Volunteer groups start out early to help residents impacted by flooding in Van Buren, Mo., on May 12, 2017. (Steve Zumwalt/FEMA)

PERSPECTIVE: Disaster Preparedness, First Response Starts at Home

As part of HSToday’s commitment to share ideas and insights on the future of the homeland security community, here is Part 5 of HSToday Editor at Large Rich Cooper’s take on what comes after FEMA Administrator Brock Long said the system is broken. (Read Part 2, Part 3Part 4.)

Revising Public Expectations – Bluntly/Raising Personal Resilience: FEMA and other emergency managers have long encouraged the public to have at least 48-72 hours’ worth of food, water, medication and other life-sustaining essentials on hand in the event of an emergency. That guidance is intended so that emergency responders have enough time to mobilize available resources and address power, water, healthcare and other essential infrastructure issues after an emergency occurs.

As straightforward as that direction may be, it is not always possible for economic, physical space or other reasons for people to have such items readily on hand. Additionally, there are also people in our communities who need an extra hand to get along (e.g. elderly, vulnerable, disabled, etc.). None of those people should ever be ignored or overlooked. Part of being a good citizen is not only having personal responsibility to care for yourself in good times and bad, but it also being a good neighbor to others who may need that extra hand.

By any number of measures, as a people and as a nation, our personal and community resilience is very much lacking. Twenty-five states scored a five or lower on 10 key indicators of public health preparedness, according to the Trust for America’s Health report “Ready or Not? Protecting the Public from Diseases, Disasters and Bioterrorism” issued in December. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has graded our nation’s infrastructure quality as a “D+,” given its poor conditions. Despite these less than stellar scores, public demands and performance expectations upon all of these infrastructure components has grown considerably.

First responders of all types work exhaustively to move heaven and Earth to help those who call them for help, but as the first-first responders who are most often there and on-hand when an emergency happens can attest, personal resilience for ourselves and others has to be raised significantly. This is more than Boy and Girl Scouts, their adult leaders and other community NGOs applying first aid and other lifesaving skills to help others out when they come upon an emergency incident. It’s about individual families, neighborhoods, businesses, and other organizations learning how to become more self-reliant.

We often see such character and example rise up in communities whenever and wherever a disaster strikes. It is always inspiring and certainly needs to be acknowledged, but with disasters becoming more powerful, costly and catastrophic, Brock Long’s words — “If this is the new normal, Americans can’t rely on a federal cavalry when disaster strikes — they will have to take care of themselves” — need to be a wake-up call for all of our future expectations.

The only promise Brock Long, the FEMA team and the emergency management community can ever accurately make and fulfill is this – with whatever time, energy, skills and resources they have, they will do everything they can in their power to help you, your neighbors and your community in your time of need.

But you as an individual, a family, a community member, etc., have to take on part of that burden, too.

That means doing your part to self-preserve and support yourself, your family and neighbors as well as your community.

How many of us can comfortably say we can do that?

Empowering Citizen Leadership & Initiative: As a people, we Americans are not wallflowers. We are bold, think and act big and don’t back down from a fight. But for as loud and proud as we can be, there is the occasional imbalance between public expectations of what we want done for us by our government, employers, schools, etc., and what we are willing to take on for ourselves.

While there are those few who want everything done for them by someone else, there are many others who rise up on their own initiative to make things right. They are the churches, houses of worship and community halls that become instant shelters for citizens fleeing fires or floodwaters. They are members of the “Cajun Navy” who hop into their boats and motor or paddle into flooded towns to rescue people from their homes, cars or whatever and take them to higher ground. They are the hundreds of regular people that stand in line for hours to donate blood for victims following a mass shooting.

It happens in some shape or form with every emergency, be it large or small. Most of those acts of kindness go unreported and are unheralded, but they are just as impactful as the ones that capture the public’s attention. Social media platforms are an incredible tool to drive, inspire and coordinate such actions, but investments in resources and training for Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), FEMA Corps, or any number of volunteer organizations that step up to serve in disasters pay countless dividends.

Unfortunately, these program investments are often the first ones put on the chopping block when budgets get cut or tightened. The truth is everyone one of these groups punches well above its weight, and with the right investments and engagement they can deliver even more if they are empowered and given the initiative to do so.

Carving a Permanent Role for Social Media: Depending how you use it, a tool can be a constructive or destructive instrument. Its impact and worthiness is ultimately is decided by the hands of the user on how that tool performs. The same is true for social media. For as inspired as a specific posting may make you, that same item could easily incite others in an opposite way. As innovative as those social media platforms may be at mobilizing others to respond to an issue, they have become de facto public infrastructures for showcasing what is happening at any place and time. They are for all intents and purposes “people weather gauges” that allow us to see how citizens are acting, feeling and responding to what is happening around them.

For as much as the Internet may resemble a rancorous town hall with loud informed and uninformed opinions being shared and shouted with one another, it is an incredible measure for public engagement and response.

During this past hurricane season, FEMA kept an active eye and presence on these platforms to not only share updates, but to also see what other information they could gather to aid their response and recovery efforts. That is a real time, raw intelligence gold mine that can be actively mined to not only help refine the always changing common operating picture but more importantly help FEMA, families, communities and others know who is safe or who may need even more urgent help.

As such, making sure social media is a permanent part of the emergency management framework is essential.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@GTSCoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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