Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Americans Are Indifferent Toward Disasters, Survey Says

People rate their level of preparedness as low and would verify an emergency alert before acting on it.

How many communication methods is your agency using to alert the public about emergencies? Probably not enough, according to a recently released survey.

Although 2011 was widely reported as having a record number of emergencies, Americans remain complacent when it comes to disasters and less than one-half of people surveyed said they would take action based on a severe weather warning. Federal Signal’s 2012 Public Safety Survey painted a grim picture of Americans’ readiness and their knowledge of emergency alert systems in their communities.

Despite the investments made by emergency management and public safety agencies in alerting and notification systems, a majority of respondents (71 percent) said they were unsure if their area has such a system.

“I think really what it points to is a need for continued communication and education by emergency managers and other public safety officials with their citizenry about the ways in which they can be warned,” said John Von Thaden, vice president and general manager at Federal Signal, a provider of alerting and notification systems. He added that the numerous communication platforms that are available make the task of getting the message to the public more difficult.

“Some people still want to receive them on their television and some people expect a phone call and others a text message, and others are looking for more traditional outdoor warning sirens depending on the area in which they live and the kind of events that may occur,” Von Thaden said.

According to the 2012 survey, communication from a local alert notification system would motivate the most people to prepare (36.2 percent) followed by a radio/TV public service announcement (30.6 percent); community warning siren (20.9 percent); communication from friends and/or family members (7.7 percent); reading news online (2.6 percent); and for some, no notifications would have an impact (1.9 percent).

To ensure that messages reach as many people as possible, Von Thaden recommended using a layered approach. Utilizing outdoor and indoor warning systems, telephone and text-based notifications, cable TV and local radio and TV stations as well as social media platforms will spread the message through numerous communication channels. Another reason why it’s important to use more than one communications channel is because people are going to validate the information they receive before acting on it. The survey found that 28 percent of respondents said they would like to see an alert or notification confirmed on a secondary system. “Which we certainly saw in many events like Joplin [Mo.] where people ignored the first warning and were looking for confirmation of the warning before they took any steps to protect themselves,” Von Thaden said.

Another surprising finding was people’s “indifference,” as Von Thaden called it, toward disasters. The survey found that one-third of people would require actually seeing property damage or injury in order to care strongly about public safety awareness.

“I think it certainly plays to these human factors that people often think that danger or adversity is going to happen to someone else,” he said. “And so those of us in emergency management and caring for public safety need to help people understand the importance of preparation — the fact that they too could find themselves in harm’s way.”

Educating citizens about ongoing preparedness and public safety efforts is key — a majority of survey respondents (58 percent) felt that ensuring sufficient public safety and communications planning for events was the responsibility of state and regional officials. Highlighting exercise and emergency planning and preparedness activities through numerous communications channels will help spread the word about local initiatives and educate more people about what’s being done in their community.

Other significant findings from the survey include:

  • 33.8 percent of Americans rated their level of public safety awareness and preparedness as very low, followed by somewhat high (25.9 percent), somewhat low (21.9 percent), not sure (10.3 percent) and very high (8.1 percent);
  • 56.6 percent of respondents did not know when sirens in their area are tested;
  • 34.3 percent said reading about or hearing statistics about the likelihood of a severe community event would make them care strongly about public safety awareness in general; and
  • 43 percent felt that the economy has had a negative impact on the level of public safety investment in their community.

The online survey included 2,059 adults and was conducted by Zogby International.

Elaine Pittman  |  Managing Editor

Managing Editor Elaine Pittman has nearly a decade of experience in writing and editing, having started her career with The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. Elaine joined Emergency Management in 2008, and she can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.

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