Personal Preparedness in America: The Needle is Broken

Nancy J. Dragani


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


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

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

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

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


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 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


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