Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 27, 2010

Beyond 72 hours

Filed under: Futures,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on October 27, 2010

I had an interesting conversation with a new colleague today. The new public information officer in our office asked me how emergency managers settled on 72-hours as the threshold value for disaster kits. Why, she wondered, was 72-hours the magic number for determining how much water, food, medicine, cash, and other supplies we should stockpile to prepare ourselves and our families for an emergency. Many emergency managers have asked a similar question in recent years, which has caused some to urge the public to prepare to fend for themselves for even longer periods without outside help.

As we discussed the basis for this guidance — in particular the lack of hard evidence or specific and explicit assumptions to support these recommendations — we concluded that the form and specificity of this suggestion probably had something to do with the fact that so many people still feel anxious even after they follow our advice. Does the emphasis on material preparedness and the connection to specific time periods reinforce public expectations about officialdom and its obligation to respond to our needs? Does it simultaneously discourage resilience while encouraging preparedness?

Today’s nationally-syndicated WBUR radio program, Here and Now, included a segment on disaster preparedness and resilience featuring Irwin Redlener, author of Americans at Risk and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. In the interview, Redlener reiterated his assertion that America remains unprepared for a catastrophic disaster largely because of paralyzing bureaucracy and widespread incompetence. Redlener was particularly critical of the lack of a clearly articulated national preparedness goal that encourages simultaneous efforts to improve coordination between top-down and bottom-up approaches to preparedness.

When Redlener’s book was first published in 2006, memories of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were still fresh in the minds of nearly every American and his voice was one among many calling for comprehensive reform of the federal system of preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters. Today, images of Haiti and news of the recent outbreak of cholera in refugee camps housing survivors who relocated from the quake devastated capitol of Port-au-Prince haunt us.

As we approach the midterm election next week, this argument resonates among many segments of an electorate that find the current economic and social situation unacceptable and desperately want someone to accept responsibility for the “slow motion disaster” many are calling the Great Recession. As I listened to the broadcast, which included discussion of the effects of the fiscal crisis on local and state emergency managers’ and public health officers’ budgets, I had to wonder whether we can responsibly draw any meaningful connections between the situation unsettling most Americans as they head to the ballot box and our nation’s state of disaster readiness.

I am not alone in questioning whether Redlener’s got it all right. This week, the FEMA Local, State, Tribal, and Federal Preparedness Task Force issued its final report, Perspective on Preparedness: Taking Stock Since 9/11. Although I doubt they had Redlener’s book specifically in mind, the task force concluded that notwithstanding a lack of clarity or consistency over time about how we define preparedness in the United States, the nation is better prepared now than we were a decade ago but still lacks a coherent and shared strategic direction.

The task force highlighted the important contributions of the federal government to preparedness in the form of policy guidance, capability assessment tools, and grant funds, but saw important opportunities to strengthen the gains made in all three areas by adding a fourth emphasis on strategic investments. In particular, the task force recommended steps to foster a culture of preparedness by creating incentives for preparedness and strengthening connections among existing networks to help the nation identify and prepare for emerging threats.

These recommendations seem sound enough on the surface. But taking up Redlener’s point of view, the goal is not the only problem. It’s also about how we develop and execute our plans to achieve it.

Reading the other task force recommendations, I can see why Redlener is so critical of the federal approach and have to wonder what he thinks about the task force’s recommendations. It is not too hard to imagine myriad new federal strings being attached to the dollars flowing from federal coffers to state, local, and tribal authorities. Previous investments that sought to promote material improvements in preparedness will likely be replaced by new process-oriented requirements without achieving the desired alignment or shared sense of purpose.

With so many fingers in the proverbial pie and so much dependence on federal support for state, local, and tribal preparedness programs, it is easy to see why Redlener is so skeptical (or perhaps cynical). Technical, political, and legal interventions offer little promise of ensuring social and cultural change if the funding priorities remain driven from the top-down.

The United Nations — an institution renowned by many in the United States as the epitome of bureaucratic incompetence — has taken a somewhat broader and in many ways more pragmatic approach than the FEMA task force. In the Hyogo Framework for Action, the International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction emphasizes efforts to address the underlying problems associated with disaster vulnerability: poverty, climate change , and social justice. These priorities drive a different sort of strategic investment than that proposed by the FEMA task force, one that encourages human development through education, gender equity, shared decision-making among diverse communities, and sustainable urban development.

The difference in strategic approach, although probably too subtle for some, yields, I would imagine, very different tactics in some important instances. The FEMA task force approach is more likely to produce interventions in primary schools aimed at practicing “drop, cover, and hold on drills” and teaching kids to prepare disaster kits for their homes. The UNISDR approach, on the other hand, would seem to favor improved offerings in ecology, geography, geology, and sociology that improve understanding of natural hazards and the connections between human and natural systems.

The big difference between the UNISDR and FEMA approaches lies not in the specifics of their recommendations though, but rather in their assumptions about how programs will be put into action. The UNISDR approach emphasizes efforts to reinforce economic, social, and cultural progress by fostering collaboration, education, and engagement. The FEMA approach relies on the assumption that it’s all about protecting the gains we have already made by ensuring people have access to the financial, technical, and administrative resources they need to achieve their goals.

Going beyond 72-hours requires us to think differently about how we define preparedness as well as how we help our communities prepare for disasters. Any new emphasis on process should recognize the importance of fostering diverse participation, promoting social equity, encouraging reflection, and stimulating growth rather than preserving the status quo ante.

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3 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 27, 2010 @ 12:27 am

A precise history of the 72 hour guidance would be of great interest. My memory is that it derives from the minimal federal response time to any specific incident/event where that incident/event is NO NOTICE, FAST-BREAKING INCIDENT/EVENT and STATES and their local governments capability to respond has been compromised by the event. As least one private sector effort has also focused on the first three days but in the sense that decisions and assistance in that time frame may be crucial for saving and protecting lives and protecting property.
Irving Redliener was also co-chair of the Commission studying assistance to children in disasters that just released their final and quite comprehensive report.
Perhaps it is mystifying but the recent FEMA task force report on PREPAREDNESS ignores some of FEMA’s own prior analysis and reports, and also ignores published findings from DHS/OIG and GAO. That despite the listing purportedly comprehensive of OIG/DHS and GAO reports at the end of the report listed as references. Yet the Task Force did provide some interesting input on Preparedness but if my memory serves the first 72 hours and its history and appropriateness for individual and family preparedness is not discussed.
What should be occurring and has not really occurred is that incidents/events where governmental response at any level has failed should be better documented and the public, or at least the interested public informed of exactly what the failure entailed and what corrective action if any has occurred. Also important would be to study how reliable volunteer organizations and personnel are in actual incidents/events. Does so-called Role Conflict make less likely the successful response of those organizations, e.g.? Well let US get to work as plenty needs to be done. Perhaps basic honesty and full disclosure of capability might be of assistance in focusing Americans on the real state of preparedness for the threats and hazards most likely to impact them. nacici

Comment by 72 hours....days and even weeks

October 28, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

72 hours..days and even weeks….With 65% of Americans reportedly disgusted at both sides of the Congressional aisle, we have little confidence that given a serious bio/chem attack, the local EMT would be at the door or hospital room available.

No longer is China a developing nation and while we had 450 naval vessels and now 250, at a cost of $100million per jet aircraft and given the woes of our national, state and family budgetary declines…the gap is closing quickly and we are watching the waning days of our beloved Republic at the cost of self-agenda and power lusting and long tenured bureaucrats.

While writing, I just received a telephone call from Vicki Kennedy, Teddy’s wife who talked about Teddy’s fiend, “Mr. Barney” and how they worked and shared the same issues…give us all a break and get over yourselves for our nation, not our children or our grandchildren, our nation presently is under siege from the Goldman Sachs fellas and the bankers have torn the fabric of our great nation and here at this household, the American flag flies high, yet turned upside down as I ask all Americans to turn their flags upside down as we are in distress and it is this mentality of both sides of the aisle which we cannot tolerate as promises of change and empty campaign slogans have placed us in peril!

72 hours or three days…unfortunately we have little confidence anyone will show up to help so, so many who would be compromised. It is not the chem/bio attack we are so, so concerned about..it is the fact that Katrina, the BP oil spill, the flooded out Providence area and so on and so forth which depicts a national emergency preparedness flawed and incapable of handling far less than we would be subjected to in case of more serious jeopardy!

God Bless America!

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Perspectives on Preparedness: Nudging us forward bit by bit

October 29, 2010 @ 12:12 am

[...] Wednesday Mark Chubb offered a considered critique of the recently released Report to Congress: Perspectives on Preparedness (large [...]

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