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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

In Interview, Ex-White House Homeland Security Adviser Townsend Urges Next Administration To Make Citizen Preparedness “National Priority”, Including: *High-Level Leader *Tax Incentives *Civilian Drills *School Programs *Public Briefings *In-Home Medical Kits & *Angelina Jolie

September 8th, 2008 · 7 Comments

As the nation marks the anniversaries of Hurricane Katrina and the September 11th attacks, I spoke with Frances Fragos Townsend, President Bush’s former Homeland Security Advisor, about citizen preparedness. 

In the interview, I asked Townsend for her thoughts and recommendations on how the next Administration should approach the challenge of preparing and informing the public for future terrorist attacks, catastrophic natural disasters and other major threats. Townsend served as President Bush’s top Homeland Security aide from May, 2004 through 2007. She is now an adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. We spoke in her office at the Chamber located directly across from the White House.  

Townsend told me that the next presidential administration — no matter who wins — should make citizen preparedness a “national priority”. It is a subject that she took a major interest in while at the White House. But Townsend acknowledges that while some progress has been made through the Ready Campaign, the Administration has not been able to fully galvanize public attention on the subject nor achieve the level of civilian readiness and engagement that she believes is necessary. 

Many of the ideas we discussed during the interview were originally proposed in a largely overlooked portion of the White House’s “Katrina Lessons Learned Report”, also known as the “Townsend Report, whose writing she oversaw. In the last of 17 sections in the Report’s “Recommendations Appendix”, under the heading, “Critical Challenge: Citizen and Community Preparedness,” there is a list of proposals offered to boost civilian readiness. Yet, Townsend says that outside events and the news cycle have a way, particularly in the homeland security area, of “reshuffling policy priorities”.

It’s why one of Townsend’s recommendations is that the next President appoint a high-level official with the specific responsibility for citizen preparedness to make sure what she calls “a very important” subject does not does not get lost, adding: “There needs to be someone who has ownership and accountability for citizen preparedness.”

Though Townsend views disaster preparedness as first and foremost community-based, she believes the federal government has a key role in focusing attention to the subject, catalyzing state and local government efforts and bringing together a coalition of stakeholders including business, schools, non–profit groups and the faith-based community. 

Below are some of Townsend’s citizen preparedness recommendations for the next Administration discussed in the interview:

*Provide incentives and adequate seed money for states and localities to develop civilian preparedness programs, including citizen training and expanded civilian drills, and tie grants to a commitment to the initiatives. As much of the work will be done on the state and local level, Townsend says a key will be getting governors on board and committed to citizen preparedness early on. 

*Encourage states and localities (as well as the federal government where applicable) to report to the public on their level of public preparedness and create metrics for better measuring readiness.

*Offer a tax writeoff to citizens to purchase preparedness-related product purchases as a way to encourage participation and to signal the government’s seriousness about the topic. One state and local initiative she supports is a tax-free period for consumers to purchase preparedness supplies which has shown initial success in Florida, Virginia and Louisiana. And has been introduced in other states, such as New York.

*Target personal preparedness assistance to citizens who cannot afford to prepare. (The experience of Katrina underscored to Townsend that “those who can prepare, must; but for those who can’t, it is the community’s moral responsibility to help.”) 

*Commit to educating the public on emergency preparedness including briefing Americans on the range of unfamiliar terror and public health threats in a straight-forward, open and accessible manner. (For a good model, the “Townsend Report” specifically recommends — and I would concur — the Rand Corporation’s clear, user-friendly guide, “Individual Preparedness and Response to Chemical, Radiological, Nuclear and Biological Terrorist Attack”.)

*Focus on the younger generation by working with governors and educators to integrate preparedness training in schools ‘piggy backing’ on existing fire safety programs. Townsend says that it is her children, more than any PSA campaign and governmental edict, that make sure she recycles and puts her seat belt on, and the same dynamic needs to occur on emergency preparedness. A mother of two school age children, she says we shouldn’t be afraid to talk to young people about this subject: “Kids are smart, they can handle it.” 

*Galvanize the private sector to take on disaster preparedness in the same way they have with disaster response, particularly in the aftermath of Katrina, in order to make it easier for the public to prepare. 

*Enlist the entertainment industry to bring attention to preparedness. She suggests, for example, asking Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt who are rebuilding homes in New Orleans if they would take on the issue of advance preparation for disasters. (Townsend is now part of the media herself appearing as an expert commentator for CNN.)

*Consider providing all citizens in-home medical kits with medicines that can be used in case of a public health event such as biological attack or pandemic. This is the first time Townsend has commented publicly on the idea. She says she is enthusiastic about the concept if the cost, distribution and other logistics can be worked out. She believes that providing Americans with these kits in their home would address the challenge of distributing medicine quickly in the event of a public health emergency while also having the positive biproduct of engaging the public in their own preparedness.

*And finally, she strongly suggests the next president appoint a high-level, widely-identifiable preparedness leader to manage the effort, keep attention on the issue and ensure it remains a priority inside the Administration and around the nation.

But more important than the policy recommendations above, Townsend says that ultimately citizen preparedness comes back to the citizens themselves. She emphasizes that it is the obligation of individual Americans for their own preparedness and that of their communities. (For example, she says: “It should be every parent’s responsibility to make sure that they know their children’s school emergency plan and have a communications plan for their family.”)

Yet, as she approaches the issue as both as policymaker and a working parent of two young kids, Townsend realizes the not insignificant obstacles facing average Americans when it comes to preparedness. It’s why she thinks the government has to give more attention to addressing them and believes the time is right for the next President to do just that.

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