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Prevention: Hidden Numbers

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
October 30, 2023

In the aftermath of a disaster, the public demands answers. They wish to know what happened, what went wrong, who might be responsible and what might be done to prevent such events in the future. This is more notable after a major disaster—those events which strike a resonant chord in the minds of the public, imprinting lingering images and feelings. Communities demand change, and they demand it immediately. This article is not about major disasters, but about the challenges faced by public administrators in creating a sense of urgency to address less visible hazards. Hazards which have not deeply imprinted themselves in the minds of the public, though their impact might be far greater.

Table 1 lists several major disasters. Some were natural disasters, some were technological failures and some were intentional acts. These events have been well-remembered at national or regional levels, inspiring films, books and other forms of popular culture, fostering long-term memorialization of them.

While the deaths in these events are usually emphasized, the monetary losses and societal disruptions increased social pressures for change. The issue was considered an imminent crisis which had to be addressed urgently. This contributed to the creation and implementation of new policies, technologies and practices, all seeking to prevent a reoccurrence. While the “policy window” might have opened only briefly after a disaster, as the window slowly closed a great deal of change might have been attempted.

Table 2 presents the estimated 2022 deaths from what some might consider more mundane events. However, each of them exceeds the estimated deaths of the major disasters noted above—sometimes dwarfing them. Granted, in some instances deaths might be counted twice, such as suicide by gun, but the numbers remain alarmingly high. These types of deaths are not considered major policy concerns, and there is no sense of urgency to address them. Instead, they are often viewed as isolated incidents, largely unrelated to public policy. They are typically reported in an isolated fashion such as one person dead in a collision or two dying in a house fire. This fragments the event’s impact, weakening any attempt to respond systemically. Deaths from suicide, cancer and falls in the home are unlikely to be publicly reported. They are in effect invisible to the public eye, stymying any effective means to reduce the numbers.

Visibility influences how events are remembered. Illustrative of this, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is considered one of the greatest disasters in the history of the United States. Approximately 200-300 people died during the fire, which devastated 3.5 miles (2,240 acres) of the city, destroying or damaging over 17,000 buildings. A wildfire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, occurred at the same time. Over 1,500 people died in the blaze which destroyed nearly 1.2 million acres. Even at that time, the greater disaster was unreported, and many from throughout the region sent donations to Chicago, even if their communities were far closer to Peshtigo.

Another factor which has become increasingly challenging are the political and social views on the subject. Public administrators might face great pushbacks from Second Amendment advocates when attempting to discuss gun-related deaths. Over the past few years, discussions on the COVID pandemic have often become heated, making productive discussion impossible. While most would agree suicide is a significant health concern, there remains sufficient sensitivity and stigma surrounding the topic that it might be an unacceptable discussion topic in many settings.

Public administrators do not control the media, limiting their ability to communicate effectively to a broad audience. Likewise, most public administrators might be limited by political and social influences beyond their control, which might limit public debate, planning or the implementation of public programs to remediate certain hazards. Does this create a major hurdle? Yes. Does this mean public administrators should give up? No. In fact, the very existence of such resistance is a call for redoubled efforts.

Public administration exists to serve the public, and in part this means creating and sustaining a safe environment. This is a wicked problem, with no single cause and no magic elixir which will resolve all issues and eliminate all consequences. Public administrators must partner with the private and non-profit sectors and with the communities themselves. The persistent message must maintain that the number of non-disaster deaths are unacceptable, and everyone in the community must do what they can to reduce those numbers, even if it is accomplished slowly, regardless of any resistance faced. It will be a difficult, challenging, long-term struggle, but one which must be faced.  

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, SHRM-CP, EFO, is a training and development consultant and independent scholar. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He served in local government for over 30 years, and has taught at the graduate level since 2004. He may be reach at [email protected]

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