Nancy J. Dragani
Definition of Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting
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.
…” (Post‐Katrina, 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
• 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
• 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
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
theCynefin 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
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
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
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
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
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