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Ready for What

October 6, 2010
It Requires Less Thought than Normal Ideas
Source: Andertoons

When emergency managers get together to talk about the state of their profession, the discussion often turns to preparedness, or rather the lack of it. In any conversation about this topic, it usually becomes clear before long that whether or not emergency managers consider their own agencies and partners ready, they almost universally consider the public at-large uninformed about hazards and uninterested in preparing for disasters.

I am sad to say this recurrent theme came through loud and clear when staff from my office assembled at the end of last week for a strategic planning retreat. People in every section echoed concerns that the community takes the threats we face too lightly. They complained that many of those who do recognize the hazards in our environment still rely too heavily on government and NGOs to come to their aid. And, they added, of those few in our community  who do “get it” and give of their time and effort as volunteers in programs like Community Emergency Response Teams, a small number of outsized egos require constant reassurance that their commitment is valued and suck up too much time and energy to make the effort worthwhile.

If you took their assessment at face value, you would have a hard time being hopeful. That is why its so important to listen to more than one side of the story, question your assumptions and the conventional wisdom, and reflect on the things you see and hear without undue regard for the opinions of others.

When I look at the community, I see something very different. People clearly understand that the situation is changing, and have already begun to adapt in ways that would have been unthinkable not so long ago.

When I spoke at a recent community meeting organized by a couple of citizens and attended by about 125 of their neighbors (something interesting and remarkable on its own, I’d say), I asked the crowd a couple of questions. How many people recycled at home? How about composting their food waste? And installing energy efficient lighting? Or adding a little more insulation to their walls or attic? Or bicycling and walking more often for short trips? In each case, an overwhelming majority of those in the room admitted they were engaged in these activities.

Then I asked, “How many of you, to your knowledge, have been personally and directly affected by climate change?” Maybe a quarter of the crowd was brave enough to indicate in the affirmative.

I suggested to them that the reasons so many of them engage in activities to reduce their carbon footprints, like the reasons so many of them attended the meeting that night, was due in part to the expectations that these were the right thing to do. And it helped that others thought so do. In other words, they had reflected on their own situations, the expectations of others and the potential future harm resulting from inaction and decided that they could justify small steps if they might contribute to avoiding some very large, even catastrophic consequences at some point in the future. What’s more, they could justify doing this even if they did not benefit much from their efforts personally. This, they agreed, was probably the case.

It remains to be seen whether individual efforts to reduce carbon footprints can arrest or reverse the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or they effects of escalating concentrations of carbon dioxide and other emissions on ecosystems, but it is clear that these efforts have effects on what others think and do. And these efforts can and do move markets and policymakers.

What’s this have to do with emergency preparedness you ask? Everything.

Emergency managers need to banish the word preparedness from their vocabularies. As an adjective it conveys the wrong sense of things. As a verb, however, and especially as a transitive verb, preparing conveys specific and meaningful actions on someone’s part for some specific purpose. And it is this sense of purpose and the personalization of intention that make a difference.

Emergency managers, preoccupied as we with the scope and scale or hazards and vulnerabilities and the attendant consequences of not preparing, pay too much attention to the gap and miss altogether the small, simple steps being taken with considerable consistency toward making our communities more resilient. It’s just that many of these actions are informed by a purpose other than preparing ourselves for disasters rather than climate change.

When I look at my own community, I see people investing increasing effort in making their neighborhoods and the city better places to live. And their actions are shaping expectations and decisions in powerful and positive ways.

More people are planting gardens. More people are taking an interest in where and how the food they eat is produced. More people are making purchasing decisions based on the contents rather than the packaging. More people are saving than spending.

Okay, I’ll admit that last one might be a bit problematic at the moment, but the intention clearly reflects a realization that the excesses of the past are no longer sustainable and a new approach is required. The challenge then for emergency managers is not convincing people to do something, it is seeing that the things people are willing to do are small, simple, sensible and socially reinforced.

Preparing communities for disasters could become sexy if we could just settle for evolution rather than revolution. Community resilience should be a question of “ready for what?” rather than a question of “ready or not?”

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