"Safety first." How many times have we read and heard this simple phrase? Yet, often in engineering endeavors, this fundamental principle gets lost or blurred by other, debatably more pressing, needs or factors. As expert scientists and engineers evaluate recent natural and man-made disasters, I dedicate this column to the three top "action items" that I think will bring about significant change in the future.
Understand and quantify risk. These concepts were conveyed clearly and succinctly by the ASCE Statement from the Hurricane Katrina External Review Panel (www.asce.org/files/pdf/Ch9_WhatMustWeDoNext.pdf ). Most people do not keep foremost in their minds the potential risks to human life and property associated with faulty protection systems. It is only when disaster occurs and the aftermath investigations come to light that the public begins to understand that "you get what you pay for" in your protection systems. Even when this concept becomes clear, it is still challenging to convey to people the quantification of the risks. What area of impact can be expected if a disaster occurs? How many persons may be affected? What can feasibly be done to minimize the adverse impact of such catastrophes? What are the consequences of lacking redundant safety/protection systems? In my opinion, only if engineers are actively involved in the development and implementation of public policy can the public expect to have technical experience and knowledge properly represented in their infrastructure.
Effective communication between the public, experts, and government officials. As much attention as the aftermath of a catastrophe garners, sometimes the ways to prevent future occurrences get passed over in the media. Most people agree that if the public were informed on the potential risks involved in faulty or compromised infrastructure, protection systems, and related matters, they would demand from their government representatives effective ways to address these issues. Constancy and consistency are vital-keep the issues and their main goals firm and afloat. An informed public engaged in matters that affect their community is the best way to guarantee that when critical decision-making occurs, their voice is heard through their active and on-going participation.
Invest in future experts. The engineers of the future are going to contend with dynamic forces not seen before in our field, particularly in the ample knowledge that has become, and will continue to be, available and the application of this knowledge. To continue to have experts design, formulate, and implement protection, infrastructure, and related systems, engineers need to know and support efforts that raise the bar in our profession. For more than a decade, a think tank of professional, academic, and industry engineering leaders has worked on ASCE’s Policy Statement 465 (http://www.asce.org/raisethebar ). Engineers and interested scientists should review the Policy Statement and voice their opinion on how PS 465, or another methodologies, will continue to provide state-of-the-practice engineers. If we expect cutting-edge solutions, we must have cutting-edge experts.
As review panels, professionals, government officials, and the public strategize to apply the lessons learned from the past few years’ catastrophes, I hope that engineers keep foremost in their minds how our profession directly affects the public and how we can contribute to prevention of disasters.
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