FEMA Corps youth assist victims of Hurricane Sandy on Nov. 14, 2012. (Walt Jennings/FEMA)

PERSPECTIVE: Why Emergency Management Should Invest in Youth Partnerships

Over the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to work with numerous local, state, and federal partners. Being 16, you often get quite a few differing and interesting reactions. You get many people who are supportive: “I wish I was more like you when I was 16” is one of the most common responses I get from those in this group. When anyone says this to me, I am absolutely humbled and flattered, but I also smile a little bit knowing that they do not think about my mischievous side (after all, I am a 16-year-old teenage boy – what could go wrong?). However, when people say that phrase, I am so grateful that it comes from a heart of sincerity and from a sense of trust. When they are around me, just for a short period of time, it leaves the impression on them that I was raised right, and that I am a trustworthy and beneficial part of society. And, if I am honest with you, that is worth more to me than any award or other praise.

Beneficial: the idea that you have an impact. What about the other group of people, those who are not so receptive? I have been approached by some who regard my passion and involvement in emergency management as being “cute” but, overall, nothing more than some sort of “phase” – as if it is like the terrible twos, something that I will grow out of! I have, on a few occasions, been laughed about or been the subject of a joke about my passion for emergency management. However, if anyone knows me, they know I am way too resilient (and flat-out stubborn) to let that stop me from doing what I love: being beneficial.

I love analogies. I often compare emergency management to a wise investor in the stock market. A wise investor invests vertically, that is to say in different stocks that are a part of different types of industries. You never put all your eggs in one basket, and that is sort of what emergency management is. You never invest solely in one area, but you invest in many different areas of the community through partnerships.

So, with that said, a good emergency manager will invest in every possible area of the community as possible. Through my limited time as an observer of the emergency management field, I have seen my fair share of exceptional and quite poor emergency management skills. To me, it all goes back to what your high school coach told you over and over: fundamentals.

The fundamental of all emergency management is planning, in my opinion. When you look at any stage of the emergency management cycle, every single one has a root in planning. You cannot respond if you have not planned how to do so. Wanting to recover from a disaster? It takes a whole lot less time to if you have a plan in place on how you are going to achieve recovery. Hazard mitigation is based on planning and anticipating what your main hazards are and planning how you are going to most successfully mitigate them.

So, you may be asking what that has to do with youth. Again, a good emergency manager invests in every part of the community, and plans how each part of the community plays a part. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 25 percent of the entire United States population is under the age of 18. A whole quarter of the United States, and yet how many emergency, continuity, and response plans tap into this demographic? I am afraid that very few do.

Sure, you may have plans in place on how to help them, but do you have any plans in place on how they can help you? If there is another key part of emergency management that I have learned, it is that there are partnerships on top of partnerships in the emergency management community. There are partnerships with every Tom, Dick, and Harry that exists in literally every type of business or affiliation you can imagine – except when it comes to youth. Yes, we will plan on how Bob down at the dollar store will help, but we refuse to write into our plans how a quarter of our population will help us.

Beneficial: that word remains a theme to me. I do my best work when I feel beneficial. I wonder if this is why we leave teens and youth out of our planning process? We just cannot quite see the way on how to make youth beneficial to our work.

Let me give a few suggestions on how to integrate youth into your planning process:

Get rid of stigmas!

I cannot tell you how often I see people be surprised by the power and benefit I bring to a team of emergency managers. “We need more people like you” is a phrase I hear so often, but let me assure you, there are plenty of teens just like me! I am the rule, not the exception (that is to say, most are like me, not lazy and unuseful as society might tend to make you believe). Teens that, if you will just sit down and have a conversation with them, have skillsets that you do not and ways to help you that no one else can! However, you have to realize you are only as strong as your weakest link (I’m a fan of metaphors also), and that if you refuse to incorporate 25 percent of your population into planning, you will fail in your missions pretty fast. Imagine a corporation that only uses 75 percent of its workforce while the other 25 percent sits around doing nothing. Maybe that business will not fail, but imagine where it would be at if it was incorporated. Now, apply that methodology to your plans and see where you match up. If you think teens cannot help you, you are wrong. Eliminate false preconceptions based on narratives about youth that are so inaccurate the only reason they exist are to drive hatred as a wedge between youth and you.

Be intentional!

Another thing I see so much of in the world is procrastination. I am guilty of it, and we all are, but at the end of the day, if you want teens to help you, you have to go to them. Most teens have no clue emergency management even exists (heck, most adults have no clue it exists!). With that said, it is implausible to expect them to come to you. However, if you take time to go and invest in them, they will feed back into your program tenfold. It goes back to that main concept: being beneficial. If someone reaches out to me and expresses that I can be beneficial, I am going to respond in a heartbeat. Teens are good-natured, more than you would be led to believe, but need you to feed into them a little. If you are intentional about this partnership, there is no doubt that seeds will grow between youth and you.

Think outside the box!

This idea is a necessary tool when it comes to emergency management, but it is no different when it comes to youth preparedness. In order to be intentional about involving youth, you need to think outside the box on how to involve youth. One of the biggest (and in my opinion, worst) excuses to hear is that having minors be a part of working a disaster is putting them in danger, and thus a legal liability… which is political slang for “not gonna happen.” However, when this is said, it is only ever (in my experience) used as a copout. Now, yes, there are plenty of legal aspects to keep in mind and, no, I am not advocating putting youth into a dangerous situation or environment just for the sake of checking off a box. But, let’s think about teens in today’s world, shall we? Technology is one of the first words that comes to my mind. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to help fix things technology-wise for my emergency manager (who is only in his late 30s). Youth of this generation have a great knack for technology, and it is such a necessary tool for the emergency management profession! Can you not figure out social media as a tool for outreach? This is a perfect spot for youth in your area to help you! And, because it involves nothing but sitting behind a screen entering basic information, there is practically no legal liability involved. There is no danger, or the scary thought of “putting kids on the front line”! This is finding an area that you are weak in and using your partnerships to strengthen it, just like you would with any other person from any other entity who is over 18. Creativity is one of the largest pushes in the school system today, and should be no exception when it comes to youth and you.

Invest!

Really, this has already been discussed, but it is so important that I want to highlight and emphasize it again! If you find an area in which a teen could help you improve, do not be afraid to take the opportunity to invest in them. For instance, maybe you need someone who can be called upon to operate a HAM radio. Why not find a young person who would be willing to learn, and maybe invest $80 for them to learn and take the test? If a disaster happens and you need someone who can operate HAM radio, you know someone who can do it and would be more than happy to because it makes them feel beneficial, and all it costs you is 80 bucks! And, it happens all the time. I know of a National Weather Service office that uses a teen to come into the office during severe weather and take reports via HAM radio.

Finally, let me conclude by saying that youth are the future of tomorrow. When we say youth are the future, that, to me, is not implying the urgency necessary to incorporate youth into society. Saying that youth are the future allows us to do just that: push them to the future. Saying they are the future of tomorrow, well, that implies that, yes, they are part of the future, but that future is coming a lot faster than you think. Integration and communication now will lead to a more resilient future, and that will be a future to last for generations to come.

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.

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Wyatt Reed is a Junior at Crowley’s Ridge Academy in Paragould, Arkansas. He serves as Co-Chairman on the Arkansas Youth Preparedness Council (YPC), the FEMA Region VI YPC, and as one of 15 appointed members of FEMA's National YPC. Wyatt is also an intern with the Greene County Office of Emergency Management. He has received accolades from the State of Arkansas, ADEM, FEMA Region VI, FEMA HQ, and United States Senator John Boozman. Most recently, he has been appointed to serve on a focus group for the next steps for schools post COVID-19. Wyatt is widely regarded as a leading expert in youth preparedness today, due to his experience and dedication to the cause of emergency management and its relationship with youth.

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