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Being Prepared Takes Everyone's Involvement: Prevention, then Response



Disaster preparedness and response is everyone's business. September 11th taught us that like nothing else could, and Hurricane Katrina reminded anyone who forgot.

Being prepared for such calamities is not just the job of government. In fact, although there is a great deal that governmental authorities can do to prepare, their response efforts are often limited due to an absence of standards for preparation, and a lack in preparation by other organizations, communities, and even individual households. Regardless of how well the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is prepared for a disaster, it will not matter if other partners are not well prepared and organized. The same can be said of State emergency services, local law enforcement and emergency responders, community-based health and safety services, and other participants.

For optimal response, there must be accepted principles of what constitutes emergency planning and preparation. At the same time, there is a great need for seamless integration of information and efforts by Federal, State, and local governments, as well as local businesses, community organizations, and local residents. However, getting to that point has not been easy.

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Ideas / Solutions

Effective response is only possible following thoughtful planning and collaborative preparation. This can be achieved through a multiplicity of strategies, each of which is applicable for distinct purposes.

A "top-down" approach is essential for certain functions. For example, interoperable radio communications between emergency responders requires that the leaders at the top of the administrative food chain set standards and facilitate adherence to them. Officials of the Federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FEMA should take the lead in determining the radio frequencies that should be used by various responders in time of crisis. By setting the standards, all other stakeholders can equip themselves with radios that can communicate with each other (or multi-frequency boxes that enable radios of various frequencies to communicate). A top-down approach is also appropriate for establishing definitions and basic protocols that trigger certain actions, such as which information should be publicly disseminated and which should be accessible only by law enforcement officials, and what actions and expenditures are necessary for effective preparation.
The top-down approach continues to be valuable at the State level, whereby State authorities should establish procedures and protocols for:

  • the deployment of personnel,
  • the contact points for local government and local organizations,
  • the timing and criteria for, and the participants in, the development of localized emergency response plans,
  • the filing and implementation of localized plans,
  • the chain of command for response activities,
  • the flow of information and alerts to and from all levels of government, and
  • the priorities for expenditure of emergency preparedness funds.

But the "bottom-up" approach to emergency preparedness is just as vital to effective emergency response. The DHS made this point in early 2006 through a press surge, however without much detail and without an actionable roadmap, as a way to spur state and local governments to act (and to make the point that the Federal government cannot be held responsible to do it alone).

There are certain actions that must be taken at the most local level, without which response efforts will not succeed. For example, if there are insufficient links with neighborhoods to determine where people, facilities, reliable networks, reliable information/communications hardware, and other assets are located, responders will not know how to prioritize their efforts, and reach affected populations. Yet, local governments, groups, and households often do not formulate emergency plans, and others that contemplate doing so feel as though it is futile, as they feel disconnected from other stakeholders and administrative structures in the response process. It is at the local level that inventories of assets, infrastructure, facilities, emergency responders, and other resources must be compiled in order to prioritize preparation and response efforts.

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State governments must visibly and vocally encourage the development of local response plans, and provide points of contact for local leaders and groups. Planning at the local level will proliferate only if there is a belief that such efforts will be meaningful. Any local group that steps up to the plate to initiate or lead a local planning effort should be encouraged to do so by inclusion of its work product into the State’s emergency response plans.

It is often difficult to enfranchise local governments and groups in the planning process, which may seem oblique when discussing the deployment of personnel after a disaster. But, there is a hook that makes it much more tangible: Prevention.

Local residents, businesses, religious institutions, and community-based organizations can become strongly motivated to do what they can to prevent a disaster from landing on their doorstep. Strategies include strengthening levees, placement of networked cameras at vulnerable facilities, placing remote sensors in water supplies, enhancing seismic monitoring, or identifying evacuation routes. Once a local group or government considers preventive measures, it is much easier to transition into chapter two of the discussion, i.e., emergency response procedures for the aftermath of disaster. Although the recent DHS publicity push addressed local preparedness, it did not address local prevention measures, and more could be done to make prevention efforts the driver of response planning. Following the local development of the inventories of assets and resources, prevention strategies should be considered to determine which technologies and procedures should be applied to secure, protect, and commandeer them.

With the sizeable funding that has been allocated by the Federal government for emergency planning, preparation, and response comes a natural opportunity for enticing planning at the local levels. Since State governments have extensive latitude to apply these funds for these purposes as they see fit, a percentage of these funds could be dedicated to funding local emergency planning, which also makes sense because planning is much less capital intensive than most prevention and response efforts. A local government or organization could apply with the State for funding a planning coordinator, or a consultant to facilitate these discussions, in conformance with Federal and State standards and guidelines, along with some basic tools, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software. The result of the coordinator's or consultant's efforts could be the production of an emergency planning docment or report that is incorporated into the State plan. The State could demarcate which localities should be addressed in each such docment, to foster coordination and collaboration among neighboring communities.

It will take awhile for seamless integration to occur nationwide. Yet, by instituting a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches, based on preventive measures, we can begin to craft coherent policies and practices on a community-by-community basis. Hopefully, doing so will mitigate the disasters in emergency response that we have witnessed occurring after the disasters themselves.


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