Intentions to Action: Tips for Creating a Culture of Preparedness

Mary Schoenfeldt, of the Everett, Wash., Office of Emergency Management, shares her decades of expertise on increasing community preparedness.

by / September 30, 2014
Mary Schoenfeldt says preparedness is more about a mindset than having an emergency kit. (Photo by Rick Dahms)

Mary Schoenfeldt is the public education coordinator for the Everett, Wash., Office of Emergency Management. She is a 2013 inductee into the International Network of Women in Emergency Management hall of fame and has written numerous books on school safety during her 30 years in the field.

Schoenfeldt is considered an expert in crisis management, helping communities assess response systems; writing crisis plans; conducting physical site safety audits; and designing school training exercises. She created the community preparedness campaign “Who Depends on You?” This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Emergency Management: Can you give an overview of the “Who Depends on You?” campaign?

Mary Schoenfeldt: It’s a public education campaign that was really created by a shelter dog, if you will. I’m like everybody else. I’m not as prepared as I should be and I was thinking why that was. I’m at a place in my life that I don’t have anyone I’m directly responsible for. I was walking up the driveway one day and this shelter dog that I’d adopted looked up at me [as if to say], “Now wait a minute — you’re responsible for me and I depend on you.”

That’s where the concept came from. The research tells us that it’s not about education; people are well educated about what they need to do to be prepared. They don’t have the motivation. They have great intentions. So my mantra has been let’s move people from intention to action, and to do that we have to look at what motivates people. What motivates people are responsibility, accountability and peer pressure, and I think back to when H1N1 was sweeping the country and everybody was washing their hands. That’s because the message was right there and everywhere you turned, whether it was on a billboard or on the side of a bus or on TV, and along with that was peer pressure. “If I don’t do it I might put somebody I care about at risk.” It reinforced for me what we were doing with Who Depends on You?

I have not found anything that I cannot wrap Who Depends on You? around. If I’m talking to a business, it’s their customers, vendors, employees. We can wrap the campaign around young families, that’s just a given. If you have children or elderly parents and they’re looking to you, let’s make sure we’ll be able to be there for them.

One of the most successful target groups that hear the message is pet owners. They will jump at being prepared because they have this incredible responsibility to whatever their Fluffy is. We’ve done some research and found there are more people who have preparedness plans and kits for their animals than there are people who have them for their families. Part of that is we’ve done a good job of marketing that.

EM: You hear a lot about getting a kit, but preparedness is much more than that isn’t it?

MS: It’s not about a kit, it’s about a mindset about not wanting to be inconvenienced in some ways because when the power is out we are inconvenienced. For the first hour or so it’s fun and we are camping, but after that it’s no longer fun if we can’t get information or power up something that we’re dependent on or our cellphones go dead and we don’t have a way to charge them. It’s a mindset of preparedness, of being ready for anything.

The research that we did also found that rural areas were much more prepared than our city dwellers. They confront it all the time. The power goes out more often in rural areas. There might be something that happens with the water supply; you might have to depend on neighbors or yourself because if you’re truly rural you might have a 20- or 30-minute response time to get basic medical or law enforcement. It’s different for those of us who live within a city limit or close to it where we have great government infrastructure — the response time to my house is three to five minutes. So why do I need to prepare? I’m just going to dial 911, and somebody is going to come and fix my problem.

We [respond] well on a good day, but it’s the bad day we need to prepare for. When I’m out there doing public education, I talk about the difference between an emergency and a disaster. An emergency is bigger than I am, I can’t take care of it and I dial 911; a disaster is I need help and I dial 911 and maybe the phone’s not even working, or the roads are impassable.

EM: Does preparedness have to start locally? How does it begin?

MS: You start it with conversations. It’s supported locally, and it’s supported by government or the official voice like FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security or a county or state. But I think truly the message comes on a much more personal level. I’m not sure the brochures that we hand out really get people to change and to go from intention to action. It’s more personal relationships, talking to somebody at a safety fair or at work. It’s having kids bring it home from school because the educators talked about it and have developed that relationship with that student and that student comes home and talks about it.

EM: Can we scare people into it?

MS: I don’t think so. I think we can scare people into being terrified and paralyzed. We have to get their attention sometimes and if you and I are neighbors and I tell you my experience, which was a frightening one, you may say, “What did we learn that may be a lesson for my family?” But I don’t think government can scare people into it. We go at it the wrong way. We need to tell them what works.

I’m seeing some local campaigns and public service announcements that really try to personalize that message. I’m seeing fewer government entities saying you need to have extra water, etc. We’re going away from that and the messages are becoming more personalized.

It’s improving but I don’t think everyone can be prepared. Because if we’re prepared and we’re functional in that emergency then it’s just a day-to-day operation. Chaos and confusion are ingredients of a disaster. You can’t have a disaster without chaos and confusion, that’s just an integral part. We can be better prepared but it will never be business as usual. We will always be out of step because physiologically and psychologically we don’t react as quickly as that disaster comes to us. We’re still in shock or denial, and the disaster is there and has turned our world upside-down.

EM: You mentioned kids. Are we getting to them early enough?

MS: We have a long way to go with that. We sometimes look for easy solutions. It has to be outside of a classroom because of the incredible pressures that they’re under anyway with learning and testing and school safety. If we add another curriculum, we’re fighting an uphill battle.

There are other organizations. Preparedness is part of the Girl Scout experience, the Lego League has partnered with IAEM and emergency managers across the country, and youth activities — Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA. There are probably thousands of activities out there that would teach kids emergency preparedness.

EM: You mention school safety and we’re seeing training for active shooter situations. Can you address that?

MS: That’s been my passion. I wrote the first book on school crisis response [School Crisis Response Teams: Lessening the Aftermath] in 1993. Preparedness is needed on a systemic level and a personal level. On a systemic level, I have shied away from focusing on an active shooter for a variety of reasons. If you look at an incident that’s happened on a school campus that involved an active shooter, the challenges to the school system are accounting for everybody; knowing who’s involved; who’s injured; who’s hiding; who didn’t come to school that day. The major challenges in a school shooting incident are accountability and communicating with everybody and that means students, staff and first responders.

Do we have accountability; do we leave or stay; partnering with those who come to help and connecting families. Those are the issues. They are the same with an industrial explosion or a collapsed roof in a wind storm. It’s all-hazards.

We’ve got system preparedness but educators and the staff at schools need to be personally prepared for disasters, and that’s not an emphasis I see as much as I would like. The principal, the teacher, bus driver, counselor — they need that same family preparedness plan whether it’s an earthquake or a major storm. You need to have that security that says if I’m at school and the tornado sirens go off I know my elderly mom is going to be OK because we’ve set up those systems and I’ve talked to the care facility where she is and I know their plan. I know my children, who attend another school, are going to be well taken care of. If schools aren’t open, people aren’t getting back to work and the whole economic engine gets disrupted.

EM: Can you talk about integrating critical incident stress management into training drills?

MS: It’s a key element because the psychological scars and impacts are sometimes far more severe than the physical. The concept of it is trying to provide a safe place for people to make sense of the senseless. You can use whatever model to do that and there are several out there. Emotional impact is truly going to define whether we recover. After Sandy Hook they created what they hoped was a similar image of the elementary school but it was at a neighbor school. It was painted to look like Sandy Hook; it was a recreation of the safe place that Sandy Hook had been. The old school was single-story but the new school was two-story. Some kids were diving under their desks on the first floor every time they heard a startling noise from the floor above. That to me is a clear indicator that we need to support people. It’s not a surprise.

Another story I heard was a teacher who stopped in the parking lot to call a friend the morning before she went into the new Sandy Hook to face her students. She said to her friend she didn’t sleep the night before and had horrible nightmares and needed a friendly voice. Those are some of the things that are clear indicators that critical incident stress management in a variety of forms is needed.

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 jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.

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