Preparedness & Recovery

The Preparedness Message Isn’t Reaching the Public

Everyone agrees that citizen preparedness isn’t what it should be. How can the issue be fixed?

by / November 12, 2012
Illustration by Tom McKeith Tom McKeith

Americans have a false sense of security when it comes to disasters, and should they become victims, most haven’t taken steps to help themselves during the first few days after one strikes. Experts say either the preparedness message isn’t getting across, or the wrong message is being sent. 

In a recent survey conducted by the Ad Council, 17 percent of respondents said they were very prepared for an emergency situation, which means they have a kit and a plan to sustain themselves during the first few days of a disaster. In the same survey, however, just 23 percent of respondents said they have a plan to communicate with family members if there is no cellphone service.

But this figure is considered inflated by some who say the percentage of prepared citizens is dreadful. “Oftentimes you’ll get a survey saying 6 percent of the public is prepared,” said Ana-Marie Jones, executive director of the nonprofit organization Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters (CARD). “That’s nothing to write home about if you consider 4 percent of the population is Mormon and they prepare without being told to do so by the U.S. government.”

Jones said the methods for reaching the public leave a lot to be desired. “No private company would invest billions of dollars putting a message out that had such dismal returns,” she said. “You just would never do it.”

Jones took part in an event this summer, called Awareness to Action: A Workshop on Motivating the Public to Prepare, hosted by FEMA and the American Red Cross. The two-day event invited 85 preparedness experts from across the country to discuss how to engage the public with preparedness. Jones said the majority of attendees agreed that the message is flawed.

“The highlight of the two days was [FEMA Administrator] Craig Fugate coming to the meeting and being honest in saying we have to acknowledge that we haven’t moved the preparedness needle,” Jones said. “When the highest person in FEMA acknowledges that it has not been a success, it gives me hope.”


A Negative Message 


The message is to have a kit, be aware of potential emergencies and have a family plan. The problem is that it’s generally based on fear, according to some emergency management professionals. But to some, being prepared takes a backseat because they’ve never experienced a catastrophe.

“A mind-alerting event has not taken place in their lives to drive them to take some preparedness actions,” said Will Allen, retired colonel and CEO of consulting firm W. Allen Enterprises. He said most people don’t see preparedness as an important issue because of how it’s presented. “It has a lot to do with people’s experiences, their culture and awareness. Maybe our local government hasn’t made it an important issue to them.”

Jones said the “have-a-kit, be aware” message is OK, but the way it’s conveyed is problematic. “It’s threat-based, top down, put forth by agencies whose mission, mindset and muscles are around disaster response, not preparedness,” she said. “There’s a different way to leverage resources in a community than to tell everybody, ‘You need to have this, otherwise horrible stuff is going to happen to you.’”

The message is more like a “branding campaign” for the agencies, Jones said, and tying preparedness to specific threats like earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and terrorism is telling 90 percent of the population not to worry. “There’s a ton of research that shows that threat-based messaging and showing the horrible pictures of the collapsed buildings and the floating dead bodies does not help you prepare, but stops you from preparing because it triggers the overwhelm factor.”

The proper message isn’t tied to having a kit but to developing resilience every day.

The consensus is that many families don’t have an emergency kit. “We say, ‘You need to get a kit that has food, water, a radio, flashlight.’  The list goes on and on,” said

Dallas Emergency Management Director Kevin Oden. “Well, those costs really add up and most people can’t do that.” He said it’s better to ask people to prepare over time by bringing home extra water or nonperishable food when possible. And the best kits are not ones that were purchased whole but the ones built from supplies families use regularly and will use during a crisis.

Even that is difficult for those who struggle daily to take care of their basic needs. “If I didn’t eat this morning, that’s real,” Allen said. “I’m supposed to be prepared for something that may or may not happen? I haven’t even thought that far ahead. It’s going to require a different effort.”

Allen said getting people to purchase items they might need in an emergency will take incentives. “I need to eat; I need shoes, so come at me with some way I can get that, such as a Target coupon. Something like that would be a lot less costly than some of the actions we have to take after an event.”

Jones agreed, saying citizens will prioritize what’s valuable to them right now. “That’s always the way it will be. You’re never going to get people to prioritize the earthquake, flood or act of terrorism over their daily needs.”

Jones stressed that citizens are much likelier to develop resilience by focusing on things that could help during a disaster and every day, like a cellphone.

“If I told you to put aside your computer until you need it for a disaster, by the time you needed it you wouldn’t be familiar with it,” Jones said. “That’s exactly what happens with our disaster stuff. You’d have a better shot with a cellphone.”

She said people should program the names and phone numbers of their neighbors, employees and relatives into their cellphones. “If you don’t have resources like food and kits, maybe somebody else does,” Jones said. “Maybe you’ve got other resources. Maybe you’re the guy with the power tools or the big backyard where everybody can meet.”

Oden said it’s important for citizens not to think of disaster preparedness as a one-time deal. “If you’re building preparedness over a long period, it’s in your head and you’re more likely to take additional steps to be prepared than if you bought a kit and put it in a closet.”

Jones and Allen echoed that sentiment. “Anything that you can build into your everyday muscle is much more likely to serve you in a crisis,” Jones said.

“Resilience is about getting better over time,” Allen added.


Community Affiliations


Emergency managers shouldn’t pass up an opportunity to educate residents on becoming prepared, however they shouldn’t expect dramatic results. Local community groups that residents identify with and trust are best to push out the preparedness messages.

Community organizations, churches, schools, businesses and the like are better positioned in the community to deliver a more resonating message.

“People need to hear the message from people they believe in,” said Jones. “If you want people who are affiliated with religious groups to get the message, they’ll get the message when that religious organization threads it into a way they speak.”

In addition, community groups are the only way to reach certain segments of society, such as non-English speaking residents who may not trust government. That will become more significant in the next 15 to 20 years as the Hispanic and Asian-American population is estimated to grow by 18 percent, Oden said.

“If we as government can’t either linguistically or culturally connect to groups of people, a level of trust is hard to get,” he said. “Take for instance our outdoor warning sirens that we use for severe weather. People who are non-English speaking are going to have a harder time getting the message of what warning sirens really mean to them.”

Citizens tend to be somewhat passé toward government warnings, as evidenced by some of the response to a Federal Signal survey, which suggested that most people need to be able to validate a warning from another source. In the survey, 23 percent said they’d need to hear about local property damage before they became concerned. “The sense that bad things happen to other people is a real concern,” said John Von Thaden, general manager for alerting and notification systems at Federal Signal.

That’s where community groups can help. Von Thaden said there are big differences in the way some emergency managers coordinate with local organizations and communities, but it’s important for emergency managers to do it. “It’s a piece that emergency managers are looking for,” he said. “It continues to grow as a role they play.”

Allen used the military as an example of an organization having a captive audience. He said that when top brass wanted something known, they presented it to a controlled audience in multiple ways.

There are a couple of lessons there, and one is that people listen to and heed a message from organizations that have their direct attention. People need messages in different forms, and they need it from trusted sources, like churches, schools and employers.

“What you should do is seek out groups and community leaders, be it community centers or churches,” Oden said. “People are much more connected today to groups of like interests than ever before, and if we as emergency managers are focusing on the leaders of those groups, then they can pass the preparedness message down to citizens.”

Another approach is to penetrate schools. Jones said schools could start teaching about disaster preparedness as early as preschool. Two- to 3-year-olds can learn to crawl to a safe spot and know by color codes which areas are safe. A green-colored carpet under a table could signify safety, and kids would learn to be safe, not scared.

Social media also is a tool for communities to use for preparedness. “Facebook is way more resilient than most local governments,” Jones said. “I’m located in Oakland, Calif., and I can promise you after the next catastrophic earthquake, Facebook will be more resilient than my city. It’s little things like that spread across a community, more than it is big government-mandated interventions that work.”


Diverse Approach


There are commonalities between the gaps in both preparedness and the public’s response to alerts, as evidenced by the previously cited Federal Signal study statistics. “I think it speaks to the fact that many Americans have been complacent,” Von Thaden said. Just as telling everyone to buy a kit is ineffective, using one message or method for alerting is ignoring portions of the population.

The key to reaching different population segments is to diversify the methods for alert notifications because preferences for alerts vary greatly among individuals. “Often it can be age or regionally related in terms of their experiences, and that can be anything from looking for text messages, a phone call or traditional messaging through radio and television,” Von Thaden said.

He said a layered approach to notification is necessary and includes a mode for residents to validate the initial warning. Part of the hesitation of citizens is a disconnection with local emergency management strategies. For example, 71 percent of respondents in the Federal Signal survey didn’t know if their community had a personal alerting and notification solution.

Von Thaden reiterated that emergency managers who partner with local community organizations do better in terms of having the public’s ear.

He said putting the decision of how to receive alerts in the hands of the recipients by offering multiple options is important. It’s a form of empowerment that a successful preparedness program should include.

“If we’re building a system of empowerment, we’re building preparedness,” Oden said. “Anytime someone feels empowered, they are always going to be more likely to pursue
something. It’s just human nature.”

Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.