Training & Education

There Are No Victims Here: Creating an Empowered Survivor Culture

Emergency managers need to train, encourage and empower public partners to become their own heroes.

CERT member fire training
Community Emergency Response Teams assemble for fire suppression training. Flickr/Joe Loong

“Be your own hero.” The words hit me like a bolt of lightning (I’ll explain why later). I was at my office having coffee with a colleague and discussing the changing (declining) status of the world we live in. We started talking about the rash of random shootings and how they have, ironically, improved our nation’s geographical knowledge. Very few people had ever heard of Aurora, Colo.; Isla Vista, Calif.; or Newtown Conn., before deranged gunmen decided to take their personal grudges out on innocent people. Now the names evoke equal parts sympathy and infamy in the minds of many Americans.

The conversation then turned to how to use these situations to encourage general preparedness. For example, countless times people have gone to the movies and texted or talked their way through the “Please take time to make note of the nearest exit” message displayed before the feature presentation. After the shooting in Aurora, however, patrons were discreetly and independently scoping out the nearest exits well before being prompted to do so.

Why the shift?

Although the threat of fire breaking out in a theater may not be at the forefront of many theatergoers’ minds, the thought of a lunatic bringing in a gun and shooting unsuspecting patrons certainly still is. And the response to both incidents is essentially the same: get out as quickly and safely as possible. An emergency is an emergency is an emergency, and in the aftermath of an event, preparedness professionals (like myself) get hung up on the details and sometimes miss out on valuable opportunities to use recent tragedies to train the public in an attempt to prevent additional tragedies.

Too often the public has to be “humbled” by a tragic or devastating event before many people start to see the validity in the safety and preparedness measures that those of us in the emergency management/preparedness community work so hard to promote both in our professional and personal lives. However, once they do, it is our job to use these events to help foster the safety culture we strive for daily. In my professional career, I have encountered companies that have chosen either ineffective preparedness education and training measures, or outright inaction for fear of “spooking” their employees. In order to be effective, we must push past the barrier of fear. The public is already scared, and the only way to combat that fear is with knowledge. How many times have we heard on the news, “I didn’t think these kinds of things could happen here.” Tragedy happens everywhere, and the onus is upon us to make sure that the communities and constituencies we represent, and are responsible for, are both knowledgeable and resilient.

So what’s missing? Messaging that speaks the language of not just a privileged few but to the masses. While I have a great deal of respect for the recent Get a Kit, Make A Plan, Be Prepared campaign, I think the ambiguity of it confused a great deal of people. “Where can I get a kit?” “What kind of kit do I need?” “What kind of plan am I making?” “Be prepared for what?” It fell short of glory by not addressing critical questions in the print ads. Granted, the ambiguity may have been intentional: either to pique interest and encourage those with the Internet access to log on and learn more, and maybe, esoterically, to reflect the fact that a good kit is supposed to be somewhat generic and unencumbered. The ideal preparedness kit addresses all hazards, and maybe that’s what the creative minds that devised this ad campaign were going for. And it would have worked had this been an ad exclusively for those of us within the community. Instead, for the more vulnerable populations — those who are struggling to make ends meet and are concerned with more imminent and pressing issues such as missed bill payments, late rent or mortgage and how to keep food on the table — this ad was likely received as little more than people of privilege speaking to people of poverty. The urgency of the preparedness message doesn’t take precedence in the face of other everyday obstacles.

Often the task of preparation seems so daunting (and expensive) that most people don’t even try. A poll released in 2012 showed that 44 percent of people reported not having first aid kits. Forty-eight percent said they did not have emergency supplies. Another 53 percent said they did not have the recommended three-day supply of food and water on hand in case of an emergency. So what do we do to get people on board? What do we do to encourage them to get prepared and at the same time form a more productive partnership with our public? We can’t do it for them — but we can show them how they can do it themselves.

Going back to my colleague’s comment. While we were having our discussion, he said that in the face of tragedy, instead of trying to come in and fix everything on our own, we in the emergency management/preparedness community need to teach people to “be your own hero.” What a brilliant strategy and a heck of a tagline, if you ask me. The same 2012 poll revealed that more than half of Americans believe that local authorities will still be available to assist them in the event of a disaster. What many of them fail to realize is that rescuers and local authorities are not superheroes working from impenetrable fortresses of solitude. They are our colleagues and neighbors and may likely be similarly impacted and incapacitated by the same disruptive incident.

By teaching our community members how to use what they have and tap into the resources that are already available to them (friends, family members, churches and community centers, for example) should the unthinkable occur, we better utilize both our time and their resources. By breaking the preparedness process into tangible tasks, members of the public will not feel so overwhelmed or pressured to buy the hundreds of dollars worth of supplies toted on many preparedness sites. No one person can do everything, but if everyone contributes something, then the community is better equipped and able to assist itself (and us!) post-disaster. Finally, by promoting community-based response and resiliency efforts, we teach community members to fend for themselves and care for each other until help arrives. We give them ownership of the problem and charge them with seeking out the solutions that work best for their own unique surroundings. We teach them not to stand by and wait for help, but to be their own heroes.

A former boss once told me, “The worst plans you can make for yourself are often better than the best plans that other people can make for you.” I have no problem asking members of the public if, during a disaster, they would rather sit on the cold hard floor of a dingy recreation center surrounded by several hundred of their closest (and equally miserable) friends, eating stale peanut butter sandwich crackers, or if they would prefer to stay in their own (less miserable) homes, on their own couches eating fresh peanut butter sandwiches. When the situation is presented in that way, the answer becomes obvious. Similarly, when we give the public a reason to care, candidly share the likely outcomes of inaction and provide them feasible ways to prepare for whatever is on the horizon, we are taking significant steps to quashing the so-called “victim culture” that many emergency management professionals have become accustomed to interacting with. More importantly, we are training, encouraging and empowering our valuable public partners to become their very own heroes.

Charisma Williams is an emergency preparedness professional in Washington, D.C. In her spare time, she preaches “the gospel of preparedness,” helping to promote a culture of personal resiliency and responsibility.

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