USC Price School of Public Policy

Bob Stallings

Robert A. Stallings

Professor Emeritus

Bob Stallings approaches disaster preparation and crisis response from a sociologist’s perspective. Professor at USC since 1975, Stallings spent time early in his career teaching foundation coursework for the school’s emergency management certificate program, offered through the Institute for Disaster Preparedness (IDP). In conjunction with the Master of Public Administration degree program, IDP trained students for their future roles as professional emergency managers. Today IDP’s foundation elements can be found in the public policy and administration, planning, and development coursework at SPPD.

The Half-life of a Disaster
Bob Stallings is just one of SPPD’s many faculty thinking about preparing public managers, policymakers, and urban planners for crises—natural disasters, radiological accidents, terrorist events, and more. A trained sociologist, Stallings’ work focuses specifically on how complex organizations respond to disastrous events. His main interests are the ways in which individuals within larger groups orient themselves before, during, and after disasters. The key moment for study is the period following the disaster, he says.

“Once an event has passed, it quickly fades from the public eye,” Stallings explains. “Yet from a policy standpoint, the post-event period is critical. After a disaster event, emergency managers and responders must assess the situation and make informed adjustments to public policy.”

It is the role of academic research institutions such as SPPD to bring data and information to policymakers who can effect change, says Stallings. Because responsible decision making is founded on good, reliable information, Stallings sees SPPD’s role as vital. By conducting research, collecting data, and establishing behavior trends, the school can serve to inform key players in the policymaking, planning, and development communities.

Stallings explains that the salience of disaster response is always “heightened post-event, but there is an inevitable half-life. [The awareness] erodes with time.”

In March 2006, Stallings presented his paper, “Natural Disasters and the Politics of Causality: Explanation and Responsibility in the Context of Multiple Catastrophes,” to the Southern Sociological Society in New Orleans, Louisiana. Citing his visit to the French Quarter, he observed, “New Orleans was not open for business; it was practically deserted.” Shocked by the lack of progress, Stallings noted how quickly Hurricane Katrina faded from the public eye at a time when its effects still required attention. He suggests this post-event period as the ideal time to assess how the disaster was handled and to consider changes to emergency response policy.

Stallings says that SPPD can raise awareness by reaching out to the appropriate officials and that the school’s work can inspire action and policy change where needed.

All the Right Tools
The school can also lend its data and research to progress a bit closer to home, Stallings says. In thinking about the next big earthquake, the professor commends the State of California on its preparedness. He explains: “People come from all over to learn from our state; we already have the regulations in place.”

Formulating unique treatments for each type of disaster is critical to making those policies work, according to Stallings. As such, he is worried about public managers who try to paint all disasters with one brush. As an example, he cites the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, whose officials know how to anticipate, respond to, and manage terrorist threats, but are not as adept at handling natural disasters.

For instance, if one looks at earthquakes and radiological events, “people’s perceptions vary,” Stallings says. One is quite different from the other in terms of both physical effects and the players involved, so different principles and policies apply to each. Crises that possess dissimilar characteristics must be handled accordingly, he says.

For this reason, Stallings thinks is it important to understand how one defines a disaster, pointing out the fact that a genocide event—such as the current situation in Darfur—cannot really compare with an earthquake disaster.

“Terms like ‘crisis’ are better because they are more abstract,” he says. The idea of a crisis connotes a variety of events that require attention, although they may have very different conditions.

According to Stallings, one way SPPD’s work can inform policymakers is to debunk the myth of panic among emergency personnel. The emeritus professor is careful to point out the fact that search and rescue teams, although vital, are not the true first-responders. Rather, it is the people who act first because they are there on the ground, experiencing the emergency with others who need help and attention. “The real first responders are the citizens, the amateurs,” he says.

It is important for crisis managers to understand the social science behind disaster situations, and to benefit from that knowledge. Stallings’ research and other data consistently show that in the time of crisis, people behave very altruistically. Citizens thus become a resource for, not a hindrance to, emergency personnel.

“We already know the steps each of us can take on an individual level to prepare for an earthquake here in California,” he notes. Simple preventive measures like keeping a wrench by one’s gas valve and strapping down one’s water heater can make all the difference, he says.

Staying Connected
Retired since May 2004, Professor Emeritus Stallings is putting his experience writing computer programs to good use. “Before the SPSS statistical package existed, faculty researchers wrote their own programs to analyze statistical data. Now I’m designing websites for the USC Emeriti Center, Retired Faculty Association, and Staff Retirement Association.”

Recent projects include the development of a message board for retired faculty and a corresponding tutorial. “I hope to take as much of USC into retiree’s homes and lives as possible,” he says, explaining that one of the great benefits of retirement is foregoing the long commute to campus. “Many of my colleagues work from home or have moved elsewhere, and now they have a way to stay involved with the Emeriti Center and USC.”

Bob Stallings is a professor emeritus in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development. His chapter on “Methodological Issues” was published in the Handbook of Disaster Research earlier this year, and he is author of the book, Promoting Risk: Constructing the Earthquake Threat.

Learn more about Stallings and his work.