Attaining Resilience: Getting From Here to There

by Robert McCreight

In emergency management and homeland security, the definition of “resilience” – both as a concept and as a watchword – is packed with significant ambiguity, profound promise, and a certain degree of controversy. Obviously, urging professionals and practitioners to develop, nurture, and sustain resiliency plans might well inspire a number of good ideas and lead to some helpful practical actions. However – although the ability to overcome calamity, prepare for unexpected devastation, and ensure the robust recovery of key infrastructures may be implied – there is still a divergence of opinions about the true meaning of resilience.

The term resilience has been invoked as a major theme in various speeches over the past 12-18 months by such national leaders as Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and DHS (Department of Homeland Security) Secretary Janet Napolitano. However, at least a few other knowledgeable authorities have argued that resilience is simply a new perspective on recovery, the next level of sophistication in mitigation efforts, and/or even a fifth core element beyond the "traditional" four: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Largely for that reason, and in order for state and local governments to achieve substantial gains in resilience over the next decade, it should be recognized that some challenging issues require additional clarification – including but not necessarily limited to such umbrella topics as definitions, incentives, metrics, technologies, and strategic impact. Following are some relevant points related to each of those abstract terms that should be taken into consideration.

First Priority: A Clear Definition of the Term

To begin with, resilience needs to be expressed in operational terms that go beyond mere dictionary definitions and such exhortations as being "robust,” possessing the ability both to "absorb disasters” and “bounce back,” and making it possible to "restore order" and reactivate "key systems.” Even more specifically, there should be clearer "official" definitions of resilience, at all levels of government – when, for example, the event or incident involved is in the magnitude of a WMD (weapons of mass destruction) attack, a category 3 (or higher) hurricane, a major earthquake, or a similar natural or manmade disaster affecting a large geographic and/or densely populated area.

Resilient outcomes may differ substantially, of course, from "ordinary" outcomes that would occur naturally and without the heavily invested material measures needed to create and/or upgrade resilience capabilities. One key concern is whether individual cities, states, or even the federal government can push ahead independently with their own resilience operations simply on the basis of what, at least apparently, are considered to be common principles – and without relying on a much more precisely defined definition.

There is also a parallel need to reconcile some currently varying expectations about resilience, its operational dynamics, and the core principles (including political and fiscal considerations) related to the term – as understood by the public sector, the private sector, academia, and the general public. It also is far from clear whether resilience is an attainable and desirable goal, or more of a standard for streamlining emergency preparedness. Here it should be noted that, for most operational purposes, agreement on definitions is certainly desirable for any number of reasons, but may not be of truly crucial importance.

Creating Resilience Through Public and Private Sector Incentives

In creating or upgrading resilience capabilities, of course, it would be helpful to first determine how, and to what extent, a judicious combination of investments, tax breaks, leveraged projects attractive to venture capitalists, and other financial, budgetary, and fiscal options would be beneficial. Many private-sector companies and non-profits are understandably hesitant to move forward on resilience projects because of the uncertainties associated with ROI (return on investment). Developing the parameters needed to measure and test the ROI of dollars and other resources, including personnel, allocated to programs and projects designed to create/improve resilience will be a major political and fiscal challenge.

It is in that context that the following common-sense question should and must be asked: Can resilience be validated only after a major disaster? To answer that question it is particularly important to know the level of resources needed, the length of time required, and the specific sectors of the industrial commercial economy that should be targeted.

The restoration and reinforcement of aged bridges, tunnels, highways, wastewater systems, and utilities may certainly be a worthwhile way to start to help reinvigorate and renew numerous critical national infrastructures. However, even such a colossal, and costly, effort may not automatically improve overall national resilience.

Acceptable Metrics for Measuring & Testing Resilience

Controversies over how resilience should be measured and tested are inevitable, but the eventual pursuit of acceptable metrics will be key to additional progress. Metrics are needed to identify the gap between the present state and some presently ill-defined and perhaps more idealized state reflecting both enhanced and modernized improvements embodying variously engineered tolerances and degrees of robustness that are also not yet defined.

Two relevant questions: (1) What metrics will define a safe and smart office building reasonably immune to most if not absolutely all external or internal disasters? (2) What type and/or scale of metrics will specify how a community, and/or its schools and businesses, can attain a level of resilience that measurably surpasses anything that reflects the current rather ambiguous situation?

The ability to build a social environment that not only taxes and/or rewards commercial and industrial structures but also reduces their insurance liability or magnifies their corporate balance sheet based on their resilience activities is an appealing concept. However, it may still be difficult for resilience to be precisely measured by the public and the press.

Social Technologies Needed for Uniting Sectors

More advanced social technologies also will be needed to bring together various governmental, corporate, academic, community, and business sectors to develop the stakeholder strategies required to attain and sustain resilience. For that reason, town meetings, webinars, media reports, and other educational ventures will continue to be valuable.

Unfortunately, soliciting creative buy-ins to foster greater stakeholder involvement will not be easy. The strategies discussed above must possess enough political and economic viability to ensure that the gains achieved will not be eroded, redefined, downgraded, or misdirected by a probably well meaning but not always reliable legislature. As with many other social technologies, many if not all of the new resilience programs and policies will probably emanate from the grassroots level and take on increasing credibility as they filter through numerous echelons of business and social enterprises. But they still will be rather fragile and subject to external buffeting by outside detractors and outright foes. More important in this process, therefore, are the linking institutions and organizations that sustain a resolute focus on resilience and advance the cause without doubt, hesitation, or reservations.

Interdisciplinary Strategies to Promote Collaboration & Cooperation

To briefly summarize: The creation and improvement of resilience will require development of a pragmatic yet visionary strategy that is inherently interdisciplinary. It will draw strength and legitimacy from public health, engineering, telecommunications, education, manufacturing, banking, and other key sectors of society that are assigned the responsibility for defining both the pathways to and metrics used for attaining resilience.

Substantial effort and resources will be required to support this interdisciplinary effort, which must be orchestrated by a combination of leaders from the community at large, specifically including academia and other private-sector stakeholders as well as various public-sector agencies and organizations. This long-term effort will in all probability encounter strong opposition and at least a few periodic setbacks, but must remain focused on its commitment to achieving a measurable degree of resilience that may be distinctively different from but nonetheless obviously superior to the present-day system.

The overall task of attaining resilience requires a frank and long-term investment – of political, fiscal, and material resources. This massive effort must be both resource-rich and strategically pragmatic in terms of what may lie ahead. The end result will likely be a new and more vigorous type of resilience built on a foundation of revolutionary societal reform and modernization as it attempts to subdue and curtail the worst effects of the natural disasters that have plagued mankind for countless generations.

For additional information on this subject, see additional works by this author at Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management:

Resilience as a Goal and Standard in Emergency Management by Robert McCreight Ph.D., The George Washington University (

Resilience: The Fifth Element in Crisis and Emergency Management by Robert McCreight Ph.D., The George Washington University, 2010 HDSES (

Educational Challenges in Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Robert McCreight Ph.D., The George Washington University, 2009 (

Dr. Robert McCreight has over 35 years of experience in the U.S. State Department working in such major fields as global security, arms control, intelligence operations, biowarfare, nuclear weaponry, counter-terrorism, emergency humanitarian missions, and political-military affairs. He served concurrently for 27 years in the U.S. military – primarily in intelligence, psychological operations, civil affairs, and logistics. His teaching areas of expertise include counterterrorism analysis, homeland security, regional security, and treaty verification. He has written a number of articles for the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the Strategic Studies Quarterly and the International Journal of Homeland Security on homeland security, emergency management, and national defense subjects and is an adjunct professor in the graduate programs of both the University of Nevada and The George Washington University.