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Girl Scouts Work to be 'Prepared not Scared'

A partnership between the Girl Scouts of the USA and federal agencies seeks to help establish a culture of preparedness.

by / February 9, 2011
Troop 5127 in Potomac, Md., earned the preparedness patch after learning about personal safety and spreading the messages within its community. Photo courtesy of Steve Peterson. Steve Peterson

Instilling preparedness in the nation’s youth has been a growing priority for many organizations across both the governmental and nongovernmental spheres. And to make emergency planning and readiness part of people’s everyday habits, national leaders — including FEMA Administrator
Craig Fugate and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano — are seeking to ingrain disaster preparedness information in increasingly younger audiences.

In this vein, a partnership between the aforementioned agencies and the Girl Scouts of the USA was officially established in September 2009, further spreading these messages and increasing preparedness for the organization’s 3.3 million Girl Scouts — 2.4 million girl members and 928,000 adult members — and their communities.

“Being prepared has been part of Girl Scouting since we were founded in 1912, so for almost 100 years,” said Brigid Howe, manager of program services for the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital. “Looking at preparedness today, it’s obviously changed. And we thought when we started to work with DHS and FEMA on this, ‘How can today’s girls be leaders in the field of preparedness?’”

According to the affiliation statement, the partnership seeks to: motivate young women to
become leaders in their communities in emergency management and response; raise public awareness about personal preparedness, training and volunteer service opportunities; and encourage the FEMA Citizen Corps councils and Girl Scouts councils to work together.

This initiative will help create the culture of preparedness that emergency managers seek at all levels of government. “When you reach out to kids and when you start with kids, cultural change happens in part because when you get to reach them at a young age, they’ll remember it throughout their own lives,” said Paulette Aniskoff, director of the Individual and Community Preparedness Division in FEMA’s National Preparedness Directorate. “But they also bring it home to their families, so you get to change their culture at home. You really get a double hit when you involve kids.”

Discover, Connect, Take Action

The Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital worked with FEMA’s Citizen Corps to develop the Emergency Preparedness Patch Program, which enlists the Girl Scouts’ three keys to leadership: discover, connect and take action.

“This new preparedness patch will increase citizen preparedness and enhance our country’s readiness for disasters,” Napolitano said in a statement. “As a former Girl Scout, I know the ‘Be prepared’ motto well — and I look forward to working with the Girl Scouts to spread the preparedness message to all of our nation’s citizens.”

The organizations began working together at the end of 2008 to develop the partnership and materials the Girl Scouts would use. “We went to them with our ideas and said, ‘Here’s how we think we can make this fun, engaging and interactive, but can you make sure we’re saying the right things [and] that we’re getting the right content across?’” Howe said.

Citizen Corps representatives helped with the educational materials to ensure that the content was cohesive with its messaging. Aniskoff said FEMA also ensured that Girl Scout leaders were provided with the correct research, data and background information, so they would in turn educate their troops and community members with the correct information.

To earn the patch, Howe said the girls first learn about the natural and man-made risks in their communities, then connect with their community by working with its members, and finally they become a part of their community’s preparedness plan.

“We asked girls to get to know their firefighters, police officers, city planners and emergency
managers of towns,” she said. “We’re also asking girls to think about their emergency plans for everything, whether it’s something as simple as going to get ice cream or going to camp, so that they could start modeling that planning behavior.”

Although the Girl Scouts Council of the Nation’s Capital developed the patch program, the materials are available to all of the organization’s more than 100 councils. Howe recommends that other councils adapt the program to their areas by customizing it to discuss their local hazards.

Don’t Be Scared, Be Prepared

Girl Scout Troop 5127 of Potomac, Md., went above and beyond the call to take action when earning the preparedness patch. In addition to creating emergency kits for their homes and meeting local firefighters, the troop created a public service announcement (PSA) to spread the
information it learned to the community.

“We wanted to get out to the public and inform them of how they should be prepared in an emergency, because of all those recent stories about how many people have been in a car accident or the recent [Haiti] earthquake,” said 12-year-old Girl Scout Elizabeth Peterson. “They haven’t been prepared for it.”

The PSA leads and ends with the slogan “Don’t be scared, be prepared,” which the troop came up with. The girls produced and starred in the 30-second PSA, which asks questions including: Do you have an emergency supply kit? Do you have an evacuation plan? The project also included the Emergency Management Professional Organization for Women’s Enrichment and consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton as part of a public-private partnership.

Aside from creating the PSA, Elizabeth’s other favorite activity was Jell-O Germs, which taught the girls how easily germs spread between people. The troop members mixed vegetable oil with different colors of Jell-O powder and then rubbed the mixture on their hands. “We would shake hands with other people, and then we would learn how many germs we had on our hands without washing our hands,” she said. “When we looked at our hands there were a lot of different colors, which all represented germs.”

Connecting With Communities

Emergency managers don’t have to wait for organizations like Girl Scouts to contact them to obtain more information about preparedness. Aniskoff had three recommendations for reaching children and young community members.

First, connect with after-school programs because they’re usually searching for content. This is one way of “going where the kids are,” she said, adding that FEMA hopes to release guidance and tools this year for connecting with these organizations. Using social media to spread preparedness messages is another way of reaching them on platforms they’re already using.

Second, piggyback on programs that are already successful instead of creating a new, stand-alone initiative. “I think the one thing that people tend to forget, even though it’s really simple, is if a church has a great mentor program, could we add a preparedness element to it?” Aniskoff said.

Third, work with teachers and principals to determine what works for their classrooms and students, instead of telling them what you think would work as a program or presentation. “As much as the program material could be perfect or the program itself could be really exciting, if it doesn’t work with the teacher, it’s not going to work,” Aniskoff said, adding that she also recommends finding out which grades must complete requirements like standardized testing. The grades that aren’t included in the testing, she says, may have more flexible schedules.

Beside developing a culture of preparedness, working with children and young adults will help develop the future emergency management work force. “I think one of the things we heard was that young girls were interviewing first responders and learning about what it is, and we certainly would love in general to have a more diverse work force in emergency management,” Aniskoff said. “This is such a great way to bring in more women, young people and people of color into this family of emergency preparedness.”

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.

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