Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 26, 2011

Zombie Preparedness…No, Really….

Filed under: Humor,Media,Preparedness and Response — by Arnold Bogis on May 26, 2011

Yesterday, Mark provocatively asked if preparedness even mattered in the face of catastrophic incidents.

Not only do I say yes, but I’m doubling down on cases of the impossible.  By that I refer to recent CDC guidance on preparing for a zombie outbreak.

Yes.  A zombie outbreak.

At the surface, this example of public outreach can appear quite frivolous.  At the core, it is a fantastic example of simple innovation with the potential for significant reward.

The story:

“Zombie apocalypse.” That blog posting headline is all it took for a behind-the-scenes public health doctor to set off an Internet frenzy over tired old advice about keeping water and flashlights on hand in case of a hurricane.

“You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency,” wrote Dr. Ali Khan on the emergency preparedness blog of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Note the reporter’s characterization of “tired old advice.”

The blog post in question basically summarizes some pop culture consideration of the zombie threat and offers basic preparedness advice.  However, that same information does not often penetrate into the consciousness of a younger audience when presented in phone books or as bus stop advertisements.

More important, CDC officials said, it is drawing interest from teens and young adults who otherwise would not have read a federal agency’s guidance on the importance of planning an evacuation route or how much water and what tools to store in case a major storm rolls in.

What do the kids pay attention to/what’s the reward?

Khan’s postings usually draw 1,000 to 3,000 hits in a week. This one — posted Monday — got 30,000 within a day. By Friday, it had gotten 963,000 page views and was the top item viewed on the agency’s Web site, thanks in part to media coverage that began mid-week.

Obviously, this is not a paradigm shift in public outreach that essentially solves existing problems in promoting personal preparedness.  However, it is a great example of one influential official listening to advice and acting:

The idea evolved from a CDC Twitter session with the public earlier this year about planning for disasters. Activity spiked when dozens of tweets came in from people saying they were concerned about zombies.

Dave Daigle, a veteran communications specialist, proposed the idea of using a zombie hook to spice up the hurricane message. Khan, director of emergency preparedness, approved it immediately and wrote it himself.

There will be of course those doubtful about such efforts:

There have been few comments asking whether this is the best way for the government to spend tax dollars. The agency is under a tight budget review at the moment and facing potentially serious budget cuts. But the zombie post involved no extra time or expenditure, CDC officials said.

“We have a critical message to get out and that is CDC saves lives while saving money. If it takes zombies to help us get that message out, then so be it,” said agency spokesman Tom Skinner.

What I find particularly interesting, and gratifying, about this exercise is the fact that it is not simply a one-off attempt at injecting a little humor into the standard preparedness message.  Apparently, there will be follow up:

Whether the message sticks still has to be determined. The agency is planning a follow-up survey to see if people actually did prepare emergency kits or follow Khan’s other advice.

Picking up on current trends in pop culture seems like an easy route to travel for those charged with promoting a preparedness message with the public.  Yet, given bureaucratic inertia that exists in most agencies and a reluctance to independently try new things, this relatively small experiment is hopefully an indicator of additional such efforts to come instead of the imaginative work of one individual.

While I do not disagree with other authors on this blog about the need to engage the public about risks and consequences, I feel strongly that a basic preparedness message continues to represent a fundamental building block of this amorphous thing that is popularly known as resilience.  If zombies can help getting there from here, then I say why not?

[H/t to Eric Holdeman at Disaster Zone, though I have to question his self-proclaimed zombie expertise if he advises “Conserve your ammo, one shot seems to work fine!”  Does he not know about the “double tap rule” of Zombieland?]

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Comment by Jim Garrow

May 26, 2011 @ 8:50 am

Nice job on the Zombieland reference. Love that flick. There’s something about public health preparedness planners and zombie movies.

That said, I’m in complete agreement with the rest of the post. http://jgarrow.posterous.com/on-cdcs-zombie-apocalypse-and-why-your-commun

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 26, 2011 @ 8:56 am

Arnold! Nice post! You may find it hard to believe but preparedness measures have often been underfunded, avoided or discarded by the powers that be. The Parnership for Public Warning put out an interesting report several years ago. Posted on my VACATION Lane Blog. Its recommendations largely not followed.

Well as the FRAM OIL FILTER ad used to say Pay me now or pay me later.

Tornado frequency is actually up and more dispersed over the last 4 decades but few paid attention. Some attributed that to increased URBAN heat sinks. To some extent this has been fully documented as concrete and distruction of green cover!

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