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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

On Sept 11, Some Ideas To Improve Americans’ Emergency Preparedness & Engagement

September 11th, 2009 · 5 Comments

On the anniversary of 9/11, I wanted to repost some proposals to help raise citizen preparedness. DHS Secretary Napolitano has said that public readiness is a priority and the Department has begun the process of engaging Americans in their own homeland security. The ideas below come largely from discussions I have had with people involved in all aspects of the issue, my own experiences as a parent and CERT member in New York City, as well as from the input I have received from readers since the inception of my blog. As always, I welcome your thoughts and suggestions:

* CREATE CITIZEN PREPAREDNESS TASK FORCE — The lack of progress to date on public readiness and engagement underscores the need to develop new ways of approaching the issue. DHS Secretary Napolitano should create a Citizen Preparedness Outreach Task Force to assess the current state of public readiness and work on developing new approaches. At present, there is no clear social education analog. In fact, in its recent report, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism recommended the Administration make citizen engagement a priority. But Chairman Bob Graham told me that the ‘WMD Commission’ did not did not find anything suitable it could recommend and that something new has to be developed.

* BETTER DEFINE WHAT IT MEANS TO BE ‘PREPARED’ — A recent American Red Cross survey indicated that 93% of Americans are not prepared for disasters. The truth is that no one can be fully prepared, but there is a need to offer the public a clearer definition — including a minimum level — of preparedness. That would not only include storing tangible supplies (ie. at least 3 days of food & water) but also knowledge about potential threats that every American should know. That doesn’t mean overwhelming people with too much information, but making sure they are at least familiar with some basics. (For example, the first time citizens hear about a ‘dirty bomb’ from government officials should not be in the moments after one has been exploded.)

* SUPPORT & REPORT ON STATE/LOCAL PREPAREDNESS EFFORTS — Provide adequate seed money for state and local government to bolster civilian preparedness programs and link the grants to performance. Encourage authorities to report publicly on their level of citizen preparedness and create metrics for better measuring civilian readiness. Find interested governors to take on leadership roles and create pilot models in their states. Expand support of disaster volunteer opportunities including Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) and other community programs, which serve as catalysts for organizing local efforts. There is a need to employ both “bottom/up” and “top/down” approaches to disaster preparedness combining state, local and community leadership and citizen involvement with federal commitment and focus. Ensure that government authorities can competently respond to disasters but also more strongly emphasize the need for the public and local communities to be prepared and self-reliant, particularly in the first 72 hours after a disaster.

* HIGHLIGHT & SPREAD MODELS FROM AROUND U.S. & OTHER COUNTRIES — There is a need to help promote and implement best practices from communities around the U.S. and draw, where applicable, from British and Israeli experiences. One model may be the United Kingdom’s National Risk Register, which sets out publicly the government’s assessment of the likelihood and potential impact of a range of different public health, natural and terrorist risks. It is designed to increase awareness of the kinds of risks the UK faces, and encourage individuals and organizations to think about their own preparedness. The Register also includes details of what the Government and first responders are doing to prepare for those emergencies and the role of citizens in those plans

* OFFER SMALL CARROTS – Encourage states to create tax-free periods for consumers to purchase preparedness supplies. Provide a tax write-off for citizens to buy preparedness-related products as a way to promote participation and to signal governmental commitment. Also, consider targeting assistance to citizens who cannot afford to prepare. The bottom line is that in most instances to change social behavior there needs to be some incentives involved.

* BRING IN BUSINESS TO HELP MARKET PREPAREDNESS – Design and roll out a full service preparedness marketing campaign with help from the private sector. Galvanize business to take on disaster preparedness in the same way they have with disaster response, most notably in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (ie. big box stores, packaged goods manufacturers, bottled water companies, wireless industry). In addition, work with private sector to alleviate existing obstacles to personal preparedness (ie. work with health care industry to allow for extra prescription medicine in advance of a disaster.)

* DON’T BE AFRAID TO TELL THE CHILDREN — Put more emphasis on educating young people on preparedness by piggybacking on other related school-based social education efforts, most prominently fire safety. The challenge is the both the decentralization of the nation’s education system and the already high curricula demands on teachers. Yet, an effective fire education program was implemented in the schools beginning in the 1970’s, and there would seem to be a perfect fit to integrate a preparedness module into that existing program. The federal government should work with state and local officials as well as fire and education officials to determine how best to accomplish that objective.

* EMBRACE AND ACCELERATE PREPAREDNESS 2.0 — There is a need to better inform the public on the potential on 21st century personal technology to prepare for and respond to 21st century emergencies. We must make Americans more aware of the capabilities of the technology at their fingertips (ie. wireless devices, social networking sites) and integrate it into disaster planning and response. The public’s new ability to access and distribute information offers both an opportunity and a challenge to government authorities. As a start, every governmental preparedness web site should add a cell phone and an extra battery (or other power source) to the basic components of their recommended disaster supply kit. Many private companies are working on applications for citizen emergency communications. Those business efforts need to be integrated with official alerts (ie. the new iteration of the Emergency Alert System) and unofficial citizen-based social media (as well as the news media). Both the content and distribution channels of emergency communications are changing and new models need to be developed.

* ‘SEE AND SAY’ SOME MORE – Build upon the initial success of ‘Say Something, See Something’ -type citizen information campaigns by providing the public with more specific guidance on how to assist law enforcement and, without giving away sources and methods, offering more feedback on the information they have provided. Law enforcement officials are concerned about societal complacency almost eight years since 9/11, but have not determined how to communicate to the public a more candid – yet calm and balanced – picture of the threat and how they can best help.

* EXPAND EMERGENCY DRILLING OPPORTUNITIES TO PUBLIC –Increase opportunities for citizens to participate in disaster drills, which would help people focus on the issue and work through the key questions everyone should ask before a disaster (ie. How will you get information and communicate with your family? Do you know the emergency plan of your children’s school?). Most every top homeland security/emergency management official I have interviewed has told me that broader public disaster exercises would be helpful in a number of ways, but there has not been a concerted effort to expand drilling opportunities to the public.

* ESTABLISH AN OFFICIAL PREPAREDNESS DAY — Create a National Preparedness Day to focus public attention before disasters, including briefing citizens, conducting drills, and filling emergency kits. A helpful model is Japan’s Disaster Prevention Day held on the anniversary of the catastrophic 1923 Tokyo earthquake.

* CREATE CITIZEN PREPAREDNESS OFFICE/SPOKESPERSON –Consider establishing a national citizen preparedness office or a high profile spokesperson to highlight and help coordinate efforts around the U.S. and ensure citizen preparedness remains a priority. Work with American Red Cross to create an effective advocate for the general public on emergency preparedness in the same way disabled and pet groups have done for the disaster needs of their communities over the past several years.

* BUNDLE CITIZEN PREPAREDNESS PROPOSALS TOGETHER INTO “CITIZEN PREPAREDNESS INITIATIVE” – For too long, well meaning public preparedness efforts have gotten lost or have been ignored by the public. That’s in large part that they have not been packaged and presented as being specifically directed to citizens. But if the government would assemble these small disparate proposals listed above into an overall citizen preparedness package it would have a better chance of getting attention and gaining some traction. Ultimately, making inroads on citizen preparedness is less a matter of money than it is of focus and attention.

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