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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

FEMA Head Says Personal Preparedness “Must Be National Priority”; Requires “Considerable National Attention” — “Every Elected And Appointed Official At Every Level of Government Must Make It A Priority”

July 28th, 2009 · 4 Comments

In prepared testimony yesterday for a House subcommittee, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate reiterated his concern about the lack of U.S. citizen preparedness in some pretty strong language. He told legislators that “personal disaster preparedness is and must be a national priority” and it “needs considerable national attention,” recommending that “every elected and appointed official at every level of government must make it a priority.”

Fugate has made citizen preparedness a priority in his own public statements during the first several months in the FEMA job (for example, here, here and here). But this is the most striking statement I’ve seen yet of his belief that the public as well as officials at all levels of government need to put civilian preparedness more front and center. Fugate delivered the remarks at a hearing, titled “Post Katrina: What it Takes to Cut the Bureaucracy and Assure a More Rapid Response After A Catastrophic Disaster” held by the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management.

As you might expect, I think it is terrific that Fugate is highlighting citizen preparedness and urging the nation to give more attention to it. The challenge, as Fugate knows as well as anybody, is to develop a more focused, creative, and sustained approach to the issue that can work on a national, state and community level. (This is my initial stab at it is here.)

I haven’t been able to paste longer excerpts of Fugate’s speech due to format problems but will do so when I can. The full text of the testimony is here. I also will also add some of the suggestions for improving citizen preparedness suggested at the hearing by former FEMA official Jane Bullock and Red Cross executive Joe Becker.

Craig Fugate At Natural Hazards Workshop 2009 by you.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate shows off his emergency ‘Tricorder’ (a.k.a. smart phone) during his keynote address to the Natural Hazards & Applications Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado earlier this month. (photo: Samantha Capps, University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center)

UPDATE 7/30: I received the the prepared statements from the Subcommittee hearings, which I can now excerpt. First Fugate:

“While FEMA can and is making improvements to how we plan, organize, and respond in a catastrophic disaster, there remains one area of improvement that still needs considerable national attention: personal preparedness.  Studies continue to indicate that far too many households do not have personal disaster plans that include provisions for assuring the self-sufficiency of their households for up to 72 hours following a disaster. A family should also think through personal preparedness plans in case of a catastrophic event that devastates their city.

In fact, a recent survey found that only half of Americans have put together an emergency kit, and less than half – only 40 percent – have created a family emergency plan.  I cannot emphasize enough just how problematic this could prove in a catastrophic environment, not only to the households, but to the efficacy of the overall incident management effort.  Every family that fails to take even the most basic preparedness actions, such as having sufficient water and non-perishable food to support the family for at least 72, is a family that will pull responders and critical resources away from those who truly need such assistance, both the casualties of the disaster, and our most vulnerable populations, such as persons with disabilities and children.

I’ve said it time and time again, and I will continue to say it: personal disaster preparedness is and must be a national priority, and every elected and appointed official at every level of government must make it a priority.  Nothing will contribute more to saving and sustaining lives than a citizenry prepared and provisioned to live in a reduced-services environment in the days immediately following a catastrophic disaster.  When basic infrastructure at the community level halts, as should be anticipated in a catastrophic event, the value of personal preparedness cannot be overestimated.  Neighbors are almost always the most effective and most immediate first responders – never more so than when local first response assets have been impacted by the same catastrophic event.

Having a family disaster plan, keeping supplies for basic survival needs, and staying informed are the responsibility of every American.  By being prepared, you can help your family and your community weather the initial hours and days following a catastrophic event and free up our first responders to help those who cannot help themselves.

We also have a responsibility, as a government, to make sure that our plans for response and recovery, to the extent possible, address the needs of the most vulnerable residents, and do not overlook citizens based on age, economics, or other factors such as disabilities.  In catastrophic planning, as in all of our planning, we need to ensure we include measures that directly address the unique needs of children, the elderly, the disabled, and any other groups that might face unique challenges in a disaster environment.  The needs of these groups must be understood prior to an event and worked into the fabric of our overall response and recovery plans, not merely treated as an afterthought to pre-existing plans and procedures…

I recognize that we need to take our planning and preparedness to a new level, and have charged my new leadership at FEMA to do exactly that.  But again, effectively enabling mitigation and responding to catastrophes is not something FEMA can do alone.  Organizations at every level of government, as well as those within the private and voluntary sectors, must make major investments in time and preparation.  And given that these types of disasters are rare and tend to overwhelm local and state governments, our nation’s citizens and families must recognize and embrace their own responsibilities to be prepared, and take the actions necessary to assure that they are.”

In her testimony, former FEMA official Jane Bullock argued for more pre-disaster mitigation, sometimes directly in the wake of a disaster:

“It is within this context that I would like to provide some thoughts and suggestions on how to enhance community recovery before and after a catastrophic disaster. In the immediate aftermath of any disaster, what individuals and communities want the most is to get back to “normal”. This return to normalcy often impedes a community’s opportunity to rebuild better, safer, and more environmentally and economically sound…

In the immediate aftermath of any disaster, what individuals and communities want the most is to get back to “normal”. This return to normalcy often impedes a community’s opportunity to rebuild better, safer, and more environmentally and economically sound. Furthermore, inflexibility and regulations on the part of Federal government programs tend to reinforce returning a community to its predisaster status. It is in the government’s best economic and social interest to support expeditious recovery and rebuilding of safer communities…

I would suggest establishing a pilot program that would allow certain high risk, disaster prone communities to receive funding to do pre-disaster recovery plans and strategies which will significantly enhance recovery.”

Bullock was involved in the successful Project Impact community mitigation program created FEMA under James Lee Witt.

I also wanted to highlight point made by the Red Cross’ Joe Becker at the hearing:

“Disasters can put individuals and families in an unfamiliar and frightening environment. And yet the true first responders in a catastrophic event are citizens themselves–people helping friends, families and themselves. There is no question that citizen and community preparedness helps to build resilient communities. Every individual and family that prepares before a crisis enables response agencies to focus on the most critical needs first. Further, those individuals that have taken basic steps are less likely to experience post-traumatic effects. Mental health studies have shown that individuals who have appropriate tools and mechanisms to address unexpected situations are more likely to return quickly to pre-disaster status.

We need to make the necessary investments as a country to encourage citizen preparedness. The American Red Cross, DHS/FEMA and many states and cities have standardized citizen preparedness language to provide a consistent and compelling message for citizens. The three steps in this message for preparedness are common across all types of disasters and simple to follow, and yet we are barely moving the needle on the percent of those who are prepared.

The American Red Cross has learned in recent years that there are two key levers that can move citizens to become prepared – schools and employers. If a child comes home with an assignment to show the family emergency plan, parents are moved to act. If a worker comes home with a request from a supervisor that the family knows what it will do in an emergency so the employee can report to work, preparedness happens. By partnering with schools and businesses, we are making progress. But more must be done by government to partner with schools and businesses to prepare.”

Since, as Becker notes, schools and employers are key preparedness levers, we must focus on creating innovative  and creative methods and incentives to encourage efforts in those two areas.

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Tags: Federal Emergency Management Administration · Preparedness Ideas

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