After reading Jim McKay’s article about the “Black Hole of Communication” created by Superstorm Sandy, I noticed a startling tidbit of information: The three-day baseline for individual preparedness is now being extended to 10 days. As an emergency management professional, I was taken aback because even though I work in the field, I had no idea. Who made this determination? When? And how did they arrive at such an arbitrary number? Ten days seems just as random as the previous three-day rule, which from my research and understanding, no one has been able to attribute to a single source. Instead it seems to have simply been adopted as the standard.
Initially, I was concerned that this determination was a sort of knee-jerk reaction to this catastrophe, but then I realized that this was a small piece of a much larger puzzle. The black hole of communication does not exist exclusively during or immediately after a disaster; it appears to exist beforehand as well.
Instead of selecting numbers haphazardly, why not use a measurement of time that everyone is familiar with: one week. For areas where more extensive damage is expected, ask communities to be prepared to self-sustain for two weeks. The public has a very short attention span and even less time, so future messaging should be crafted around things that people already know. To be optimally effective, preparedness must be as easy and convenient as possible. Otherwise, it will be nearly impossible to obtain buy-in from the public. The last thing the emergency management community needs is for citizens to get caught up in the details of preparedness messaging and further delay their preparedness activities with concerns like, “Wait, should I be preparing for three days or 10 days?” The important thing is that they are doing it, and their behavior will reflect the efficacy (or lack thereof) of our communication efforts with them.
Be honest: If someone randomly walked up to you and said, “Get a kit, make a plan, be prepared” and walked away, you would probably look at them much as you would someone sitting on a sidewalk holding a sign saying “The End Is Near.” Right now, this is exactly the way the public is viewing our messaging. It is cryptic, ominous and lacks detail. The missing piece of the puzzle is that we are not telling people how to do the things that we are asking them to do. We may not have all the answers, but action-oriented messaging will at least get people thinking about what they can do to help themselves.
Many people complain that preparedness is cost prohibitive. My concern is that by extending the individual preparedness threshold to 10-days, it will make the task seem even more daunting and further demotivate people who are already struggling just to make ends meet. (To be fair, I have the same concern about extending it to seven days as well.)
Tips for Building a Budget-Friendly Preparedness Kit
While Sandy is still relatively fresh in the minds of Americans, we must use the aftermath to remind people why it is important to prepare. A renewed emphasis on community-based preparedness is one way to empower citizens and stakeholders to take their well beings into their own hands. The nation has had several disasters in the last 10 years that have demonstrated the fact that the government is not always going to be there to provide aid right away. Maybe one person cannot do everything by his or her self, but if everyone in the community does something to prepare, that community is almost assured to fare better in a disaster than if its residents simply do nothing and wait on government aid and assistance to roll in.
Involving the public as partners and stakeholders should be a critical part of our strategy moving forward. By equipping citizens and communities with the tools and information they need before disaster strikes, we are doing a great service to ourselves and the public we serve. We are ensuring that our efforts will be multiplied and that preparedness investments made in our communities will be maximized the next time a disaster strikes.
Charisma Williams is an incident analyst in Washington, D.C. She is currently completing her M.S. in engineering management at The George Washington University, also in Washington, D.C.