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Arkansas State University

Ethical and Legal Considerations of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management

We’ve all been affected, in one way or another, by a “disaster.” The COVID-19 pandemic obviously comes to mind, but many scenarios fall into this category — such as tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes. Situations like the train derailment in February 2023 in Ohio would also be considered an event needing management.

Whether natural or man-made, disasters and emergencies present unique challenges for those responsible for managing and mitigating their consequences. To succeed in these endeavors, disaster preparedness and emergency management (DPEM) specialists must understand and comply with myriad ethical and legal considerations.

While DPEM experts build their knowledge of these topics in programs like the online Master of Science (M.S.) in Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management from Arkansas State University (A-State), they must continue to develop their understanding of ethical and legal concerns in the field. The following represents just a few of the factors DPEM professionals must always consider.

Reducing Human Vulnerability

The primary goal of DPEM is to minimize human vulnerability to adverse events, which entails protecting the safety, security and well-being of all individuals affected by or at risk of disasters and emergencies.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ (IFRC) Disaster Law program promotes the development and implementation of legal frameworks to ensure those affected receive timely, effective and dignified assistance. As an example, the IFRC puts forth the following standards:

  • Guarantee that disaster risk reduction becomes a priority at national and local levels, supported by robust institutional frameworks for execution.
  • Detect, evaluate and supervise disaster risks while improving early warning systems.
  • Employ knowledge, innovation and education to establish a culture of security and resilience across all tiers.
  • Minimize the fundamental risk factors associated with disasters.
  • Bolster disaster preparedness to ensure efficient response capabilities at every level.

Balancing Individual and Community Interests

Disasters and emergencies can create situations that require balancing individual rights and community interests. For instance, during a public health emergency, individual privacy rights may conflict with the need for rapid information sharing.

The U.S. Public Health Emergency website provides guidance on the legal authorities that support and regulate public health emergency responses. It outlines various circumstances for declaring a public health emergency — and what that means for the public. Forms of entertainment often exaggerate a public health emergency response (such as in the movies “Outbreak” and “Contagion”), but the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is very clear about the steps required once a public health emergency has been declared.

Reducing Risk and Improving Risk and Incident Education

Effective DPEM should encompass efforts to reduce risks and improve community understanding of potential hazards. The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) ensures relevant laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, are integrated into disaster response and recovery efforts to minimize the impact on the environment and public safety.

Legal Preparedness and Response Resources

To stay current on the latest developments in emergency legal preparedness and response, DPEM professionals can consult resources such as the Network for Public Health Law. This organization offers publications, webinars and technical assistance to help DPEM professionals navigate the multiple legal issues that arise during emergencies. For example, the website has multiple resources covering different aspects related to COVID-19, such as state declarations surrounding states of emergency and mask mandate information.

Preparing for a Career in DPEM

A-State’s online M.S. in DPEM program equips students with the knowledge and skills to navigate the complex ethical and legal landscape of disaster preparedness and emergency management.

The program includes comprehensive coursework such as Ethics and Legal Considerations in Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management. This course delves into national and international ethical and legal frameworks and examines human rights and injustices associated with disasters and emergencies. The Crisis Communication in Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management course focuses on multiple communication strategies DPEM officials must employ before, during and after a disaster.

Students also explore the roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders, including governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, tribal councils and the private sector. In the Emphasis group of courses, students select from emergency-specific issues, such as pandemic planning, radiological emergencies and hospital response to mass casualties.

By learning about and adhering to established ethical principles and legal frameworks, future DPEM professionals will balance individual and community interests, reduce risk, improve risk and incident education and ultimately provide better support to those affected by disasters and other emergency situations.

Learn more about A-State’s online M.S. in Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management program.

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