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Not So Fast

April 18, 2012

At the urging of fellow HLSwatch blogger Arnold Bogis, I’ve spent a little while this week reflecting on my unease about certain aspects of the FEMA Whole Community approach to disaster preparedness and community resilience. That’s proven quite difficult for me in one sense because I am generally in agreement that planning requires a lot more community engagement than we usually afford it.

Done well, community engagement contributes to resilience by encouraging the exchange of information and sharing of resources before a disaster, which builds relationships that not only endure in times of crisis but bolster our natural inclination to connect with others in need. That said, something about the whole community approach has always stuck in my craw.

Before I get to that though, I’d like to emphasize what I think works best about the whole community approach. First, it acknowledges that cities, disasters and efforts to make cities more resilient are all complex things in their own right. (This should not be taken to mean that rural areas or small towns are any less complex. They can be even more so, just in other ways.) Second, it acknowledges that improving community resilience begins by acknowledging and strengthening what people are already doing and what already works. And, third, it embraces the idea of bringing new individuals and groups into the discussion rather than relying on the expertise of those already interested. Doing so begins by meeting people and groups where they are instead of drawing them to us.

For too long, emergency management relied upon the old adage that “the world is run by those who show up.” If you were present then you were the right one to write the plan simply because you showed up and by doing so showed an interest. The unspoken assumption in all of this is that anyone interested enough to show up for the boring bits — plan writing and preparedness — can be relied upon for the difficult parts — response and recovery.

Sadly, this explains a lot of the dysfunction we see in emergency management. Too many of those who show up do so because they have a vested interest in seizing opportunities to show off their expertise or personal experience of having not been prepared. Consequently, they come to the task imbued with the white-hot intensity characteristic of the zeal of the newly converted.

This tendency leads to another problem that I think traditional approaches not only share in common with the whole community approach, but that FEMA may be taking to a whole new and unwelcome level. That is the notion that emergency planning and preparedness should be a “go big or go home” enterprise.

The coincident emphasis at FEMA on catastrophic risk planning — aka, Maximum-of-Maximums — strikes me as off-putting if not alienating. For starters, I am neither convinced you can adequately plan or prepare for catastrophic events nor compelled by experience to believe that it does that much more good than simply encouraging other forms of community engagement with efforts to address lesser hazards. “It might be true that many hands make light work,” but who will join an effort to plan for what seems to many nothing short of “the end of the world as we know it.”

We do our communities a disservice, particularly in light of the good work many are already doing to forge stronger social ties and renew the infrastructure of civic life if we ask people to imagine a world in which the fruits or their labors are left in shambles. If we are truly committed to the first three principles I mentioned — working with complexity, acknowledging what works and meeting people where they are — it seems to me that a genuine effort to engage the whole community would not start by asking people to imagine and plan for the worst.

I am willing to admit that “everything can change in the blink of an eye,” but I also know that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Writing good plans, just like building great cities and strong relationships takes time.

Emergency managers and public safety officials tend to think in short times frames, often too short. This is emotionally appealing, but often leads us to stop short when it comes to considering others’ points of view, especially when they run counter to conventional wisdom.

Time is of the essence when working to save lives, but disaster planning and community resilience are about saving whole communities. As such, they take more time than most officials are willing to give them.

This tendency to get in a great big hurry not only compromises efforts to get people involved and get the best out of them while they’re engaged, it also tends to suggest to them that response and recovery should be done at double quick-time too. This, of course, leads to all sorts of insidious problems, not the least of which is the “ready, fire, aim” mentality that overtakes many elected officials in times of crisis.

Instead of agitating by aphorism and pedaling platitudes, emergency managers should take the time to get to know their community in new ways. Take it slowly. Learn what people value. Listen to what they know. Ask what they need. Hear what they want. Then sit down and discuss how these things shape the two elements essential to any form of resilience: what we believe and what we are prepared to do.

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