Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 18, 2012

Not So Fast

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Mark Chubb on April 18, 2012

At the urging of fellow HLSwatch blogger Arnold Bogis, I’ve spent a little while this week reflecting on my unease about certain aspects of the FEMA Whole Community approach to disaster preparedness and community resilience. That’s proven quite difficult for me in one sense because I am generally in agreement that planning requires a lot more community engagement than we usually afford it.

Done well, community engagement contributes to resilience by encouraging the exchange of information and sharing of resources before a disaster, which builds relationships that not only endure in times of crisis but bolster our natural inclination to connect with others in need. That said, something about the whole community approach has always stuck in my craw.

Before I get to that though, I’d like to emphasize what I think works best about the whole community approach. First, it acknowledges that cities, disasters and efforts to make cities more resilient are all complex things in their own right. (This should not be taken to mean that rural areas or small towns are any less complex. They can be even more so, just in other ways.) Second, it acknowledges that improving community resilience begins by acknowledging and strengthening what people are already doing and what already works. And, third, it embraces the idea of bringing new individuals and groups into the discussion rather than relying on the expertise of those already interested. Doing so begins by meeting people and groups where they are instead of drawing them to us.

For too long, emergency management relied upon the old adage that “the world is run by those who show up.” If you were present then you were the right one to write the plan simply because you showed up and by doing so showed an interest. The unspoken assumption in all of this is that anyone interested enough to show up for the boring bits — plan writing and preparedness — can be relied upon for the difficult parts — response and recovery.

Sadly, this explains a lot of the dysfunction we see in emergency management. Too many of those who show up do so because they have a vested interest in seizing opportunities to show off their expertise or personal experience of having not been prepared. Consequently, they come to the task imbued with the white-hot intensity characteristic of the zeal of the newly converted.

This tendency leads to another problem that I think traditional approaches not only share in common with the whole community approach, but that FEMA may be taking to a whole new and unwelcome level. That is the notion that emergency planning and preparedness should be a “go big or go home” enterprise.

The coincident emphasis at FEMA on catastrophic risk planning — aka, Maximum-of-Maximums — strikes me as off-putting if not alienating. For starters, I am neither convinced you can adequately plan or prepare for catastrophic events nor compelled by experience to believe that it does that much more good than simply encouraging other forms of community engagement with efforts to address lesser hazards. “It might be true that many hands make light work,” but who will join an effort to plan for what seems to many nothing short of “the end of the world as we know it.”

We do our communities a disservice, particularly in light of the good work many are already doing to forge stronger social ties and renew the infrastructure of civic life if we ask people to imagine a world in which the fruits or their labors are left in shambles. If we are truly committed to the first three principles I mentioned — working with complexity, acknowledging what works and meeting people where they are — it seems to me that a genuine effort to engage the whole community would not start by asking people to imagine and plan for the worst.

I am willing to admit that “everything can change in the blink of an eye,” but I also know that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Writing good plans, just like building great cities and strong relationships takes time.

Emergency managers and public safety officials tend to think in short times frames, often too short. This is emotionally appealing, but often leads us to stop short when it comes to considering others’ points of view, especially when they run counter to conventional wisdom.

Time is of the essence when working to save lives, but disaster planning and community resilience are about saving whole communities. As such, they take more time than most officials are willing to give them.

This tendency to get in a great big hurry not only compromises efforts to get people involved and get the best out of them while they’re engaged, it also tends to suggest to them that response and recovery should be done at double quick-time too. This, of course, leads to all sorts of insidious problems, not the least of which is the “ready, fire, aim” mentality that overtakes many elected officials in times of crisis.

Instead of agitating by aphorism and pedaling platitudes, emergency managers should take the time to get to know their community in new ways. Take it slowly. Learn what people value. Listen to what they know. Ask what they need. Hear what they want. Then sit down and discuss how these things shape the two elements essential to any form of resilience: what we believe and what we are prepared to do.


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Comment by William R. Cumming

April 18, 2012 @ 3:56 am

Great Post! It grabs some of my same worries. Thanks for thinking!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 18, 2012 @ 4:55 am


You wrote that Whole Community:

…embraces the idea of bringing new individuals and groups into the discussion rather than relying on the expertise of those already interested. Doing so begins by meeting people and groups where they are instead of drawing them to us.

Agreed. Have you seen examples of effective — even systematic — ways of doing this?

There are other aspects of your very helpful post that I would love to take up. But I have to get to a day-long meeting on catastrophe preparedness.

With more defensiveness than I would prefer: Catastrophe preparedness, as with so much, can be engaged realistically, openly and creatively… or not. Motorcycle maintenance can simply be a dirty, material burden or it can be a first step toward zen-like transcendence. Which may bring us back to my question.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 18, 2012 @ 6:46 am

FEMA was prohibited by statute, reorganization plan, and OMB policy from preparedness for the Maximum of Maximum catastrophic situation. President Bush ignored that past restriction even before FEMA was formerly incorporated into DHS on March 1, 2003.

Most states and local governments have no idea that the MOM is a potential hazard for them.

Of course since the civil defense program was raised in a comment on an earlier post this week, it is of interest that the CDA of 1950 contemplated planning for Soviet executive of MAD but that was not considered a MOM and therefore the CD program was to contemplate survival at whatever levels of some of the population. Some believed that was up to 80% of the USA population if evacuation and other PARs were properly executed.

It should also be noted that even Hurricane Katrina was not an MOM for NOLA since at landfall was barely a CAT 2! At one point it was a CAT 4 when out in the GOM!If my acronyms get to people it is because I am lazy typist.

Comment by John Comiskey

April 18, 2012 @ 8:10 am


FEMA’s whole community should keep it simple.
Too many emergency mangers continue to rely on the adage that the world is run by those who show up.
Too often too many of the people who don’t show up are all too willing to let those that show up run most everything. So much for a whole community.

IMHO, that is the way it is and we can and should foster a civic minded, self-reliant, and resilient whole community and dispose of the above HLS/EM aphorism

Yesterday, Chris B argued and hoped that the whole community to EM works. His fellow bloggers cheered him on and called for civicness, leadership, and resilience. I argued and continue to argue that leadership and civic education are moral and national security imperatives that might get some of those people who don’t show up to show up and engage those emergency managers with real-world solutions to everything up to an including MOMs.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

April 18, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

Mark, thanks for the interesting point of view–especially on MOM.

I suppose I’ve been wrapped up in either thinking about the biggest events, like nuclear terrorism, or from the federal perspective in general. So I’ve always considered this approach as not only beneficial but basically “right”–the federal government should worry about the biggest events and most of the smaller incidents are left to the local or state or regional structures.

Before your post I never considered the possibility of pernicious effects of the MOM approach on local planning.


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April 18, 2012 @ 11:58 pm

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Comment by The Community: Preparedness and First Responders

April 19, 2012 @ 7:53 am

Mark and Arnold,

An excellent post!

OMG William, we love reading your much relied upon and enlightened comments even w/your acronyms and certainly none of us find you a lazy typist especially when you find something that you must reply.

Getting to know the community is prerequisite and not to reach out is a disservice as we often see much resilience from within the community when calamity strikes, yet relying on experienced personnel in an emergency scenario is required and better funding for far much more training raising the bar to enable first responders to be suited to a world which promises far worse as economic and political challenges are heightened globally in the days ahead.

Comment by Mark Chubb

April 19, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

Phil, New Zealand’s community outcomes, annual plan (budget) and emergency management planning processes were designed to make community engagement and consultation defaults. This requires local government to develop sophisticated public outreach programs. Some are obviously much better than others. But even the worst of them involves opening the process to business and civic groups outside the inner circle of local government.

I imagine one of the reasons central government in New Zealand is getting so much push-back and criticism from local interests for their recovery efforts in Christchurch boils down to a strong sense of investment and empowerment among individuals and groups whose primary interests and purposes have little to do with the disaster itself. These interests are motivated to find ways of rebuilding the community that complement their efforts to maintain a strong connection both to the place and to one another while addressing the vulnerabilities exposed by the earthquakes.

My essay may not have made it clear that I am not opposed to MoMs per se. I am just reluctant to use them as the basis for community engagement right out of the gate. As Jessica’s post points out, many communities will struggle just to get diverse and representative interests to the table, and if tehy do, it will take them time to begin engaging one another constructively.

If self-interested parties and technical experts are good at anything, they are good at the kind of thinking and planning that MoM requires. And in this way they are well ahed of what the community can contribute without exceptional support and guidance. If communities must do top down planning, maybe this (MoMs) is where we should have them focus their efforts. In the meantime, making community engagement the default setting for local planning efforts makes good sense to me so long as it’s not rushed.

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