Re-Packaging Preparedness Messaging

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Three days’ preparedness was, and still is, considered reasonable for most disasters we may endure, be it flood, fire, storm or even minor earthquakes. Even in a just – in – time society, it remains a manageable goal for most people.

One finding from the Cascadia Rising exercise by the state emergency management directors of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington is that the traditional 3-days disaster preparedness message was insufficient following a catastrophic quake. Such an event might well require that citizens be self-sustaining for at least two weeks.

A catastrophic quake indeed will be different: evacuation (to where?) may be unsafe and unwise; supply chains for food, medicine and other necessities are likely to be compromised. It may be safer for people to remain where they are for two weeks if they are able to self-sustain while government rallies its forces.

Credibly altering the preparedness message will not be easy. Some jurisdictions already promote an even longer preparedness standard, for as much as 30 days, complicating matters further. Reconciling these messages might help.

Two preparedness initiatives, the Seattle Disaster Aid and Response Teams (SDART), and the State of Washington’s Neighborhood (MYN) initiative achieved national and international acclaim. Both stressed a measured, systematic preparedness approach– not a flashy, expensive PR “campaign” – but a sustained, habit-forming program that allows for responsible progression toward disaster preparedness at home, at work and in transit. For many, accomplishing 3 days’ preparedness was a gradual process: likewise achieving two weeks’ preparedness (or more) can only be accomplished in stages.

Those who have prepared for three days should not be made to feel in the “new” messaging that their efforts to date to prepare were misguided or insufficient: they weren’t. Those who already have extended reserves well beyond the two-week target should not be made to feel that they have over-prepared. They haven’t.

Those who have yet to achieve even a limited level of preparedness should be prompted to begin their preparations at a pace that allows continued progress toward the goal they seek to reach. They should not be made to feel that they are too far behind the preparedness curve; they have the ability to improve their situation.

The Resilient Washington report of 2012 displayed grids depicting how long after a catastrophic quake restoration of essential capabilities like power, transportation, etc. might take. These can be used to justify to the public the length of time required to restore essential services for various types of disruption, adding credibility to the “new” message for a rare but plausible catastrophic occurrence. A similar grid can be prepared to illustrate the level of preparedness one should achieve for a three day event, a two week event, or a longer one during which it is projected that some capabilities will be restored.

The message cannot be overwhelming to the audience. The worst case event is overwhelming, but every positive preparedness measure taken (as in adding one critical supply on each trip to the grocery store) is to be celebrated. Emphasizing taking care of the most critical needs particular to one’s own circumstances can help accelerate preparedness efforts.

The method and consistency of the “sell” is as important as the message itself. In the haste to communicate the “two weeks” message, consider not just what we say, but how it will be received by the target audience. The public will respect the acknowledgment of the limitations of an immediate government response. A steady, sustained program of communicating our recommendations, absent sermons about their responsibilities or excuses about government’s capabilities is possible through various social media and on-line interactions.

The lack of legislative and executive support at all levels is disappointing, but there are social media tools available to craft and share a tiered message of preparedness. We should use them.

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