Never Say You're Ready (Opinion)

The question "are we ready?" strikes at the heart of being an emergency manager.

by / November 21, 2013
A community rebuilding plan is created in Rainsville, Ala., after three tornadoes destroyed a large portion of the city in 2011. Photo courtesy of Ruth Kennedy/FEMA

If you are responsible for an emergency management or business continuity program, the question is sure to come up, typically when there’s a disaster that makes the news and the type of hazard is “transferable” to where you are. That is, you have a similar known hazard for your location. The question can come from your boss, elected officials or the media. 

The question? Are we ready? Or, are you ready?

This question strikes at the heart of being an emergency manager. You are being paid to make sure your department, unit or office is doing what it takes for your organization to be ready for any disaster. To say that you are not ready raises the question, “Well, what have you been doing?” 

In the Army, there was a phrase that I used on occasion before a big event. It might have been an inspection, exercise or briefing that was what we called “high viz.” The question was often asked, “Are you ready?” My off-the-cuff response: “I was born ready!” I only said that when I was very confident of the outcome. Bosses like to hear that level of confidence just before a big event.

Before you use the phrase, I suggest first reviewing all the different types of hazards that could potentially impact your jurisdiction and note those that could cause catastrophic damage to people and property. Focus on these before making proclamations about your preparedness level.

It gives me great pause to think that we could deal with a disaster of the magnitude that someday will befall the geographic area I call home. Most of these are huge regional disasters that impact a broad swath of territory when they lay waste to the land, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. Small communities have also been devastated by high-impact floods, tornadoes and significant wind storms. 

To say that “you are ready” or “born ready” sends the wrong idea to people receiving the message. In today’s society, everyone wants to shift responsibility to someone else for action.

A message of “we’re ready” tells others that they don’t have to do anything to prepare because someone else has it covered for them.

So I suggest that you use one or both of the messages below: 

  • Talk about everything that has been done, is being done and what’s planned for the future in being able to mitigate, prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from a disaster. Itemizing your activities shows that you’re not just sitting around waiting for the disaster to occur. It can build confidence in your bosses about your abilities and in the public that you are actively preparing for the next disaster.
  • A community or region is never prepared based on the actions of one individual or agency. It takes everyone doing their part to become prepared for a disaster. Government has a role to play, as do schools, hospitals, businesses, families and individuals. 

There can be intense pressure from elected officials to send the message that “we are ready.”  The messages I provided above can help manage expectations for the people who are listening. People want us to be able to wave a magic wand and make it all better. Unfortunately Santa Claus is not real and neither is disaster resilience without everyone doing their part. 

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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