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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

We Need To Better Define What “Prepared” (&/Or “Resilient”) Means For The Public

June 8th, 2010 · 2 Comments

In the May/June issue of Emergency Management magazine, there’s an interesting “Point of View” column by Elaine Pittman, “Simplifying The Message” (p. 12 on this pdf). She begins the piece:

There are 27 items on’s list of supplies to incorporate into an emergency kit, divided by recommended supplies (12) and additional items to consider (15). At the All-Hazards, All-Stakeholders Summit on March 25 in Seattle, former FEMA Region VIII Administrator Garry Briese said the cost of these items can exceed $375 and many require replenishment, like water and food. He said although many emergency managers take comfort in telling the public to purchase these items, a community’s economic realities need to be considered when emergency supply lists are developed.

“I think we need to continue personal preparedness, absolutely, but I want people to work on the top 10 things we want them to have,” Briese said. “I don’t care if they have plastic wrap and duct tape. How do we simplify our message? We’re asking too much and sending mixed messages to the public.”

As Pittman notes in her article, some emergency management officials have been raising questions about the personal preparedness recommendations now being given to the public. For the past few years, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Ready.Gov and the American Red Cross (along with many local authorities) have used the “Get A Kit. Make A Plan & Be Informed” framework, which was developed to keep the call to action as streamlined and consistent as possible.

In fact, the nation’s top emergency management official, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, last year in public statements began tweaking that three-step message. He’s been putting an emphasis on asking Americans to “make a plan”, but largely omitting mention of a “getting a kit” and adding “getting trained,” particularly in CPR & CERT. The theme of the upcoming National Preparedness Month is “Plan Now. Work Together. Be Ready,” though the ‘kit, plan, informed’ slogan is still used on the Ready.Gov site.

From the Ready.Gov website

The push back, as Pittman’s piece highlights, comes from officials who have seen their pleas rebuffed (or just plain ignored) by most of the public. Even though the Get A Kit, Make A Plan, Be Informed approach was developed to keep things simple for the public, it still has turned out to be too much financially and logistically.

In an article I wrote a couple years ago for The Washington Post Outlook Section, I cited a Red Cross survey that found 93% of Americans are not prepared for disasters. It’s an eye catching statistic. But in about eight years of reporting on this issue, I don’t think I’ve found any of those 7% who are fully prepared. Most every American is somewhere in the 93%, which is where we will always be. The paradox of preparedness is that you’re never going to be fully prepared for disaster, but you are now probably more prepared than you think.

The fact is that many Americans have some of the elements of the recommended supply kit, and it is often just a matter of taking stock, organizing, and/or updating them. Further, the reality is that most of us by our life experiences and skills are prepared to some extent for crisis and are resilient by nature. A key question is determining what can be done to best bolster that existing readiness. To me, it starts with figuring out what we’re trying to do in, and then bringing to bear all aspects of society to achieve it.

From the American Red Cross website

First, it’s time to define — or more precisely redefine — what preparedness means when it comes to the public. What do we want everyone to have and know? What is feasible? Or maybe preparedness is not the right word. The Obama Administration has been emphasizing the concept of societal resilience. Should emergency management officials be talking about citizen resilience in their communities rather than preparedness? If so, that too will require a clearer definition for what it means for the public. If we are serious about the public preparing for disasters (and it would seem based on recent events to be an important goal), then we need to reevaluate what is being asked of them.

The confusion and lack of attention on public preparedness is not because the subject is unimportant to emergency responders, but instead is largely a result of so many other (and often more pressing) responsibilities on their plates. And, it is not as if the public or their elected representatives are banging down their doors asking for a more focused and useful preparedness message. Also, I think there has been some hesitation about talking about the terrorism part of preparedness for fear of being called a fearmonger.

But if government officials are serious about increasing public preparedness, new focus and attention should be given to the subject. I would suggest DHS/FEMA first put together a group of experts from stakeholders inside and out of government both in preparedness content (emergency management, homeland security, public health, etc) and communications platforms, including social media. With such an initiative, I think there is a way to create a new definition of preparedness that is useable and feasible and will increase the resilience of the public in crisis situations.

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Tags: Preparedness Language

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Laura Southard // Jun 9, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Completely agree. What the heck does being prepared mean? In VA, we’ve tried to set a baseline for measurement by promoting 4 essentials (3 days’ food, 3 days’ water, battery-powered or hand-crank radio with extra batteries, and a family emergency plan). We noted research findings that indicated Virginians who had a family plan were more prepared when it came to having “stuff.” So we started emphasizing having a plan over the stuff 18 months ago. Without a clearly-defined minimum we could not accurately measure our work to encourage “preparedness” in our residents. But is that what we’re really after? VA research also says half of residents think nothing will ever happen to them. And it may not! But which half? It’s hard to motivate everyone to take action in the same direction. Discussion is needed on this topic by preparedness experts, communications professionals AND the public.

  • 2 Elizabeth // Jul 6, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Both and the American Red Cross deal with the catastrophic events as a result of their budgets and directives. I would venture a guess that a large majority of Americans will never be impacted by a catastrophic event managed by these teams.
    Instead, they will be have those individualized (yet still personally catastrophic) events in the form of a house fire, unexpected death, loss of a job/income, etc. But, if the population had a personalized plan to deal with loss of a home, unexpected death, job/income loss, etc., then, indirectly, they could also be ready for those major catastrophic events, should they occur.
    The other big issue I see with getting families “ready” (using today’s process) is there is no direction on how to write a plan. What does that mean “write a plan?” Do they write a separate plan for every POSSIBLE event that MIGHT occur? If so, what happens when a “new” event occurs for which there is no plan? And how far do they take each plan? Let’s say they “write a plan” to get out of the house (for a house fire or even one to evacuate to safe grounds), then what? Does the plan end once they are in a safe place? Or does it (and should it) take their process further to the next steps? Personally, I think any plan needs to take it all the way through to their final goal — getting their lives back to normal!
    I think in trying to make it simple for everyone in hopes they will prepare, you have made the process applicable to almost no one (except those in the Gulf with hurricanes and Tornado alley – they get it).

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