In a rollicking keynote address at the Annual Natural Hazards Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado yesterday, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said that the public was a too often overlooked and unlocked asset in emergency response, but he also called on that same public to take more responsibility for preparing for and mitigating disasters. Fugate kicked off the 34th annual Workshop held by the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center.
Fugate promised that he would be using the “bully pulpit” throughout his tenure, and in his speech (as well as during the spirited q-and-a) he struck some of the themes he has been and will clearly continue to address. A long-time emergency manager, the Administrator seemed eager (almost relishing the opportunity) to take on some of the field’s long held orthodoxies and even language. He really seemed to be enjoying himself during his remarks to the friendly standing-room crowd of more than 400 hazards researchers, practitioners, and emergency managers. It was one of the best speeches I’ve heard from a public official in addressing the public’s central role — both the positive and the negative — in nation’s emergency preparedness and response.
Fugate said officials had to stop looking at citizens as a liability during emergencies and start treating them as an asset. For instance, government and organized non-profit response groups need to do a far better job of integrating “spontaneous volunteers” into the overall post-disaster response. He criticized a prevailing attitude in the emergency management community that somehow ad hoc citizen assistance was problematic: “How dare the unwashed masses do it?” he said with a smile, adding, “But ‘they’re not part of the team. And haven’t been trained in the ICS [Incident Command System]‘.” Maybe not, he quipped. “But they’re feeding people.” Fugate said the attitude about ordinary citizens helping out is so risk averse that he’s heard officials worry about food poisoning…in the midst of major emergency. “Why fight it,” he urged. “Let’s embrace it.”
A similar reorientation is necessary in the area of social media, according to Fugate. Again, he noted a pervasive feeling within government ithat somehow citizen-generated content is “suspect”. But he said that it is time “to trust the public,” adding with a laugh, “They are not evil.” Fugate said officials have to understand that they “cannot control it” but instead “need to harness it.”
Fugate held up his smart phone at the podium calling it his “tricorder” in its ability to do so much eliciting laughs and appreciation from some in the crowd. However, not being a ‘Trekkie’ I had no idea — until I consulted Wikipedia — that “in the fictional Star Trek universe, a tricorder is a handheld device used for scanning an area, interpreting and displaying data from scans to the user, and recording information.”
In response to an audience question about instances of misinformation being distributed through social media, Fugate said that bad info can (and has been) disseminated both by new personal technology as well as traditional sources such as the radio. Social media, he implored, “is not a mechanism we should fear.” Ironically, Fugate mentioned an example of a social media-distributed rumor in Florida, which led to gasoline hording, as a sign of its significant constructive potential.
He told one questioner that emergency management agencies have to improve their communications with the public even in traditional ways: “We need more people who write in English.”
Fugate said he would be working to change some current language, which he believes sends out the wrong message to everyone involved. For example, he wants to replace the word “victim” with”survivor”. He also hopes to substitute “natural hazards” for “natural disaster” in the public and media crisis lexicon. He says hazards are not the cause of the disasters. Rather, it is that Americans have built and live in vulnerable areas, which has turned hazards into disasters. Hazards may not be avoidable, but they are mitigable.
Because while the Administrator was bullish about the public as a positive force in responding to disasters, he was just as critical of the citizenry for helping to contribute to them. Fugate, the former top Florida emergency management official, used his own state as an example of how misguided policies which put a premium on developing as close to the coast and as inexpensive as possible contribute to making natural hazards turn into natural disasters. Noting the proliferation of golf course developments in his native state, he remarked that “you can tee off in Tallahassee and play through to Pensacola.”
“Unless the public understands we need to change where we develop and live, it won’t matter,” Fugate said almost plaintively, “We’re swimming up stream.” He said politicians will take their cues from their constituents and if they don’t change their attitudes then nothing will change. He also emphasized that that improving building codes was the key to mitigation.
Fugate said a top priority for FEMA would be to find the “best nexis points to change outcomes” whether that is mitigation, preparedness or response. He feels that the public can play a crucial role in that effort. “We want the public to take action” to change those outcomes.
But he underscored that all stakeholders, particularly the public, must have more realistic expectations about the government’s role and capacity: “We can’t protect everything from happening.” But a key objective is to build up community and societal resiliency when something does happen.
Fugate also revealed that he had been working on establishing a new mission statement for the agency: “Working together as a nation to prepare for, respond to, recover from and mitigate against all hazards.”
Thanks to Jeannette Sutton, Corey Reynolds (who also posted on the International Hazards and Disasters Network site about the Fugate speech) and other twitterers in the audience for their live Tweeting of the keynote address. You can follow the rest of the Workshop, which runs through Saturday, on the Natural Hazards Center’s Twitter feed or the #haz hashtag.