Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

The Preparedness Message Isn’t Reaching the Public

Everyone agrees that citizen preparedness isn’t what it should be. How can the issue be fixed?

Americans have a false sense of security when it comes to disasters, and should they become victims, most haven’t taken steps to help themselves during the first few days after one strikes. Experts say either the preparedness message isn’t getting across, or the wrong message is being sent. 

In a recent survey conducted by the Ad Council, 17 percent of respondents said they were very prepared for an emergency situation, which means they have a kit and a plan to sustain themselves during the first few days of a disaster. In the same survey, however, just 23 percent of respondents said they have a plan to communicate with family members if there is no cellphone service.

But this figure is considered inflated by some who say the percentage of prepared citizens is dreadful. “Oftentimes you’ll get a survey saying 6 percent of the public is prepared,” said Ana-Marie Jones, executive director of the nonprofit organization Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters (CARD). “That’s nothing to write home about if you consider 4 percent of the population is Mormon and they prepare without being told to do so by the U.S. government.”

Jones said the methods for reaching the public leave a lot to be desired. “No private company would invest billions of dollars putting a message out that had such dismal returns,” she said. “You just would never do it.”

Jones took part in an event this summer, called Awareness to Action: A Workshop on Motivating the Public to Prepare, hosted by FEMA and the American Red Cross. The two-day event invited 85 preparedness experts from across the country to discuss how to engage the public with preparedness. Jones said the majority of attendees agreed that the message is flawed.

“The highlight of the two days was [FEMA Administrator] Craig Fugate coming to the meeting and being honest in saying we have to acknowledge that we haven’t moved the preparedness needle,” Jones said. “When the highest person in FEMA acknowledges that it has not been a success, it gives me hope.”

A Negative Message 

The message is to have a kit, be aware of potential emergencies and have a family plan. The problem is that it’s generally based on fear, according to some emergency management professionals. But to some, being prepared takes a backseat because they’ve never experienced a catastrophe.

“A mind-alerting event has not taken place in their lives to drive them to take some preparedness actions,” said Will Allen, retired colonel and CEO of consulting firm W. Allen Enterprises. He said most people don’t see preparedness as an important issue because of how it’s presented. “It has a lot to do with people’s experiences, their culture and awareness. Maybe our local government hasn’t made it an important issue to them.”

Jones said the “have-a-kit, be aware” message is OK, but the way it’s conveyed is problematic. “It’s threat-based, top down, put forth by agencies whose mission, mindset and muscles are around disaster response, not preparedness,” she said. “There’s a different way to leverage resources in a community than to tell everybody, ‘You need to have this, otherwise horrible stuff is going to happen to you.’”

The message is more like a “branding campaign” for the agencies, Jones said, and tying preparedness to specific threats like earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and terrorism is telling 90 percent of the population not to worry. “There’s a ton of research that shows that threat-based messaging and showing the horrible pictures of the collapsed buildings and the floating dead bodies does not help you prepare, but stops you from preparing because it triggers the overwhelm factor.”

The proper message isn’t tied to having a kit but to developing resilience every day.

The consensus is that many families don’t have an emergency kit. “We say, ‘You need to get a kit that has food, water, a radio, flashlight.’  The list goes on and on,” said

Dallas Emergency Management Director Kevin Oden. “Well, those costs really add up and most people can’t do that.” He said it’s better to ask people to prepare over time by bringing home extra water or nonperishable food when possible. And the best kits are not ones that were purchased whole but the ones built from supplies families use regularly and will use during a crisis.

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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