Self Concerns: Self-reliance and disaster preparedness

Dave Miller, President-elect of the National Emergency Management Association discusses the individual’s role in emergency management.

1) What does an emergency manager do?
It sounds simple in scope but is complex in practice. Emergency management is less about directing actors such as first responders or other agencies that play a role in disasters and is more about coordination and facilitation. We don’t tell firefighters or law enforcement officers, for instance, what to do, but we work to make sure all the people and groups involved in disaster planning, response and recovery are in synch.

To do this, those groups do a lot of planning. Planning for: disaster response and the short and long-term recovery, planning to mitigate or lessen the effects of future disasters. Emergency managers ask questions like, “How do we stabilize the environment before and after disaster strikes?” Practice makes perfect. We write our plans, test them, identify the gaps, fill them in and test again.

Internally, we have a saying, “Disasters happen locally first.” The field of emergency management is about community. If you make an emergency management program about one agency head or office, it is sure to fail. Successful emergency managers and teams are those that bring a community together to sing on the same sheet of music, so to speak. It sounds easy, but it’s actually quite complex. The key ingredients: leadership, coordination and community buy-in.

2) What should individuals do to prepare for disasters?
We say be informed, make a plan, make a kit. But to be truly protected, I say, let’s create a culture of community involvement. By that I mean: it’s not good enough to simply have individual and family plans and supplies, let’s then help prepare our neighborhood. Let’s continue these efforts in the workplace and talk to management and co-workers about the business emergency plan. Let’s ask our children’s school principal what the school plan is. Everyone cannot afford to buy an extra store of food for three or four days, as an emergency kit requires. Are we willing to help someone down the street who is having a tough time and can’t buy that level of food and supplies needed? What if they don’t have a car – are we willing to offer them a ride in case of an evacuation?

Emergencies happen locally first, so there’s a good chance you are going to be the first response. “Being informed” in this context doesn’t mean just watching the weather report. It means connecting our spheres of influence and expertise to disaster mitigation, or volunteering outside our circles for the benefit of our entire community. What are the essential services in our towns and how can I, through my normal work or volunteerism- be a part of safeguarding those before during and after a disaster?

We also need to educate our children. I sat down with some education folks recently and they asked me about the “curriculum” I envisioned. I’m not talking about a “curriculum,” I’m talking about a culture of self-reliance linked to a sense of community. Everything in a community relates to emergency preparedness because emergency preparedness is about protecting the community and making it resilient in the face of any disaster.

3) What are 2-3 things most people FORGET when they think about preparing themselves or their families for natural and human-made disasters?
When we see stories of disasters in other places, let’s not just pity or empathize with the victims, we need to think about how their experiences apply to ours. Many disasters are “no notice.” When a tornado is 15 minutes away from you, and you’re driving down a highway, that’s no time to make a plan. If you haven’t thought through scenarios like this, you are putting yourself at greater risk.

Second, most people center their plan around the assumption that they will be at home when disaster strikes. You also need to have plans for responding to disaster when you are at work, when your kids are at school, when your cell phone won’t work because the lines are jammed.

What if you cannot connect with your family and need to act? Do you have a relative or loved one outside your state that you can call? How long do you wait before you act if you have not heard from your family, and what actions do you take? Where do you go? Do you have your vital records and medications in place?

Another nuance forgotten in disaster planning is this: most people plan to be gone from their home for days or weeks, but you also should plan for being gone from your home for months or permanently.
Having a plan and a kit is not enough. You need a continued awareness of your surroundings. Your plan is not a finite thing. It is a process that needs continued review and analysis. Having the attitude that “somebody else will take care of me” is never the way to go. We must be self-reliant and connected to our community about these issues.