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The Wave (2015) – an emergency planners review

The Wave (2015) – an emergency planners review

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Inspired partly by Parasite director Bong Joon Ho’s acceptance speech at the 2020 Golden Globes I decided to watch The Wave, a 2005 Norweigian film based on the Tajfjord rockslide in April 1934, which resulted in a 40m tsunami killing 40 people.

Before I even had to contend with subtitles, the first challenge was finding a way to watch it. At the time of writing, it’s not available via Netflix UK or Amazon Prime Video, but I tracked it down and watched on YouTube.

Like lots of disaster movies, and many real-life disasters, the warning signs were there from the outset.

The context is clear. It will happen again, but scientists don’t know when.

Well reader, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler that I confidently predict something decidedly bad will happen in the next 90 minutes.

Cut to the present day.

Kristian is working his last day as a geologist, relocating his family to take a job with the dark side of the oil industry. Groundwater sensors embedded across the mountain indicate something is amiss but it’s dismissed by his colleagues. It takes time for Kristian to convince his colleagues that ‘something is up’, he abandons his children and they set off to find their hotel manager mother. A good rule of thumb based on most disaster movies and all horror movies that I’ve seen: do not split up.

Anyway, by the time the data is telling a compelling enough story, the geologists have slightly 10 minutes to save the town. Even in a town of just 250 people, arranging evacuation in 10 minutes is a tall order.There are signs that the situation has been planned for. The alarm is (eventually) sounded, people take to their cars, pausing to pack personal possessions. There aren’t many routes out of the town, but it’s all relatively well ordered.

Bucking the Hollywood trend, the film shows no scenes of looting. This supports a growing evidence base that people affected by disaster are typically pro-social. I found this really refreshing.

After the tsunami arrives focus shifts to Kristian’s attempt to find his family. He’s reunited with his daughter fairly quickly, but he has to mount a one-man rescue mission to find his wife and son. I don’t want to spoil the dramatic tension in the latter part of the film, but suffice to say that one scene, in particular, is reminiscent of Titanic.

Overall I really enjoyed The Wave. There were still some great action sequences but it was a different, slightly calmer take on disaster.


What did an Emergency Manager think of San Andreas?

What did an Emergency Manager think of San Andreas?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

It’s a running theme for me to blog about disaster movies, so here’s my latest installment, after watching San Andreas yesterday evening. CAUTION: contains spoilers!


San Andreas (not the most inspired title) see’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a helicopter rescue pilot go rogue to save his family from the largest earthquake ever recorded.

As disaster films go, it borrows fairly heavily from Emmerich’s standard formula:

  1. Heroic estranged father
  2. Scientist with a grave theory
  3. Early destruction of a landmark (in this case, the ‘bursting’ of the Hoover Dam). This is also the point that the scientist will say something like “we haven’t seen the worst of it yet”
  4. Separate a family
  5. Turn up the destruction to 11
  6. Reunite said family
  7. God Bless America

So although it was forumulaic, how did it rate from the presepctive of an emergency manager?

Earthquake and Tsunami Risk

First up, many of the situations presented in the film could not happen. The San Andreas fault is a strike-slip fault (or more accurately, a transform fault). This means the earth’s tectonic plates are sliding past each other. If they get stuck, pressure is built up, which is released as an earthquake. However, this wouldn’t be the sort of earthquake to open up massive canyons. It would still be destructive, but not in the same way as presented.

Further, the film depicts a tsunami engulfing San Fransisco.


Yes, San Fran has a real tsunami risk and has a warning system in place. However, this wouldn’t be caused by an earthquake with an epicentre on the San Andreas fault as large volumes of water are not vertically displaced when plates slide against each other.

The map below shows, in red, the official ‘tsunami risk zone’, and in blue my illustration of the extent affected in the movie (based on what landmarks were underwater and my very limited geographical knowledge of SF!). As you can see, the film uses more than a pinch of dramatic license!


Drop, Cover and Hold On

This phrase is actually used, and demonstrated, on a number of occasions by the trusty scientist and his sidekick journalist (who is none other than The Good Wife’s Archie Panjabi).


Later, The Rock explains what you should do if you can’t find cover. I’ve gotta give them some serious credit for including this, it really is the best thing to do.


If Kylie Minogue’s character had followed that advice maybe her blink-and-you’ll-miss-her-falling-out-of-a-building cameo would have been avoided.

Casualties and Fatalities

In the film we see Blake (The Rock’s on screen daughter) construct a rudimentary tourniquet to stop bleeding and see The Rock performing CPR. Knowing some very basic first aid can be life saving.

However, one stange thing is that given the scale of the disaster, the movie is notably free of the (presumably) hundreds of thousands of dead bodies. My only explanation for this? That the call to evacuate came just in the nick of time!

Mass Evacuation and Shelter

The usual scenes of highways packed full of cars (and debris) abound, but fortunately our protagonist has access to helicopters, planes and boats to get around such inconvieniences.

This brings me to my main issue with the film, The Rock’s self-deployment. As a Search and Rescue specialist he would have been much more useful assisting the official response, than focusing on his own family. that might sound cold-hearted but, to me, the ethics of emergency management hinge on doing ‘the most for the most’.

But back to evacuation and shelter, when nature runs out of things to throw at the Bay Area, there are some perfunctory scenes of tented villages, and mentions of support from FEMA and the UN. Fact – these tents were supplied by genuine emergency response organisation ShelterBox!

Command and Control

Clearly the producers had been reading up on the UK Joint Emergency Service Interoperability Principles. Whilst the film isn’t about emergency management (for shame!) there were some subtle mentions of emergency services protocols.

Most notably, when Blake steals (yes, it’s resourceful, but it is still stealing!) the fire radio to listen to the “multi agency Tactical Command channel that all areas have for emergencies” which sounds a lot like the multi agency talkgroups on Airwave.


Whilst the idea of using a landline phone was good, there is an inherent assumption that the physical infrastructure remains intact. Phone lines could have been damaged. I forget what actually happened to her mobile phone, but if possible Blake would have been better sending a text first (less bandwidth so more chance of the message getting through).


Bar the occasional scene of people looking disheveled the film has very little focus on anyone that isn’t The Rock, his ex wife or his daughter.

Certainly in America, we’ve seen communities   come together under their national or local identity (e.g. see post 9/11 response and Boston Strong). However, none of that really featured in this movie.

On the other hand though, there is the ‘classic’ scene of looting, which flies in the face of most evidence from real disasters which suggests pro-social behaviour.

The display of patriotism at the end (where three military helicopters drape a star spangled banner on (what is left of) the Golden Gate Bridge was a touch over the top!


For all it’s flaws, I enjoyed San Andreas.

It left a slightly bitter aftertaste that most of California had to be destroyed in order to reunite one family, but I appreciate the need for ‘narrative’. However, maybe a better balance could be struck between widespread disaster and micro-level drama?

If you’re a fan of disaster movies head over to Buzzfeed to see if you can match the screengrab to the film!

Resilience Fieldtrip 2013

Resilience Fieldtrip 2013

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Did you notice the lack of blog posts over the last few weeks? Well, here’s a long read to make up for it (and official work post over here)!

I’ve just got back from my holiday to Iceland, New York and San Francisco (which, right from the outset, is quite the Disaster Tour!) and I managed to meet up with some resilience colleagues along the way. Each of these places has a strong history of disasters so it was a great opportunity to investigate similarities and differences.

Regardless of where we are in the world, or what our risks include, resilience specialists face common challenges. Whilst volcanic eruptions, super storms and earthquakes feature low down on UK risk registers, I could relate to the complexities of working with large organisations and the grey-space between politics, strategy and operations.

I was interested to learn about emergent community responses to volcanic activity, and how that is being encouraged in Iceland. The impact of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption in the UK (see below) was mainly confined to economic losses (estimated at US $5bn), however, future eruptions could have more direct impacts, both for Iceland and internationally. In fact, I was surprised by just how much ash is in the atmosphere, even in non-eruption conditions (it had recently snowed so it was easy to spot the ash accumulations).


In New York, signs of Hurricane Sandy were still evident. I was told about the phenomenal coordination effort by City officials both during and in the recovery phase, which far exceeded my expectations. However, after nearly 6 months, there are still signs of the impact the storm had on Manhattan; escalators awaiting repair, felled trees and signs explaining that public art had been removed for restoration. This demonstrates the length of time required to recover from incidents, and I shared experience from the 2011 Public Disorder which took considerable time to get back to normal, and indeed some of the premises affected are still unoccupied as we approach the second anniversary.

The facilities of the New York Office for Emergency Management were impressive, and outstripped any that I have seen in the UK. The department was directly affected by 9/11 and subsequently relocated to new facilities in Brooklyn and I was lucky enough to get a tour of their award winning emergency operations centre; which although similar in principle had some marked differences to UK operations rooms.



As I was wandering around Manhattan, there were traces of emergency planning from days gone by. NYC fallout shelters have long been decommissioned, although it’s estimated that there were up to 200,000 such designated facilities by the mid 1960s. Whilst the specifics of the response to such an incident may have evolved, it’s a reminder that there has been a sustained threat to many places around the world.


The final leg of my travels took me to San Francisco. It’s been some time since they’ve experienced a significant earthquake, however they take their preparations extremely seriously, and signs of the 1906 quake are evident in their approach to resilience and land use planning in the city. Much of the city was destroyed by the earthquake and subsequent fire – the area highlighted in red on the map below shows the areas affected.


Indeed, even their offices are designed to withstand high magnitude earth movements using a what was described to me as a simple roller system (although I’m sure the reality is far more complicated!).


As well as being affected directly by earthquakes, San Francisco is also at high risk of the after effects of submarine earthquakes – tsunamis. There has been considerable investment to protect vulnerable locations, prepare emergency services and raise public awareness. In fact, this week 24-30 March is Tsunami Awareness Week 2013 and there are some good resources and links to local activities listed.


Another commonality which struck me, was that all of the places I visited were beginning to think seriously about the implications of climate change. Whether it affects the rate of glacial melting (Iceland) or sea level rise (New York, San Francisco), it’s an area which is increasingly being picked up on the resilience radar. Rather than enter into my thoughts on this issue here, I’ll save that for a future post.

I’d be very interested in the thoughts of any international colleagues reading this blog on their view of the similarities and differences in approach. I decided that I quite like field trips, so if you’d like to invite me to your country please get in touch!


The Impossible

The Impossible

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I’ve seen my fair share of disaster films, and the ones which resonate with me most, are those based on true stories. Last night I went to see The Impossible. I’d recommend that you go too…here’s the trailer.

Yes, Emmerich’s frozen New York is impressive, but lets face it, chances of Snowball Earth within a few days is pretty unlikely. Bayona’s tsunami however, well I remember that quite vividly.

Following the earthquake on Boxing Day 2004, I spent many of the subsequent days rapidly picking up German so that I could understand the TV reports (I was in Austria at the time). Similarly to 9/11, the scenes that were being shown looked like the work of Hollywood.

It wasn’t too long before some other breaking news slipped the tsunami down the agenda and out of mind of those not directly involved. However, as I watched the film yesterday Bayona did a great job at recreating the terror and posed some important questions about emergency preparedness (I wonder if he knew he was doing this?).

I don’t want to spoil the film for you, but difficult decisions abound

  • Do you think about risk before going on holiday? What preparations do you make?
  • Would you rescue the abandoned child or would you get yourself to safety? Could you separate yourself from your children to search for other family members?
  • What are your natural abilities, how could you use them to help the response effort?
  • How do you think you would cope without everyday luxuries? Language barriers?
  • Would you let other people use your mobile phone knowing that you can’t charge it when the battery runs out?
  • Do you operate on the patient with a limited chance of survival? How do you prioritise who gets scarce resources?

The rational part of me disagreed with some choices that the main characters made in response to these quandaries; but they weren’t wrong. Until we’re in that situation I think its impossible to predict what our response would be; and I think that’s the take away message.

Disaster films are not documentaries – they exaggerate reality and always have plot devices designed to elicit an emotive response. But the reason I love them, is that they continually ask “what would you do” and getting people to consider that is a great step forward.