I recently watched an American Red Cross video that actress Jamie Lee Curtis made last year called “What’s In My Kit”. (see below). In the two-minute spot, Curtis shows how she has personalized her emergency kit to “make it more user friendly”. It’s a pretty straight forward video, but I wanted to highlight it, because I think the approach underscores an important but often overlooked point about citizen preparedness communications — there is a need for high profile people both in and out of the emergency management field to personalize and discuss publicly their own family preparedness efforts as a model for the rest of the community.
In the video, Curtis a long-time Red Cross volunteer, says she has added a family picture,Â chocolate, candy, games, rechargeable flashlight, dental floss, almonds and chips to her kit. And she adds: “I live in earthquake country, where there will be a lot of broken glass, so I suggest solid shoes for every member of your family.” [I have personalized my kit with earplugs (after spending a day in a shelter while playing a victim in New York City hurricane drill), a deck of playing cards, stuffed animals (for the kids) and an extra BlackBerry battery.]
To me, one of the biggest gaps in citizen preparedness communications is the lack of personalization and humanization. The messaging is far too institutional, and the result is that people largely do not respond. Expert officials ask average citizens to create emergency plans and kits, research threats and do practice run-throughs, but they never show them how (and if) they do it for themselves. The fact is that I have found many of them have not actually gone through the process.
As a result, they do not have a full understanding of the challenges for the public in taking what seem to be simple preparedness steps but are not particularly easy for laypeople — there are always many questions and hidden obstacles for civilians going through the preparedness process. But those are almost never addressed in a personal way by those in authority, which is a major reason why the messages do not largely get through to the public. While officials are always asking the public “what’s your plan?” or “what’s in your kit?” but rarely tell us what’s in their plan or their kit.
The reality is that it’s not so easy to do a plan, make a kit and get informed on sometimes unfamiliar and scary topics, and feel that you are actually doing something that will really help you in an emergency. Citizens have to rely on others (ie. schools, workplaces, doctors, government offices) in accessing information to put together these contingency plans, which again is not so straightforward.
In fact, just to take one of those institutions we are asking the public to rely on, a recent Save the Children study found that “fewer than one quarter of all states and the District of Columbia have enacted four basic safeguards to protect kids who are in school or child care during disasters, such as requiring all licensed child care centers to have a plan to reunite children with their families and requiring schools to have a clear written evacuation plan in place.”
Jamie Lee Curtis’ American Red Cross preparedness video, “What’s In My Kit”.
Now, it is true that emergency management officials are not going react like regular citizens in a disaster but instead will be likely be working managing the situation. So, they may not have to plan for themselves in the same way an average person would. However, most have families who are going to prepare and respond along with the rest of the public.Â Former White House Terrorism Adviser Fran Townsend told me that even though she would normally be engaged during a crisis, she had developed an emergency communications plan with her husband and kids.
And ex-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff described to me trying to locate his daughter on 9/11 when he was in the Justice Department; to me it humanized disaster preparedness and planning in a way that a list on website just never can. I encouraged him to use that story as a way to get through to other parents. The fact is that every emergency management official is also a citizen; it would be helpful for other citizens if officials show that perspective more, and it would be similarly useful for leaders to take that point of view more in their preparedness planning and communications.
Along the lines of the Jamie Lee Curtis video, I think it would be useful if those government emergency management leaders offered the public more information their own efforts to prepare. It would also be interesting if other Red Cross folks (leaders, staff and volunteers of chapters around the U.S., including President Gail McGovern)Â talked about their own family emergency planning.Â And, frankly in this celebrity-driven society, having other high profile personalities like Curtis would be helpful as well in providing models and inspiration — how about Kiefer Sutherland a.k.a. Jack Bauer talking about the challenge of creating an emergency plan for his family without the help of CTU?