How many times in the emergency services have we heard someone, after a disaster, say, “I never thought it would happen here?”  Seven years ago today I responded with dozens of others to the Amish Nickel Mines school shooting.  It couldn’t happen there!  This was one of the most horrific events I have ever been to in over thirty years in the emergency services, because it was an intentional act against the most innocent of victims.  “It won’t happen here,” or “It can’t happen here,” are words that should never be uttered as an excuse for any lack of preparedness.

I don’t want to talk about that day nor that event on this anniversary.  What I want to make is a point, “Anything CAN happen Anywhere!”  As emergency responders and Emergency Managers, we fight an uphill battle every day known as “lack of Preparedness.”   Recently during a discussion with our students in our Masters of Science in Emergency Management program, we had a debate over what to tell the public?  As responders, we never want to admit defeat or say that we can’t help, but are we setting our citizens up for a bigger disaster?  If the citizens that we are sworn to protect have an unrealistic expectation that we, the responders (read government), are always going to be here, or there, and we will always respond no matter what the disaster in order to protect them, are we doing our citizens a great disservice? 

The debate was interesting as highly educated students, some with many years in the field and some with  only a few years of experience, tried to balance individual preparedness versus a duty to assist the citizens under our watch.  We have all heard the seventy-two hour rule.  Each person is to have the necessary supplies and a disaster kit to fend for themselves for the first seventy-two hours after a disaster.  This will give each citizen a plan of preparedness  while the responders are doing their best to get to them after a disaster.  Remember, statistically the number of responders is declining, yet the number of events is increasing.  Think about some of the major events that have occurred in the past few years: major hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, wild fires, landslides and earthquakes, not to mention the horrific man-made events. 

Every citizen needs to have a sustainment and resiliency plan.  Every citizen needs to have a disaster kit with basic supplies.  These kits are easy to put together, go to or for samples of what a kit needs.  So, if it is so easy, why doesn’t everyone have a kit?  The citizens are reliant on us, the emergency managers and responders! As we discussed at great length, more and more citizens are leaving their disaster preparedness to government.  We continue to send out the message that we are all things to all people, we are “all-hazards” responders, and we probably really can do all types of disaster response and recovery.  However, as our resources continue to diminish and our disasters keep coming, we need to do a better job with our community preparedness, our “Whole Community” approach.

The story does not end here with a plea for better communications by emergency managers, because I am not sure we have decided yet what that message should be to the public. Our class clearly pointed out that our elected officials want the citizens to know we are on the job and ready for anything.  We will continue to discuss and debate what the right message is for our citizens, but one thing we know we have to do is a better job of communicating and preparing our most vulnerable populations. 

Vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected in any disaster.  They have less ability to prepare, and a more difficult time of recovering.  If a citizen can barely pay rent or put food on the table, how will they make a disaster kit.  If we continue to put out our message through mainstream media, and our vulnerable populations don’t get their information from the mainstream media, how are we helping to prepare them for disasters? 

We don’t have the answers yet, and we will continue to research to solve these problems, but the one thing we know for sure, the more citizens we can get to be actively involved in preparing and to assist themselves and their neighbors, the better our system will be and the better the outcome for all of us. 

Be Smart Be Prepared Be Safe