An Emergency Manager Is Not A Scientist -- But He Could Get Distracted By One

Have you heard about the media circus currently underway over in Italy? Some scientists are on trial for manslaughter because of an earthquake. Not because they predicted it everybody knows you cant predict an earthquake.

Have you heard about the media circus currently underway over in Italy?  Some scientists are on trial for manslaughter because of an earthquake. Not because they predicted it – everybody knows you can’t predict an earthquake.

They are on trial because – being scientists– they offered their scientific assessment of a situation and were wrong.  A town was destroyed and people died and, well, somebody has to be responsible.  Right?

The public prosecutors are suing the these seven scientists for 50 million euros or $68.2 million (on the civil side – on the criminal side, they could get as much as 15 years in prison),  because they gave undue reassurance to the public that a major quake was not on its way."  Furthermore, “the seven are guilty of negligence because they did not take the risk of a big quake seriously enough."

The best account of what happened is an article in The New Scientist by Thomas H. Jordan, the director of the Southern California Earthquake Center who also chaired an international panel appointed by the Italian government after the 2009 quake. It is well worth reading,

This group of seven scientists were members of Italy’s National Service of Civil Protection  – the equivalent of FEMA in the U.S. – and more specifically, the National Committee for the forecast and prevention of major risks, a kind of ‘think tank’ of scientists who assess if there is a problem by examining the data “provided by the institutions and organizations responsible for the supervision of the events ….”

The 6.3 L’Aquila earthquake occurred on April 9, 2009, BUT, it was preceded for several months by an active seismic swarm that set the citizens of the area on edge.  During that time, a “local man who worked as technician in a physics laboratory”  claimed to be able to predict earthquakes and did predict several earthquakes during this four-month period of seismic swarms.  The only prediction that was actually followed by an earthquake was the one in L’Aquila, which destroyed thousands of buildings and killed 309 people. This amazingly, coincidental prediction immediately made him a media hero.

Prior to the earthquake, during all those increasingly loud predictions, the local authorities in L'Aquila called on the Civil Protection Department to convene a meeting of its Major Hazards Committee. The group of seven scientists met for a few days and offered this assessment:  “There is no reason to say that a sequence of small magnitude events can be considered a predictor of a strong event.”  So far, so good.

Then – the scientists gave a press conference.  One member of the Committee – not a seismologist, and lacking in some basic communication skills – responded to questions by saying:  "The scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable. “  Uh … not so good.  My friend, Frank Cowan, would be dismayed.

Here is the question – a scientist might be able to judge the possibility of an earthquake, but who is responsible for taking the potential consequences seriously enough to counter that statement with some reason and logic?  The Protezione Civile in Italy has progressively moved responsibility for civil protection from the state to local governments. Who was it that "did not take the risk of a big quake seriously enough"?

We, as emergency managers, must wonder why the scientists are the only ones being put on trial.

Dr. Jordan made three points in his New Scientist essay that emergency managers would be well advised to remember:

  1. The Italian scientists allowed themselves to be trapped into trying to answer a simple yes-or-no question: "Will we be hit by a damaging earthquake?" It hardly mattered what answer they gave – either could have caused a negative outcome.
  2. Because the scientists were distracted by the outlandish ‘predictions’, they weren’t focusing on using the situation to push the message of individual and community preparedness for disasters. And neither was anyone else in the local government.
  3. We all need to “separate the role of science advisors, whose job is to provide objective information about natural hazards, with that of civil decision-makers who must weigh the benefits of protective actions against the costs of false alarms.”  Which means: an emergency manager can’t get so distracted they lose sight of what their job is really all about.

There is a fair amount of international alarm and outrage about this trial. Maybe this kind of thing couldn’t happen outside Italy.  One would hope.