What I Learned About Preparedness While Visiting FEMA Headquarters and the White House

This piece was originally published in the FEMA blog on September 30, 2016.

A couple weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2016 FEMA Individual and Community Preparedness award ceremony. During my time in Washington, D.C, I had the opportunity to hear from some of our country’s top emergency management leaders.

I learned a lot from getting to participate in two full days of activities at FEMA Headquarters and the White House. In fact, I had writer’s cramp from taking down so many notes during the meetings I attended.

With today being National PrepareAthon! Day, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share just a few of the key preparedness lessons I learned and share them from a citizen’s perspective. I’ll also share some innovative ways people are helping their communities prepare for disaster by highlighting the work of this year’s award winners.

 

Preparedness Can be Fun

If we are going to get as many people as possible ready for disasters, it’s going to take innovation.

One award winner shared how they were working with Marvel Comics to develop a preparedness-themed comic book to reach kids called Ready Girl.

Burleigh County, North Dakota’s Snowmobile Community Emergency Response Team, turned a group of snowmobile owners into a rugged Community Emergency Response Team, capable of braving their community’s rugged winters to help those in need.

Another fun example comes from the Delaware State Citizen Corps Council, who worked with local partners and the Wilmington Blue Rocks Minor League Baseball team to sponsor a preparedness night at the ballpark.

The HALTER Project (also from California) shared how they engaged their community by helping people who own large animals like horses and cattle prepare to care amid livestock emergencies. Having grown up in a rural area myself, I related to this innovative approach for reaching people who might not otherwise engage with preparedness activities.

Yet, my favorite has to be California State University, Northridge Emergency Management who created a zombie preparedness scavenger hunt at a large university to engage students. This same group has also taken advantage of the Escape Room fad as a way to further engage students.

Getting others involved in preparedness doesn’t have to be boring.

It’s okay to be creative, take risks, and try something new. Don’t forget, it’s even alright to try something with a twist.

 

More Needs to be Done to Reach Vulnerable Communities

It’s great to make a kit. But for some people who might not know where their next meal is coming from, such messages often miss the mark. A significant amount of time during my stay went to discussing how to improve preparedness messaging. Simply translating the same messaging into a different language isn’t enough, especially when you’re working with underserved populations.

For preparedness messaging to take hold, make an impact, and mobilize marginalized communities, more has to be done. Just translating a message into a different language isn’t enough. We also have to better communicate why vulnerable communities should get ready for disasters.

During one of our meetings I shared that preparedness isn’t just about minimizing damage. Instead I mentioned that preparedness is a social justice issue. As my colleague Dr. David Boan and I have noted, “disasters reveal injustices in a community.”

The group I was participating with seemed to come to the consensus that sometimes who you have conveying the message is just as important as the message itself. That is, we also need to make sure our preparedness efforts are being supported and shared by local communities. As one person said, “We don’t trust the message if we don’t trust the messenger.”

I was really encouraged by some of the great work other award winners were doing to help vulnerable populations.

For example, Notify NYC has worked on creating inclusive preparedness messages specifically designed to reach a wide range of vulnerable populations across a diverse range of multimedia and technology platforms.

The Mart High School Teen Community Emergency Response Team out of Texas has been helping youth get ready and respond to emergencies; these young people have already put their new skills to use, providing community health screenings to those in need.

Serenity Hospice has taken steps to protect those in their care against public health crises by organizing a Neisseria meningitides outbreak drill.

I am grateful that FEMA is taking steps to improve preparedness among vulnerable communities. Citizens need to do their part to be aware of the vulnerable in their community and consider how to help.

 

There’s No Monopoly on Preparedness

Preparedness takes everyone. Strength and resilience come from the local level. I learned that FEMA’s dedication to communities isn’t just something they give lip service to.

Ushered in under the leadership of the current FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, FEMA looks to engage everyone in emergency preparedness.

It was clear that those I interacted with valued the role of every community member in bolstering our country’s level of readiness.

Community members were sometimes even referred to as “true” first responders. These comments weren’t made to take away from the important work done by professional responders. Rather, FEMA’s leadership recognizes that ordinary citizens responding make a difference. Such statements also showed that those I interacted with get the fact that all disasters are local events.

The work of San Francisco’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Team is a good example of this whole preparedness approach. Since the program started 26 years ago, they have trained up over 27,000 people, from all walks of life.

Virginia’s SUNRNR is just one example of how the business sector can get involved too. Not only did they create a renewable power source that can be used to help support response efforts and survivors, but they have also leveraged their business expertise to promote the National Preparedness Month Coalition, National Preparedness Month, and America’s PrepareAthon!

FEMA’s leadership stressed that collaboration is going to be key to taking community preparedness to the next level. They emphasized looking for ways to break down barriers to maximize resources.

CaliforniaVolunteers provides an example of how to make resources more accessible. They worked to adapt the 300-page training materials for Community Emergency Response Teams into an easy-to-carry pocket guide.

FEMA leaders weren’t just talking about overcoming professional silos.

They were also talking about ways to overcome barriers between professional and volunteer helpers. They placed importance on looking for ways to create force multiplier effects. This is where you build off what is already being done instead of starting from scratch.

This is what I have tried to do by helping faith communities learn how they can take the work they are doing to prepare and care amid disasters to the next level. Through the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois our team has worked to help mobilize and equip faith-based organizations through research, writings, tools, and trainings (like the Disaster Ministry Conference).

If this is going to become a reality though, shifts in policy are going to be needed—and not just at FEMA. Steps may also need to be taken to further incentivize collaboration across groups and agencies.

Breaking down these barriers isn’t just something we ought to do; it’s the right thing to do. The more those championing preparedness can work together, the stronger our relationships will be. This has real potential to help foster better-coordinated efforts that can leverage each other’s strengths and resources. Overall preparedness is everyone’s responsibility. When it comes to helping our communities and our country get prepared – we all have a role to play.

 

Jamie D. Aten, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Disaster Ministry Conference at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include, as co-author, the Disaster Ministry Handbook and, as co-editor, Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. Dr. Aten was recently named the 2016 FEMA Individual and Community Preparedness Community Preparedness Champion Award winner.