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As Nation Marks 9/11 Anniversary, 20 Ideas To Improve Citizen Preparedness & Engagement

September 13th, 2010 · 3 Comments

As the U.S. marks the ninth anniversary of 9/11, I wanted to post some ideas that I think would help raise citizen preparedness and engagement. The recommendations come from discussions that I have had with people involved in all aspects of the issue, my own experiences as a parent and CERT member in New York City, as well as from the input I have received from blog readers over the past couple of years.

The Obama Administration has said that public readiness is a priority and has taken steps to strengthen the involvement of Americans in their own homeland security. However, officials acknowledge that there is still a ways to go. I present these proposals to help move forward citizen preparedness on a local, state and national level. I hope these suggestions can be a useful addition to the policy discussion and have submitted it to the Federal Preparedness Task Force. As always, I welcome your feedback:

1) CREATE CITIZEN PREPAREDNESS TASK FORCE — The lack of progress to date on public readiness and engagement underscores the need to develop new ways of approaching the issue. DHS Secretary Napolitano should create a Citizen Preparedness Outreach Task Force to assess the current state of public readiness and work on developing new approaches. At present, there is no clear social education analog to civilian emergency preparedness that can be easily pulled off the shelf so it will take some work to develop an effective program. In fact, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism in its final report recommended the Administration make citizen engagement a priority. But Chairman Bob Graham told me that the ‘WMD Commission’ did not did not find anything suitable it could recommend, and that something new has to be developed.

2) BETTER DEFINE WHAT IT MEANS TO BE “PREPARED” “READY” AND/OR “RESILIENT” — An American Red Cross survey indicated that 93% of Americans are not prepared for disasters. The truth is that no one can be fully prepared, but there is a need to offer the public a clearer definition — including a minimum level — of preparedness. That might include creating a family communications plan and storing tangible supplies but also knowing more about potential threats that every American should know. That doesn’t mean overwhelming people with too much information, but making sure they are at least familiar with some basics. (For example, the first time citizens hear about a ‘dirty bomb’ from government officials should not be in the moments after one has been exploded.) In addition to the content questions, there is also a word meaning issue to deal with as well. 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 or readiness?

3) SUPPORT & REPORT ON STATE/LOCAL PREPAREDNESS EFFORTS — Provide adequate seed money for state and local government to bolster civilian preparedness programs and link the grants to performance. Encourage authorities to report publicly on their level of citizen preparedness and create metrics for better measuring civilian readiness. Find interested governors to take on leadership roles and create pilot models in their states. There is a need to employ both “bottom/up” and “top/down” approaches to disaster preparedness combining state, local and community leadership and citizen involvement with federal commitment and focus. Ensure that government authorities can competently respond to disasters but also more strongly emphasize the need for the public and local communities to be prepared and self-reliant, particularly in the first 72 hours after a disaster.

4) HIGHLIGHT & SPREAD MODELS FROM AROUND U.S. & OTHER COUNTRIES — There is a need to help promote and implement best practices from communities around the U.S. and draw, where applicable, particularly from British and Israeli experiences. One model may be the United Kingdom’s National Risk Register, which sets out publicly the government’s assessment of the likelihood and potential impact of a range of different public health, natural and terrorist risks. It is designed to increase awareness of the kinds of risks the UK faces, and encourage individuals and organizations to think about their own preparedness. The Register also includes details of what the Government and first responders are doing to prepare for those emergencies and the role of citizens in those plans

5) USE ‘CARROTS’ TO CHANGE PUBLIC BEHAVIOR – Provide a tax write-off for citizens to buy preparedness-related products as a way to promote participation and to signal governmental commitment. Encourage states to create tax-free periods as is being done in Virginia and Louisiana (and has been introduced in the New York legislature). Also, consider targeting assistance to citizens who cannot afford to prepare. The fact is that when we really want to change social behavior as a nation we do it through the carrot or the stick. The carrot is the preferable tool for this issue, but it needs to be used. And, thus far, incentives (and vegetables) have largely been missing from the preparedness effort, which helps explain the lack of progress. Similarly, preparedness disincentives in the law should be removed (ie. in some places, homeowners who retrofit their homes face higher tax assessments.)

6) BRING IN BUSINESS TO DEVELOP INTEGRATED ‘WIN-WIN-WIN-WIN’ PUBLIC PREPAREDNESS MARKETING CAMPAIGNS– Design and roll out a full service preparedness marketing campaign with help from the private and non-profit sectors. Galvanize business to take on disaster preparedness in the same way they have with disaster response, most notably in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (ie. big box stores, packaged goods manufacturers, bottled water companies, wireless industry). Work with companies in preparedness-related businesses to offer major discounts tied to citizens taking actual readiness steps recommended by Ready.Gov and local emergency management offices.

For example, individuals and families come into ‘big box’ stores with emergency communications plans (or fill them out in the store) and in return they would receive a significant discount on supplies or free products (ie. if you purchase a case of bottled water, you would get your emergency supply thrown in for free). And if a customer signed up to volunteer for CERT or the Red Cross Disaster Services, they would get a bigger discount. Mobile phone retail stores would be excellent settings for preparedness events/trainings to help people register for government emergency text/e-mail alerts. I’d also like to see an event/photo-op with kids teaching their parents about texting and its role in an emergency. Here again, the companies would offer customers extra free text/phone minutes for completing the preparedness step.

7) DON’T BE AFRAID TO TELL THE CHILDREN — Put more emphasis on educating young people on preparedness by piggybacking on other related school-based social education efforts, most prominently fire safety. The challenge is the both the decentralization of the nation’s education system and the already high curricula demands on teachers. Yet, an effective fire education program was implemented in the schools beginning in the 1970’s, and there would seem to be a perfect fit to integrate a preparedness module into that existing program. The federal government should work with state and local officials as well as fire and education officials to determine how best to accomplish that objective.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate recently suggested expanding the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program for young people. I believe that a decision to expand CERT-type training in the schools would be welcomed on a bipartisan basis.There should be more public briefings on how personal tech would be helpful in an emergency, before the emergency (including how Twitter, Facebook and one’s smart phone can be invaluable). Further, every governmental preparedness web site should add a cell phone and an extra battery (or other power source) to the basic components of their recommended disaster supply kit.  Many private companies are working on applications for citizen emergency communications. Those business efforts need to be integrated with official alerts (ie. the new iteration of the Emergency Alert System) and unofficial citizen-based social media (as well as the news media). Both the content and distribution channels of emergency communications are changing and new models need to be developed.

8 EMBRACE AND ACCELERATE PREPAREDNESS 2.0 – There is a need to better inform the public on the potential of 21st century personal technology to prepare for and respond to 21st century emergencies. We must make Americans more aware of the capabilities of the technology at their fingertips (ie. wireless devices, social media sites) in advance and integrate it into disaster planning and response. The public’s new ability to access and distribute information offers both an opportunity and a challenge to government authorities.

There should be more public briefings on how personal tech would be helpful in a crisis, before the crisis (including how Twitter, Facebook and one’s smart phone can be invaluable). Further, every governmental preparedness web site should add a cell phone and an extra battery (or other power source) to the basic components of their recommended disaster supply kit. Many private companies are working on content and distribution applications for citizen emergency communications. Those business efforts can complement official efforts (ie. the new iteration of the Emergency Alert System) and unofficial citizen-based social media (and well as the news media). One hugely promising initiative is CrisisCommons which over the past year has created groups of volunteers throughout the world to bring technology to bear on disaster response issues.

9) FIND POLITICAL, CELEBRITY PREPAREDNESS SPOKESPEOPLE – During the time that I have covered the topic of citizen emergency preparedness, one of the most surprising things I’ve found is that there is no major elected official who has taken the lead on the issue. It’s surprising for a number of reasons: natural disasters and terrorism dominate the headlines and will continue to for the foreseeable future; citizen preparedness is pretty much an unassailable, bipartisan, patriotic and community-building topic; and even the smallest interest in Washington has at least one political champion (but not public preparedness). And, with much to do, there is a great opportunity to have a positive policy and political impact. To some in the readiness community, the absence of star power on the issue has been one reason for the lack of public attention. Though celebrities have been eager to participate in fundraising efforts after catastrophes like the Haiti effort), there is no big star who is singularly identified as a spokesperson for emergency preparedness.

10) GIVE THE PUBLIC MORE INFO SO THEY CAN BETTER PREPARE & PARTICIPATE – There is a need to better inform the public when it comes to disaster preparedness so they can not only ready themselves and their families but also be part of the policy debate. Let me mention two areas briefly:

a) Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): In its report, the WMD Commission argues that the incoming Administration should make an effort to inform and engage the public on the subject of WMD’s. I agree. And, I suggest officials consider starting that process by defining (or redefining) what a WMD actually is. At present, it is most common to define a WMD for the public as a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (or “CBRN”) weapon.

The Commission report, however, focuses primarily on the dangers of biological and nuclear terrorism, both of which could be absolutely catastrophic. By contrast, a chemical or radiological (better known as a ‘dirty bomb’) weapon could be very serious but would likely not cause as much lasting damage. In fact, both a chemical and radiological attack would likely be a one-shot event seriously impacting those directly near the event, closer in result to a ‘traditional’ terrorist bombing. A nuclear bomb or biological incident, however, could have wide and long-lasting ‘mass destruction’ impact to humans, property and the society itself. We don’t want the public — and the nation as a whole — to overreact to some threats and underreact to others.

b) Risk: I think it may be one of the most important homeland security subjects for both the government and the public, because it highlights some of the tradeoffs involved in determining how to allocate the nation’s security resources and the role of risk management in making those decisions. This is a debate which should include the public. Right now, Americans aren’t engaged in the discussion over the security, financial, logistical and time tradeoffs involved in our own homeland security.

We need to introduce risk management into homeland security which would lead us to ask and answer important questions: What improves our security and resiliency? And what can be done at a reasonable social and financial cost? Those answers should come not only from policymakers but with the guidance of the public itself.

The public should be asked: How much risk do you want to pay for? How much inconvenience do you want to deal with? These are dilemmas we deal with everyday in our lives; we need to bring that same approach to homeland security and disaster preparedness. FEMA’s Fugate has since his days in Florida made the point that natural hazards turn into natural disasters because of man-made decisions on development, including ubiquitous golf courses: “You can tee off in Tallahassee and play through to Pensacola,” he likes to say.  ”Unless the public understands we need to change where we develop and live, it won’t matter.” It is up to elected officials to present those choices, including building codes, levies and insurance incentives.

11) ‘SEE AND SAY’ SOMETHING MORE – Build upon the initial success of ‘See Something, Say Something’ -type citizen information campaigns by providing the public with more specific guidance on how to assist law enforcement and, without giving away sources and methods, offering more feedback on the information they have provided. Law enforcement officials are concerned about societal complacency nine years since 9/11, but have not determined how to communicate to the public a more candid – yet calm and balanced – picture of the threat and how they can best help. The Department of Homeland Security is expanding “See Something, Say Something” nationally, which is a positive development. However, there is still a need to better explain to citizens their role, particularly at a local level. One important question is how much of what new information and training given to law enforcement about terrorism prevention should also be provided to the public.

12) MEDIA SHOULD COVER PREPAREDNESS AS WELL AS DISASTERS – While the press does wall-to-wall coverage on natural disasters and has covered practically every aspect of terrorism story closely, it has largely overlooked advance public preparedness. By contrast, during the Cold War, magazines ranging from Life to Modern Farmer dedicated entire issues to civilian readiness. Obviously, the press’ role is not to serve as a publicity arm of the government, but it is a topic that deserves more attention. And without more media coverage, it will be difficult to break through to the public. One great example of the press as a unique asset is the list of preparedness tips and lessons learned from the disaster survivors that was collected by the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

13) GOVERNMENT PREPAREDNESS OUTREACH NEEDS TO BE FAR MORE INTERACTIVE — Right now, if a member of the public has a question about the preparedness process, there is nowhere to go. And, as someone who does a lot of public outreach on street fairs, radio or in community meetings I hear a lot of questions from average citizens about emergency readiness — ie. Shouldn’t buildings have mandatory emergency drills? Shouldn’t everyone have a solar charger in your ‘go-bag’ to be able recharge a cellphone or radio? Shouldn’t you have an evacuation family meeting spot outside of the City in case there is major disaster? In case of an emergency, where should we go for information? The emergency management community on a national, state and local level must overhaul its public information operations to be able to address those questions directly and lead the public through what can be a challenging process to undertake.

14) ‘DO ASK, DO TELL’: MAKE “PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY” MORE CENTRAL TO PREPAREDNESS MESSAGING — 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”. 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.

If indeed preparing for disasters is a responsibility of citizenship (which I think it should be), then it should been positioned that way. 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. 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 civilians can contribute to the nation’s resilience and complement the work and sacrifice of those serving in the military. Preparedness may be the most important contribution most citizens can make to their nation’s security. Not only will civilians likely be the first on the scene of a major emergency, but the nation’s response will only be as strong as the readiness of the weakest link. We have entered the ‘pro-am’ preparedness era where the government needs to hand off some responsibility and the public needs to take it.

15) INTEGRATE EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS INTO OTHER COMMUNITY ISSUES — Emergency preparedness is an important issue, particularly during crises. However, it has a better chance of becoming ingrained into American society if it is viewed as part of other preparedness topics that are a more central part of Americans daily life, including public health (immunization), security (Neighborhood Watch), infrastructure and climate change, part and parcel of just being ready for any situation.

For example, the global warming campaign can and should be a model for civilian emergency preparedness in a variety of ways. The two efforts are complementary and should be linked closer together in the public’s mind — and actions. In both, society is being asked to mobilize in order to avert or mitigate potential disasters, and both are part of strengthening the nation’s general national resilience. Yes, global warming has some skeptics, but so does emergency preparedness — ironically they are often not the same people which may conveniently add to its complementary synergy.

16) EXPAND EMERGENCY DRILLING OPPORTUNITIES TO PUBLIC –Increase chances for citizens to participate in disaster drills, which would help people focus on the issue and work through the key questions everyone should ask before a disaster (ie. How will you get information and communicate with your family? Do you know the emergency plan of your children’s school?). Most every top homeland security/emergency management official I have interviewed has told me that broader public disaster exercises would be helpful in a number of ways, but there has not been a concerted effort to expand drilling opportunities to the public.

17) DETERMINE BEST USE OF CIVILIAN DISASTER VOLUNTEERS – Craig Fugate said recently that FEMA would be reevaluating the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). I think that as part of that review government and non profit officials should be looking at how best to recruit and deploy disaster volunteers. Post-9/11 and Katrina — as well as with international incidents such as Haiti — there has been great interest among the public to be involved in crisis response. A key question is how that asset should be managed. Should it be the government? The Red Cross? Other non-profits and faith-based institutions? Business? Or a combination of the four? One hugely promising initiative is CrisisCommons which over the past year has created groups of volunteers throughout the world to bring technology to bear on disaster response issues.

Fugate said that FEMA is considering major changes in the CERT program, including creating a shorter training course which could be offered to more Americans and significantly expanding training for schools and other youth groups in order to better imbed preparedness into society for the long-term. I’ve always felt that CERT training is less about the skills you learn and more about awareness about the community and the various emergency authorities (and identifying citizen crisis organizers in advance). To me, CERT is just basic citizenship training for the 21st Century, which I think every American should get a chance to receive. I might suggest that the smaller reduced curriculum be called something along the lines of “Citizen Resilience Training”.

18) ESTABLISH AN OFFICIAL PREPAREDNESS DAY — Create a National Preparedness Day to focus public attention before disasters, including briefing citizens, conducting drills, and filling emergency kits. A helpful model is Japan’s Disaster Prevention Day held on September 1st, the anniversary of the catastrophic 1923 Tokyo earthquake. Earlier this month, 670,000 Japanese participated in emergency drills around the country. China, since its 8.0-magnitude 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake, has also held two national disaster prevention days with nationwide drills.

If we as a nation feel it is really important for the public to develop emergency plans, it would be far more effective if everyone was doing that at the same time — rather than asking individuals to do it on their own. This ‘preparedness day’ would also be the time that we all asked the questions about planning then practiced and updated those plans. It would be useful for both responders and the public. I might suggest September 11th be made the U.S.’s official Day. It would seem to be appropriate to honor the memories of those who died by action, particularly something aimed at making sure America is never as unprepared again.

19) CREATE CITIZEN PREPAREDNESS OFFICE – Establishing a national citizen preparedness/resilience office to highlight and help coordinate efforts around the U.S. and ensure citizen preparedness remains a priority. Right now, there is not an identifiable place in the federal government that has responsibility for coordinating the public’s role in preparedness. Work with American Red Cross to create an effective advocate for the general public on emergency preparedness in the same way disabled and pet groups have done for the disaster needs of their communities over the past several years.

20) BUNDLE CITIZEN PREPAREDNESS PROPOSALS TOGETHER INTO “CITIZEN PREPAREDNESS INITIATIVE” – For too long, well meaning public preparedness efforts have gotten lost or have been ignored by the public. That’s in large part because they have not been packaged and presented as being specifically directed to citizens. But if the government would assemble these small disparate proposals listed above into an overall citizen preparedness package it would have a better chance of getting attention and gaining some traction. Ultimately, making inroads on citizen preparedness is less a matter of money than it is of focus and attention.

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Tags: Business Preparedness · CERT · City Preparedness · Congress · County Preparedness · Cyber Security · Department of Homeland Security · Federal Emergency Management Administration · Fire Safety · Government Education Programs · Media · Non-Profit Organizations · Preparedness 2.0 · Preparedness Ideas · Preparedness Incentives · Preparedness Models · Preparedness and Business · Risk Communications · See Something/Terrorism Tips · State Preparedness · Volunteer Opportunities

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Glen D. Gilmore, Esq. // Sep 10, 2010 at 8:13 am

    John, thank you for providing a solid list of ways in which we can take meaningful actions to mark the nightmare of 9/11. Preparedness is everyone’s responsibility. Glen ~ @CrisisSocMedia

  • 2 Ralph D // Sep 10, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    This is Excellent information that all Americans should be required to read and heed. How can I R/T this to the rest of the USA?

  • 3 Obama New Health Care - EARTHQUAKE! . . . Disaster Preparedness Drill Discussion - Health Care Plan // Sep 10, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    [...] As Nation Marks 9/11 Anniversary, 20 Ideas To Improve Citizen Preparedness & Engagement [...]

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