Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 23, 2010

What’s In It

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on June 23, 2010

Since assuming his post, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has made a point of reminding us that those who experience disasters are not victims.  If anything, the survivors are resources that we would be wise to tap into.

But tapping into a community only after the fact marginalizes the good we can accomplish and misses the larger point I think he is trying to make: Disasters belong to individuals and communities. Their expectations shape what happens before, during and after an event.

The homeland security discipline and emergency managers have been slow to see the community as a resource. Public safety officials, unlike planners and their peers responsible for parks, roads and rubbish, tend not to see citizens as customers but rather as a potential source of corruption. (That said, the relationship works very differently for police and firefighters at the local level, where respect is considered the coin of the realm, albeit in very different ways.)

As Phil Palin and I have noted in posts on many occasions, resilience as we see it depends in large measure on discourse and deliberation. When people share ideas, aspirations, expectations and goals, they develop a shared sense of meaning and purpose. These sensibilities help individuals, groups and whole societies make sense of adversity and overcome crises through learning and adaptation.

Over the past few months, I have been working with colleagues in local government to engage our community. This has not come easily. For starters, my colleagues saw their office as an internal service unit responsible to the mayor and in service of other administrative units of city government. They operated as the “Man (or Woman) Behind the Curtain,” neither seen nor heard by the masses.

A recent internal audit illustrated the danger of such a disconnected approach. In the absence of any recurring responsibility to engage the public, the office had little appreciation of public expectations, no discernable external constituency willing to come to its defense, and a very limited ability to influence the agendas of other stakeholders.

The office not only lacked a stick with which to compel partner agencies to join them at the table when working on contingency plans and compiling a common operating picture, they also had no carrots because they had not learned how to effectively engage others in the absence of appreciable self-interest.

A little over a week ago, my office held the first of several planned town hall-style public meetings. When staff were first asked to start planning for this event, they took what for them had been a pretty conventional approach: They put together an agenda built around a presentation on major earthquake hazards, which set about scaring people into preparing themselves. Before letting this get out of hand, the management team intervened. For starters, we explained, this event was about a dialog. We had to prepare ourselves and others to listen, not just talk.

It should come as little surprise, that this was greeted at first with some skepticism then some trepidation. In the aftermath of a critical audit report, the staff feared opening the floor would bring out people looking for scalps. And asking questions, they feared, might make us look like we did not know the right answers. How, they wondered, could we have a conversation that did not disintegrate into something unpleasant or unsettling?

The answer is simpler than it might seem. Most of the people who want to spend an early summer evening discussing disasters and emergency preparedness with their neighbors and city officials usually fall into one of two camps: zealous converts or self-anointed saviors. You might get a few Anxious Andys and Annies, but they usually find the demeanor of the others intimidating and need your encouragement to engage anyway.

After much internal discussion, the staff agreed to an approach that assumed those in attendance closely approximated this profile. Armed with this assumption, we set out to ask the crowd to tell us something only they knew: What does it take to get someone interested enough in emergency preparedness to actually do something about it like you have? As such, we asked participants a few simple questions about preparedness designed to elicit their personal experience and expectations of city officials.

On the night, a couple of things became clear very quickly, even before discussions got underway really. First, those in attendance were considerably older than the average city resident. Indeed, only two of the almost 60 people who attended appeared under 40 years of age. Men and women were pretty close to equally represented; if anything, women were slightly more numerous. Second, most of those present were already engaged in emergency preparedness programs through voluntary organizations or otherwise active in community affairs. These two observations suggest that it may be difficult to extrapolate from this feedback a more generalized sense of the community’s sentiments.

But that was not, as it turned out, the real issue. Although the group was not particularly representative of the community at-large, its feedback said some important things about the community and how preparedness is perceived.

When we asked small groups to characterize preparedness, to tell us what it means, what it feels like, how to achieve a sense of it, they made very detailed lists of the stuff they thought every household or business should have in reserve before disaster strikes. In other words, they told us how to build a disaster kit. But when we asked them whether having these supplies made them feel safer, they all qualified their answers and exhibited clear signs of unease.

Why, we asked them, would people still not feel safer and more capable if they had such resources in reserve for a disaster? It took awhile, but people gradually revealed the real source of their concerns: They recognized that their experience and commitment to such preparedness was the exception rather than the rule.

How then could we get others to take preparedness more seriously? Their initial response, like that of our own staff, was to suggest we scare people. When we asked whether this had in fact been what motivated them, however, it became clear that while personal experience of loss was a key element, almost all of them had responded initially not out of a sense of fear but as a way of adapting to their circumstances. Preparing was a way of saying, “I will not take this lying down. I will not let this happen to me again.”

If fear does not work, then what does? Once they had a chance to reflect on the sources of their own enlightenment, people had little difficulty seeing what might make preparedness more salient to others: Make it personal.

Personalizing the message involves something more than self-interest though. People recognized that what kept them interested in emergency preparedness was the sense of purpose and self-worth they got from associating with others and being part of something bigger than themselves. Sure, they got something out of it, but what they gave was often on balance much greater than what they would ever get back from others.

These insights may seem simple or small, but they are far from insignificant. Before engaging the public, many in our office had difficulty seeing how the public could be expected to inform theiur understanding of a subject about which they were the acknowledged experts. Now that we have started the process, people are starting to see that progress can be measured by getting the public to look at preparedness as something besides stuff and getting staff staff see the public as resources we can count on not only to expand our understanding of the community and its needs, but also as a means of creating a sense of shared purpose capable of seeing us through any disaster we might face.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

June 23, 2010 @ 2:07 am

Great post!

Leveraging assets that survive including the will to go on is very important post disaster.

Comment by John Comiskey

June 23, 2010 @ 9:56 am

Community engagement mantra not so easy

Homeland security practitioners and public safety officials do see the community as a resource. Engaging the community takes many forms –outreach, town hall meetings, sports and cultural events, and others. Funny thing is you typically see the same people at different events. You have to wonder if the people you are dealing with represent the community or have their own agendas: personal, political, economic, or are genuine do-gooders that want to serve their communities and country. In most cases you see a combination of all –and have to deal with them all.

Dialogue does perpetuate civic engagement. It is harder to create/promote civic mindfulness. That task falls to parents and educators and has been ignored by both. Parents enable an entitlement generation that ask what can their country and local government do for them and not what they can do for their country and local government. Moreover, our education system celebrates high-risk testing assessment that largely ignores civic education. Might explain the typical community assemblage demographics!

Many who have survived disasters do demonstrate a certain post traumatic growth. Nietzsche said “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” In an earlier post, Philip Palin mentioned HBO’s series Treme and its connection to resiliency. Last night I watched the final episode. The series details the interrupted lives of several Hurricane-Katrina survivors. They cling to their NOLA culture and family roots –mostly NOLA-Jazz and beignets at café du monde. Just the same, Creighton (a main character) commits suicide or as his wife cries: he quit ….and the rest of us stayed. Treme is as much a celebration of NOLA as it is requiem in want of a resurrection –second season on order.

Perhaps the second season will take on Treme’s newest challenge –millions of gallons of oil and the onslaught of what USA TODAY’s (June 23, 2010) Snapshot say is an “Above-average Atlantic hurricane season: Probability of major hurricanes (wind speeds of 111 mph or stronger).”

The Deepwater Horizon disaster does belong to the people of NOLA and the Gulf States. Katrina & Deepwater Horizon provided the people of the Gulf States with a sense of resentment of all levels of government and the private sector. Today, government and the private sector (BP) are held to task with the fury of a woman scorned. The metric for discourse and deliberation are actions and it does not matter who performs those actions –what is important is that leak is plugged and the big cleaned up.

Resiliency is working. Just the same, pray is in order.

Comment by Mark Chubb

June 23, 2010 @ 11:26 am

John, I am not sure I share your cynicism about the current generation and their sense of civic engagement. As the father of two teenage girls, I see them interacting almost nonstop with a large and diverse community of friends and acquaintances. They may not be discussing the issues we consider most urgent or important, but they are very engaged with one another and what affects them most as individuals and a group.

Looking back, I don’t remember being all that engaged in what my parents and grandparents considered important to them. I was aware of these things, and credit their interests with my orientation later in life. But, that said, as a teenager and young adult, I was engaged very much in my own life and not so much in the lives of others with whom I did not share familial or filial bonds.

I suspect that many of our readers, as young men and women, began their civic lives in uniformed service to their communities or country. This shaped their sense of civic duty, their worldviews and their commitment to the public good, but in many cases I doubt it would count as civic engagement of the sort we are discussing here.

When I look at the sort of people who regularly engage in civic forums, I too see many familiar faces. But I am less worried by the fact that the same people keep showing up than I am with the fact that public officials use this resource so poorly in many instances.

I realize that many of those who attend such meetings are there with their own agendas. But these agendas often align with important constituencies and issues. Often those representing these causes are seeking acknowledgement if not affirmation. The same can be said for public officials though. Too much of what passes for public involvement is little more than an effort to build public support for decisions we have already made or positions we hold dear.

If we believe we serve the public, that means all of the public and includes those who advocate difficult or disagreeable positions. Even if we cannot win them over, we can strengthen our understanding of what’s best for the community as a whole by engaging them thoughtfully. If we can win their respect by doing so, we may find ourselves even better of than we might otherwise have been.

The practice of honest, open public engagement is a civic virtue the practice of which, I believe, fosters the values that underpin resilience. By learning to discuss, debate, deliberate, decide, and ultimately do things together as a community, albeit a community of interest, we make ourselves and our society stronger. If we want youth to follow our example, we have to give them one worthy of their attention. Prayer may have a place in that prescription, but so too does the practice of public participation.

Comment by John Comiskey

June 23, 2010 @ 12:15 pm


I acknowledge my cynicism. It is rooted in 24 years of law enforcement, 20 years of military service (mostly reserve), and a stint as a high school teacher.

Sounds like your experiences with your daughters are spot-on and thank you by the way. My observation of civic engagement and the politicians, homeland security practitioners, and public safety officials is that a core group does a disproportionate amount of the work and engagement. I’m not okay with that.

I wholeheartedly agree with your axiom:

The practice of honest, open public engagement is a civic virtue the practice of which, I believe, fosters the values that underpin resilience.

I will include greater public participation in my prayers.

Comment by First Responders and Community Response

June 24, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

My experience with the public, my fellow neighbors and what I learned hands on is the result of what turned out to be a successful, yet grueling one-man campaign I commenced on May 19, 1992 and after 1,491 hours ( three years) standing with sign in the frigid weather of three New England winters standing atop snow mounds holding my sign, standing in rain, thunder and lightning, in the heat of summer, you name it, standing anywheres from 5am until midnight in the dark holding my one man sign with only my auto headlights shining against me, my sign and Engine 4 locked behind the fire station closed by politicians willing to compromise fellow citizen, child or elder….out of a population of 26,000 in the town, surely willing to sign thousands of my citizen petitions demanding the reopening of a closed fire station, yet during the three years enduring the elements and the political abuse by pols, not one, not one individual was willing to stand for even ten minutes with me….

Therefore, while the story is much longer and the abuse far greater from politician towards me, in an event where one would expect the public to support a community emergency scenario, there are few one can depend on as I often wondered why did I have to be the one to get an old stretcher, place two pillows on it, cover it with a sheet and hold a sign out side Town Hall front door with sign reading, “This is a _____resident who has been polticized rather than defibed…” as stretcher and I were knee deep in the snow – where we the other fellow residents – pls see: http://www.bigdiglifevest.com

What I learnedis that during an emergency, a community challenge, I can only rely on police, fire and EMT in an emergency and for that reason, given these men and women and their deedication and service, their willingness to respond to our desperate 911 call as no politician would, guess what, as they would give their Life for me, it is reciprocal. I am so proud to stand with these men and women because my first hand experience proved that most all are too busy, too dysfunctional or juyst plain selfish, yet affecting them directly, certainly clamoring for help!

God Bless our men and women, our first responders and a sincere thank you to all our men and women serving in the military!

Joe Citizen
Main Street USA

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