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The Blacksmith, the Nail, the Horse and Disaster Prevention

By: Luiz Hargreaves, AAS, MD, Msc
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"For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost; being overtaken and slain by the enemy, all for want of care about a horse-shoe nail."

-Benjamin Frankilin

The proverb above has received different versions, including this one credited to Benjamin Franklin. A kingdom lost because of a nail. We could also say, a disaster caused by a simple problem that could have been avoided.

Everybody that works with accident prevention knows that the great tragedies, with rare exceptions, are not the result of a single event, but a succession of failures. Lack of planning and risk identification, mitigation, failure in monitoring, lack of warning and alarm systems, little or no training. These are just some examples of "nails and horseshoes" capable of destroying the kingdom, just like the proverb.

There is no zero risk, there is no effective prevention without the commitment of everyone, including the community. It is not possible to identify risks, without knowledge of the threats and vulnerabilities and there is no adequate response, without prevention and preparedness. If misplaced "nails and horseshoes" start the sequence which can result in a disaster, whose responsibility is it to act as a blacksmith? The answer might be complex, but in few words, we can say that we are all responsible. The citizen cannot fail to assume their responsibility to drive carefully, to obey the law, not to put the lives of others at risk and act in such a way to benefit the community. When someone builds a home in a risky area for natural disasters, he is not just leaving his family vulnerable, but is also encouraging others to do the same and contributing to the sequence of events that will end in disaster.

The authorities cannot expect that the community exerts the role of agent for prevention and preparedness without support. It is essential that Government be prepared with planning, material and human resources, to operate in mitigation and in all phases of disasters. If the "horseshoe" is misplaced, the state cannot allow that these "horses" remain in battle, as it will be lost.

In many countries, it is usual that Government still invests little or almost nothing in response and prevention. Sometimes it is a cultural issue, but at the same time, the social responsibility is neglected and resources that should be used to protect the population are intended for investment in works and actions that are clearly focused on electoral goals or even corruption.

Treating "injured horses and riders" has much greater visual impact than fixing "nails in horseshoes". The relief arrives for victims, brought by the same hands of those who were unable to prevent the disaster, or worse, by their perpetrators. The image that is shown, however, is that they are the great rescuers.

"Nails and horseshoes" are set every day, every moment. "Horses and riders" toppled all the times. Disasters are the result. Naturally, even with all the prevention, preparedness and response performed adequately, the unthinkable can happen. But this should be the exception and not the rule.


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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