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Who’s Prepared? Not Many (Opinion)

In most cases, amid their chaotic lives, many people have missed the preparedness memo.

by / August 23, 2012
Image from Shutterstock

How many hands would go up if you asked any audience the question: Do you have an emergency kit or would you be self-sustained for at least 72 hours during an emergency?

Not many, if the audience members were truthful.

At a recent roundtable discussion I posed the following question to a group of officials: “Why are folks indifferent about disaster preparedness?” It was a lively discussion, and I got several answers:

“People don’t pay attention until a disaster hits. They don’t think it’s going to happen to them. It’s like telling people to put a smoke detector in their home. They might do it but then forget about the batteries.”

One participant said adults just don’t listen and that he’d turned his attention to kids. It’s in the schools where we have to get to them. Then they’ll go home and tell the parents, make them do something.

“It’s not my job,” said an emergency manager. “It’s up to the community leaders to get the community to pay attention and prepare.”

One gentleman gave me a quizzical look, obviously puzzled by the way I asked the question. He said people are simply unaware.

And he was right. In most cases, amid their chaotic lives, many people have missed the preparedness memo, if there was one. And what about non-English-speaking families? Who is communicating to them about becoming a first responder when disaster strikes? What about folks who struggle to put food on the table? Are they storing food and water to last 72 hours in case of an emergency?

How many families are really prepared to stand on their own for a few days?

I called an emergency manager to discuss it. 

“If you’re on a plane today and somebody has a knife or is acting erratic, who’s going to stand up and take care of that issue?” he asked. “Everybody. All the passengers understand they have the responsibility, because nobody’s going to come to their rescue,” he said.

“That’s where it would be great to get to on disasters, but people want to sit back comfortably in their seats knowing that when something bad happens, somebody is going to take care of them.”

I asked, “Have they gotten the message that they need to prepare themselves, that they might not be rescued?’”

“No. A common response is they just don’t have access to the information, that’s why they’re not prepared.”

He continued: “You see these surveys that say 25 to 30 percent of the population is ready for a disaster. That’s BS.”

He estimated the prepared at less — even among his peers. “I bet only 10 percent of emergency managers are ready.”

During the last week of June, FEMA and the American Red Cross staged an event called Awareness to Action: A Workshop on Motivating the Public to Prepare. They invited 85 emergency management experts from around the country to figure out how to convey a message that makes an impact.

It’s not enough to say that people won’t listen. And it’s a mistake to give up on adults and focus only on school-age children. Let’s hope that the 85 experts at the workshop came up with real strategies because people just aren’t getting the message.

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

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