Many organizations require their employees to undergo regular training on personal ethics. The goal of these trainings is to expose one to the common humanity and encourage you to not be a jerk. Yet while we spend numerous hours on the personal, we rarely talk about the larger ethical issues revolving around what we do as organizations--in this case, as emergency responders--even though many of the decisions we make before and during a crisis have ethical dimensions. For example, in the wildland fire world, we routinely prioritize the protection of communities and major infrastructure over individual homes, smaller clumps of structures, and other values when suppression resources are tight and the number of incidents are large. Is this right? Is it moral? Ethical? Is it ethical for leadership to place those decisions on IMTs and other responders? Is it ethical for the decisions to be made without an extensive public discussion about the values that will be applied to those decisions?
To the nonspecialist, disasters have an accidental nature which is related to the factor of surprise when they occur: the normal, structured, everyday aspect of some form of human life is suddenly and directly ruptured via events that initially exceed customary social and physical prediction and control. This... together with a historical and contemporary certainty that some disasters will occur in the near and intermediate future, renders the inevitable fact of disaster a compelling moral or ethical subject. Human well-being and harm will be at stake in ensuing disasters, and this in itself creates moral obligations to prepare for disaster and reflect on the moral principles that do or do not apply in responding to disaster.
Unfortunately, from what I can gather, there has not been much thought given to response ethics outside of the medical field. Beyond triage variations in medicine, we have assumed ethics that are not clearly delineated and communicated. We take refuge in our interpretation of the greatest good for the greatest number or we declare that the incident drives the response. Most of the time, those explanations are allowed because the public sees the same problems we do and accepts the same frame. Yet when there is even a slight difference of opinion, it can be uncomfortable to address because we have not made the decision with ethics at the forefront. The explanation of the decision is unsatisfactory and frustrating to the public and to ourselves. At that point, future decisions become difficult to align and we start to lose credibility and trust.
As Naomi Zack, the only author I've found who writes about the subject in depth, notes:
In democratic societies, the altruistic principles of disaster ethics will seem self-evident, but vague.
Perhaps the primary reason for that vagueness is the lack of discussion beforehand. Zack argues that preparing for a disaster in a way that engages the community is an ethical responsibility for democratic institutions at all levels. A complementary discussion on values that will guide improvisational responses is also necessary before disaster strikes and renders plans obsolete. However, such a thorough conversation is difficult for many policy-makers and officials to support because of the fear of public displeasure, the apprehensiveness of discussing future disasters, and the real possibility that political and budget priorities may change as a result. The latter goes to the basic thesis of Zack's work and even though she is usually referencing lives, the same arguments apply to communities, homes, infrastructure, and natural values. She notes:
But the greatest number who can be saved is highly relative to the adequacy of prior preparation. A better principle than "Save the Greatest Number" is "Save All Who Can be Saved with Adequate Preparation."
Note the "Adequate" qualifier. Not perfect preparation, but adequate for the foreseeable disaster. (I might change it to "Save All Who Can be Safely Saved with Adequate Preparation.") She goes on:
...disaster preparation has to be general, but not so general as to be morally or factually vacuous. ...disaster planning ought to express our best moral principles and not go against them, but it must also be practical, or possible, to execute. ...we are obligated to plan optimistically in the sense that we ought not to make plans that we know will violate existing moral principles or do not believe will achieve desired goals. That is, optimistic planning is based on the assumption that it is possible to plan well.
Part of that optimism is to plan as if scarce resources are not a foregone conclusion because if we plan in advance, the values discussion will revolve around how to augment resources and adequately prepare. (A contingency plan might look at resource scarcities, but ethical planning would not assume that it is the main driver.) This, of course, requires honesty when discussing the probabilities and possibilities with the public and policy makers. However, too often our response planning is within a closed system of experts or it is deferred until the crisis is upon us. In both instances, Zack would argue that we are not being ethical because we have not created a larger public discussion about values thus making optimistic planning difficult or impossible.
Another point Zack emphasizes is that extraordinary circumstances should not override the moral principles of "normal" times. That is, we should not take actions during a crisis that would be unethical or immoral if there were no crisis. If this happens, the response will lack legitimacy and it is the burden of those advocating for such a departure to present the rationale as quickly as possible, particularly since the argument will likely be made by a governmental entity and would go against the common understanding of the social contract in democracies.
As noted above, such planning and thinking may affect public policies. More Zack, who notes our best efforts as responders are insufficient:
...without adequate public policies for disaster preparation and response. It cannot be known that the best efforts will provide complete safety but if effective and just public policies are crafted, ensuing failures will not be cause for moral anguish.
So, the most ethical thing we can do as a society is to prepare for disasters and crises responsibly, publicly, realistically, and optimistically while staying true to our normal ethics during the response. At the individual level, we responders can start thinking about the ethical decisions we have made during incidents and bring those forward to encourage our agencies and publics to have a discussion before another certain crisis. With any luck, those honest discussions about values will begin to influence public policy and we can reach the goal of planning optimistically, with less thought given to inadequate resources.
Another step we can take is to come up with a well thought out code of ethics. Perhaps it would be slightly different between wildand fire, structure fire, law enforcement, search and rescue, and others, but if we had a set of principles we adhered to and shared with our communities, the chances of taking unethical actions and getting in uncomfortable discussions will be reduced. As an example, the Red Cross/Red Crescent has a Code of Conduct with 10 Core Principles:
(Here is another partial example from CalFire. )
For too long, we have approached ethics without really thinking it through or meaningfully sharing with others even though our actions have considerable influence on lives, communities, and other values. With the old assumptions falling by the wayside--with the natural world and our society becoming more complex--we need a more thoughtful and complete ethical examination of our prevention, preparation, and response to include the public. Looking at Zack's construct, it would be hard to argue that our current policies and preparation would fit the ethical ideal. We should all accept the burden of helping us move closer to that ideal as it is more important than ever that our actions must be moored to an ethical understanding. After all, we are a community of action and as Jane Addams said, "Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics."
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018.