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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

In ‘”Blogger Roundtable” Interview, DHS Secretary Chertoff, FEMA Head Paulison Offer Next Administration Advice On Preparing U.S. Public For Catastrophic Emergencies

July 3rd, 2008 · 4 Comments

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a “Blogger Roundtable” on emergency preparedness with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff and Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) chief R. David Paulison held at DHS Headquarters in Washington, D.C. I joined Jonah Czerwinski of the Homeland Security Watch and Rich Cooper of Security Debrief as one of three questioners. The full transcript can be found here. 

It was a wide-ranging, back-and-forth discussion about the state of U.S. disaster preparedness, during which the role of the citizen came up often. The roundtable was called specifically to discuss DHS/FEMA’s plans for hurricane season. But the conversation also delved into the subject of preparing and informing the public for other threats, including terrorism and pandemics.

Secretary Chertoff does not often speak at such length and depth about the topic of citizen preparedness and engagement, which I think is important to him but he has found somewhat vexing during his time at DHS. Paulison has expressed similar frustration on this subject (when I interviewed him last year, he told me that the level of civilian preparedness was a ”pet peeve”). Therefore, I was particularly interested to find out what they have learned during their tenures about the challenge of citizen preparedness and what they would suggest to their successors. 

“This Is Going To Be The Smoothest Transition I Think Anyone’s Ever Seen’

In fact, at the start of the discussion both wanted to make it clear that they intended to make the nation’s first transition for a Department of Homeland Security as seamless as possible no matter who wins the election. Said Paulison: ”I’m going to make sure that nothing gets dropped from one administration to the next, regardless of who gets elected. So, this is going to be the smoothest transition I think anybody’s ever seen. We worked too hard to let the ball drop for lack of cooperation from one administration to another.”

Do Ask, Do Tell

So, with that in mind, I asked them what kind of advice they might hand off to their replacements when it comes to citizen preparedness. I’ve excerpted a lot of the raw roundtable transcript below. But I would characterize their comments overall as recommending what I might call a ‘Do Ask, Do Tell’ policy in regard to the public emergency preparedness – that is, ask more of us citizens as well as tell us more. Both men believe progress has been made, but also readily admit they will fall far short of the ultimate objective of a prepared and engaged citizenry. Nevertheless, their suggestions — which I have organized into three general areas and explained below — should be considered by the next Administration as they develop their citizen preparedness plans:

1) Give The Public More Information And Responsibility When It Comes To Their Own Emergency Preparedness


a) Redefining Emergency Preparedness As A New ’Responsibility of Citizenship’

b) Broadening The Public Preparedness Discussion Beyond Hurricanes & Not Being Afraid To Raise Scary Topics

And In Order To Help Accomplish Both Those Goals: 

c) Consider Distributing Anti-Terror, Anti-Pandemic Medicine Home Kits Directly To Citizens In Advance

2) Learn From The Success of Fire Safety & Global Warming Campaigns


a) Getting Kids & Schools Far More Involved In Emergency Preparedness

b) Getting The Media & Hollywood Far More Interested In Preparedness

3) Accelerate Use Of New Personal Communications Technology And Social Media For Emergency Preparedness & Response By Public And Government


1) Give The Public More Information And Responsibility When It Comes To Their Own Preparedness 

Both Chertoff and Paulison believe a major objective for the next Administration should be to shift and share some of the disaster preparedness burden with the public when it comes to both information and responsibility. But they realize it will not be an easy transfer.

a) Redefining Emergency Preparedness As A New Responsibility of Citizenship

At the start of the roundtable, Chertoff and Paulison made their usual pitch for advance individual preparedness with the Secretary calling it a ‘civic responsibility’ of every citizen.

Chertoff: “The cornerstone of preparation is individual preparation. Have a plan, know how to get the information about what you need to do in the event that a hurricane looms on the horizon. Have some water and food and medicine and a radio, so if you wind up getting caught in a situation where there aren’t supplies for 48 or 72 hours, you have the capability to sustain yourself. None of this is rocket science. It’s the same steps you would take to make sure your house is prepared against a fire or some other kind of more predictable problem. And if people will make individual preparations, they make it easier for the responders, who then can first focus on people who can’t help themselves, either because they’re sick or old or poor. And those people need to get help first. So people who have the wherewithal and the capability to help themselves, I think have a civic responsibility to do it.

Paulison: “The federal government, the state government, the local government, the tribal governments, all of us working perfectly in sync cannot make up for a community or a group of citizens who are not prepared themselves. You simply can’t feed the entire country. You have to take some personal responsibility for yourselves and your family. And like I said, it’s not that difficult for most of us. Some of us can’t. Some of us don’t have the fiscal, the physical, or even the mental capacity to take care of ourselves. Those are the ones governments should be focusing on the first few hours.

When it comes to increasing personal responsibility, Paulison pointed to his own personal experience:

Paulison: I know what I saw in Hurricane Wilma, which went over the top of my house. I saw tens of thousands of able bodied people lined up for MRE’s, a bag of ice and a couple bottles of water. And that’s really stressed the system to the point that it cause a lot of problems at the state level and the local level. That should not have happened.

Chertoff:  “This was when the grocery stores were open.”

Paulison: “Yeah. Exactly. And there was tap water in Dade County. So that really sent a message to me that we’re not – I say we, including you guys, are not getting the message out. After Hurricane Andrew, we saw a tremendous amount of preparedness on the local public side. If a hurricane even came off the coast of Africa people run to Home Depot, they run to Wal-Mart, run to the grocery store. But then as we got further and further away from that storm, we saw less and less of that. So I’m hoping that what we saw in Katrina and the fact that we are really pushing very hard. Your article that you wrote is one of those things that people read that hopefully and will get – eventually just work our way back to that.”

Michael Chertoff

Chertoff: “Another test is whether the people obey evacuation orders. I mean, I remember even after Katrina. I think it was Wilma. Only a certain percentage of people on the Keys evacuated. You know, some people are just convinced they’re going to ride it out. And we didn’t have any real false alarms in the past seasons, but if we have a significant hurricane headed for the coast this season it’s going to test whether people are willing to obey those orders…Now, when somebody has an automobile, and they’re perfectly healthy, and they don’t listen to an evacuation order and they have to come and get rescued, you’re taking a first responder who might have to deal with someone who can’t help themselves, and you’re having that person spend their time on someone who could have helped themselves but they didn’t feel like it. I think that’s wrong. And that’s why we have a lot of emphasis on people who can take care of their own needs attending to those needs.”

b) Broaden The Public Preparedness Discussion Beyond Hurricanes & Don’t Be Afraid To Raise Scary Topics — And if the public is going to be asked to take more responsibility for its emergency preparedness, it should also have more information, according to the officials. While this particular roundtable was called to coincide with the start of the hurricane season, I was curious how they would suggest expanding the preparedness discussion with the public to include other more sensitive threats, such WMD terrorism. Chertoff acknowledged that they had not been able to effectively engage the public on those subjects yet, due largely to two different yet related reasons 1) a concern about being accused of scaring the public and spreading fear and 2) the fact that much of the public doesn’t take the subject of citizen terrorism preparedness seriously.

Chertoff: “There is one thing we’re going to have to tackle, which is the hardest part, which goes back to my predecessor, who was ridiculed because of this idea that somehow talking about duct-tape and things like this was a big joke. If the perception is that it’s a joke to talk about preparedness, we’re in big trouble. I guarantee it won’t be a joke when something happens. That will not be funny…So part of this is we’ve got to find a way to acculturate ourselves to the idea that talking about things that may be remote possibilities isn’t fear-mongering. I got, like all of you probably – I got polio vaccine when I was little. I don’t think it was likely I was going to get polio, but it was understood that public health – you tried to vaccinate as many people as possible. So this ability to have a serious discussion above and beyond the basics, I think that’s the key to moving this forward.”

But as a new Administration will likely get a ’reset’ with the public in regard to communicating on these issues, there is a need to take advantage of it early on.

And in order to help accomplish the above two goals:

c) Consider Distributing Anti-Terrorism, Pandemic Home Medical Kits To Public In Advance

Chertoff raised a subject that may be one way of beginning a new public discussion on citizen responsibility and information – distributing an in-home medical kit with antibiotics which would be used in a major public health event, such as an anthrax attack or pandemic. Of course, it is still in early stages of discussion and there are many questions to be addressed — ie. What medicines would be in the kit? How would it be distributed and to whom? How much would it cost? When it would be done? And will it be effective and comprehensive enough? I saw a prototype when I visited the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and I attended an Institute of Medicine workshop early this year, which examined some of the distribution logistical challenges. Chertoff said it is a priority for him that by the time he leaves his post that some movement will have been made on this initiative, though he understands the obstacles:

Chertoff: “I’d like to see us by the Fall have some kind of a proposal to make. It may have to begin with something we do internally in the department. I know the first responders are interested in getting information about this. We’re discussing now what ought our approach to be to this idea of people preparing medical supplies for themselves. They probably have to go to the doctor and get a prescription, but getting this set up in advance. Could we prescribe kind of a set of counter-measures that everybody ought to have as their basic counter measures? And I’ve got a list of things that I want to try to get done or at least out on the table before I leave and this is one of them….Now, to make that happen a couple of things would have to occur. First, we’d have to be confident that the public would properly use it, would safeguard it until it’s required to be used, wouldn’t lose it or cannibalize it. Second, we’d have to confront what is a cultural bias on the part of the medical establishment against people self-medicating. You know, they want you to always come and see a doctor. That makes perfect sense, but if you’ve got a city the size of New York and you were worried about anthrax and you need to get people antibiotics, you’re not going to get 7 million people to be seen by doctors in 24 hours. It’s not going to happen. And so we would have to have this discussion out there. No doubt there would have to be a lot of lawyers in there making sure no one’s going to be held liable. I think these are all important discussions to have. I think later this year we’re going to try to move the discussion beyond the basics into some of the area like medical countermeasures and things like that…

Some might say that Chertoff is ’scaring’ Americans by raising a concern – getting antibiotics distributed quickly in the event of a bioterror event like anthrax — that many experts worry about but don’t often discuss openly. But I would argue that the public should be aware of this concern, because they 1) deserve to 2) should know as citizens what their government is worried about 3) may have to deal with these problems themselves in the event of an emergency. Yes, this means raising some frightening possibilities. And, scaring people irresponsibly for political reasons is reprehensible. Yet shouldn’t mean that we avoid discussing bad case scenarios entirely. Preparing for the 21st Century will require every American face the spectre of a major catastrophe happening to them, if only momentarily — which is exactly what we already do when buying life insurance, listening to a flight attendant’s cabin instructions or participating in a fire drill.

Chertoff: “And how do you say to people, let’s say get a med kit. Get these kinds of things. It doesn’t mean that we’re afraid of an attack next week. What it does mean is that there are a series of things that could happen that would require you to use this. Acquire it, put it in a safe place, leave it alone. Now, it doesn’t strike me that that’s a bizarre thing to do. If you go to other places in the world – Switzerland, Israel, it’s part of the culture of those countries that people are used to having certain things on hand for an emergency. Part of the reason they do that, to be honest with you, is because those tend to be countries with universal service. So everybody’s trained and you’re used to bringing your firearms home. You have to have them because you’re on reserve duty. And so it’s accepted in part of the culture.”

Chertoff noted it is more challenging to create a culture of national service without some sort of national service.

Chertoff: “We don’t have that culture. And a question that’s been debated to some degree is whether a culture of national service – not just military service, but national service – would have as a useful byproduct training people. I think the more familiar people became with the need to have some basic understanding of how to handle yourself in an emergency, the less forbidding it would seem and the less culturally antagonistic people would be to this discussion.

2) Learn From The Success of Fire Safety & Global Warming Campaigns


a) Getting Kids & Schools Far More Involved In Emergency Preparedness

Paulison suggested that the inroads that fire safety had made over the past four decades in schools and among young people was a good model for trying to increase emergency preparedness in the U.S.

R. David Paulison

Paulison: “I remember we did the “Learn not to Burn” program, and every kid came home with a homework assignment to draw a fire plan, how do you get out of the house, and where you’re going to meet once you get out of your house, and is mommy or daddy going to check the smoke detector, make sure it’s working. And that’s been a tremendously successful program. We’ve had case after case where the fire department has showed up and the family is outside and it was just last school term that their six year old brought that homework assignment. And I know Home Safety Council, some others – maybe we should do something like that. Because once you get to the schoolchildren, and they have to take a homework assignment home, and ok, what do I have? Do I have three day supply of food and water in my house, you know. Do we have a plan? What’s going to happen if I’m in school and there’s an evacuation notice, whether the adults believe it or not…”

Chertoff: “…because of the experience that we had with 9/11 where kids – the parents, in some cases didn’t come home. In other cases people were stranded. Then we had the sniper. There was a real bump up in school preparedness, and everybody had a plan about notifying parents and keeping kids sheltered in place. So that did cause a spike up in preparedness. And I suspect there’s been some increase in preparedness in general sense all these events, but we haven’t had anything really recently. Now you could look at what’s going on in China and Myanmar and say, by the grace of God, it could happen here, and the answer has got to be to prepare yourself. But you really have to – it’s almost a marketing issue.

Chertoff: “So this, to come back to your earlier point, I think maybe is a good new initiative for a next administration to tackle. I think if you look at people in their 20’s now, there’s a lot of debate about what that generation is thinking. I think that they actually are pretty public spirited. They’re interested in current affairs. They seem to be interested in all kinds of public things going on overseas – aid to China and whatever. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to harness that and find a way to get the schools to harness that as they do now with recycling programs and other things…”

b) Getting The Media & Hollywood Far More Interested In Emergency Preparedness

Chertoff acknowledged looking with respect and envy how the global warming issue engaged the public and the media, and he believes that it offers a model for citizen preparedness.

Chertoff: “…you know. I tell you what’s fascinating. If you look at like this whole global warming thing. At some point, it captured the imagination of somebody and it became a big media thing. And then all of a sudden, every kid was coming home with information about global warming. And I wish we could get that media attentiveness in the area of preparedness, so that kids come – because this – actually, this is an area where it could make a difference if everybody had the plans and the kit and everything. You could actually see every individual could make a difference. So I would like to see that – someone pick up and cajole the media on this issue, because I think that would be a very big step forward.”

To help with marketing (not a government expertise), Chertoff believes emergency preparedness needs more attention from the media and the tv/movie industry.

Chertoff: “I wish some of the guys in Hollywood who are focused on some of these other things would actually pay a little bit of attention to this. We could maybe get a real boost.”

3) Accelerate Public Use Of New Personal Communications Technology And Social Media For Emergency Preparedness & Response

Chertoff and Paulison understand that new communications technology will play increasingly important role in emergency preparedness and response during the next Administration. During the Roundtable, they highlighted and pushed the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) which:

Chertoff:goes beyond the typical radio and TV-based alert system to one that allows Internet-based warning and cell phone-based, text message based, warning with an opt-in feature. We piloted this system last year in the Gulf. It worked very well. It is not terribly expensive. We are going to be encouraging the governors of the states in the hurricane areas to sign up for this system…we’re providing them with a tool that will enhance their ability to reach out to the members of their community – particularly people who may be hearing-impaired – and give them notice if there’s any kind of an event.”

And the growth of personal technology also offers great promise for individuals to help themselves during an emergency.

Chertoff: “So how do you train people to deal with an emergency? How do you train people to help other people in an emergency? You know, 21st century networking is about the power of the network. How do you harness text messaging, cell phones, internet?

These are some of the questions that Chertoff and Paulison realize their successors will be wrestling with in order to accomplish a goal – fully engaging the American public in their own emergency preparedness — that the two of them believe is very important but they have not been able to make enough progress on. Yet their experiences and advice offered above provide some helpful guidance. 

In fact, I have a suspicion that both men will speak a lot about the topic of public preparedness when they leave government. And it will be in their interest to do so because on January 21st, 2008 both will become members of that public. 

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Tags: Department of Homeland Security · Media

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