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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

New FEMA/Citizen Corps Survey Says “Too Many Americans Don’t Know How To Get Critical Information Or Where To Go” In A Disaster, But Don’t Think It Will Happen In Their Own Community; Report Urges More Public Education On What To Do In Response To Threats, More Civilian Drilling Opportunities

June 12th, 2009 · 8 Comments

In a report released yesterday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says ”too many Americans don’t know how to get critical information or where to go in the event of a disaster,” the report, “Personal Preparedness in America: Findings from the Citizen Corps National Survey” concludes. “60% of respondents were unfamiliar about their local evacuation routes. 54% of respondents were unfamiliar with their local shelter locations.” (The survey was conducted in the Fall of 2007 before the growth of social media emergency information sources, but I think that the results wouldn’t be very different if fielded now.) Yet, only 37% of respondents think a natural disaster will ever affect their community and less than 1 in 5 believe terrorism will strike nearby.

In order to increase citizen readiness and engagement, the report recommends that government officials at a national and local level better inform Americans about what specifically they would need to do in response to a broader range of threats; explain (and even convince people) of the benefits of preparedness for disasters; involve the citizenry in practice exercises; improve collaboration between the public and law enforcement; and expand research in this area. A summary of the report’s findings can be found here.

FEMA’s Community Preparedness Division and the Citizen Corps also released a companion report, “Citizen Corps Urban Area Survey” which did separate research in the cities of New York, Houston, San Francisco and Indianapolis (summary sheet here). There are a lot of meaty conclusions and recommendations in the reports (which I suggest for anyone interested in citizen preparedness.) Below are some that were most striking to me:

There is a need to convince the public of the efficacy of preparedness, particularly in the event of terrorist attack:

“Many individuals did not believe that preparing for terrorist attacks would make a difference in an actual event. Preparedness and response education must contain messages about response efficacy for the recommended actions for each hazard. A particular emphasis on response efficacy is needed for hazards that are less understood by the public (hazardous materials accidents, severe disease outbreaks, and terrorist attacks).”

Public education is necessary, particularly in responding to less understood hazards, such as an explosion, chemical release, or dirty bomb:

“Many individuals lacked confidence in their abilities to know what to do in the first few minutes of different types of disasters. Communication and outreach strategies should educate individuals about specific response skills needed for natural hazards most likely to occur in their communities and include a particular emphasis on less understood hazards, such as an explosion, chemical release, or dirty bomb.”

An “All Hazards” approach must also highlight the difference between various hazards:

“Perceptions of the utility of preparedness and confidence in ability to respond varied significantly by type of hazard. Because all hazards messaging may dilute critical differences in preparedness and response protocols, preparedness and response education should include a focus on hazard-specific actions appropriate for each community.”

Though most people are not prepared, many of those who say they are really aren’t:

“Greater appreciation for the importance of household plans and knowledge of local emergency community procedures and response resources is needed. Individuals who reported being prepared lacked critical plans and information.”

Citizens should get an opportunity practice what is being preached:

“Practicing response protocols is critical for effective execution. Greater emphasis on drills and exercises is needed.”

Much of the public is (mistakenly) relying on the cavalry to show up and help them:

“Individuals’ high expectations of assistance from emergency responders may inhibit individual preparedness. communicating more realistic expectations and personal responsibilities is critical.”

There is a need to build upon “See Something, Say Something”:

“Individuals believed they had a personal responsibility to report suspicious behavior, but greater collaboration between citizens and law enforcement is needed.”

Preparedness efforts must be both bottom up and top down (as well as through social networks):

“While the Federal government and national leaders must continue to emphasize the importance of preparedness from a national platform, it is clear that effective strategies for preparedness must be implemented at the community level and through social networks.”

There is a lot that we still don’t know about citizen preparedness and engagement:

“In addition to repeating the Citizen Corps National Survey periodically to track changes in preparedness and shifts in attitudes and behavior, there are many other areas of needed research to understand more fully the complexities of motivating and sustaining personal preparedness and participation.”

Some of the recommended areas of study include:

“An exploration of different perceptions of hazard types and how perception affects preparedness, to include terminology such as ‘disaster,’ ‘terrorism,’ ‘pandemic flu,’ and ‘preparedness.’ An exploration of better ways to deliver training and to practice response skills through multiple and varied types of exercises.”

“How social networks such as neighborhoods, the workplace, schools, and faith communities can be better used to institutionalize preparedness information, training, and drills, and how civic leaders from these sectors can be engaged in government-led community resilience efforts.”

I think these are useful reports with some significant recommendations. I hope they serve as guides for FEMA and the entire Department of Homeland Security as their citizen preparedness and engagement approach is developed.

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Tags: Federal Emergency Management Administration · Public Opinion

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