I am often asked how I can study hazards and disasters and still remain hopeful, but I’m not alone. It seems that most of the people in our field have outlooks influenced by a sense that creating a safer and more sustainable world is possible. This is one of the many reasons that I so deeply respect the researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and others who have dedicated their professional lives to averting the avoidable harm and suffering caused by disasters.

I am concerned, though, about the people in this community. The hazards and disaster workforce is confronting an onslaught of ever more damaging disasters. As they do, they face the possibility of becoming burned out and overworked, the need to be more inclusive and diverse, and have less time and capacity to think creatively about the best way to do their work. This is what influenced the theme of the 46th Annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop.

This year’s theme—The Hazards and Disaster Workforce: Preparing to Meet 21st Century Challenges—will offer an opportunity to pause and assess how the workforce that we have can help to build the workforce that we need to address today’s grand social and environmental challenges. In anticipation of the Workshop, which will be held virtually from July 11 through 14, I wanted to share more background on the big issues and possibilities that are foreseeable. The major topics covered in this year’s concurrent and plenary sessions are representative of that.

Worker Burnout, Training, and Preparation. In the past 18 months, first responders and healthcare professionals have been working in a continual state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic and a cascade of climate-related disasters. Meanwhile, mitigation practitioners and researchers have labored to keep the focus on the long-term, systemic changes that are necessary to reduce future hazards loss. Concerns about worker burnout are growing, as are questions about if our current education and training programs will prepare students and professionals to address the social injustices and economic inequalities at the root of most disasters. It is also unclear if our current workforce is big enough or has the right skills and resources to address the pressures or today and the uncertain demands of the coming decades.

Workforce Diversity, Equity, and Support for Underserved Communities. Our keynote speaker at this year’s Workshop, Chauncia Willis, writes in her book Stretching that “We must get to the point where we view diversity, equity, and inclusion as a superpower, not a burden or additional requirement.” In many cases, when people refer to diversity, they are talking about demographic or social category diversity that can be defined as differences in readily identifiable attributes such as gender, age, ethnicity, and race. The most effective teams also pay attention to functional diversity, or differences associated with less visible skillsets or informational, cultural, and educational backgrounds. Diversity matters because when teams and organizations lack demographic or functional diversity, there is a risk that equitable policies or programs will be overlooked or practices that do harm to vulnerable people and communities could be implemented. In light of this, Willis argues that “when people create plans and policies, they must require representation from the community and consider existing inequities… before planning.”

Big Ideas to Strengthen the Hazards and Disaster Workforce. Much of the work we do in the hazards and disaster field is firmly rooted in science and practical applications. But one of our workforce’s greatest strength is perhaps intangible—our moral imagination. It is our sense of collective purpose that has long led members of this community to envision the possibilities inherent in investing in equitable solutions to mitigating hazards loss. This year’s Workshop will invite participants to examine ourselves and the work that must be done, day in and day out, to create change and improvement. Every participant will be asked to answer the question: What is the one big change that would help strengthen our hazards and disaster workforce? Our plan is to draw from your responses to chart a collective strategy to ensure we can rise together to meet 21st century challenges.

We sincerely hope you will join us for this year’s Workshop. At times it seems there is so much work to be done that it’s overwhelming, but I am reminded of how fortunate we are to have the opportunity make such a difference in the world.

Please take care of yourself and others.

Lori Peek, Director
Natural Hazards Center