– Executive Summary –

Definition of Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

—Albert Einstein

Every day, somewhere in the United States, someone is recovering from a disaster. While the number of declared disasters dropped in 2014 to 45 presidential declarations and six federal emergencies (Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], 2104), for many Americans, natural or human caused disasters are nearly an annual occurrence. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate has been clear about the importance of personal preparedness on the nation’s ability to respond to catastrophic disasters. Fugate was blunt at a July 2009 Congressional hearing, telling the subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, “Every family that fails to take even the most basic preparedness actions…is a family that will pull responders and critical resources away from those who truly need such assistance.…” (PostKatrina, 2009, pp. 10–11).

The problem this thesis explores is why, after millions of dollars and years of public campaigns, many Americans are not prepared for disaster, at least as preparedness is defined by FEMA and our nation’s emergency management community. Perhaps the problem is not just with the receiver of the message. Could the problem also be with the message itself? Are the actions the public is asked to take practical based on barriers, such as income and lifestyle, reasonable based on identified risk, and reflective of personal perception of self and how an individual may choose to act based on the way he or she senses and responds to an incident?

The research for this thesis began with several assumptions.

  • Current preparedness campaigns seem to imply that once the action is taken, the individual is prepared yet the investment in effort and money may be significant.
  • To achieve the desired outcome, the message must be redefined to ensure the actions being asked are reasonable, sustainable, and realistic.
  • The public must understand the message, believe the actions requested are valid, and be able to act appropriately for the overall preparedness outcome to be achieved.
  • The current preparedness campaigns do not appear to changing long term behavior which will lead to the desired outcome. That is, a more resilient population.
  • If the standard approach the emergency management community has used for the last several decades is flawed, then the needle might not simply be stuck. It may, along with the entire system, be broken.
  • Perhaps the problem is not just with the needle, which is simply measuring action or inaction, but with the actions themselves and the messages used to promote them.

Using a modified content analysis of the standard preparedness messaging along with specific survey questions from four FEMA surveys allowed the researcher to study the efficacy of the current personal preparedness messaging. A further examination of preparedness messaging within the contexts of the Cynefin framework and the positioning theory allow for an analysis of how those models may influence acceptance and action. Overall, the number of individuals prepared for disaster remains stagnant. While the surveys are valuable, they measure personal preparedness based on a very specific set of actions defined by government leaders. Some of these actions may be universally desired and common to every citizen in every part of the country. However, some may not be appropriate or logical given the area’s risk or capacity of the individual. In those cases, the survey respondent may have determined the cost of preparedness as it relates to a specific action is not justified. What may be perceived by officials as barriers, may in fact be rational decisions based on understanding of threat and the perceived cost to benefit ratio of preparedness. Measuring outcome as opposed to actions may require a different tool that considers how an individual may choose to act based on the way he or she senses and responds to an incident and how the assumed position a person takes in a situation will influence their action.

The researcher also looked at personal preparedness from the frame of positioning theory, which looks at the roles and rights, duties, and responsibilities that individuals assume based on their perceived or actual position in the world. In a 2009 article published in Theory and Psychology, “Recent Advances in Positioning Theory,” by Harre, Moghaddam,Pilkerton, Cainie, Rothbart, and Sabat, the authors explored new applications of the use of positioning theory to explain interpersonal encounters. Based on this theory, individuals can choose, or be placed in, the role of victim or survivor. That placement will then influence an individual’s perception of his or her rights as well as responsibilities (Harre, Moghaddam, Pilkerton, Cainie, Rothbart, and Sabat, 2009).

The Cynefin framework offers another way to look at the public’s receptiveness of the personal preparedness messages. Developed by David Snowden, the Cynefin framework organizes situations into five distinct domains, based on the correlation between cause and effect (Snowden & Boone, 2007). The five domains are simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. Snowden advances that this model addresses differences in ontology (what is) and how that interacts with epistemology (how we know) and phenomenology (how we experience) (Snowden, 2012). The positioning theory and the Cynefin framework both may provide significant insight into how to individuals receive and act on messages.

Millions of dollars have been spent trying to convince members of the public to take responsibility for their personal preparedness. Regardless of the approach taken, the percentage of individuals and families that appear to be prepared for disaster has remained relatively stagnant, resulting in the analogy that the needle is stuck. Joe Becker, from the American Red Cross suggested the challenge is to get the needle moving on the percentage of those who are prepared (Statement, 2009, p. 4). FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has said that families who fail to take basic steps to prepare for disaster pull responders from those who in critical need of help (2009, pp. 10–11). Garry Briese argues that the bar for preparedness is too high and personal preparedness should be refined to those actions most important to the outcome (2010).

Ultimately, this researcher identified six findings based on the initiating assumptions.

First, successful public safety campaigns, such as “stop, drop and roll” and “click it or ticket,” generally require a low investment in cost and time and have a clear and compelling negative outcome if the action is not taken. The current preparedness actions require an investment in time—to acquire knowledge, develop a plan, prepare a kit—and money to purchase and store the items for a kit. To be effective, both the plan and kit must be maintained.

Second, with a few exceptions, researchers agree that understanding and agreeing with risk is a driving factor in an individual’s desire to be personally prepared. Some jurisdictions, such as California, are using technology to help their residents understand the threats and risks of the community. It is past time for the emergency management community at large to recognize that threats and risks are not universal and one generic message is not sufficient.

Third, positioning theory advances that language not only communicates, but shapes the way individuals act based on how they “position” themselves relative to the language used (Davies & Harre, 2007, p. 2). FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate’s attempt to reframe victims of disasters to survivors is consistent with this concept of positioning theory. By positioning individuals impacted by disaster as survivors, FEMA is helping them assume the responsibility to be accountable for their own survival, as well as an implied duty to help others. By assuming the role of survivor, people become not only enablers in their own response and recovery but allow government resources to focus on those who are positioned, regardless of cause, as victims.

Fourth, while the surveys are exhaustive, they measure personal preparedness based on a very specific set of actions defined by government leaders. Some of these actions may be universally desired and common to every citizen in every part of the country. However, some may not be appropriate or logical so the survey respondents may have determined the cost of preparedness as it relates to a specific action is not warranted or justified. What may be perceived as barriers, may in fact be rational decisions based on understanding of threat. According to a report released by FEMA in 2013, the percentage of Americans who have taken actions to prepare remains largely unchanged since 2007 (FEMA, 2013, p. 1). Knowing how to prepare and expense of preparation continues to be perceived as barriers by 25 percent of those surveyed (2013, p. 12).

Fifth, the Cynefin theory suggests that individual preparedness may mistakenly be framed as simple—one problem, and one right answer. However, some actions, such as preparedness kits or plans may morph and become complicated, with many potential solutions. During disasters, the availability of resources, capabilities, understanding, and history of a potential threat may move an individual response into the complex domain with many known and unknown solutions with no right answer immediately evident.

Finally, a 2008 Columbia University report suggests that a fundamental lack of trust that loved ones will be protected must be resolved if the disconnect between evacuation plans and individual action is to be eliminated (Redlener, Grant, Abramson, & Johnson, 2008, p. 6). Even with known threats, the surveys indicate high levels of reluctance to evacuate, particularly if the respondent is unsure that her or his children or loved ones would be protected (2008). Each of these findings points back to last two hypotheses: if the needle is broken, perhaps the problem is with the actions the public is asked to take. As the emergency management community continues to challenge the public to prepare, there are several recommendations that may encourage a more resilient population.

Reframing what preparedness looks like, focusing on outcomes, rather than actions and looking for new ways to include the community in the conversation may prompt new ways to prepare for disasters. Rethinking how preparedness is measured and conducting studies on whether actions actually effect outcome will allow more refinement of the message and rigor to the conversation. Finally, recognizing personal choice and planning for action, as well as inaction, will allow emergency managers to better prepare for the needs of their populations.

The findings led the researcher to six recommendations.

Reframe the Concept of Preparedness

A disaster kit, prepackaged and stored away to be only used in a disaster is not practical or sustainable action for many Americans. It is costly and takes time, attention, and desire to maintain. Reframing the requirement away from a disaster kit to one that focuses on the ability to sustain self and family for 72 hours with supplies currently on hand may be far more achievable for most Americans. For instance, pantry stocked with canned goods and daily supplies that can be opened and eaten cold if necessary may be a better option than a packaged emergency supply kit loaded with Spam and cans of tuna. The most effective preparedness solution for individuals and families challenged by lack of money or storage may be to identify a nearby location, either with family or friends, where they can safely weather the storm. Some campaigns and approaches are beginning to look for alternate ways for individuals to be prepared, relying less on the kit concept and more on an outcome of preparedness, whatever that looks like.

Focus on the Outcome Rather Than Actions

The steps to preparedness—get a kit, make a plan, be informed, be involved—simple solutions to a relatively known problem become far less important. A diverse and dynamic set of flexible solutions created by the stakeholders is what is needed in this complicated and complex environment, ultimately leading to the desired outcome: a resilient society.

Create Opportunities for Dialogue with Impacted Individuals with no Preset Outcome

Communication with the public, as opposed to emergency managers and professional communicators, may lead to innovative ideas that meet the needs in non-traditional ways.

Refine Personal Preparedness Surveys to Allow for Measurement of Alternate Ways to Prepared May Actually Result in a More Prepared Individual

While it may be valuable to ask the standard question about a preparedness kit set aside to be used only during disaster, it is important to probe the negative responses to get a more accurate level of preparedness. Asking questions about stored food not in a kit or the ability to access stored water in other areas of the home not only measures a different type of preparedness, it moves the discussion about preparedness in new and equally valid directions.

Conduct Post-Disaster Studies of the Efficacy of Personal Preparedness

The author could find no studies on whether being prepared makes a family more resilient or, as just more comfortable. There appears to be no empirical evidence appears to support the common assumption that when the waters rise, the wind blows, or the earth shakes, someone who “has a kit, a plan and is informed” has a greater chance of survival and successful recovery than his or her neighbor, who does not. Emergency management websites and publications seem to posit that personal preparedness pays dividends in lessened impacts and faster recovery; however, there do not appear to be readily available post-disaster statistics to validate that claim.

Finally, Consider That Perhaps the Needle Has Moved as Far as It Can

Maybe the needle is stuck on half full because that is all the juice there is. Perhaps it is time to recognize that those who can are preparing, although perhaps not to the

standard the government proposes. Some of those who are not prepared may intentionally be choosing to refuse that role. Others may be placed, by choice or circumstance, in the victim role and may be unable to prepare. Emergency preparedness campaigns should continue, albeit with a reframed message that better reflects practical, sustainable, and risk appropriate actions, but it may be time to stop obsessing over the lack of preparedness. While the emergency management community can continue to march to the drumbeat of “get a kit, make a plan, be informed,” it must recognize that many may choose to ignore that beat and march instead to their own.


As the frequency and cost of disasters increases, a clear understanding of and agreement on the desired outcome of preparedness is more important than simply measuring kits and plans. There are many roads to resiliency; encouraging multiple paths may lead to a stronger, sounder, more resilient solution that driving everyone down the same highway.

At the end of the day, the fact that all get to the final destination is what is important; how they get there is negotiable.

List of References

Briese, G. (2010). The four essentials of life-communications, transportation, power and water. Presented at The EIIP Virtual Forum. Retrieved on November 5, 2012, from www.emforum.org/vforum/Four Essentials.pdf

Davies, B. &. Harre, R. (1990). Positioning: The discursive production of selves. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior. 20 (1), pp. 43–63. Retrieved February 22, 2015, from http:www.massey.ac.nz/~alock/position/position/htm

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