What Is a Technological Disaster?

Most people are aware of the destruction wrought by natural disasters. The evening news ensures viewers experience the drama of weather run amok: howling winds, giant waves and lightning crashes make for exciting viewing. However, a large portion of emergency management is focused on technological disasters. According to the Emergency Disaster Information Service (EDIS), "A technological disaster is an event caused by a malfunction of a technological structure and/or some human error in controlling or handling the technology."

While both natural and technological disasters can be deadly and expensive, there are special considerations that emergency management professionals must make when dealing with the latter. For one, technological disasters tend to be abrupt. When technology fails on a disastrous scale, the effects are swift and severe.

Natural disasters, on the other hand, can at least be predicted with some certainty. Natural disasters occur in cycles, and we have time in between to learn from our mistakes. Even more acute natural disasters, such as earthquakes, can be anticipated by monitoring the earth's geological conditions.

Because natural disasters are inevitable, emergency management professionals can focus on coordinating rescue and relief efforts. Technological disasters, on the other hand, seemingly happen out of the blue, taking responders by surprise. A bridge collapse or oil spill is rarely expected.

Such was the case in 1981, when three walkways collapsed in the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City, Missouri. According to "10 Technology Disasters" published in the MIT Technology Review, at first, investigators thought the walkways may have been over capacity, with the victims causing some of the damage by dancing. However, later investigation revealed cost-cutting measures made in the Regency's construction. Over 100 people died in the "deadliest structural failure in U.S. history."

By definition, technological disasters are man-made; they are the result of overlooking red flags or cutting corners. Sometimes they occur because the technology did not function as intended. This aspect of technological disasters makes dealing with them a bit trickier.

The Emotional Cost of Technological Disasters

As the EDIS points out, "Victims of technological disasters tend to feel anger toward people who were responsible for accidents that may have been prevented." Survivors of natural disasters can focus their ire on causes outside of human control. Technological disasters, however, can cause rifts within communities as tempers flare.

Emergency management professionals must be ready for both the physical and psychological effects of disasters. All disasters bring stressors, such as "income loss, loss of job security, uncertainty about the future, [and] family conflict," notes the EDIS. Programs in disaster science prepare students for these stressors and teach techniques for helping others through these trying times.

Contemporary emergency management and disaster science understands that disasters do not occur in a vacuum. Various social structures, relationships and constraints are affected whenever a disaster strikes. Therefore, modern emergency preparedness and disaster science programs approach the problem from a variety of angles.

As an example, Louisiana State University of Alexandria offers a bachelor's degree in general studies, with a concentration in Disaster Science and Emergency Management. While earning their degree online, students take courses such as Disasters in History and Public Health Emergency Preparedness. Students also complete courses in psychology, government and business. They leave the program with a holistic view of emergency preparedness, exploring the myriad ways disasters affect all aspects of our lives.

In addition to the unpredictable, abrupt form of technological disasters, some disasters unfold on a much longer time frame. The Emergency Management Degree Program Guide points out that technological failures due to smog or other types of pollution can take years or decades to manifest. When these types of disasters reach critical mass, they may set off a chain of events that leads to larger issues.

The Concorde crash of 2000 was one such event. Over its 26-year history as a commercial aircraft, the Concorde had no fatalities at all -- until July 25th of that year. The Concorde was a modern technological marvel: engineers tested the airplane more than any other aircraft in history. However, "for all its superb structural, aerodynamic and propulsion design, the Concorde bore a fatal combination of lower-tech flaws," according to MIT Technology Review. High-speed takeoffs wore its tires thin, and "a chunk of rubber tore off and smashed into the wing, punching a 600-square-centimeter hole in its skin and causing fuel to leak and ignite." All passengers died in the ensuing fire.

The way we deal with disasters, whether natural or man-made, has evolved over the years, as have the disasters themselves. Disasters are not one-size-fits-all. Some disasters call for immediate relief, and others require years of recovery efforts. Some can be predicted with certainty, while others arise without warning. A solid program in disaster science and emergency relief recognizes those differences and adjusts the curriculum accordingly.

Learn more about LSUA's online Bachelor of General Studies in Disaster Science & Emergency Management.


Emergency and Disaster Information Service: Impacts of Technological Disasters

MIT Technology Review: 10 Technology Disasters

Emergency Management Degree Program Guide: What Is a Technological Disaster?

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