Developing a ‘whole community’ approach to preparedness

CarolinaFireJournal - By Mark D. Reese
By Mark D. Reese
08/04/2013 -

In December, 2011, FEMA introduced A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action (FEMA, 2011.) The goal is to continue to encourage communities to plan and prepare for major disasters and to continue to promote resiliency. Craig Fugate, FEMA Administrator, testified to Congress that “Government can and will continue to serve disaster survivors. However, we fully recognize that a government-centric approach to disaster management will not be enough to meet the challenges posed by a catastrophic incident.”


This is why it is very important to ensure that your agency is involved with your community to not only prepare and respond to a major disaster, but to also recognize that you must be able to manage your own event for a while; it will take time for the government to send help.

Step # 1: Engaging Your Community

In public safety, we understand the need to practice and prepare for the next call for help. We train and equip our personnel to meet the next threat as best we can. To create a Whole Community that is involved and ready takes initiative and engagement; you need to bring everyone together to talk about what will happen if the earth shakes, or the water rises. Do not assume as a member of the public safety community that your community is on the same page that you are. This is your opportunity to take the lead.

Gather all of the community organizational leaders together to include: elected officials, school officials, business owners, faith based organizations, lodges, and clubs. Now, openly discuss what could happen to your town, city or county, just as you would conduct a threat assessment. This is not meant to be a stressful discussion to scare everyone that the’ sky is going to fall’ but rather an open forum to talk about how long it will realistically take the federal government to send help to you if you become overwhelmed. This is where you also discuss the importance of having enough supplies on hand for families to survive for several days. You are engaging in open discussion about being resilient.

Step # 2: Training Your Community

I am a big advocate of using trained volunteers to bolster the ranks. The fire service does a great job all across the country doing this by effectively having volunteer firefighters and EMTs involved in the operational and response side of daily activities. In law enforcement, we train reserve officers too. The search and rescue community also uses many trained volunteer citizens to help in emergencies.

In emergency management we know that people will show up at your disaster to help out. We refer to them as Emergent Volunteers. Your community is no different. You will have citizens who are unaffected who want to help. As part of your goal to get everyone involved, and build resiliency, you should expand your base of trained volunteers, your firefighters and reserve police officers, to include citizen Community Emergency Response Teams also known as CERT. The added benefit is that you are creating pockets of “force multipliers” within your community who have been trained by you to recognize potential problems. Trained members of the community will also have a better understanding of hazards to avoid and warn others about. If you have neighborhoods with CERT trained citizens, they will be able to help their neighbors until other resources can arrive. This is very helpful in a large emergent situation.

Step # 3: Plan for the Real

To achieve resiliency you must plan all year long. Look at what has occurred historically, like flood events as an example, and discuss how each area of your community will react if this occurs again. Ask questions like these. Who will be the most vulnerable? Who will establish the shelter for evacuees? What agencies will we call upon for mutual aid? Get all of this figured out ahead of time so that you are not caught off guard. Then, think outside the box. Ask, “what haven’t we prepared for?” This is where Murphy’s Law comes into the planning equation.

This is also the time to gather your community groups together to have a tabletop exercise so that each resource and sector understands what their role is in a disaster event. Again, do not assume that the garden club and neighborhood watch know that they will be setting up an evacuation center at the high school. Let them ask questions and discuss logistics etc. at planning meetings and tabletop exercises. Practice before the event will ensure results when it is for real.

Step # 4: Maintain Relationships

Why do we have “burn to learn” exercises with neighboring fire departments? Why do we have active shooter drills with local police agencies? The answer is to maintain critical working relationships before the emergency. Remember that you are on your own in most cases until other resources can be mobilized to come help you. Relationships are part of building the resilient community model. It may seem mundane to have regular preparedness meetings within your community outside of public safety. However, this is where you share information and find out what is going on.

You may also find resources within your community that you didn’t know you had. An example might be the retired civil engineer who is part of the local church who could be tasked to inspect partially collapsed structures until a FEMA team arrives. You might also have a retired attorney who can help you draft mutual aid agreements as a volunteer. Community meetings equal relationships equal added resources and RESILIENCY.

Step # 5: The Whole Community Evolves

Disasters do not have a time-line or calendar. They show up and create havoc and destruction whenever they feel like it. Your goal is to mitigate the risk to your community and increase the “return to normal” effect after you have been hit. This requires leadership and community engagement to build the whole community into a resistant one that can bounce back with minimal outside help. Let your community be the model for everyone else. Take charge. Be resilient!

A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principals, Themes, and Pathways for Action. (2011, December). Washington, D. C.: U. S. Department of Homeland Security.

Mark D. Reese is a retired Sgt. From the Lane County Sheriff’s Office in Eugene, Oregon. He was also a volunteer firefighter and EMT with McKenzie Fire and Rescue in Walterville, Oregon. Reese has an MA In Emergency Management and a BA in Management. He has also completed numerous FEMA training courses for emergency managers.
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