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Report: We’ve Failed Miserably at Preparedness

Efforts over the last two decades to prepare communities for disasters have failed and new methodologies need to be developed, according to research by FEMA’s Higher Education Program.

A review of the last couple of decades of the federal government’s approach to developing more disaster-resilient communities yielded the stark affirmation that those efforts have failed because of a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t reach most communities.

A better approach, a new FEMA Higher Education Program report says, is to develop individual cultures of preparedness from the bottom up that could eventually lead to a more resilient nation.

The report was the result of a two-day workshop that convened 39 expert scholars and practitioners at Georgetown University to discuss how to build a culture of preparedness. The theme of the report is that to build a culture of preparedness, the efforts from the past that have been mostly ineffective should be abandoned in favor of efforts that encourage local engagement through “culture brokers” with individual communities.

 “We’ve achieved our national preparedness goals when it comes to first responders [as per Presidential Policy Directive 8] but when it comes to preparedness of individual households and communities, we’ve failed,” said Laura Olson, a lead author of the report. “To say we’ve failed it putting it mildly. We really haven’t been able to achieve any of our goals for two decades at least, which is the amount of time we’ve been tracking this.”

The report suggests that it’s time to change strategies and discontinue the same top-down approaches like, “Buy a kit” and “Go to the website” because people aren’t paying attention. The problems with those approaches are that they don’t understand and articulate individual community needs, values and sense of identities, and they generalize the message.

The typical message has portrayed the family in a way that reaches just a portion of the population and misses big portions of the population. Plans should instead acknowledge different livelihoods, family structures, ethnic backgrounds, religious practices and so forth.

“Shift the lens from looking from the ground up, a radical shift to reframe how we go about this and understand what we’re doing,” said Kate Browne, a lead author of the report. “To reach a unified culture of preparedness is probably possible, but only if the inherent variabilities of those communities are engaged with directly.”

The key difficulty with past approaches is that communities across the country lost trust in the government and therefore, the report says, government is not the best entity to reach out to communities with a message of preparedness.

There must be recognition that there is going to be a cultural difference in communication, whether it be communication between emergency managers and communities or any other entities, and to eliminate assumptions.

An example she put forth was working with indigenous tribes in Alaska and the fact that the first person to speak shouldn’t be a government person but an elder from the tribe, according to customs and norms.

“It’s recognizing that the party you’re speaking to has its own way of communicating in their own styles and understanding of the world and what the risks are and how to deal with them,” Olson said.

It’s an acknowledgement that preparedness is not something that is delivered from the outside, but that people may already be working on as best they can with a variety of limitations that may be hampering their efforts.

“So many of these communities that are so vulnerable are dealing with a set of difficulties on a daily basis that make it difficult to put preparedness for something unseen, at the top of the to-do list,” Olson said.

That’s where culture brokers need to be developed that understand the community and its needs and what is already being done in that community to develop preparedness and enhancing that. Emergency managers can facilitate community preparedness through these culture brokers.

The report says that rather than immerse emergency managers in all kinds of impossible forms of cultural awareness and education there is a better solution, and that is to locate people who are steeped in this knowledge who are in the community.

And rather than go into a community and tell community leaders what they should be doing, emergency managers should work with those communities to enhance their efforts.

It will take resources and a suggested solution was to change how grants are awarded to encourage a bottom-up approach. Funding could be used for using researchers who could be trained in this type preparedness methodology who could in turn teach their knowledge to others and create a cascading effect.