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Vulnerabilities And Threats: A Relationship Not Always Understood

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Luiz Hargreaves, AAS, MD, Msc

In recent years, organizations have increasingly been incorporating strategic planning into management. All organizations, including State(s), have missions, values and visions. In other words, it is necessary for everyone in these organizations to understand what it means to work for this corporation or what it means to be a government employee. The understanding of strategic planning is essential for the commitment of employees and the success of the organization.

The first step in this process is analyzing internal and external environments.

In an internal environment, we find strengths and weaknesses that are linked with the opportunities and threats (external environment). These are the concepts of the “SWOT matrix”, used extensively in strategic planning in organizations, but not always when we are talking about State or government strategies.

The internal analyses of the organizations’ forces are of great importance in determining conditions for searching opportunities. It makes no sense to talk about opportunities that are not linked with the forces of the organization. What can be understood as an opportunity for one corporation may not be for another.

Conversely, the weaknesses of the organization and/or State(s) are generating elements of vulnerabilities that can be linked with threats that lead to disasters. The inventory of risks must be constructed over that knowledge. Only after evaluating the vulnerabilities, threats and risks, is it possible to begin preparedness, prevention and mitigation of crises or disasters.

Frequently, we find some risk analyses based essentially on threat assessments. In such cases, the risk can be falsely low. There are threats that are known because of their intensity and frequency of occurrence. This is the case of “Hurricane Season” in the Caribbean, Tornado seasons in the Midwest United States, and summer flooding in several Brazilian cities. There are, however, some “invisible” threats which, for several reasons (i.e. political issues or because people believe they will never occur), are not considered. This is the case, for example, of Terrorism.

There are several countries where the terrorist threat is seen as unlikely or even impossible to occur according to many. In these places, one common analysis is developed upon the statistics of attacks in prior years. The problem is statistics have little value because we cannot predict future events based on the absence of such events in the past. As a result, there are neither terrorism laws nor a culture for preparation, prevention and response. Because of this superficial or even weak analysis, organizations as well as the State(s), become vulnerable to terrorist attacks, resulting from the perception of low risk.

The condition which permits a threat to exist is a vulnerable system. A tornado in an open field, without threatening property or persons, is just a natural phenomenon and not a threat. However, in other places where houses are vulnerable to strong winds, it becomes a credible threat. This analysis seems quite simple however, it is not always realized.

Vulnerabilities are directly linked to weaknesses. It is the weaknesses of the organization or the State that lead to vulnerability. States that believe they are completely immune against terrorist threats are more vulnerable to attack than those with a culture of protection, even if those with a culture of protection have been victims of terrorist attacks more often. It is a paradox. Countries that have suffered recent attacks and have changed their prevention and response procedures in order to face new challenges and are therefore far less vulnerable to a new attack (even if the threats are serious) than countries believing they are safe because they have never suffered an attack before. Vulnerabilities imply more chances for the loss of lives and property.

In an analogy to biological systems, we would say that those immunologically stronger (low vulnerability) are more protected against specific virus transmission than those who have little or no immune protection (high vulnerability).

The early warning for crisis situations, including terrorism and natural disasters, should come from committed and trained communities, in order to respond to situations that can potentially lead to critical events.

The adoption of a pro-active approach to reduce weaknesses and vulnerabilities (controllable events) should be the role of the organization, as the reduction of threats (non-controllable events) is much more difficult, if not impossible.

Investing in prevention and preparedness is an essential path to decrease risks and lower vulnerability resulting from weaknesses. It is a way of reducing or eliminating threats, indirectly.

The search for mitigation and direct elimination of threats is, however, often shameful and difficult to implement because they are non-controllable variables. This does not mean mitigation and elimination of threats should not be attempted until removing a threat and allowing the system to remain vulnerable will protect the State and Organizations ?

The answer for these issues could be to work on weaknesses, reducing the vulnerable systems, while the threats are monitored and response systems prepared. This is valid for States and organizations.

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Luiz Hargreaves, AAS, MD, MS, MA is a qualified Expert in Crisis Management and Disaster Preparedness. He has been working in these fields for more than 30 years, with a large experience in major events, counterterrorism, disaster prevention and emergency planning.

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