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Washington D.C.
Monday, January 30, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: Successful National Preparedness Requires a Radical New Approach

The first goal of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) 2018-2022 Strategic Plan is to Build a Culture of Preparedness. This goal arises from the realization that efforts to enhance levels of preparedness among individual households, communities and organizations have shown little sign of improvement in the U.S. over the past two decades. FEMA’s 2014 report, titled Personal Preparedness in America, documented research insights that show “the percentage of surveyed individuals taking recommended preparedness actions remains largely unchanged since 2007” (p. 1). Additional research on preparedness has shown that current public outreach campaigns and education efforts are having no effect on preparedness levels.

FEMA’s goal of building a culture of preparedness acknowledges that many people and groups in the U.S. do not share a sense of urgency about preparedness. To arouse that sense of urgency, a new report, Building Cultures of Preparedness, was published by FEMA’s Higher Education Program and suggests that a culture-based approach to the community and household-level preparedness goals laid out in the Strategic Plan can help us achieve the agency’s new preparedness goal.

The Task

FEMA’s Higher Education Program convened 39 scholars and practitioners in Washington at a 2-day workshop hosted by the Emergency and Disaster Management Program at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies. Participants were asked to share their views about the meaning and implications of FEMA’s new strategic priority: to build a “culture of preparedness.”

The report’s authors consolidated cutting-edge scientific insights into an accessible document that presents a radically new bottom-up approach to preparedness. The report corresponds to FEMA’s new Strategic Plan by recognizing the vast diversity of communities and individuals across this nation. It then suggests that reaching these diverse populations lies at the heart of the challenge to transform preparedness. The authors of the report suggest that reaching these diverse communities requires engaging with them directly. Locally-specific solutions will have to be tailored to different cultural contexts by community members who understand their own history and surroundings. Thus, the authors suggest, an operational strategy that supports the vision of a resilient nation and the goal of “building a national culture of preparedness” as laid out in the Strategic Plan will require us to think in the plural – to build “Culture(s) of Preparedness.”

Main Takeaways from the Cultures of Preparedness Report

The very first steps for achieving an outcome of readiness and resilience involve understanding that preparedness looks different in different cultural contexts. In every U.S. community, we are likely to find more than one cultural group. Let us take Houston as an example. Houston was ranked the most racially and ethnically diverse large metropolitan area in the U.S. in 2017. The area is home to people from diverse ethnic, racial, cultural and religious backgrounds, including African-Americans, Latinos, Vietnamese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Indian-Americans, and Anglo-Americans, among others. It is also home to people with diverse livelihoods (rural/urban), values, worldviews and languages. Recognition and action to support such local diversity requires ground-up engagement that can identify local successes. Even if people share a geography, there are many invisible cultural values that can distinguish them. Each community’s perception of risk and way of coping with disaster is conditioned by its cultural identity and social history.

Culture matters in the field of disaster work. What is risky, what is safe, what successful disaster response or recovery looks and feels like, what is considered rational, and what preparedness consists of are all shaped by the values and worldviews that people hold. The importance of understanding these worldviews is often neglected when compared with the emphasis that is put on the physical structure of levee systems, the measurable integrity of buildings, or the economic assets of a community. Yet cultural differences also infuse visible aspects of life: how we design and situate homes, how we perceive risk, why we choose to stay rather than evacuate. It is impossible to overstate the variety of ways that culture can affect how we prepare for and respond to disasters.

Four Guiding Principles for Culturally-Informed Preparedness Initiatives

To address the challenges of different contexts, the report identifies four guiding principles that can help achieve a more locally-grounded, inclusive, and sustainable preparedness effort.

  1. Trust – Develop trust by understanding the culture, context, and history of communities outside of disaster, as well as when an event occurs.
  2. Inclusion – Bring the cultural perspectives of all stakeholders to the table.
  3. Cross-cultural communication – Design communication efforts as cross-cultural encounters.
  4. Support local practices and successes – Learn about the ways people are already prepared and enhance these efforts using culturally-aware strategies.

Every aspect of preparedness and resilience planning and implementation – engineering, infrastructure, the economy, social services, communications, or training – reflects culturally-specific values and lifestyles.

Culture Brokers

The report recommends the use of a powerful, tested concept known as “Culture Brokers.” Culture brokers are local residents or embedded community groups who are familiar with the cultural values, practices and needs of a given group of people and, at the same time, understand how organizations and institutions outside the local community operate and communicate. By locating and recruiting such individuals to adopt the role of “Culture Brokers for Disaster Preparedness,” we would ensure that critical issues such as trust, inclusion, cross-cultural communication, and support for local preparedness strategies are addressed. This methodological tool holds great promise in terms of helping us dramatically increase numbers of prepared citizens, communities, and hard-to-reach cultural groups.

Policy Recommendations

  • Collaborate with Higher Education Institutions as Sources of Expertise and Engagement in Preparedness-Building Efforts: University and college-based experts can design innovative approaches to preparedness challenges at the level of communities and individual households.
  • Encourage State/Local Grant Recipients to Invest in Innovative, Transformational Community Engagement Efforts: Provide new types of funding support for preparedness grant programs, creating set asides for community engagement. This approach would incentivize community-led preparedness projects and enhance local preparedness.
  • Culture Brokers: Fund a pilot project to develop a replicable Culture Broker program that could be implemented as a model for the resilient and well-prepared communities we hope to foster across the U.S.

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.


Report Authors and Link to the Report

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 2019. “Building Cultures of Preparedness: A report for the emergency management higher education community.” Washington, D.C.: FEMA.

Lead authors of this report:
Katherine E. Browne, Colorado State University / Culture & Disaster Action Network, and Laura Olson, Georgetown University / Culture & Disaster Action Network
Additional authors who contributed to this report include:
Jenny Hegland, Jenny Hegland Consulting
Ana-Marie Jones, Interpro Inc.
Elizabeth Marino, Oregon State University / Culture & Disaster Action Network,
Julie Maldonado, Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network / Culture & Disaster Action Network
Keely Maxwell, Environmental Protection Agency / Culture & Disaster Action Network
Eric Stern, University of Albany-SUNY, College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security & Cyber-Security
Wendy Walsh, FEMA Emergency Management Higher Education Program
Laura Olson
Laura Olson has 17 years of experience leading disaster recovery, hazard mitigation, climate adaptation and resilience initiatives. She has responded to hurricanes, oil spills, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, and floods. She currently works with the United Nations Development Program’s Climate Change & Disaster Risk Reduction Team and with the Culture and Disaster Action Network (CADAN). Her work reflects a commitment to the cultural values of stakeholders and the delivery of effective disaster programs and services. Laura is Associate Faculty at Royal Roads University School of Humanitarian Affairs & Georgetown University’s Emergency & Disaster Management program. She is a Senior Fellow with Virginia Tech’s Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience, a Research Associate with Jacksonville State University’s Disaster and Community Resilience Center. She has a Ph.D. in Public Administration from The George Washington University.

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