Cultivating a Culture of Preparedness in the United States

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By Brendan Gallagher – In the two years since Hurricane Katrina, much public attention has focused on the failure of government entities to first protect, help the people of New Orleans and other affected areas recover, and to mitigate the effects of future hurricanes in the region. However, the Federal government has not made progress in resolving an underlying shortcoming in our Nation’s preparedness: Developing a universal culture of preparedness.

The White House Report on Hurricane Katrina named developing a culture of preparedness as one of its primary recommendations. The report defines a culture of preparedness as a system that “emphasizes that the entire Nation-at all levels of government, the private sector, communities, and individual citizens-shares common goals and responsibilities for homeland security.”According to the report, a preparedness culture is founded on four principals: “a shared acknowledgement of the certainty of future catastrophes and that creating a prepared Nation will be a continuing challenge; the importance of initiative and accountability at all levels ofsociety; the role of citizen and community preparedness; and finally, the roles of each level of government and the private sector in creating a prepared Nation.

A preparedness culture is founded on the shared understanding that future disasters will occur and that every person has a responsibility to prepare for and respond appropriately to these incidents. The benefits of cultivating a preparedness culture are obvious. The human impact of disasters will be reduced, emergency response professionals will be able to perform critical tasks more effectively, and recovery from disasters will be faster and more efficient. The question is not whether there should be a culture of preparedness in this country, but how do we create such a culture?

The presence of a tangible, generally accepted threat is the single most important ingredient for creating a culture of preparedness. But America lacks such a perception of risk. US geographic and industrial diversity means that citizens in different regions are subject to different natural and man-made hazards. Residents of southwest United States routinely experience devastating wildfires, those in the mid-west plains face tornadoes and floods, while residents of New York City might view terrorism as the foremost threat to their individual safety. This diversity of threats makes it challenging to achieve the universal perception of risk that underlies a culture of preparedness. This is further complicated by the fact that many United States citizens have never personally experienced a natural or man-made disaster of any significance. For these people, preparedness planning is unlikely to be a priority.

Recent events have also demonstrated that Americans lack the sense of individual responsibility required to create a true culture of preparedness. In the United States, preparedness and emergency response has traditionally been viewed as a purely governmental function. This notion is reinforced by official preparedness and response procedures that generally do not include an active role for individual citizens. This omission has contributed to an ethic of passivity in the population that negatively impacts our ability to prepare for and cope with disasters. The current view of preparedness as a governmental function must be abandoned; individuals must learn to take an active, rather than a passive, role in preparing for disasters. This sense of individual responsibility will fuel larger government preparedness initiatives and facilitate effective operations during emergency incidents.

Initiatives to overcome these challenges and develop a strong culture of preparedness in the United States have these key goals:

A Universally Accepted Notion of All-Hazards: The Federal Government must cultivate an understanding of the all-hazards approach to emergency preparedness and response. Currently, the multitude of threats facing the U.S. has led to the development of innumerable preparedness and response procedures. Citizens are expected to follow different emergency procedures in response to such incidents as hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, hazardous materials releases, transportation incidents, terrorist incidents, etc. This confusing array of procedures is nearly impossible to convey effectively to members of the general population. With the advent of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Incident Command System (ICS), federal, state, and local governments have officially adopted a single, all-hazards approach to incident response. Until this idea becomes more widely accepted, Americans will lack the unified perception of risk that underlies a culture of preparedness.

A National Preparedness Education Program: A formal, nationwide educational program is needed to teach citizens the all-hazards approach and nurture the sense of individual responsibility required for a robust preparedness culture. This educational program should become a regular part of the K-12 curriculum in America’s public schools and should consist of two tiers: A national-level unit that focuses on all-hazards preparedness and response; and a local/regional component that emphasizes techniques for addressing the hazards most likely to occur in a particular region. Such a program will ensure that most citizens are aware of the threats that face them and understand the actions they can undertake to counter those threats.

Formal Inclusion of Individual Citizens in Emergency Procedures: To reinforce the critical role of individual citizens in emergency preparedness, the Federal government should formally include them in official policies and procedures such as NIMS and ICS. The inclusion of citizens in these procedures will create clear expectations of individual conduct before, during, and after emergency incidents. This will reduce the chaos and confusion that often follows emergency incidents and will allow emergency response professionals to focus their efforts on critical tasks that require their specialized expertise.

Implementing these initiatives will improve our ability to prepare for and respond to future disasters. In the short term, citizens will gain an increased understanding of critical emergency procedures, and learn how to conduct themselves more appropriately during emergency incidents. Over time, we will begin to develop of a strong culture of preparedness that will drastically improve our ability to cope with any threat that faces us in the future. 

Brendan Gallagher is a Research Assistant with the Domestic Preparedness project.   

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