Sociologist proposes disaster scale to facilitate recovery and research

August 16, 2003

ATLANTA, GA -- A sociologist has designed a disaster rating scale that would be useful to disaster researchers and practitioners alike. Henry Fischer, Director of the Disaster Research Group and Coordinator of the Environmental Hazards and Emergency Management Program at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, will discuss the proposed scale at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Atlanta, GA, on Saturday, August 16.

In his paper, "The Sociology of Disaster: Definitions, Research Questions, Measurements in a Post-September 11, 2001, Environment," Fischer reflects broadly on what sociologically constitutes a disaster and how the terrorist attacks on the United States impact upon earlier academic definitions.

But Fischer believes that "perhaps the most significant and useful aspect of this presentation will be the scale for measuring disasters and terrorism events. While scales have been developed to measure earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes, sociologists have, until now, resisted" developing scales for social catastrophes, said Fischer.

According to Fischer, this 10-category scale would be an important aid in assisting researchers, disaster practitioners, city planners, and policy officials in discerning between the types of appropriate mitigating efforts, planning, and response, based upon the disaster category (DC) assigned by using the scale. Fischer's Disaster Scale should help the public know, for example, when it might be prudent to evacuate versus stay and help. A number of the norms and rules used for a burning house are different from the response needed for a severe earthquake or a citywide terror attack.

Fischer, an expert in disaster sociology, developed the scale to detail the circumstances that lead to communities diverging from their normal social structure. His scale is based on the degree of social disruption resulting from an actual or potential disaster. The disaster categories are based on the scale, scope, and duration of disruption and adjustment. For a summary of the scale, see the table below.

"In this disaster scale we find that emergencies experience a limitation of at least one of the three criteria--scale, scope and/or duration," said Fischer, "while disasters all experience actual or potential major disruption and adjustments in all three elements." There are two issues largely determining where on the scale an event falls: (1) the size of the community, such as small town, small city, and large city, and (2) the portion of the community impacted. This means that a tornado in Andover, Kansas, would be a "4," whereas the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York City would be a "9."

"The greater the size of the impacted population, the greater the degree to which adjustments are experienced in terms of scope within the larger society," reports Fischer. "Hence, the greater the adjustment experienced indirectly throughout the larger society itself." Fischer will address the terminology and criteria for assigning DCs in his presentation.

Assessing the Relationship Between Disruption & Adjustment

Henry Fischer has published approximately two dozen journal articles on disaster and terrorism, a book, titled Response to Disaster: Fact Versus Fiction and Its Perpetuation, and has appeared on CNN and MSNBC discussing these issues. His proposed scale will soon be published in the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters.

The American Sociological Association is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to advancing sociology as a scientific discipline and profession, serving the public good. The purpose of the Annual Meeting is to meet the scholarly, teaching, training and practice needs of sociologists and social scientists at every career stage.

American Sociological Association

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