Community Resilience Contributors Emergency Management

The myth of ‘Whole Community’

Why public outreach campaigns and education efforts are having no effect on preparedness levels

You hope bad things won’t happen to you and you don’t like to think about them. So you don’t.

You don’t think about the many different varieties of disaster, small and large—and very large—that could affect you. Or that could affect your family, your neighbors, your city (or megacity), your state, and your nation.

The problem is that someday you will find yourself amid one of those disasters

The problem is that someday you will find yourself amid one of those disasters. That will be your moment of truth: a painful time that will come with a gift of insight—insight about the mistakes you made and the actions you did not take that would have increased your options or maybe even saved your life.

It’s not like you haven’t heard this before. Ads urging you to build a kit or make a plan are everywhere these days. From FEMA’s Ready.gov to the CDC’s Zombie Preparedness campaign to the American Red Cross’s Be Red Cross Ready program, enormous time and effort are spent badgering you to be prepared.

The problem is that this time and effort is wasted.

People don’t admit to shortcomings

Report Weve failed miserable at preparednessStudies conducted over the past 15 years show that campaigns such as America’s PrepareAthon, and National Preparedness Month, all aimed at individual households and communities, are not moving the resilience needle. In its 2014 report Personal Preparedness in America, FEMA cited research gathered over the course of 8 years that showed that the percentage of individuals who prepared remained largely unchanged.

Other national surveys report similar dismal findings. Although more than ninety percent of Americans think it’s important, fewer than 1 in 8 people say they have taken any steps at all to prepare for an emergency[1]. Even people who live in higher risk locations, like earthquake or tsunami zones, don’t do much to get ready.[2]

Worse yet, scientists tell us that people don’t admit to shortcomings when responding to these sorts of survey[3] which means even these dismal results may be overly optimistic.

What is wrong with people?

What’s wrong with us is that we are human, and each of us has been given that uniquely human gift called hope. Hope can be quite useful in our daily lives. For instance, what if instead of running off to work in the morning, we first took time to ponder all the bad things that could happen out there in the great big scary world? We might decide to stay home instead, curled up in a fetal position under a blanket.

While hope allows us to function in our daily lives unhindered by fear, it prevents us from doing some easy things now that will improve our situation when something really bad happens.

Have you heard the expression “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst”? It’s a good idea, but the data shows that we are skipping that second part. When it comes to the actual preparing, we punt. It’s too much work, too much stuff to buy, too many scary scenarios we don’t want to contemplate. So, instead of contemplating, we block everything out with denial as impenetrable as a brick wall.

A brick wall of hope
Instead of contemplating, we block everything out with denial as impenetrable as a brick wall

A brick wall of hope

The wall gives us comfort. It lets us believe, “It probably won’t happen to me”.

The vast majority live their lives surrounded by that brick wall. They are either inclined to prepare themselves and their families or they are not. That is just human nature.

But it cannot be true of the people, like us, who get paid to do these things.

The public depends on us to be ready to go to battle with the black swan. In the disaster business, we call that “owning the problem.” But because we are people too, disaster professionals inevitably struggle with that same brick wall. So, as the public points at us, we spend precious time and money creating campaigns that we use to point right back at them.

We justify this with that treasured concept in the disaster preparedness business: “Whole Community”.

“Whole Community and shared responsibility, across all layers of government and down to the individual, is a hallmark of this plan”
– FEMA’s 2018-2022 Strategic Plan

According to the Whole Community concept, everyone[4]—individuals and families, businesses, faith-based and community organizations, nonprofit groups, schools, you name it—is working together, hand in hand, to build a resilient nation.

If this sounds too good to be true, that is because it is

These days, individuals and families, businesses, faith-based and community organizations, nonprofit groups, and schools have a lot on their plates. Full plates—with things like fatalism, defiance, cost, misplaced confidence, complacency, faith, and good old-fashioned procrastination—thwart real progress in preparedness.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but Whole Community is a myth. And, like all myths, the Whole Community myth contains a grain of truth, because there are plenty of people working to be ready for disasters. It’s just that the idea that it is happening spontaneously everywhere, or in some organized way, to increase our collective resilience is a fiction. Besides, it is classic muddled thinking to say that everybody is doing something, since it is the same thing as saying that nobody is.

the hardest job in the worldWhole Community is a story made up by disaster professionals. Some say it exists so that we can avoid responsibility; instead of pointing to ourselves as responsible to lead preparedness for the nation, it’s a whole lot easier just to point back at them.

It is undoubtedly true that individuals and families need to prepare for disasters. But that’s on them. It has little to do with us.

Because we are the emergency managers. We own the disaster.

The hardest job in the world

Scientists tell us that two million years ago, Homo erectus, our ancient ancestors, first walked upright upon the land. By that time, the brick wall of hope was already a well-established fixture within the mind of every Homo erectian—disasters having been a part of everyone’s life for as long as anyone could remember.

Humanity has been responding to disasters since that time, and our track record is mixed at best. Our track record with worst-case disasters, however, is not mixed. Throughout our long history and to the present day, catastrophic response is an unbroken series of abject failures.

No generation has ever effectively assisted massive numbers of its fellow human beings in the midst of catastrophe. There are some very good reasons for this. Large-scale disasters bring with them unique challenges. They affect everyone at the same time; they cross political boundaries and they create a demand for resources that greatly exceeds what is immediately available.

That is why it is the most difficult of human endeavors. It requires that emergency managers find and fix a multitude of urgent problems and unmet needs across a vast parallel universe…

  • …where the normal rules of logic don’t apply
  • …where the need is a hundred times greater than the resources at hand
  • …where a hundred times more problems exist than anyone has the capacity to engage
  • …where time is elastic, slowing down, then suddenly flying by
  • …where cellphones don’t work
  • …where roads are blocked…

But the fact that it’s difficult is no excuse for not doing it.

Despite the challenges, it is our job to assist our fellow human beings in their time of greatest need, and we must do it with dignity and respect.

So… what are we waiting for? Let’s get to work.

Emergency managers need to turn that finger around and begin to point it back at ourselves. We need to spend less time trying to predict the future, searching for bugs in the software or targets that need hardening and spend more time learning how to reconfigure ourselves to confront the unknown in a complex environment.[5]

There aren’t two ways to do this; there is only one. Disaster professionals all over the country must come together into a massive team of teams, an incident organization, a Great Machine; the bigger the disaster, the bigger the machine. The United States of America needs the ability to bring together a Great Machine—the size of a Google or even a Walmart—with the ability to communicate up, down, and across the organization in one day.

Kelly McKinney Moment of Truth
Kelly McKinney is the author of Moment of Truth, released in July by Post Hill Press.

All our assets must be engaged: first responders, government agency staff, National Guard soldiers, aid workers, construction workers, private employees, and volunteers from every city, town, county, borough, and parish across the country. The challenge is that every government agency, nonprofit organization, military battalion, and private company is occupied by and absorbed in a daily mission. Every piece is a separate silo, and only a compelling need can draw it away from that daily mission.

By coming together now, emergency managers can create muscle memory around this process—a straightforward process clearly understood by all—to bring the resources of the nation to bear in the early hours of the disaster, to reach deep into the system to buy, beg, and borrow everything we will need.

If all of this sounds daunting, it is. Yet, who can deny the nature of the threat or the urgency of the need? Again, there aren’t two ways to do this; there is only one.

Which means this sort of comprehensive, proactive, integrated, and all-of-nation planning is going to happen. It’s just a question of when—and whether it will be done the easy way, by figuring it out beforehand, or the hard way, in the aftermath of the next black swan.


[1] Ad Council, “Real Stories: Emergency Preparedness,” 2018, accessed at http://www.adcouncil.org/Impact/Real-Stories/Emergency-Preparedness

[2] Deborah Wilson, “‘I’ll be OK’ attitude behind lack of disaster preparedness, study finds,” CBC News, 24 January 2018, accessed at http://www.cbc.ca/1.4502644

[3] Uscher-Pines, L., Chandra, A., Acosta, J., & Kellerman, A. (2012). Citizen Preparedness for Disasters: Are Current Assumptions Valid? Disaster Medicine Public Health Preparedness, 6(2), 170–173

[4] Including individuals and families (including those with access and functional needs), businesses, faith-based, and community organizations, nonprofit groups, schools and academia, media outlets, and state, local, tribal, territorial, and the federal government.

[5] General Stanley A. McChrystal, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. Portfolio/Penguin, 2015

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