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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

FEMA Official Says Citizen Preparedness Numbers Are “Very Concerning”; Discusses Efforts To Strengthen Community Resilience

May 13th, 2010 · 7 Comments

Speaking at the Center For National Policy recently, Timothy Manning, FEMA Deputy Administrator for Protection & National Preparedness, said that the current statistics on citizen readiness “very concerning and frankly kind of frightening,” and he spoke about some of the agency’s efforts to strengthen the nation’s resilience to disasters.

At the Center’s event, “Disasters & Resilience,” Manning was questioned by the moderator Stephen Flynn, the Center’s new President, and one of the leading experts on the subject. The full text can be found here. It’s worth reading for those interested in preparedness policy.

In response to a question from Flynn about making preparedness and resilience part of the national culture, Manning acknowledged the challenge:

…the numbers are very concerning and frankly kind of frightening I think. We did a survey last year as part of our community preparedness programs, where we found the same numbers we’ve seen for a great number of years. So what we’ve been doing, we’ve been trying to engage the public for about 50 years in roughly the same way, all through the civil defense era, the Cold War, and to traditional emergency management now. And it’s really about PSAs and talking to the public about – some variation on have a plan, get involved. It’s really been about the same message and engaging the same way. And we’ve always seen the response engagement of the public in about 50 percent, hasn’t really moved. Slides a little bit here and there.

But what’s most concerning is that when you actually deconstruct that number and you ask, “have you actually done this, have you done this, have you done this,” the things that we mean when we say “are you prepared,” the number’s actually in the 30s. It’s actually about 37 or 40 percent. Most people, as like 67 percent of respondents, say that they plan on relying on government, that they won’t take any actions and they plan on relying on government in the first couple of days.

It’s very concerning. And we’re just discussing that the best response is the one we don’t have to mount. What we need to do is build our communities, build our societies to a point where they are prepared. But I think, like we’re trying to do across the whole spectrum of homeland security preparedness, we have to recognize our communities and we have to plan for the community, not just plan for easy. So we have – we say preparedness means this. Maybe we need to be a little bit more sophisticated than that. Maybe what we need to say is these are the things you can do to be prepared. But work at a more – work through our actual communities.

One interesting community-based initiative that Manning mentioned is an effort to build the preparedness of Los Angeles firefighters and their families to develop them as leaders (along the lines of the CERT program) in a potential disaster response.

FEMA’s Timothy Manning and Center for National Policy President Stephen Flynn

There were a number of preparedness and resilience related topics covered during the discussion. But I wanted to highlight one point that Manning addressed on whether the agency was embracing an “all hazards” philosophy:

All-hazard – the old – the traditional doctrinal approach to emergency management has been one of preparing for all hazards and that was really the catch phrase, “all hazards emergency management.” And what that really meant was a maximization of resources, a realization that where the majority of the work, the preparedness and response work, happens is at the community level. It’s not at the federal level. The federal government’s job is mainly to step in and assist governors in assisting their local communities in a response. And when you get to the community level, the largest of the communities, in cities like New York and Los Angeles, notwithstanding those resources just aren’t there to do the level of detail planning required for each particular eventuality.

What we also know is that there is so much variation in any particular hazard that that doesn’t really bring a lot of value to the table sometimes. I think a good example is in the pandemic flu preparedness work that we’ve done over the past couple of years. It was really predicated on avian influenza and then influenza virus migrating from Asia, in East Asia.

When H1N1 popped up in North America, it was a novel virus really originating here, much of the detailed work we did was not as usable as it could have been had we taken a broader approach. The all-hazard preparedness is a way to think about that. Where it gets or it can get difficult or it can get tricky is that there are obviously very specific things that are required for some specific hazards. There is those large percentages, that 50 to 60 percent of the work that you need to do to prepare for a hurricane is also the same you need to do in response to an earthquake or an accident or a terrorist attack. But there are those – the balance of things are very different.

The response, the capability, the equipment, the training you need to respond to a nuclear, a ND, a nuclear detonation is different than the response, the capability, the training, the equipment you need to respond to a radiological accident. So we have to keep that in mind. So while we can focus a great deal of our efforts on those few things that have value across the whole spectrum of accidents, the normal daily public safety to natural disasters or intentional terrorist attacks, we cannot lose sight of those things that are specific to the individual hazards or a particular attack tactic.

There are large numbers of things that we need to individually focus on as well. But if I may, I think that another important piece to this, though, it’s not just been an all-hazard preparedness in the way that we’ve been doing it for a long time. That there is a – there can sometimes be a tendency to say that all-hazard emergency management is simply a back to the future, a slide back to the way we had done in the 1990s. But that loses sight of what we’ve learned. And the recent shift towards thinking of things in the terms of resilience is really another way to think of all-hazard emergency management, where it’s less about what are the discrete preparedness things we need to do to be able to respond to this set of disasters, but what are those things that we can do in our communities that offer second and third order effects. They get us where we want to be.

I agree with Manning that the old ‘all hazards’ framework is not adequate for the range of present threats — for policy makers, responders and the public. From a citizen perspective on what we need to know to be prepared and informed, there are definitely commonalities between hazards. However the differences, as Manning points out, can be important. In fact, I have argued on the blog that when it comes to what the public should be aware of there are sometimes commonalities that cut across hazards (ie. pandemic/bioterror attack) rather than all hazards and some threats may need to be redefined to reflect their real impact (ie. should a ‘dirty bomb’ or chemical attack be considered a WMD along with a nuclear and biological attack?).

But modifying the all hazards approach also raises the stakes for the government to inform the public of what more they need to know about various threats (which by and large has not been done). And, I would contend that the more Americans have been told beforehand will only increase their resilience and ability to bounce back quickly from disasters (particularly terrorism).

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Tags: Federal Emergency Management Administration

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