On its Facebook page, the very activeÂ Medical Reserve Corps of Greater Kansas City posted some photos of a day-long class it held Saturday using FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute’s Independent Study curriculum, “IS-22: Are You Ready? An In-Depth Guide To Citizen Preparedness”.
The Facebook post piqued my curiosity about the FEMA course whose introductory Overview explains:
“has been designed to help the citizens of this nation learn how to protect themselves and their families against all types of hazards…By reading and following the instructions in this guide you and your family can say, Yes, we are ready!”
As this is ostensibly the government’s baseline for judging whether citizens are “ready” for disasters, I thought I would read through the course material.Â After finishing it, I had two overall reactions:
1) there is a real need to review and refine what government authorities are telling the public about preparedness and what “we are ready” should mean for American citizens.
2) as part of that review process, it would be very useful for top federal (as well as state and local) emergency management officials to hold open forums — maybe using the “Are You Ready” class format somewhat along the lines of the Kansas City Medical Reserve Corps course writ large — in orderÂ to solicit questions and input about preparedness from Americans. These types of events would bring new attention to the subject as well as stimulate an important and overdue dialogue integrating the public in helping determine policy about public preparedness.
First, as far as the content of theÂ “Are You Ready? An In-Depth Guide To Citizen Preparedness”, I want to highlight what I think are some significant shortcomings and disconnects. For example, right at the beginning of the course, Chapter 1.1,Â “Getting Informed,” instructs the public to:
Learn about the hazards that may strike your community, the risks you face fromÂ these hazards, and your communityâ€™s plans for warning and evacuation. You canÂ obtain this information from your local emergency management ofï¬ce or yourÂ local chapter of the American Red Cross…
Ask local authorities about each possible hazard or emergency and use the worksheet that follows to record your ï¬ndings and suggestions for reducing yourÂ familyâ€™s risk…
There is a major problem here: the government is putting far too much of the onus on the public — telling citizens it is only their responsibility to ask rather than taking the initiative to inform them if it is that important. The fact is that in many parts of the nation (including here in New York) the average citizen cannot just contact the local emergency management office and get a hazard briefing. Further down in the same chapter, the public is also told to request information that is not fully accessible or available to them:
Ask local authorities about methods used to warn your community…
Ask local authorities about emergency evacuation routes…
Ask local ofï¬cials the following questions about your communityâ€™s disaster/emergency plans. Does my community have a plan? Can I obtain a copy?
The fact is that FEMA is recommending people undertake a time consuming and unfamiliar task that in many cases they actually will not be able to accomplish by themselves. Shouldn’t the government at all levels have more responsibility to take the initiative in communicating this the information to the community rather than wait until individual citizens contact them?
Ok, so how do you begin this discussion? I have an idea that was provoked by seeing the photos from this weekend’s Kansas City class: why not hold open public forums on preparedness? These national seminars would be coordinated with similar events run by state and local emergency managers. This would bring new attention to citizen readiness and provide the public with the opportunity to both ask questions and as importantly offer input. I think FEMA head Craig Fugate would do a terrific job of leading such forums as would a number of state and local officials.
As Tip O’Neill might have said, (almost) all disaster preparedness and response is local. But the federal government does have a significant role in public education, particularly when it comes to terrorism and major disasters. In fact, Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in a speech at Harvard University earlier this year made that point saying that Americans deserve a â€œclear appraisementâ€ of the terror threats, “because I believe the American people want, and deserve, candor about what we face.” That appraisement still needs to be delivered.Â National officials also have a megaphone and platform that is necessary to get the issue on the media and political agenda.
Fugate began a review discussion of the government’s recommendations last year when he tweaked the agency’s central readiness preparedness messageÂ emphasizing family plans over supply kits. Others inÂ the emergency management community are also increasingly asking out loud some basic questions about citizen preparedness such as ‘what really is prepared?‘Â One question after going through the entire 200-page “Are You Ready?” document is whether we’re asking the public to do and know too much — in fact, I would argue that we’re both giving the public too much information but not enough of what they really need to be ready.
Whenever I attend local public events on preparedness, citizens always have specific questions about specific threats, evacuation plans, emergency communications that cannot be answered fully with general preparedness boilerplate. The fact is that government officials have not fully leveled with the public on preparedness, giving them all the information they need to be really prepared. Without having an open, interactive discussion we are not really going to make progress on really ‘getting informed’ or figuring out if “you [and I] are ready?” and what that means. I think a series of preparedness forums at a national and then state and local level would be very helpful as part of that process.