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.