Rethinking Emergency Preparedness: 4 Steps for a Realistic Plan

While a number of studies show that overall emergency preparedness is increasing in the United States, somewhere around 40 to 45% of our citizens have done nothing to prepare. Maybe it’s time we revisited how we’re asking people to prepare for disasters.

While the basic message of make a plan, build a kit, and stay informed is sound, we have encouraged the view that preparedness is an end in itself. In other words, we have made it something outside, rather than a component of, daily life. We have not encouraged citizens to internalize preparedness.

Part of the problem is that we tend to base our preparedness advice on ideal conditions. We assume that a person has the resources to prepare. The reality is that with unemployment holding at about 9.6% (as of August 2010) and between 12 and 17% below the poverty line at any given time, many families do not have the resources to set aside separate supplies for possible emergencies. Consequently, our message to prepare emergency kits does not resonate with much of the public.

Another area where we have not kept pace is in understanding how complex people’s lives have become. We talk of family emergency plans but we don’t consider the mobile nature of many families nor do we consider how families actually communicate. For example, our emphasis on an out-of-state contact was based on old telephone technology and may well have been replaced or at least supplemented by the tweet, “IM OK”.

And speaking of social media, people’s expectations as to how they will obtain help and information in disaster have changed significantly. We also have examples of “just in time” emergency training delivered via social media.

This disconnection from what people are actually doing and the realities of daily life distorts our message and creates a certain amount of cognitive dissonance with the public. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling you get when you try to hold conflicting ideas simultaneously. It occurs when we say one thing but encourage a conflicting action.

Effective preparedness cannot be something external to daily life. Instead, we have to convince the public to internalize preparedness, to make it part of how they lead their lives. Unfortunately, we’ve tried to do this using scare tactics: prepare or die.

As our research shows, this doesn’t work. The first reason is psychological: people don’t believe a disaster will happen to them or that it won’t be that bad if it does. Secondly, despite what the media would have us think, the actual incidence of disasters is relatively low – people know that the odds of bad things happening to them are actually fairly low. Instead, we need to focus on daily occurrences rather than the once in a lifetime event. Here are some strategies for doing that:

1. Forget the “kit”

I believe that by emphasizing kits that require money and/or effort we have lost sight of the fact that what we are trying to do is increase an individual’s capacity to respond to crisis. Our focus should be on pointing how you can use daily capacity in a crisis and how preparedness activities can add value to your daily activities.

2. Develop Tools to Enhance Capacity

We need tools like these that are more sensitive to family budgets rather than endlessly revised lists of supplies. However, one of the most effective tools I’ve seen was a disaster supplies calendar developed by Chevron that helped you to build your kit over time.

3. Develop Realistic Examples

Providing realistic and specific guidance allows the public to better internalize our preparedness message. A visual image of a three-day food supply translated into recognizable supermarket products is more effective than just saying “have three days worth of food on hand.”

4. Rethink How We Provide Information

Social media offers us some interesting mechanisms for connecting with the public in times of crisis. We need to think about how this medium can be leveraged to increase an individual’s capacity to respond.

There is no question that we are making headway in making the United States better prepared. But one always wonders if this is a product of the attention generated by large disasters over the past few years rather than a lasting change. To change people’s mindsets, we need to adapt our message to make it more relevant. We need to focus on building resiliency through increasing individual capacity for disaster survival.