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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Public Release Of New British Threat Rankings Offers Good Model For Informing American Citizens Of Risks Facing U.S.

August 11th, 2008 · 3 Comments

On Friday, the British government released to the public the National Risk Register, which according to the British government website, ”sets out our assessment of the likelihood and potential impact of a range of different risks that may directly affect the UK” and is:

“designed to increase awareness of the kinds of risks the UK faces, and encourage individuals and organisations to think about their own preparedness. The register also includes details of what the Government and emergency services are doing to prepare for emergencies….The publication of information on these risks, previously held confidentially within government, is intended to encourage public debate on security.” 

According to the Risk Register’s analysis, pandemic flu is the biggest threat to Britons over the next five years. While the British government believes a pandemic is not as likely as some other threats (such as terrorism), its potential impact is seen to be much wider, possibly infecting up to half of the UK’s population. (The report also provides an accompanying graph displaying the relationship between each threat’s impact and likelihood.)

But to me, more important than the actual content of the Risk Register is the fact the British government is releasing it and letting the public in on the range of threats (as well as the uncertainties about them) that the U.K. faces. I strongly believe that the U.S. government should consider doing the same. If governments want their citizens to take these threats seriously — whether it be pandemic or terrorism or any risk mentioned in the report — then they have to be willing to explain what they are and why they warrant attention and preparation. Though the British population has been more sensitized to domestic threats — because of their experience with the Irish Republican Army (as well as the ‘Blitz’ of World War II) — there is no reason why the U.S. public should not be able to handle the same information. 

The British government says that the release of the Register is just the beginning of a new effort to communicate these threats to the public. And my favorite part is that the citizenry is actually being asked to participate in the process. The front page of the web site announces: ”Please send any comments to us on what you did not and did find useful in the document and we will consider them when the document is next updated.” The plan is to release a new Register annually. The national report also complements work that being done in local communities on risk assessment to reflect some regional differences in threats, particularly natural.

Though I think the Register is a hugely positive step for citizen preparedness, I do, however, have one quibble — it is not firm enough in instructing the public what to do with all this information they are being given. The introduction says: “The National Risk Register is for those who may [my italics] want to improve their own preparedness.” You’re telling people about how potentially dangerous (and real) these threats could be (ie. half the country infected by a pandemic) and then you say that citizens “may” want to prepare. To me, the approach needs to be “you should” or “you must” or maybe it is “a responsibility of citizenship” to do so. In fact, I would argue that giving the public more information means they have more responsibility to be part of the nation’s emergency preparation. I believe that we need to move ultimately to what I like to call a “do tell, do ask” citizen preparedness policy — with more information told to and more responsibility asked of the public.

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Tags: British Preparedness · International

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