Unraveling the complexities of disaster management: A framework for critical social infrastructure to promote population health and resilience

Tracey L. O'Sullivan*, Craig E. Kuziemsky, Darene Toal-Sullivan, Wayne Corneil

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

126 Citations (Scopus)


Complexity is a useful frame of reference for disaster management and understanding population health. An important means to unraveling the complexities of disaster management is to recognize the interdependencies between health care and broader social systems and how they intersect to promote health and resilience before, during and after a crisis. While recent literature has expanded our understanding of the complexity of disasters at the macro level, few studies have examined empirically how dynamic elements of critical social infrastructure at the micro level influence community capacity. The purpose of this study was to explore empirically the complexity of disasters, to determine levers for action where interventions can be used to facilitate collaborative action and promote health among high risk populations. A second purpose was to build a framework for critical social infrastructure and develop a model to identify potential points of intervention to promote population health and resilience. A community-based participatory research design was used in nine focus group consultations (n=143) held in five communities in Canada, between October 2010 and March 2011, using the Structured Interview Matrix facilitation technique. The findings underscore the importance of interconnectedness of hard and soft systems at the micro level, with culture providing the backdrop for the social fabric of each community. Open coding drawing upon the tenets of complexity theory was used to develop four core themes that provide structure for the framework that evolved; they relate to dynamic context, situational awareness and connectedness, flexible planning, and collaboration, which are needed to foster adaptive responses to disasters. Seven action recommendations are presented, to promote community resilience and population health.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)238-246
Number of pages9
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Awareness
  • Canada
  • Collaboration
  • Community engagement
  • Emergency management
  • Pandemic
  • Resilience


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