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What’s In It

June 23, 2010

Since assuming his post, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has made a point of reminding us that those who experience disasters are not victims.  If anything, the survivors are resources that we would be wise to tap into.

But tapping into a community only after the fact marginalizes the good we can accomplish and misses the larger point I think he is trying to make: Disasters belong to individuals and communities. Their expectations shape what happens before, during and after an event.

The homeland security discipline and emergency managers have been slow to see the community as a resource. Public safety officials, unlike planners and their peers responsible for parks, roads and rubbish, tend not to see citizens as customers but rather as a potential source of corruption. (That said, the relationship works very differently for police and firefighters at the local level, where respect is considered the coin of the realm, albeit in very different ways.)

As Phil Palin and I have noted in posts on many occasions, resilience as we see it depends in large measure on discourse and deliberation. When people share ideas, aspirations, expectations and goals, they develop a shared sense of meaning and purpose. These sensibilities help individuals, groups and whole societies make sense of adversity and overcome crises through learning and adaptation.

Over the past few months, I have been working with colleagues in local government to engage our community. This has not come easily. For starters, my colleagues saw their office as an internal service unit responsible to the mayor and in service of other administrative units of city government. They operated as the “Man (or Woman) Behind the Curtain,” neither seen nor heard by the masses.

A recent internal audit illustrated the danger of such a disconnected approach. In the absence of any recurring responsibility to engage the public, the office had little appreciation of public expectations, no discernable external constituency willing to come to its defense, and a very limited ability to influence the agendas of other stakeholders.

The office not only lacked a stick with which to compel partner agencies to join them at the table when working on contingency plans and compiling a common operating picture, they also had no carrots because they had not learned how to effectively engage others in the absence of appreciable self-interest.

A little over a week ago, my office held the first of several planned town hall-style public meetings. When staff were first asked to start planning for this event, they took what for them had been a pretty conventional approach: They put together an agenda built around a presentation on major earthquake hazards, which set about scaring people into preparing themselves. Before letting this get out of hand, the management team intervened. For starters, we explained, this event was about a dialog. We had to prepare ourselves and others to listen, not just talk.

It should come as little surprise, that this was greeted at first with some skepticism then some trepidation. In the aftermath of a critical audit report, the staff feared opening the floor would bring out people looking for scalps. And asking questions, they feared, might make us look like we did not know the right answers. How, they wondered, could we have a conversation that did not disintegrate into something unpleasant or unsettling?

The answer is simpler than it might seem. Most of the people who want to spend an early summer evening discussing disasters and emergency preparedness with their neighbors and city officials usually fall into one of two camps: zealous converts or self-anointed saviors. You might get a few Anxious Andys and Annies, but they usually find the demeanor of the others intimidating and need your encouragement to engage anyway.

After much internal discussion, the staff agreed to an approach that assumed those in attendance closely approximated this profile. Armed with this assumption, we set out to ask the crowd to tell us something only they knew: What does it take to get someone interested enough in emergency preparedness to actually do something about it like you have? As such, we asked participants a few simple questions about preparedness designed to elicit their personal experience and expectations of city officials.

On the night, a couple of things became clear very quickly, even before discussions got underway really. First, those in attendance were considerably older than the average city resident. Indeed, only two of the almost 60 people who attended appeared under 40 years of age. Men and women were pretty close to equally represented; if anything, women were slightly more numerous. Second, most of those present were already engaged in emergency preparedness programs through voluntary organizations or otherwise active in community affairs. These two observations suggest that it may be difficult to extrapolate from this feedback a more generalized sense of the community’s sentiments.

But that was not, as it turned out, the real issue. Although the group was not particularly representative of the community at-large, its feedback said some important things about the community and how preparedness is perceived.

When we asked small groups to characterize preparedness, to tell us what it means, what it feels like, how to achieve a sense of it, they made very detailed lists of the stuff they thought every household or business should have in reserve before disaster strikes. In other words, they told us how to build a disaster kit. But when we asked them whether having these supplies made them feel safer, they all qualified their answers and exhibited clear signs of unease.

Why, we asked them, would people still not feel safer and more capable if they had such resources in reserve for a disaster? It took awhile, but people gradually revealed the real source of their concerns: They recognized that their experience and commitment to such preparedness was the exception rather than the rule.

How then could we get others to take preparedness more seriously? Their initial response, like that of our own staff, was to suggest we scare people. When we asked whether this had in fact been what motivated them, however, it became clear that while personal experience of loss was a key element, almost all of them had responded initially not out of a sense of fear but as a way of adapting to their circumstances. Preparing was a way of saying, “I will not take this lying down. I will not let this happen to me again.”

If fear does not work, then what does? Once they had a chance to reflect on the sources of their own enlightenment, people had little difficulty seeing what might make preparedness more salient to others: Make it personal.

Personalizing the message involves something more than self-interest though. People recognized that what kept them interested in emergency preparedness was the sense of purpose and self-worth they got from associating with others and being part of something bigger than themselves. Sure, they got something out of it, but what they gave was often on balance much greater than what they would ever get back from others.

These insights may seem simple or small, but they are far from insignificant. Before engaging the public, many in our office had difficulty seeing how the public could be expected to inform their understanding of a subject about which they were the acknowledged experts. Now that we have started the process, people are starting to see that progress can be measured by getting the public to look at preparedness as something besides stuff and getting staff staff see the public as resources we can count on not only to expand our understanding of the community and its needs, but also as a means of creating a sense of shared purpose capable of seeing us through any disaster we might face.

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