually mean in an emergency situation. These are the types of things that we are ill-prepared for. Think back to September 11—there were so many people willing to help, but no one knew how to coordinate it. Drills work, and practice exercises, but I say to my students, could you right now push a stretcher with ten bodies down a city block, turn around and push another one? Are you in that good of physical shape? No one really thinks about that. I believe that everyone needs to be prepared.

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