Clickability tracking pixel

Woeful Success Rate in Citizen Preparedness Suggests New Approaches are Necessary

A layered approach to alerting the public of impending harm is critical for response.

by / September 5, 2012
Patsy Lynch/FEMA Patsy Lynch/FEMA

Surveys measuring citizen preparedness show how woefully unprepared the populous is for a disaster and how much work community leaders have to do to reach residents and inform them.

Surveys consistently indicate that less than 10 percent of the public is considered prepared for a disaster and that percentage is usually closer to 6 percent. “That is nothing to write home about when you consider that 4 percent of the population is Mormon and they prepare without being told to do so by the U.S. government,” said Ana-Marie Jones, executive director of the nonprofit Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters (CARD).

Jones said the conclusion is that “very little sustainable preparedness has actually been put forth” and that the strategies and methods thus far have been failures. Jones said threat-based messaging is not viable and that recommending a kit with specific items to use just during an emergency is a failed strategy.

“No private-sector company would invest billions of dollars in putting out a message that had such dismal returns,” Jones said. “It’s threat-based, top-down and put forth by agencies whose mission and mindset and muscles are around disaster response not preparedness.”

She said the message embraced by CARD is one that encourages the enhancement of everyday activities that could prove beneficial during an emergency, like having the cellphone numbers of neighbors and relatives.

“If I told you to put aside your computer until you need it in a disaster, by the time you need it in a disaster you wouldn’t be familiar with it,” Jones said. “That’s exactly what happens with all that disaster stuff.”

“One of your best tools in a disaster is going to be your cellphone,” she said. “If on an everyday basis, you did things like program family and friends in your phone, you’d have a better shot.”

Jones said the best messengers for disaster preparedness are not emergency management agencies but community organizations, churches, schools and employers that encourage preparedness without scary messages that don’t work because they “trigger the overwhelm factor.”

Multiple Means of Alerting

It’s also important when notifying citizens of impending harm that a layered approach to alerting is undertaken.

John Von Thaden, general manager of alerting and notification systems for Federal Signal, said 23 percent of respondents in a recent survey said they’d need to hear about local property damage before they would be concerned about their own safety. And 15 percent said they would have to incur property damage or see an injured friend or neighbor to feel threatened.

For that reason, a viable notification system uses multiple means of alerting and gives citizens the opportunity to validate the information. “We found many people, particularly in our most recent study, expect to be able to validate by finding information elsewhere,” Von Thaden said. “There’s almost an assumption that bad things happen to other people.”

That means a single method of notification, such as a phone call or warning siren, is not enough. Citizens will want another avenue to validate that first warning, some to an alarming degree.

“That sense that bad things happen to other people is a real concern, Von Thaden said. “How to you provide effective warning and communicate that?”

He said the ability to geo-target neighborhoods or regions is important. “This can be done from outdoor warning sirens and other personal alerting devices as well as to specifically selecting those within an area at risk and sending just telephone calls or messages to those people,” Von Thaden said.

He said it’s critical to provide ways for residents to validate the message. “In a previous study we asked where would people go if they were looking for additional information. Those areas were just as diverse as the initial list of where they expected to receive the initial warning. We think it really requires a layered approach to communication.”

In other words, residents who hear of a potentially dangerous situation from the TV or a siren would need a phone call or text message to confirm the first warning, Von Thaden said. “The combination and layered approach to communication not only ensures that you reach your entire audience, but also means that you provide them with methods to validate that the message is actually for them.”

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

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs