With September being National Preparedness Month, I had the opportunity to speak with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about the issue of citizen preparedness. In the interview, held at DHS headquarters in Washington, just before he headed to the Gulf coast for Hurricane Gustav, Chertoff acknowledged that while the Ready.Gov awareness campaign has made some progress, the government has not adequately broken through to the public on preparedness. Yet, he feels the subject is an important enough for the nation (and his successor) to make it a priority in the next Administration.
Chertoff says preparedness needs to be repositioned so it is viewed by Americans as a responsibility of citizenship for the 21st Century. But to do so, it needs to be better integrated and ingrained in community institutions, particularly schools, and then reinforced at home. He suggests that preparedness be piggy-backed on existing and effective fire safety school-based programs as well as the enthusiasm among youths about the environment (which he thinks is complementary to emergency readiness). Chertoff believes there needs to be a clearer and more sustained preparedness message, delivered to the public by trusted people both locally and nationally, including (he hopes) Oprah, and spread through web-based social networking sites.
Chertoff says that during his tenure at DHS he has thought a lot about the reasons why it has been so difficult to get the public to focus on preparedness:
“One is hesitancy to think about things that are unpleasant if you don’t have to. The second is kind of an uncertainty about what to do and the avoidance about taking on a task you may not seem well suited for because it seems overly complicated. So it seems to me the cure for both of those is a consistent public messaging we haven’t had up to this point…For most people, it is unfamiliarity, and when you are unfamiliar and something scares you, you dismiss it because you can’t deal with it. [But] if you are comfortable with your ability to deal with an issue, then you engage people and that’s the piece we haven’t cracked yet.”
Cracking it, according to Chertoff, can start at home. Parents, like himself, have to:
“take personal responsibility for ourselves and for our dependents and not assume that we’re going to be rescued by somebody in the absence of taking reasonable steps on our own to help ourselves. We all send our kids thru school we expect to be able to succeed in school to get to college and people can be quite motivated to micromanage their children to make sure they do all they can to maximize their preparation for a SAT exam…Why don’t we take that personal responsibility with respect for an emergency or in event for our well being in the event of an emergency? Again, we tend to take our kids in for their vaccinations. tend to pay attention to flu season. Why don’t we do that in the event of a hurricane or a flood? Is it because it’s not common or is it because we haven’t done a good enough job of getting our institutions to promote this with people?…Schools don’t get engaged enough in this so the kids don’t come home and really agitate for it.”
Chertoff points to another familiar school-based model:
“I see we have done some things to train people in certain areas like Driver’s Ed. We’ve gone considerable distance in teaching how to get behind a wheel of a car. And how to maintain the car and knowing what to do in an emergency. Again we’ve enlisted the educational establishment it seems to me in disaster response is exactly the area where the educational establishment if people want to volunteer as part of public service.”
He looks (with some envy) at the enthusiasm and engagement of young people in other social education campaigns, including those for the environment:
“It became unavoidable…They made it easy to do…So, the question is why we can’t get the same kind of level of intense messaging on this thing which would include engaging the schools as well as popular media in newspapers getting on on Oprah. I don’t know whether it’s because it is too intermittent and therefore not broadly appealing enough or because it’s kind of a bummer.”
Chertoff actually sees environmental and emergency preparedness activity as complementary, because both involve a ‘personal responsibility’ message and enlist the public in developing a more resilient society. In fact, he argues that individual citizens can actually have more personal impact on preparedness:
“The pitch that has been made on global warming is that ‘everyone should take personal responsibility to reduce your carbon footprint’. And yet for most people there’s actually very little impact that they can really have. And you would think that people would shrug their shoulders and say ‘what can I do’ but it has become so fashionable as a statement that people are doing it even if it is not clear that the marginal benefit is significant. In the disaster area, the reverse is true. In personal preparedness, each individual can make a huge difference. It is really an area where you can empower the individual yet it does not have the fashionable quality.”
In order to accelerate that process, Chertoff told me he had visited a number of web-based social media internet companies to enlist them in the effort. And the Department recently announced an agreement with MySpace to help disseminate hurricane information.
Chertoff says citizens must take responsibility for taking care of their families (and their neighbors when possible) to ensure their safety, but there is an additional responsibility to do so to avoid complicating the work of and endangering the lives of first responders.
Chertoff notes that in a number of places in the nation, particularly in coastal areas, disaster preparedness is always been part of life. The challenge is spreading that ethic to areas throughout the U.S. that do not get regular reminders from Mother Nature. He points to Switzerland as a model of individual preparedness in part due to their mandatory national service commitment (during which everyone learns basic skills, including first aid). However, Chertoff believes that there can be a similarly useful preparedness training here in the U.S. without compulsory service.
“In Switzerland everyone’s prepared, and I realized as part of national service everyone has learned some basic stuff and that includes how to shoot a gun, how to do first aid. It’s given them a confidence level and a cultural familiarity with taking responsibility for maintaining yourself that translates to other things. I think it is argument for some kind of public service requirement in our educational system that would bring people into a training program where they would learn basic competency skills. They might train specifically for disaster management or they might train for other things. But as part of that process there’s a core curriculum of basic life skills and that would elimintate anxiety element that surrounds this for people who have never dealt with that…It’s not that you should train for every possible thing that could happen, but once you get the basic skills and the basic mindset and learn how to do it. Then it is not hard in a particular emergency to take those steps and be able to implement them in your own life.”
Chertoff would like to see private philanthropy get more involved in the area of preparedness education:
“Here’s something I would like to challenge: a lot of extremely wealthy people nowadays in philanthropy stting up programs I would love to have them to set up a program to empower young people to both educate themselves and engage in form of service that relates to disasters. Whether disasters in this country and overseas anything that will expose and train them in the kinds of skills that would useful.”
Though public preparedness has not made the kind of inroads he would have liked, Chertoff believes it can pointing to the success of the effort to increase citizen vigilance on terrorism (the most well-know being the “See Something, Say Something” campaign created by the New York/New Jersey Metropolitan Transportation Authority):
“I have been positively surprised of how good the public has been on the issue of vigilance with respect to potential terrorism…There we succeeded to in getting people to understand when you see if you see something funny you should say something…Why did that campaign work? It worked because it is something people understand. It’s not something hard to do. But it did require public to overcoming that initial sense of embarrassment of not wanting to get involved so that’s fascinating that really worked.”
As he enters the last months as DHS Secretary, Chertoff thinks he might be a more effective advocate for preparing average citizens when he himself becomes an average citizen on January 20th, 2009:
“I think the constraint in general when homeland security speaks is terrorism and while it is true that a lot of what we do is not terrorism. I think it coming from the federal government terrorism, ‘boots on the ground’ megaphone. And I wonder whether as getting out and operating as a private citizen albeit one more knowledgeable than the average one it doesn’t give you a people’s receptivity may be a little different because it is not the government lecturing on what you should do, just another person, albeit a little more knowledgeable one, saying this is what you should do.”