Far too often, organizations consider the public a liability — something to be rescued in an emergency situation. The opposite is true. The public is one of our greatest resources in times of crisis and should be included as an important part of your resilience planning and training.
The reality of emergency management is this: The bigger the disaster, the less likely the government can provide the best response.
For smaller disasters, there are multiple organizations that can respond, from the Red Cross to the Salvation Army to our own National Guard. For larger disasters, there is so much demand for assistance that we invariably fall short. We cannot get to people fast enough. In those situations, the tendency is to tell the public to be passive and wait. That is not the best solution and increases the number of lives lost.
In the case of almost any disaster, the fastest response will be from your neighbor. There are countless examples of this:
In tornadoes, people who are dug out from under debris within the first hour are rescued by neighbors. After the Joplin, Mo., tornado in 2011, I walked through neighborhoods with President Obama. We came upon a gentleman whose house had only the front half remaining. The president asked him what he did once the storm passed. He said, “I heard people hollering, so I started digging them out.”
In shooting situations, high mortality rates come from victims bleeding to death. In the Aurora, Colo., shooting, one of the victims was saved by a friend applying pressure to the wound.
During heat waves, countless people are saved because their neighbors check on them. The government does not know who lives where and who has air conditioning; neighbors do, and can be proactive.
Changing the message
Historically, we have marginalized the public. We’ve called them victims. Yes, there will always be victims of disaster. But the ones who make it through should not be called victims. We need to change our message. Instead, we should be calling them survivors. We should be including the public — the survivors — as part of the team.
Just as important, we should broaden our definition of “the public.” The business community is part of the public and can provide critical onsite assistance at a capacity that the government cannot. For example, historically, the amount of food and water the government ships in does not meet the demand. Private businesses, however — grocery stores, fast food restaurants, etc. — are far more effective at providing amenities for entire cities’ worth of people. They can often get up and running faster than the government.
We don’t want to compete with the private sector; we want to work with the private sector as a team. As we prepare for emergency events, we should include the public and specifically private businesses with a plan that includes asking them: “What can we do to help you get up and running again?”
We should put a higher priority on getting the private sector operational after a disaster. If these businesses get up and running, it takes tremendous stress off the government and government resources.
In a nutshell, we must include giving the people back a sense of control in our preparedness planning. We need to give people the OK to help one another, and give businesses the OK — and the resources — to get back on track so they can help those people who cannot help themselves. k
W. Craig Fugate is Senior Advisor to the CEO at The Cadmus Group, Inc. Fugate served as the Administrator of FEMA from May 2008 to January 2017. Prior to his tenure at FEMA, Fugate served as the State of Florida’s emergency management director from 2001 through 2009. In 2016, Fugate received the National Emergency Management Association Lacy E. Suiter Award for lifetime achievements and contributions in the field of emergency management.