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Kathleen Tierney: Employees As First Responders

Dec 01, 20043 mins
Physical Security

Kathleen Tierney, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, spoke with CSO about the field of disaster research

DISASTER RESEARCH Kathleen Tierney, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, knows that a lot of people believe the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed the world. She also knows they are wrong, at least when it comes to the way individuals respond to disasters. Tierney directs the National Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, which studies the sociological effects of disasters. She notes the study of individuals’ responses to crises has been ongoing for five decades. She spoke with Departments Editor Kathleen S. Carr about the field of disaster research, the lessons of 9/11 and how CSOs can start preparing for the worst.

CSO: How did disaster studies originate?

Kathleen Tierney: The field of disaster research in the United States is more than 50 years old. Studies of social behavior under disaster conditions was saturated after World War II. The government was concerned about what would happen to communities in the event of nuclear war. We’ve studied disasters of all kinds, how people behave in those disasters and how organizations respond.

Did you see anything new or unique in the sociological response to 9/11?

There was nothing new in the World Trade Center response. Much of what we saw was exactly what we’d expect. The issue wasn’t what was new, but what was confirmed in terms of issues of preparedness. The commonalities to other catastrophic events were a mass convergence of emergency response personnel and problems of communication. We know that preexisting conditions and the lack of organization among the responders affected the response. Fire and police weren’t collaborating. There was a lack of unified command. The fact that people didn’t panic in the towers, that they helped one another, was no surprise. All of this is consistent with what we’ve seen in other crises.

Was 9/11 the catalyst for CSOs to explore the effects of disaster on people?

Actually, something happened around Y2K to spur this activity. Companies realized, when faced with the millennium bug, that disaster preparedness, security and risk management were fundamental to the survival of corporations. It was no longer an IT problem but a corporate problem. Y2K and 9/11 brought about changes in the way CEOs look at IT security and disaster-related functions within their organizations.

What can CSOs do to prepare their organizations for a disaster?

First, assess the capabilities of your workforce. Do you have employees who have first aid training or who are part of a community emergency response team? Find out who has a medical background, who knows CPR, or who is trained in search and rescue.

Second, are people willing to take on preparedness tasks? Shift the emphasis away from what you’re going to do for people to what people are going to do for themselves. The first responders in all emergencies are ordinary people. Until we want to put a police officer or firefighter in every cubicle, home and metro train, ordinary people will still be the first responders. Look at your workforce as the key to ensuring security.

How can CSOs best educate themselves to understand how their employees might respond in a disaster?There is a large body of solid work out there that addresses most of the key issues that any security officer would want to inquire about. Our center, founded in 1976, is a clearinghouse for information on human behavior ( There’s also the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware (