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Obstacle Course: Understanding the 4 Obstacles to Being Prepared for a Disaster

Site inspection being performed for a temporary home following Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Disasters happen. To prepare for them, and to ensure organizational effectiveness when there is enough time to respond but not enough time to improvise a coordinated response – communities must engage in emergency preparedness. That is, engaging in pre-impact activities that establish a state of readiness to respond to extreme events.

When public officials initiate a preparedness program and these pre-impact activities, it’s important to understand the obstacles to being prepared. From Disaster Preparedness, here are four obstacles to be aware of during the development of your plan:

1. Lack of support

It is always difficult to build support for emergency management. Disasters are relatively infrequent events and there are competing priorities for funding and resources. Other department leaders may not fully understand why attention and energy should be given to unpredictable disasters when roads need to be repaired, schools need to be built, and crime needs to be fought. If they haven’t been through a disaster, some local government employees won’t understand their role in disasters; as a result they may question the relevance of emergency management and neglect their duty to prepare their department for potential incidents.

All of these attitudes are understandable, but the emergency manager must not be discouraged by opposition to disaster preparedness. The emergency manager’s mission is to share knowledge about the probability and consequences of disasters and prepare the community. The emergency manager’s persistence may overcome some of these problems that commonly confront emergency management personnel.

2. False confidence

Emergency management is multifaceted and disaster planning is only one of many components. All too often, local government leaders assume that they are prepared for an emergency if they have created a disaster plan. There are at least two problems with this logic. First, a plan is worthless if employees and citizens are not aware of what they should do in a disaster and if they have not practiced the activities outlined in the preparedness plan. Second, disaster readiness requires numerous steps in addition to planning. These include identifying resources, establishing mutual aid agreements, training first responders, and educating the community. Therefore, public officials should do all they can to avoid the “paper plan syndrome.”

3. False assumptions

Plans have to be based on assumptions, but all too often these assumptions are false. In particular, beliefs about human behavior in the face of an emergency are often erroneous. For instance, many planners assume that people will panic in dangerous situations; exhibit criminal behavior after disaster strikes, and be shocked and unable to cope with extreme events. In most cases, these assumptions could not be further from the truth. Many individuals and families will not evacuate when warned of impending danger, most people work harmoniously to meet the demands of the disaster, and the public is often a great resource during response and recovery operations (although at times the number of volunteers may overwhelm the ability of the community to manage them effectively). The fact that firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical technicians rushed into the soon-to-collapse World Trade Center buildings on September 11, 2001, should put to rest the misperception that first responders will not fulfill their responsibilities in perilous situations. Likewise, the concern that first responders will put the well-being of their families ahead of their duties is usually unfounded. Public officials should critically evaluate their assumptions when preparedness measures are being taken.

4. Necessity of collaboration

Preparedness cannot be done effectively in isolation. In the past, civil defense directors and emergency managers worked diligently alone to prepare communities for disasters. Today there is a realization that this approach is woefully inadequate. Every public official and government department is a vital component of emergency management. Local leaders cannot respond to disasters effectively without the help of other levels of government, the private sector, and nonprofit organizations. Hence, emergency managers should work closely with others to promote community disaster preparedness. Establishing a preparedness council is one way to ensure that preparedness is inclusive. Local Emergency Planning Committees are a good example of how the most pertinent players may be involved in disaster preparedness. If disasters require multi-organizational responses, preparedness must also include multi-organizational strategies.

To learn more, download Disaster Preparedness, a report that discusses what local governments can do to augment the state of readiness in their jurisdictions.



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