Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 8, 2011

From kits to sustainment — reframing preparedness expectations and guidance

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on March 8, 2011

Nancy Dragani is the Executive Director of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.  I read something she wrote about preparedness and (with her permission) am posting an edited version of part of her work.

I think she makes a simple but profound suggestion.:


The standard message about emergency preparedness involves only three steps; “Get a kit, Make a plan, Be informed.”

Countless websites, brochures, books and presentations have been devoted to educating the American public on how, when and why they should prepare. Yet according to Joe Becker, a senior vice president at the American Red Cross, “we are barely moving the needle on the percent of those who are prepared.” After decades of communications and countless state and local public awareness campaigns on the importance of personal preparedness, most Americans are still unprepared for disaster.

The research on individual preparedness is extensive.  An internet search with the term “individual and family preparedness” returned more than 2.5 million hits, “personal preparedness” returned 4.3 million and “personal preparedness challenges” 2.5 million.

From the Government Accounting Office, to Columbia University to the Centers for Disease Control, the desire to foster a stronger, more prepared public is clear.

Equally clear is government’s apparent inability to make this happen.  Government officials at all levels decry the public’s lack of preparedness, citing a combination of self-delusion, apathy and sheer stubbornness.

Whether it is called civil defense, a culture of preparedness or the latest catch phrase, “resiliency,” personal preparedness remains an elusive goal for emergency management officials across the nation.


But what if the problem lies not with the receiver of the message, but rather with the message itself?

Are we asking the American public to take actions they consider reasonable — based on personal responsibility; sustainable — based on income and lifestyle; and realistic — based on perceived risk?

In 2007, one emergency management agency held a staff “preparedness contest” in conjunction with National Preparedness Month. Each staff member was challenged to bring in their family preparedness kit and their family plan. Several staff prepared a kit based on the “suggestions” identified by the American Red Cross and FEMA.

The kit was costly; one person spent more than $200 putting a kit together. A number of people who participated in the contest noted they stored the finished kits in their basements or attics, and in many cases, have not updated them since the contest.


The challenge before us today is to move the needle on the percent to those who are prepared.

Recent surveys are beginning to ask more questions focused on individual, cultural and intellectual barriers to preparedness. We need to continue that effort and delve deeper into the barriers that prevent our various publics from adequately preparing. We need to better understand what expectations these publics have of government: from a professional household in an urban environment to a single mom in rural Texas, and from a family of Somali immigrants in the Midwest to an elderly couple in Florida.

We need to reframe expectations. A disaster kit, prepackaged and stored away only to be used in a disaster is not practical for many Americans. It is costly and takes time, attention and desire to maintain.


If we reframed the questions preparedness surveys ask, we might see a higher percentage of emergency preparedness.

In a survey conducted at Ohio EMA, several questions focused on disaster supply kits. The first question of that series asked, “Do you have an emergency preparedness kit with pre-identified food, water and emergency supplies to be used only in the event of a disaster?”

Only one-third (31 percent) responded affirmatively.

However, when asked a follow up question, “If you answered no on the previous question, do you have enough food, water and supplies to sustain yourself and your family for 72 hours?” the number of positive responses rose to 83 percent.

Reframing the requirement away from a disaster kit to one that focuses on the ability to sustain self and family for 72 hours with supplies currently on hand is far more achievable for most Americans.

The concept of a set-aside storage kit used only during an emergency is neither sustainable nor practical for many Americans. A pantry stocked with canned goods and daily supplies that can be opened and eaten cold if necessary may be a better option than a packaged emergency supply kit loaded with Spam and cans of tuna.


We need to design preparedness messages that are appropriate to the threats and risks of the community. One size does not fit all and one message is not sufficient.

We must educate the public about the risks they actually face, have an honest discussion with them about what they expect government to do, what they can do and, more to the point, what they must do. Then we need to ask how we can help them be better prepared.

But not through another revised 72 hour preparedness campaign with the same messages we are promoting today.

We need to ask what makes sense for Americans in today’s world. If we cannot get those who are able — financially and physically — to have a plan and make a kit, why are we expecting those who cannot to do so?

More to the point, if we have not moved the needle, there is more amiss than the willingness to comply. If we continue to promote the same message while expecting a different result, we are fulfilling Einstein’s definition of insanity and the needle will not move.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 8, 2011 @ 2:19 am

Excellent Post! Thanks Nancy! Actually I believe if the criteria were can your family survive for a week without any electricity, access to an ATM, or grocery store it might have more impact when asking about preparedness.
But then maybe it should be can your family survive for a week without cell phones, computers, DVD playesrs, TVs, and cars it might really get people interested in family preparedness.
And did you know that the American College of Surgeons is working on a new surgical protocol for teens? Removal of cell phones from their ears!

Comment by John G. Comiskey

March 8, 2011 @ 4:17 am

Preparedness requires, to a degree, a foxhole mindset and foxholes are not a fun place to be.

I am a former Boy Scout and was told to be prepared.
I am a retired NYC Police Lieutenant and was told and told others to be ready for anything and everything.
I am a reservist with the US Coast Guard and have the words Semper Paratus engraved on my eyelids.
I have taught high school and told my students to be prepared for the future.
I currently teach college students to be prepared for their desired professions.
I am a husband, father, son, brother, and friend and have been told and have told my family and friends to be prepared.

Once a year, I check the fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, C02 detectors, and flashlights in my house.
Each of my cars is inspected and winterized annually.
Each April my wife and I assess our economic wellbeing -the tax man facilitates this.
Each year my wife and children submit to a health exam.
Each new semester and report card my wife and I assess our children’s educational wellbeing.
Typically, we go food shopping once a week and should have enough on hand to survive 72 hours without a convenience store or ATM.
Preparedness is hard work and not a lot of fun.

And then there is March Madness (basketball)followed by spring training and lastly 20 weeks of football accompanied by the occasional beer -all of which is a lot more fun than a culture of preparedness.

I am fully prepared for the 2011 football season and very much hope that the NY Jets are too.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

March 8, 2011 @ 7:13 am

I think too much attention is give to having a kit, though I do have one.

John’s background and frame of reference are likely to help him survive, even if he does not have a kit handy.

We need a new TV show, like Man in the Wild, that shows how urban people can cope in a disaster without their creature comforts!

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 8, 2011 @ 8:33 am

So John! Do you have a camp stove?

Your comments on this blog terrific by the way.

And Claire! Could not agree more. There have to be a lot of stories buried out there–some with people literally buried–who had not the faintest idea of how to cope with events caused by catastrophic situations.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 8, 2011 @ 9:40 am

I will confess that when I initially scanned Ms. Dragani’s post I thought, “Well, of course, no one is really just focusing on having a kit.”

The go-bag or preparedness kit or whatever is just one tactical expression of a wider strategic goal.

But on reflection, I agree too many are focused almost exclusively on the issue of kits… and on other tactical measures.

As in so many areas, we too often focus on a specific “how” instead of critically and practically engaging the more important issue of “why.”

Redefining Readiness is a project that does a great job of keeping participants fully engaged with “why” even while answering a whole host of “how” questions. You can see more at http://www.redefiningreadiness.net/

The key to the effectiveness of Redefining Readiness is engaging the public as intelligent, independent, and strategic agents… not just a crowd we want to comply with orders.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

March 8, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

I very much like the idea of re-framing the issue of preparedness (strategic), but have to admit to being a bit puzzled/curious about two (tactical) issues.

The first is very specific: does the tap water in Ohio taste that bad? If 83% of people have enough water on hand to sustain themselves (and their families) for 72 hours and not in the context of having prepared a “kit,” man that is a lot of people buying bottled water for home use on a regular basis.

Perhaps I’m out of touch with water quality in the Midwest, but the only people I know who might have that much water on hand don’t touch their tap water, buy in bulk, and end up spending a non-inconsequential amount of money. So that is why I conclude either Ohio water is horrible, unsafe, or people might not realize what guidelines are for stocking up on water for an emergency.

My second thought betrays my urban-centric viewpoint: I know of few homes in dense urban East Coast cities that have large pantries with space for having several days of canned or other non-perishable food items that are not stored out of the way (a la kit). By homes I mean not just small houses/townhouses but also condos and apartments. I currently live in my first place with a pantry and while I do have enough food for several days in it, that is a reflection on the cooking habits of my vegetarian girlfriend and lack of easily accessible markets. During the past decade I’ve rarely had the room for such a supply of food that might be utilized on a semi-regular basis (i.e. not a kit for a rainy/radioactive day).

All that negativity aside, the larger important point regarding re-framing or re-imagining the issue is insightful.

Comment by Jeff Bowers

March 8, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

This is a great post! I’ve often thought that our almost religious reverence for The Kit is a stumbling block to getting the public to be better prepared for all hazards.

No matter how many times we demystify it, in print or in presentations, The Kit still represents something different and inconvenient in most people’s already hectic, overextended lives. The Kit may still be the ideal, but I stress to people I work with that it’s more important to have the supplies and provisions and know where to find them than it is to have them all neatly organized in a Rubbermaid bin. I’ve taken flak for this in the past, but we have to realize that there are many paths to the same goal.

We don’t always realize how preachy we sometimes sound to non-emergency managers or to those for whom preparedness is a self-evident good. What we think of as an empowering and pragmatic approach to personal preparedness education requires a receptive audience. We’ve probably reached those folks already, and the challenge with them is to constantly renew the message with fresh, innovative ideas to keep the momentum going. But for the rest of the public, encouraging them to care about preparedness absent any immediate threat of consequences requires a different approach. That approach may need to be calibrated to reality on the ground and presented in a low-maintenance — and low cost — manner.

While we are loath to admit it, it is unlikely that we will ever achieve the level of success with the second set of folks that’s been noted with the first. Particularly in this era of budget scarcity, we have to invest in programs with the highest rates of return, and in this case that may mean accepting that the current numbers for preparedness may represent the upward bounds of what we can reasonably accomplish.

I know that’s difficult to do for most personalities that are drawn to the emergency management discipline, but sometimes we have to step back and realize that no amount of effort will make people help themselves if they don’t want to.

Comment by Beverly

March 9, 2011 @ 11:36 pm

I’ve been puzzled to know why it is so hard to motivate people who KNOW they should get prepared and want to to take action. Until now, I was just blaming it on human nature. Thank you for this insightful blog thread.

I would like to suggest that perhaps most people have interests in being self sufficient in one area or another. We all have different interests and skills. The super organized are the ones, from my experience, that put a kit in their vehicle and home. But perhaps it would be good to get other people, who may be less organized, thinking on the lines of what interests and abilities that they already possess that they could put to use in an emergency situation.

I know this would be hard to mainstream, but gardeners may be interested in knowing about wild edible plants, which may lead them to thinking about being unable to purchase food in a long term emergency. Social servants (teachers, nurses, police) may be keen on thinking how they can serve their community in a disaster. Animal lovers may like the idea of having a few chickens in their back yard…

People are attracted to their own interests. Maybe we need to find what makes them tick and help them to think a few steps ahead.

Comment by Ray Hasson

March 17, 2011 @ 11:23 am

Well, here it is, nearly a week into the Japanese earthquake,tsunami, nuclear disaster and I imagine those surveys would get very different answers today.

Ms Dragoni is correct. Now that more Americans probably have kits how do we get them to sustain their sustainability? Underlying all of the comments is the basic question of instilling a self sufficient survivability mentality in today’s culture of quick and easy convenience.

Great article.

Comment by Marian Green

October 4, 2011 @ 9:07 am

This is a great post and I like the paradigm shift from “kit” to supplies. The need for the kit, as I see it, is that all you need is in one container that you can grab fast, as apposed to trying to gather it all up after a tornado or flood.

I’m proposing a class curriculum from 1st grade through 12th given in 2 sections. In the Fall focusing on severe winter hazards and in the Spring focusing on severe Summer weather. The course will include preparing a kit and disaster plan including a friend or family contact in another city.

I know the Red Cross has a “Masters in Disaster” program for kids, but it’s not going over well in our area. I know if we can train the kids and review it twice a year, we’ll have a better chance of preparing more families and saving more lives.

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March 13, 2012 @ 12:04 am

[…] more than a year ago, one writer on this blog discussed the less than ideal state of citizen preparedness: Government officials at all levels decry the public’s lack of preparedness, citing a […]

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