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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

‘Do Ask & Do Tell’ — Govt Should Be Putting More Emphasis On “Personal Responsibility” In Its Citizen Preparedness Messaging

August 23rd, 2010 · 2 Comments

In a speech to the Red Cross’s Emergency Crisis Data Summit last week, FEMA head Craig Fugate focused his remarks on the role of technology in disaster preparedness and response. However, he touched on another important theme which I wanted to highlight — that Americans have a personal and societal responsibility to be prepared for disasters, because their preparation (or lack thereof) significantly impacts both the work of first responders and the conditions of other members of the public.

He told the Summit audience that the public needs to ”understand their roles and responsibilities” in advance of disasters which will allow responders focus on what they do, safety, rescue and recovery. But he said “far too many folks who could have and should have been prepared do not and then force those who aren’t as fortunate to compete for resources in the aftermath of a disaster.”

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate (Photo: Shashi Bellamkonda)

Fugate often brings up the public’s “responsibility” in speeches including a keynote address I heard at the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Workshop:

“a recent survey found that only half of Americans have put together an emergency kit, and less than half – only 40 percent – have created a family emergency plan. I cannot emphasize enough just how problematic this could prove in a catastrophic environment, not only to the households, but to the efficacy of the overall incident management effort. Every family that fails to take even the most basic preparedness actions, such as having sufficient water and non-perishable food to support the family for at least 72, is a family that will pull responders and critical resources away from those who truly need such assistance, both the casualties of the disaster, and our most vulnerable populations, such as persons with disabilities and children…

Having a family disaster plan, keeping supplies for basic survival needs, and staying informed are the responsibility of every American.”

And, in fact, President Obama made that same point last year at the beginning of hurricane season when he said that preparing for disasters was a “personal responsibility” for Americans and a responsibility of citizenship:

“We just saw some statistics coming out of Florida indicating that a huge percentage of people in hurricane areas simply don’t make plans. They don’t have a plan, they don’t have a set of contingencies that will allow them to respond in an effective way. Those people who have the capacity to plan, they will thereby relieve some of the resources that the government has to provide and we can stay focused on those folks who are most vulnerable and have the most difficulty dealing with a storm. So I hope that message of personal responsibility sinks in…As we enter into hurricane season, I hope that everybody who’s watching is going to be paying attention and take seriously their responsibilities as citizens so that the entire country is ready.” [my italics]

The President is briefed on Hurricane Preparation

President Obama presides over a FEMA hurricane preparedness meeting last year (White House photo: Pete Souza)

But despite the strong — and I would agree appropriate — rhetoric about personal responsibility and responsibility of citizenship, that approach has not become a major thrust of government’s primary preparedness messaging to the public, including on Ready.Gov and other local emergency management websites. Instead of telling people to prepare because it is a responsibility (you need to do this), government has used a softer ask when it comes to trying to get the public to prepare. To me, the it is time to try to do more “telling” and less “asking”.

The soft sell approach actually dates back to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Ready.Gov. In an NPR “On The Media” story from 2003, I examined the government’s initial public service announcements that featured the first DHS Secretary Tom Ridge:

To ultimately be the victor in the war again terrorism we need all Americans to be engaged, down to the point where we ask mothers and fathers to think about doing some simple things at home to protect themselves and protect their children. [my italics]

In the PSA, Ridge is only asking Americans to think about doing — not telling them to do. Ready.Gov took a similar tack, which has continued to this day. The website’s “Make A Plan” section currently states: “You may [my italics] also want to inquire about emergency plans at places where your family spends time: work, daycare and school. If no plans exist, consider volunteering to help create one.”

Yet, if the government believes it is important for people to create an emergency plan both to help themselves and to make the job of first responders easier during a disaster then the web site should be willing to say something stronger than they “may also want to inquire.”

For the NPR story in 2003, Tom Ridge’s spokesperson Susan Neely told me that focus groups had indicated that people wanted to be engaged on this scary topic in a “constructive way, not a mandate kind of way.” It was understandable to try that approach then. But seven years later with the needle on citizen preparedness having not moved very far, it is time to add another communications angle.

If indeed preparing for disasters is a responsibility of citizenship (which I think it should be), then it should been positioned that way highlighting the fact that you are preparing as much for others as yourself. PSA’s saying that people are imperiling the lives of first responders and their fellow citizens, particularly the vulnerable (ie. the elderly, disabled) not to mention your own family might be treated with a little more urgency.

As has been discussed often on the blog, when the nation wants to change social behavior it uses a carrot or stick. When it comes to preparedness, a carrot is more appropriate than “Click It Or Ticket”. However, a sterner “responsibility message would add a little oratorical “stick” to the mix. This new approach would not preclude still using the current softer approach, but it would add another arrow to the readiness quiver and signal this issue should be treated as a priority by the public.

The need for a stronger “responsibility” message is shared by most top officials of both political parties who have worked in citizen preparedness that I have spoken to. However, there has been a hesitation to use it in mass communications to the public where I think it would be most useful.

Former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff echoed the other leaders in an interview I did with him last Fall that preparedness was a new responsibility of citizenship of the 21st Century. President George W. Bush’s Terrorism Adviser Fran Townsend told me: “It should be every parent’s responsibility to make sure that they know their children’s school emergency plan and have a communications plan for their family.”

And, former FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison in an interview told me that FEMA and local authorities are relying on the public to do its share: ”All the states, local communities working together cannot take the place of personal responsibility for taking care of yourself,” notes Paulison. ”If individuals don’t take that responsibility, this country is not going to be ready and be able to take care of everyone.”

Another potentially useful messaging approach was suggested to me by former Miss Utah Jill Shepherd, who used citizen preparedness as her pageant platform. It can (and should) be included in the preparedness pitch that readying yourself and your family for disaster at home is a way you can contribute to the nation’s resilience complementing the work and sacrifice of those in the military. I believe that could be an effective approach.

I don’t believe the government should be afraid to explicitly tell the public that each of us can either hinder or help relief efforts by what they decide to do before and during a disaster. And, that it’s up to each of us to choose. I think that’s a choice and a challenge that might get people’s attention and maybe lead to action. And, since the other approaches being used to address this issue clearly have limitations, it’s definitely worth a try.

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Tags: Preparedness Ideas · President Obama

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Responsibility Highlighted | Advice and Beans // Aug 23, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    [...] insightful commentary on citizen preparedness I’ve read.  Today he offers an article on the role of personal responsibility in preparedness.  For much of the preparedness community, he is preaching to the choir (granted, we’re not [...]

  • 2 Jan Jackson // Aug 26, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Excellent persuasion on preparedness as a citizen responsibility. We don’t need to be in fear of drastic calamities in order to see the wisdom of being able to tend to our own needs for a few days or weeks. Thank you.

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