Why do we need a death toll?
October 19, 2007 7:35 AM   Subscribe

Besides the obvious collateral benefits to producers and consumers of news, what is the logic of using the time and resources of government officials during an emergency to calculate and report the death/injury toll of a natural or man-made disaster? Does this task aid rescue or recovery efforts in any way?
posted by Saucy Intruder to Law & Government (11 answers total)
I don't understand this question. I'm sure it was prompted by annoyance at the news or something, but you would prefer the government to not know how many people were dead or injured? Wasn't that the basic problem in Katrina, that the government didn't even know that some people were in trouble?
posted by smackfu at 7:40 AM on October 19, 2007

Response by poster: To clarify, I understand the importance of generating (i) a list of people missing and (ii) eventually calculating a death toll, to aid legal proceedings and assist with future disaster-recovery preparation. What I don't understand is why government officials are tasked to supply news outlets with preliminary body counts when there are still urgent rescue or law enforcement tasks to be done.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:43 AM on October 19, 2007

That sort of data is useful fo working out (to put it simplistically) how many ambulances to send. How many police. Whether they need to escalate the amount of resources available for body storage, or medical facilities.

The only way you can plan is with information or intelligent guesses. Anything that has to provide a reaction needs to know how big a reaction is required.

This will also help other governments/agencies work out how much disaster/aid/relief capacity they need, as they can look at similar examples of the same thing to establish likely outcomes of their own.

On am MUCH minor level, the government HAS to be seen to know this kind of thing, or the press would have their balls for seemingly being utterly oblivious to the scale of the disaster.

Press release: Some of our people have died, but we're on it.

Press: Well, how many? Are you doing enough?

PR: Dunno how many, buy we've got it covered. Trust us.

Press/Opposition parties: You haven't a clue! You're going on guesswork! You don't care about THE PEOPLE! You're monsters not to know more about this disaster...

etc., ect
posted by Brockles at 7:45 AM on October 19, 2007

What I don't understand is why government officials are tasked to supply news outlets with preliminary body counts when there are still urgent rescue or law enforcement tasks to be done.

There are always bean counters in every department. Entire departments will have been assigned upon hearing about the disaster, and only so many of the people in that department will have the skills or the training to actually deal. It's not like they will be taking firemen off their hoses and getting them to start ticking boxes on clipboards. There will be admin staff for this kind of thing.

I don't think there is any suggestion of wasted resources, notwithstanding the genuine reasons for needing this data that I have already covered.
posted by Brockles at 7:47 AM on October 19, 2007

I would think it gives officials a means to decide how many resources to allocate for the situation. If the government doesn't know the casualty total, then how would they know whether to let the local government handle the situation? When to send in FEMA? Or the national guard?

I can understand knowing whether 7 or 8 people died is not relevant, but knowing whether 7 people or 100 people died is useful information.
posted by albolin at 8:00 AM on October 19, 2007

If you are working on the belief that people stop work or prioritize work so they can give mortality numbers you are mistaken. Having had the misfortune to live in an area where I experienced a few disasters I can tell you that officials OFTEN state that they don't know or state numbers that are 'stale' because they have been working on other things.

In the larger picture, they produce these numbers because we as a people are interested and they as our employees are obligated to respond to our desires. Officials reveal these things because they're a metric, both of the scope of the tragedy and as an indicator of the quality of their response. As brockles states, not being aware of these things would bring into question if they know what the hell they are doing.
posted by phearlez at 8:06 AM on October 19, 2007

How much effort is it to count the dead? Most would be easy to collect from medical personnel. It's not like you're asking for them to estimate the value of ming dynasty vases here. Just count the bodies.

Also, as an indicator, death toll tells us and politicans (and people not on the scene) how much to care. It doesn't tell the whole story, but it does summarize a situation.
posted by kamelhoecker at 8:08 AM on October 19, 2007

Best answer: Brockles is absolutely right, it's driven by a combination of needing to know for resource staging and by public curiosity.

In terms of resource management, the major consumers of this info are public health (how many dead bodies do we have to worry about), social services (how many people do we need to account for and provide services to) and charities/ngos (the Red Cross being the top of the list).

Public curiosity is a major driver of the information produced during any emergency situation, and providing media lines that are accurate and susinct during any crisis is a very important skill that any management agency needs to master. You can do a great job on response, but still get blasted in the press if your communication is bad.

A significant portion of any response effort is devoted to public communication. In the later phases of an emergency, this often exceeds the number of people working on the actual response, if you add up everyone involved. This isn't cynically-driven either, it's responsible emergency management. I've seen riots happen in emergency situations because communication wasn't given a high enough priority.
posted by bonehead at 9:03 AM on October 19, 2007

kamelhoeker, anything is ten times harder when done under high pressure with NO TIME. Data gathering and communication is really hard, and key to making any response work.

A forex: how would you go about estimating the number of dead in a plane crash? You've got a bunch of passangers milling about, some may have already gone to hospital, remains are partial and spread over a large area. Now, the press wants a conference in an hour, your fire chief wants to know when that next batch of retardant is getting here, the municipality is freaking out because a major road is closed and air-traffic control wants to know how soon you can open the runway. Plus those FAA buggers keep juggling your elbow. Now some communications guy wants to know how many bodies there are.

That's what a scene is like.
posted by bonehead at 10:17 AM on October 19, 2007

Oh, and the airline, wanting to cover their ass/help as fast as they can, has given you three copies of the passanger manifest, none of which agree. Oh, and TSA/FBI is here and they want to set up site security.
posted by bonehead at 10:19 AM on October 19, 2007

There are good reasons given above. I think there's an unspoken motivator, though. Ever read any Foucault? Basically, power derives from knowledge; knowing about something gives you power over it, and controlling the knowing of something gives you power over those who don't know.

As a public trust we expect our government officials to get control of a situation, and part of that is expressed in enumerative pursuits. How many bodies? How much property destroyed? What agencies are responsible? What levels of government are responding? Are we doing something twice or thrice that we should be doing once? Are we doing nothing someplace we should be doing something?

The prototypical image I have here is the utterly confident marshal played by Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive:

Listen up, ladies and gentlemen. Our fugitive has been on the run for ninety minutes. Average foot speed over uneven ground barring injuries is 4 miles an hour and that gives us a radius of six miles. What I want out of each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area. Checkpoints go up at fifteen miles. Your fugitive's name is Doctor Richard Kimble. Go get him.

The cynical (or possibly Marxist) flip side of this interpretation is that the government is showing its power, not just as public relations, but to maintain its monopoly on disaster response and control. A fuzzy extension of authoritarianism, if you will.
posted by dhartung at 11:39 AM on October 19, 2007

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