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Why Emergency Managers Shouldn’t Alienate Preppers (Opinion)

A prepper’s take on how emergency managers can build relationships and work with members of the prepper community.

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There is a serious downside to the recent demonizing of preppers in the media, and that downside has a direct effect upon emergency management personnel. Before I go into why that is the case, we need to understand the truth about preppers.

First and most importantly, the vast majority of preppers are essentially just like anyone else you know. Some of the people who live in your neighborhood are probably preppers. Few people realize that estimates have the numbers of preppers at approximately 3 million to 5 million Americans, and the number is growing fast.

Second, many preppers are current or former military, police and fire department personnel. There are scores of nurses as well as doctors, scout masters, mechanics, pilots, weathermen, teachers and generally Americans of all ages and from all walks of life, all of whom are preppers.

As a result of my exposure and contacts with hundreds of preppers online and in person, I have formed the opinion that the vast majority of preppers are merely the people next door. People who after witnessing emergencies or disasters (Katrina or Sandy) have become better prepared (“prepped”) by following FEMA’s advice and have stored some basic supplies and equipment, as well as others who through their backgrounds in EMS, police or military may have better than average equipment, supplies and skills, but nonetheless are our fellow Americans and neighbors. I have found these people to be loyal and helpful, with a sincere interest in emergency management and disaster preparedness. 

It’s unfortunate that there are a few people who have broken the law or have shown some mental instability, who may call themselves preppers, or have been labeled as preppers by the media. And because of all the trendy TV shows and movies about preppers, zombies and doomsday, it’s newsworthy when anyone who commits a crime is identified as a prepper. As with most stereotypes, these kinds of gross mischaracterization couldn’t be further from the truth.

But why is this important to emergency managers? There are many reasons, all of which are tactically important during an emergency, and especially during a large-scale disaster.

Valuable Assets

As a result of current economic conditions, all budgets are strained. However there are proven ways to make limited budgets more effective. Where I grew up in Southern Oregon, we had little money in the county budget for the fire departments, especially in rural areas. This problem was solved in our rural area back in 1960s via the addition of volunteer firemen/women. I am sure this was the case in other locales as well, and these programs are arguably the predecessors of the CERT programs today. With minimal training and under the guidance of a few experienced firefighters, the force was effective and operated within a tiny budget. The meme of the all expense-paid operational budget for emergency operations is waning, if not past-tense already. Given that many preppers have backgrounds and training that allow direct integration into on-scene emergency operations (former police, fire, EMS, etc.), or who have enough basic training to be effective volunteers, it’s a mistake to alienate this large group of people.

Given the total numbers and national distribution of preppers, if even a small percentage become effective volunteers on an as-needed basis during local, regional or national emergencies, emergency managers could potentially field a significantly more robust response than under normal circumstances.

It’s important for emergency managers to understand that preppers are a cut-above the vast majority of citizens when it comes to emergency and disaster preparedness. Most average citizens are unprepared for any kind of emergency or disaster, have virtually no training and will constitute the bulk of post-disaster victims requiring some form of assistance.

1. Most preppers have some level of basic training including CPR and first aid skills and have spent some time learning about emergency and disaster situations.

2. Preppers have extensive and detailed local knowledge that can help emergency managers who come into a theater of operations from outside a local or regional area.

3. Preppers can volunteer where they are needed, on an immediate basis, short or long term, since they are from the local area and have a base of support.

4. Preppers have extensive assets — such as equipment, vehicles, radio communications and supplies — so they will not drain emergency resources.

5. Preppers are motivated by a strong desire to protect their families, neighbors and neighborhoods, combined with a love of their country, and there is no better motivation for a volunteer force.

By working together with preppers, emergency managers and agencies can be more effective in their missions. But in order for that to happen, steps must be taken:

1. Steps must be taken to dismiss stereotyping. The vast majority of preppers are not militants, terrorists or anti-government. This false stereotype is being perpetrated by a few media outlets as well as a few troublemakers who identify themselves as preppers and utilize social media platforms to further propaganda that is designed to set preppers and government agencies against each other.

2. Emergency managers and agencies need to develop and foster an environment where preppers are welcomed and offered an opportunity to be a part of their local and regional emergency disaster response.

Notwithstanding the existing CERT programs and the value they provide, there is a drawback. CERT training courses as currently provided require a significant amount of time offsite (away from home and work). It may make sense to implement a program (i.e., PCERT or Prepper CERT) that has a less demanding training time and scheduling requirement. For example, training and certification that can be accomplished incrementally online in someone’s free time.

As a result of current economic conditions, time away from work or family comes at a very high cost to would-be volunteers. Through the creation of a certification program with lesser demands than those of the existing CERT program, participation could be enhanced greatly, while simultaneously building unity between preppers and FEMA, DHS and local CERT programs. A program that could be accomplished using an online portal for training and certification would be optimal. PCERT members could be used in larger-scale disasters and could work under the guidance of professional emergency managers and/or fully trained CERT members.

Such a program might be initiated through the use of social media tools where Web-based educational materials (CERT materials) can be provided that will allow preppers to develop a clear understanding of the emergency disaster response policies and procedures used by CERT and FEMA.

The value of this basic educational PCERT status would allow and enhance the use and team integration of prepper volunteers during serious emergencies. This goal could easily be achieved via online education using training videos and testing designed for preppers, where upon the satisfactory completion of a simple battery of online tests, preppers could receive some form of simplified certification. Additionally, registration and results from such testing (email address/contact information) would provide emergency managers with contact information and an estimation of the potential size of the volunteer base in any given area or region.

We cannot expect the majority of preppers to obtain degrees or advanced training in emergency management or complete a full CERT training program. The full level of CERT training would be incumbent upon team leaders and emergency management professionals who would provide on-scene leadership and guidance to the proposed PCERT members.

Preppers are not in the position to initiate the foregoing, which places the burden for initiating such changes in the hands of emergency management professionals and agencies. And there is no time to lose in building such a relationship and training platform. The next Katrina, Sandy or possibly something even worse could happen at any time.

Capt. William E. Simpson is a U.S. Merchant Marine officer and was part of the USCG Auxiliary. He appeared on National Geographic’s TV series Doomsday Preppers.