The Disaster of Disaster Preparedness

I am now an official member of New York State’s Citizen Preparedness Corps. I even have the Certificate of Completion (auto-signed by both Governor Andrew Cuomo, as well as Jerome Hauer, the Commissioner of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services) to prove it.

I was awarded my Certificate of Completion for ‘attendance and successful participation" in a roughly two-hour training session yesterday evening.  Upon completion of the training, I also received a free “Citizen Preparedness Corps Response Starter Kit” - a backpack filled with some basic disaster preparation supplies (Plastic drop cloth, light stick, D Batteries, First Aid Kit, Face mask, Safety goggles, AM/FM pocket radio w/batteries, packs of drinking water, food bars, a regular flashlight, emergency blanket, duct tape, work gloves, and a water bottle) and information from the City of New York Department of Emergency Management (among others) about the various steps that should take to be ready in the event of an emergency.

What I am not is… prepared.  In fact, aside from having new/additional materials in my possession, I am no more prepared for an emergency that I was before attending the training. I have not develop an emergency plan (contact information, evacuation details, etc) - for myself or my family.  I don’t have a fully stocked emergency kit (which would allow us to make it on our own for 7-10 days without electricity, clean water, etc) or a 'GoPack’ that I could grab if there was ever a need to evacuate quickly.  For the record, I have been planning to craft an emergency plan and stock our apartment with the appropriate supplies for a while. At various points over the past few years I have even made some progress towards this goal.  But as it stands right now, I am far from ready.  I am also not the only one. 

The Citizen Preparedness Corps has a goal of equipping 100,000 citizens in the State of New York with the tools they need to be ready and able to help their families and neighbors during emergencies - in other words, to become their own first responders. The program was launched by Governor Cuomo earlier this year - part of a series of efforts to improve how New Yorkers prepare for/respond to significant weather events (e.g. Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, etc) and other emergencies (e.g. terrorist attacks, blackouts, etc).

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I am pretty knowledgeable when it comes to disaster preparation - certainly when it comes to the set of recommended actions that individual citizens should take. I know I need a plan. I know the basic list of supplies that every house/apartment should have on hand. I also have experienced a number of emergency events (9/11, two earthquakes, hurricanes, a tornado, etc). Additionally, I have studied/analyzed how individuals and organizations prepare, manage and respond to disasters and worked with various groups to explore ways to improve preparation, management and response in the digital age.  And still… I haven’t taken the necessary steps to be prepared.

A couple of thoughts…

1) The resources available to help people prepare for emergencies are only moderately helpful. The guidance on how to craft a plan, for example, are very generalized… they highlight best practices, encourage basic actions, list common items that you should have available… but they don’t provide much/any direction on how to personalize that plan to your particular needs. Some of the most important questions are surprisingly challenging to answer - and not something you want to get wrong.  For example… how do I know the best location in my neighborhood to meet if there is a need to evacuate?  What specific types of canned foods should I stock, so that if forced to eat only non-perishable foods for a period of time, I can maximize my energy?

2) The approach to disaster preparedness is super analog.  Almost everyone carries a mobile device - phone, tablet, etc. Technology plays a critically important role in our lives, and has significant influence on how we get information, the actions we take, and more.  We are all connected in a variety of ways - and increasingly through social networks. But, the ways that individual citizens are asked to prepare/plan for disasters does not really reflect the realities of our society today.  In a critical situation,  clean water and first aid supplies are definitely more important than having a fully charged cell phone battery or a working internet connection… but those are also critical tools in people’s lives, and an important part of how we communicate, get information and more. There are apps and other resources that will help deliver warnings or deliver information… but very little recognition of the role that technology now plays in our lives, or guidance on how to use our connections as part of our preparation or recovery.

The big focus of projects like the Citizen Preparedness Corps is to get the most basic of information to the largest number of people. On its own that will help to improve our ability as a society to manage and respond in the event of an emergency. And I have a lot of confidence in our civil response effort - government, the military, etc - to mobilize when something bad happens.  But I also know there is a lot more that should be done, and that would be possible if we considered different approaches to disaster preparedness.  This is an industry (if you will) that is in desperate need for disruption.

First of all, we rely way to heavily on individual motivation and capacity when it comes to preparedness… being 'ready’ is not nearly as easy as people believe, and getting more citizens to take the necessary steps will require more than a series of community forums and free backpacks being handed out.  Second, there is a more significant, and more focused role for media - mainstream, digital, social, you name it - to play in preparedness, management and recovery of emergencies. We can do much more, and much better, than simply raising awareness.  Third, for all the new technology that is being applied to emergency response, there has been very little innovation in how individuals are trained and prepared - and so much opportunity to deliver better information as well as provide more support and facilitation in the planning process.  Oh… and don’t even get me started on the role that businesses and the philanthropic sector can play - raising money is important, but its far from the only thing that these types of organizations can do. 

There are some smart people, and well-meaning organizations focusing on this discussion… but not enough of them, and not in all the right ways or places.  Disasters happen… and the possibility of a major storm, a terrorist attack, a technological shutdown is present every day.  Our best option is to be prepared.  And right now, there are huge gaps in our preparedness as individual citizens and communities.  Moreover, there are huge gaps in how we think about preparedness, the tools and information we make available, our approach to educating and supporting individuals in taking the necessary steps.  I don’t believe it would be that complicated or difficult to make a dramatic improvement in our preparedness efforts either (more on that another time)… but i do know that we better start thinking very differently about this challenge, and fast.