Understanding the Public Will Lead to Better Emergency Plans, Preparedness

Planning for how and why people react way to an emergency should be the basis for planning.

by / March 26, 2010
Garry Briese

Photo: Garry L. Briese, former FEMA Region VIII administrator. Photo courtesy of FEMA/Bill Koplitz.

Understanding how economic realities affect residents and their disaster preparedness and response capabilities needs to be considered by emergency managers, Garry Briese, former FEMA Region VIII administrator, told attendees at the All-Hazards, All-Stakeholders Summit in Seattle on Thursday, March 25.

More than 766,000 U.S. residents fall below the poverty line; 25 percent of the population doesn’t have a credit card; and 40 to 50 percent of people cannot afford to purchase Ready.gov’s list of recommend supplies to have in case of disaster, said Briese, also the co-founder of the Center for New Media and Resiliency. These numbers need to be considered when emergency management agencies create plans and set standards that officials expect the public to comply with.

Emergency managers take comfort in telling the population to buy the list of recommended items from Ready.gov, however the cost of those items can exceed $375 and many require replenishment, he said. “I think we need to continue personal preparedness absolutely, but I want people to work on the top 10 things we want them to have,” Briese said. “I don’t care if they have plastic wrap and duct tape. How do we simplify our message? We’re asking too much and sending mixed messages to the public.”

Understanding how people react to an emergency and why needs to be examined when preparedness and response plans are being developed. “They will act in what they believe is in their best interest, not what we tell them,” he said, adding that efforts to modify this thinking won’t make a difference.

Briese identified four essentials of life, which provide agencies and officials ideas to consider when developing and updating plans. The essentials of life are:

  1. Communications – He said people have become tethered to wireless devices. “The single most important thing we can do as emergency managers is re-establish the ability to communicate,” he said. Public-to-public communications are under way before authorities arrive at an emergency scene, and emergency operations centers and 911 call centers need to embrace the public as a source for information.
  2. Transportation – Briese said transportation is a major point of failure for emergency managers, adding that evacuation of urban areas is the most critical unresolved issue in emergency management today. Actions that can be taken to aid evacuations are: using GPS to track cell phone density, using statewide public warning systems and blending social networking with GIS mapping.
  3. Power – Everything people do is based on having power, Briese said — citing that battery-powered candles are even available — and power loss isn’t listed in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s catastrophic planning scenarios. There have been major blackouts in the nation during the last decade, like the Queens, N.Y., blackout of 2006 that affected more than 100,000 people for nine days. However, he said he hasn’t seen lessons learned reports from this and similar events. Information on how the government communicated with citizens during blackouts, among other details like how the public was fed, would aid other localities in preparing plans. He recommended that emergency managers include sustained power interruption in their emergency planning, and that every police, fire and major public building be outfitted with whole-building generators to become “community points of light.”
  4. Water – Potable water is one of the first items needed after a disaster, but it’s expensive and heavy to transport. During hurricanes Katrina and Rita, about 13 million gallons of drinkable water were transported, which cost more than $100 million, Briese said. Increasing information to the public about potable water availability could make a difference in future disasters; he asked if the public knows that water heaters can be tapped for potable water. Water purification also offers an alternative to delivering water to residents. “You don’t necessarily need to provide water, but a way for people to cleanse water,” he said.

Understanding the public is the first step to helping to create more self-sufficient communities. For the future of emergency management, Briese said: “We need to base actions on research of what people actually do in emergency situations.”



Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.

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