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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

In ‘Blogger Roundtable’, FEMA Head Fugate Says Citizen Preparedness Will Be A Major Priority; Asserts Public Will Be Viewed As A Resource Not A Liability In Disasters: “There Is So Much More We Can Do With People”

June 2nd, 2009 · 9 Comments

In his first ‘Blogger Roundtable’, new FEMA head Craig Fugate said today that increasing citizen preparedness will be a major priority for the agency and the “one area you’ll hear me talk about more often about.” He acknowledged that the emergency management community “hasn’t done a good job of using the public as a resource” and instead often views average citizens as “a liability” in disaster preparedness and response. Fugate said repeatedly that he was going to focus a great deal of attention on changing that approach: ”There is so much more we can do with people. We need to make them part of the team.”

The Roundtable was set up by FEMA to focus attention to the need for personal and government preparedness and was pegged to the beginning of hurricane season. The other two bloggers on the telephone conference call were Rich Cooper of Security Debrief and Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post’s Federal Eye blog. Fugate, previously Florida’s well-regarded Emergency Management Director, was confirmed by the Senate three weeks ago.

Fugate emphasized that preparing was not only important for citizens themselves but for the disaster effort as a whole: “The more prepared the public is, the better the response will be.”

The Administrator acknowledged “the bully pulpit won’t do it alone” in significantly increasing citizen preparedness noting that two successful social marketing campaigns — cigarette smoking and seat belts — did require incentives to alter public behavior. But he wasn’t sure yet what would make sense for to promoting preparedness. He did say that disincentives need to be addressed pointing out that in some places homeowners who retrofit their homes face higher tax assessments.

Fugate was refreshingly candid about the vexing challenge of getting Americans to prepare, something his boss, President Obama, on Friday called a responsibility of citizenship: “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know what’s going to work.” He said that preparedness required long-term cultural shift. “At this point all I know is that it won’t happen overnight. Not even a couple of years.” But he said it was a “journey” he wanted to take. Fugate said there is a need to bring together social science research to better understand why aren’t people still aren’t preparing for hurricanes and other potential emergencies. And then act upon it. ”We need to help provide the tools and the information for the public to prepare and to empower themselves.”

W. Craig Fugate, 49, is Florida's emergency management chief.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate

Fugate said that social media would be central to that effort both empowering citizens as well as to helping personalize preparedness for them with more customized information. He said new technology applications allow for “two way exchanges”, and that FEMA (which already utilizes social media) would be figuring out how best to engage the public and deliver useful tools and data to them.

Fugate’s focus on empowering the public nicely dovetailed with something suggested by a reader in response to a request I made yesterday on the blog for questions. Ralph Dutcher, a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) instructor and county public health official from Rochester, New York, recommended I ask the new Administrator for his views of the CERT program. In response to Ralph’s question, Fugate said that he had been a “big proponent” of CERT in Florida and that the local teams across the U.S. had an integral role in the type of new citizen empowerment effort he is envisioning — calling them “the ambassadors” of preparedness in their communities. Fugate also said there was a need to provide advanced training for CERT members on one end of the spectrum and offer a less intensive course covering the CERT “high points” on the other for those citizens who want to get involved in preparedness but without as big a time commitment.

Fugate closed the 35-minute teleconference by urging Americans to take just the “basic steps” to prepare for a hurricane or any other likely emergency in their particular area. In fact, he said that while as a former Florida official he tends to talk about hurricanes, his experience being in Washington, D.C. during the first days of the ’sniper attacks’ in 2002 underscored the value of having a kit and a plan for unexpected emergencies.

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Tags: Federal Emergency Management Administration

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