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Why you should read history

Learning lessons from historical case study

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I've been a fan of using historical case study in emergency response and domestic preparedness for many years, and until recently, thought I was the only one. Just the other day I read a post on another emergency management blog that noted the significance of the MGM Grand fire in fire code and code enforcement change (Thank you, Todd Jasper -if you haven't visited his blog, click here).
  • What is a case study?
  • What makes case study valuable today?
  • How can we apply case studies to our current environment?
  • Where can we find good case studies?
What is a case study?
According to, a case study is

"...a study of an individual unit, as a person, family, or social group, usually emphasizing developmental issues and relationships with the environment, especially in order to compare a larger group to the individual unit."
While the above definition is fine for generic use, I'd rather think of a case study (as it pertains to emergency management as the following:
  • an historical record of something the really happened - an after action report
  • a synopsis of the situation
  • a review of positive and negative outcomes from the event
  • an honest review of the lessons learned from the response
A case study should include all of these elements to be useful. It's our job to apply them to today's situations. 

What makes case studies valuable today?
Wouldn't it be nice to learn an important lesson without having to pay the price of error to learn it? Of course it would. And that is the value of relevant case can learn the lesson without paying the price!

 Reading a case study is just like reading history. It's an event that really happened. People actually responded to the event and had to make decisions. Making a case study valuable to your situation is up to you and you'll have to do a bit of work to find a case study that's good for you. That work includes:
  •  defining what your needs/threats are - is there a specific situation you're preparing for or are you looking to explore you Hazard Vulnerability Assessment?
  • finding a case study or situation that is similar to those needs/threats - finding an event that is similar to what you're preparing for means you'll have to apply the outcomes and lessons to your situation.
  • applying the lessons from that case to your situation - understand where and when the case took place, then compare the outcomes/lesson to today's world and your needs.
How can we apply case studies to our current environment?
Think about what happened in the case. Look at the end result and ask "what would we do?" Would we respond in the same way? Do we have a similar hazard with the same potential? How can we avoid the situation? These are all questions you need to ask yourself while reading a case study.

You'll also need to take into account any changes in operations, personnel, or threats that have been put into play since the case took place. Reading the lessons learned section of an after action report or case study can be the catalyst for training and thinking.

Where can you find emergency response case studies?
United States Fire Administration - Technical Report Series
FEMA - Keyword search Case Study
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (includes NIOSH)- Keyword search Case Study

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