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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

To Make Family Emergency Planning More Effective (& Credible), Should It Be Done Together With Schools, Businesses, Neighbors, Responders? Maybe On A Specific Day?

November 9th, 2009 · 6 Comments

In a speech at the London School Economics last week, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano brought her theme of “shared responsibility” across the Atlantic. She told the audience — which included a number of American students — that as part of U.S. homeland security, ”individuals have responsibilities, families have responsibilities to be prepared…to have thought what they would do in the case of an emergency.”

Napolitano is right. If there’s one preparedness-related task Americans should do first it’s asking (and then trying to answer) that simple question — what would my family do in the event of an emergency? But I would suggest that simple question is not so simple for individuals to answer by themselves. Family emergency planning cannot totally be done in the family vacuum. To do it most effectively, citizens also need to know the plans of the institutions they are involved with — their workplace, kids’ school, elderly relative’s nursing home, governmental authorities, neighbors, etc.

In a recent National Preparedness Month speech, Napolitano made another related request of the public: that they go to some of those institutions, “raise your hand and ask ‘what’s our plan?’” (FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has been emphasizing the primacy of planning in his public statements as well.)

I think that both of the questions Napolitano suggests Americans ask are closely tied and should be answered together. In fact, I don’t think you can really develop your own plan without knowing what the other places are doing. (And, I would further suggest that the lack of citizen compliance to date is that we don’t think that doing our own plan individually — without other stakeholders — will be all that useful in an emergency with family members spread all over.)

As part of that process it’s also up to governments, particularly at a local level, to tell the public more about their emergency plans to help us make ours. The idea is not that members of the public know every scenario but that they are at least familiar with what the possibilities are — that they are not hearing it for the first time after something happens. A survey released Friday by the National Homeland Defense Foundation and Colorado Technical University found that 94 percent of homeland security professionals don’t think Americans know the appropriate steps to take if a terrorist attack were to happen in their hometown.

DHS Secretary Napolitano Honors Citizen Corps and American Red Cross Volunteers


And, the planning process should not be a one-way and top-down. The public should have input on not only their own plans. In addition, to the knowledge they can impart, institutions should not be designing plans that may not be realistic for the people they are planning for.

Take the issue of pet preparedness and response. Animal protection groups made the point that it was not realistic to plan that pet owners would be willing to leave their animals in an emergency (a contention borne out during Katrina and something I have witnessed during CERT deployments on building collapses here in New York City). So, many governments altered their policies to allow pets in emergency shelters (though they would still prefer owners make out of area arrangements if possible on predicted disasters like hurricanes.) That change in policy only came when all stakeholders came together and thought through the planning and realized that the ideal was not the reality. The same kind of attention is now necessary for the entire public.

The fact that every family’s plan involves other parts of the community is why I strongly believe that there needs to be one day in the year dedicated to the emergency planning process. If we as a nation feel it is really important for the public to develop emergency plans, it would be far more effective if everyone was doing that at the same time — rather than asking individuals to do it on their own so the planning can be integrated. This ‘preparedness day’ would also be the time that we all asked the questions about planning then practiced and updated those plans. (One helpful model is Japan’s Disaster Prevention Day, held on the anniversary of the catastrophic 1923 Tokyo earthquake.)

Among the questions that will come out of that type of drilling day include: Where would you go? Would it depend on the type of emergency? Would you be able to get out of work? Would your kids’ school want you to come there? One, if not the most important, question to answer is how would you communicate with each other as well as how would the authorities communicate with you as information may be the most crucial element in determining the answers (one result I think would be more social media/networking preparedness/training in advance.)

The fact is that families will never be able to fully answer all these ‘what if’ questions in advance; it will always depend to some extent on circumstances (ie. evacuating vs. sheltering in place), but this day would at least begin the preparedness process.  It would be the time to think through some scenarios and link together some of the institutions/people families would need to rely on in a disaster. Ultimately, if we want people to ask the right questions on emergency preparedness, we need to help them find the answers.

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Tags: Department of Homeland Security · Pets · Preparedness Ideas · Public Opinion

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