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Volume XXXI • Number 5 May 2007 | Past Issues


Role Abandonment in Disaster:

Should We Leave This Myth Behind?

The New Orleans Police Department was reportedly unable to account for 240 officers of its 1,450-member police force during Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. Fifty-one officers were fired for “abandoning their posts,” and almost as many resigned from the force following the disaster. How do we in the disaster management community make sense of role abandonment?

Role abandonment has been discussed in the disaster literature since the 1950s. Several early studies confirmed that emergency workers suffered psychological strain due to the conflicting demands of their professional duties and their desire to take care of their families. However, these studies also reported that role conflict and strain did not lead emergency workers to abandon their professional responsibilities. In 1976 Dynes and Quarantelli studied over 100 disasters and interviewed more than 2,500 organizational officials and found that role conflict was not a serious problem that created a significant loss of manpower. With the exception of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans Police Department, there have been no documented reports of widespread role abandonment during disasters in the United States. Nevertheless, belief in this myth by the public and even government officials continues and has been reinforced through popular culture and erroneous reporting by the mass media.

Despite the fact that role abandonment has historically not occurred, some social scientists have argued that the emergency management community should remain alert to the possibility that it might occur. According to Dynes (1986), the nature of a disaster might affect role conflict and thus role abandonment, suggesting that it could be exacerbated in slow onset or diffuse disasters where ambiguity is a key feature. He also observed that the lack of emergency planning could create more role conflict for emergency workers.

Some analysts have hypothesized that new types of emergencies might lead to greater role abandonment. Anti-nuclear power advocates raised this issue when seeking to stop the licensing of nuclear power plants. Other analysts have argued that a distinction needs to be drawn between the responses of emergency workers and those of other workers with little or no training who were pressed into the performance of emergency functions.

The New Orleans Anomaly

In their study of disaster myths and Hurricane Katrina, Tierney et al. (2006) revealed the “distorted images disseminated by the media and public officials” that served to justify calls for sending in the military. These images of lawlessness and the breakdown of civil authority reinforced the role abandonment myth. But the images focused on the performance of the New Orleans Police Department and ignored the larger context of the disaster. If role abandonment was a problem for the police, why wasn’t it a problem for other first responders in New Orleans? And why did the role abandonment problem not extend to other hurricane-affected areas? What, if any, extenuating circumstances might explain some of the absences? These were not questions that the media were asking.

Certainly the failure of 17% of the New Orleans police force to report for duty during the Katrina emergency exacerbated the problems of public order, but it hardly constituted “widespread” role abandonment. Much of the absenteeism was, in fact, a function of transportation problems when many parts of the city were inaccessible after hurricane landfall and the subsequent levee failure. Perry and Lindell (2007) noted that the institutional communications failure and breakdowns within the local incident command system exacerbated staffing problems.

Practice Considerations

Belief in the myth of role abandonment has serious implications for disaster preparedness and response. For example, widespread belief in this myth by the general public and organizational actors can create subtle, yet powerful, messages that emergency management systems cannot be relied on to perform effectively, that prior planning is useless in the face of such unreliability, and that the aftermath of disaster will be a Hobbesian world of “each against all.”

For many emergency response organizations, the opposite of role abandonment is often true. Disaster and emergency workers, particularly in leadership positions, often ignore personal needs and family concerns and work long hours with infrequent breaks. Within the disaster community, this behavior is typical and often expected. Encouraging family preparedness for emergency workers has become a routine strategy used to complement organizational preparedness, and “on-call” availability is ingrained in emergency response organizational culture and training.

Increasing emphasis on continuity of operations planning (COOP) for government, particularly since the tragedy of 9/11, is helping to ensure that government departments and agencies can perform essential functions and rapidly resume operations following a disaster. As part of the COOP planning process, clearly defining lines of succession and delegations of authority helps reduce ambiguity and uncertainty and thereby lessen role strain and the potential for conflict.

Future Needs

Role abandonment has not been a problem during disasters in the United States. Although role conflict makes for good drama in feature films or made-for-TV movies, the reality is that advance planning and family preparedness has characteristically minimized potential problems for emergency workers.

Nevertheless, given the increasing attention to catastrophic disaster potential and unfamiliar disaster agents related to terrorism or public health emergencies, it may be time to institute a systematic review of role conflict, strain, and abandonment in this new light. Bearing in mind that the last serious attention given to the subject of role conflict and role abandonment in disaster occurred over 30 years ago, important generational differences or workforce issues may now be in play. For example, how has increased privatization affected the delivery of emergency services? How have changes in residency requirements for governmental workers affected contingency planning for disaster? (Many cities and counties no longer require emergency workers to live in the employing jurisdiction.) Will workers employed by private contractors exhibit the same commitment as workers in the public sector? Could there be generational differences among emergency workers that make role conflict or strain more problematic for one generation than for another? For example, Zemke et al. (2000) noted that today’s age-diverse workplace has the potential for significant problems with respect to the clash of generational values, work ethics, and styles. How does this context affect emergency response organizations?

Recent studies have documented that the disaster agent may be an important factor in role conflict and role abandonment. Balicer et al. (2005) surveyed local public health workers and found that nearly half the respondents stated they would not report to duty during an influenza pandemic, with a greater likelihood of reporting for clinical workers than technical and support staff. Qureshi et al. (2005) polled 6,428 workers from 47 health care facilities in the New York City metropolitan region about their “ability” and “willingness” to report to work during various catastrophic events. Health care workers said they were most willing to report to work during mass casualty incidents (86%) and environmental disasters (84%), and were least willing to report during a SARS outbreak (48%), radiological event (57%), or smallpox epidemic (61%). Fear and concern for family and self and personal health problems were the most frequently cited barriers to “willingness.” These findings certainly have implications for planning and preparedness efforts.

As with any effective disaster management strategy, the goal is to anticipate problems and design strategies to support emergency personnel in the execution of their duties. The continued pursuit of knowledge about workforce performance in emergency situations, including improved understanding of role strain and conflict, is always timely and appropriate in the face of larger disasters and emerging threats. But this planning needs to be based on solid empirical research and not a myth.

Jane Kushma (
Institute for Emergency Preparedness, Jacksonville State University


Foster, M. 2005. “New Orleans police fire 51 for desertion.” Associated Press, October 31.

Balicer, R., S.B. Omer, D.J. Barnett, and G.F. Everly, Jr. 2006. Local public health workers’ perceptions toward responding to an influenza pandemic. BMC Public Health.

Dynes, R., and E.L. Quarantelli. 1976. “The Family and Community Context of Individual Reactions to Disaster.” In Emergency and Disaster Management: A Mental Health Sourcebook, H. Parad, H.L.P. Resnick, and L.G. Parad (eds.), 231-245. Bowie, MD: The Charles Press Publishers, Inc.

Dynes, R. 1986. “The Concept of Role in Disaster.” In Sociology of Disaster: Contributions of Sociology to Disaster Research, R. Dynes and C. Pelanda (eds.). Milan, Italy: Franco Angeli.

Perry, R.W. 1991. “Managing Response Operations.” In Emergency Management: Principles and Practice for Local Government, T. Drabek and G. Hoetmer (eds.). Washington, DC: ICMA.

Perry, R.W. and M.K. Lindell. 2007. Emergency Planning. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Qureshi, K., et al. 2005. Health care workers’ ability and willingness to report to duty during catastrophic disasters. Journal of Urban Health 82 (3): 378-88.

Tierney, K., C. Bevc, and E. Kuligowski. 2006. Metaphors matter: Disaster myths, media frames, and their consequences in Hurricane Katrina. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604 (1): 57-81.

Zemke, R., C. Raines, and B. Filipczak. 2000. Generations at Work. New York, NY: American Management Association.

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