Note: Last year, I wrote a letter to FEMA about building a culture of preparedness by bringing back civil defense. This year, I wrote a letter to FEMA…
March 28, 2019
Pete T. Gaynor, Acting Administrator
Daniel Kaniewski, PhD, Acting Deputy Administrator
Federal Emergency Management Agency
500 C Street S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20472
Subject: Building a culture of preparedness in the United States
Dear Mr. Gaynor and Mr. Kaniewski,
Fast forward to March 1, 2019 and Emergency Management Magazine published an article entitled: “Report: We’ve Failed Miserably at Preparedness.”
The report is FEMA’s January 2019 “Building Cultures of Preparedness: Report for the Emergency Management Higher Education Community.” FEMA’s new report states that recent efforts have improved the first responder preparedness and government capabilities, but:
Attempts to enhance levels of preparedness among individual households, communities, and various organizations which lie outside the emergency management profession’s immediate sphere of control have shown little to no sign of improvement.
Preparedness experts state that what is needed is a bottom-up approach, and that past efforts to apply one-size-fits-all solutions have ended in failure.
The report says that what is needed is a bottom-up approach and that “one-size-fits-all solutions” haven’t worked. A year earlier, my letter noted that we have to build the culture of preparedness “from the bottom-up, based on the community’s needs.”
Maybe it’s time FEMA listened to “the bottom”
I believe I qualify as “the bottom.” I am a regular citizen who devotes a substantial amount of my own time (and resources) to writing about and trying to train people in emergency preparedness. I have written a book and maintain a blog about community preparedness and critical infrastructure protection, and I have been giving presentations all over New England about community preparedness. In the coming weeks, I am scheduled to present at four emergency preparedness conferences in New Hampshire and Maine.
In short, I am trying to “build a culture of preparedness” yet only one person from FEMA – a lower level regional employee – has ever reached out to me on their own. Any other correspondence I have had with FEMA, I initiated and the responses I’ve received – if any – were almost entirely perfunctory.
I can’t help but feel that FEMA has neither valued nor supported local efforts at building a culture of preparedness in the past.
We must focus on preparedness for a “worst-case” disaster
Too many emergency managers think that Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Katrina constitute “worst-case” scenario disasters. They do not. These disasters – as horrible as they were – were best case scenarios. I say this because in Maria and Katrina, outside resources were available and abundant. A “worst-case” scenario disaster would be one where communities were on their own, such as a national-scale loss of the electric grid. In other words, the cavalry is not coming.
If we want to build a culture or preparedness, we need to focus on preparing for a worst-case disaster – which fits perfectly with FEMA strategic plan goal #2.
In my March 7, 2018 letter, I pointed out that the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 requires that the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security:
(1) include in national planning frameworks the threat of an EMP or GMD event; and
(2) conduct outreach to educate owners and operators of critical infrastructure, emergency planners, and emergency response providers at all levels of government regarding threats of EMP and GMD. [Emphasis added.]
On March 26, 2019, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13865 entitled “Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses”  in which FEMA was specifically tasked:
Within 180 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of Homeland Security, through the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in coordination with the heads of appropriate SSAs, shall review and update Federal response plans, programs, and procedures to account for the effects of EMPs.
Because any national-scale disaster would likely either be caused by or would cause a wide-scale loss of power, it is very logical that we should focus on preparing communities to be able to “rescue themselves” for long periods of time in an environment of a complete loss of power. This is, in fact, an all-hazards approach. Earthquakes, hurricanes and pandemics cause power outages, as well as cyberattacks, EMP, GMD and physical attacks. Most major disasters we have experienced in the past involved the loss of power.
Yet, on May 24, 2018 FEMA admitted that: “Current planning does not include any contingencies for very long term or extremely wide spread power outages.”
I would posit that this is a major reason for our lack of a preparedness culture in the United States today. Unless the people of the United States – and the federal, state and local governments – understand that we face existential threats, it is difficult for them to see the value in preparedness. Perhaps our culture now can be best described as a “somebody will rescue me” culture.
The reasons that we had a better culture of preparedness under the old “civil defense” system are simple. The first aspect is that everybody understood that we faced an existential threat (i.e., global thermonuclear war.) The second aspect is that we trained civilians in what to do and prepared as communities.
Our lack of preparedness came into dramatic focus on January 13, 2018 when residents of Hawaii received this alert:
What I found most disturbing was the response of a resident as reported by CNN:
“Clearly, there is a massive gap between letting people know something’s coming and having something for them to do. Nobody knew what to do.”
Besides the fact that there was a catastrophic failure of the emergency alert system which caused widespread panic, this quote says something much deeper and quite painful. “Nobody knew what to do.”
And this message applies to our whole country. We don’t know what to do. The last time I was in a “nuclear attack drill” as a civilian was in the early 70’s when I was in grade school in Ohio. We called these “tornado drills” but they were thinly veiled nuclear attack drills (which did also prepare us for tornados).
As an adult, I have owned houses in three states. Not once has anybody ever rang my bell to talk about emergency preparedness.
As a country, we are unprepared and complacent.
The 2019 Report Reached the Correct Conclusions, But…
FEMA’s January 2019 report correctly concludes that our past methods have been ineffective and that a “bottom-up” approach is needed, but then notes:
This report and the workshop upon which it builds represent an effort to contribute to “Building Cultures of Preparedness” by facilitating collaboration and constructive dialogue among academic experts and scholars from diverse disciplines, FEMA officials and practitioners representing a wide range of specialties, all with a shared interest in preparedness and community resilience.
So, to build a culture or preparedness we need “academic experts and scholars from diverse disciplines” and “FEMA officials and practitioners.” Is there somebody missing here? Oh yeah. The public.
This passage highlights not only why we have failed over the past decade, but why we will continue to fail as long as we limit our efforts to academics and “practitioners.” We know we can’t build a culture or preparedness from a building in DC or from academic discussions alone – yet that appears to be what our solution is. But we are adding a new buzz-word: Culture Broker. Unfortunately, academic study and new buzz word are not going to solve the public engagement problem.
Nobody Has the Mission.
In addition to the recommendations in my March 7, 2018 letter – which was written before FEMA’s Strategic Plan was released and is attached here for reference – I also note that a major problem remains that nobody has “the mission” to build a culture of preparedness in a particular community. If we want this to happen, this has to be clearly on somebody’s radar as their responsibility. Right now, in 35,000 towns and cities across the U.S., this “mission” is on very few people’s radar as their primary (or at least a major) responsibility. Do our academics think that these so-called “culture brokers” are just going to spontaneously appear?
To whom should this responsibility fall? One thing in common in every one of the 35,000 towns and cities in the country (as well as many large corporations and government agencies) is an emergency manager. Building a culture of preparedness needs to be a function – and mission – of emergency management. (You may think it already is, but I assure you in most communities, it is not).
FEMA defines emergency management as:
Definition: Emergency management is the managerial function charged with creating the framework within which communities reduce vulnerability to hazards and cope with disasters.
Vision: Emergency management seeks to promote safer, less vulnerable communities with the capacity to cope with hazards and disasters.
Mission: Emergency Management protects communities by coordinating and integrating all activities necessary to build, sustain, and improve the capability to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from threatened or actual natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters.
I propose that FEMA modify the mission of emergency management:
Mission: Emergency Management builds a culture of preparedness by involving all stakeholders including citizens, organizations, businesses and the government in all activities necessary to build, sustain, and improve the capability to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from threatened or actual natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters.
FEMA Must Take Action to Facilitate Building A Culture of Preparedness
I refer you back to my March 7, 2018 letter and recommendations. We are still waiting. Of paramount importance, FEMA needs to tell us that starting a local civil defense program (either non-profit or government sponsored organization) is a good idea. Even better, tell us that it is what we should do. Communities are literally waiting for this guidance.
I have had countless conversations with people after FEMA’s strategic plan came out and for most, it remains FEMA’s strategic plan – not the nation’s plan. Many emergency managers are waiting for FEMA to tell them what to do (i.e., they are waiting for the “mission”). Many are also waiting for “resources” which they believe are necessary to “build a culture of preparedness.” Let me address both issues.
Mission: FEMA needs to clearly give every emergency manager – public and private sector – the mission to:
- Build a Culture of Preparedness, and
- Ready the Nation for Catastrophic Disasters.
FEMA can do neither of these things alone – they must be done from the bottom-up. And this has to be clearly on the radar of every emergency manager that this is their mission – getting into living rooms, not simply putting together great looking binders of plans.
Resources: While the third point in FEMA’s strategic plan (“Reduce the Complexity of FEMA”) can be of great assistance here, we need to emphasize to emergency managers that they cannot wait for resources – they must take action now. In most cases, the resources they need already exist in the community.
I tell emergency managers this: imagine if you woke up this morning and there was a non-profit civil defense organization in your community. The group’s mission statement:
The mission of the [your town’s name] Civil Defense Corp. is to educate and promote individual, family, and town preparedness for disasters; to provide disaster assistance and relief to town residents in the event of a disaster; and to educate and provide planning and resource options to the town for preparation and response to a “worst-case,” long-term catastrophe affecting the town.
In this organization there are subgroups working on key aspects of the town’s survival in case of a long-term catastrophe, such as:
- A subgroup of EMTs, paramedics, doctors and nurses stocking supplies, equipment and planning for how medical services could be delivered in a worst-case scenario.
- A subgroup of HAM radio operators and engineers working on ways for the town to communicate internally and externally.
- A subgroup working to stock and produce food for the community, as well as educating the public on ways to be more food independent.
- A subgroup working on methods to ensure that potable water is available and safe in a disaster.
- A subgroup working on methods of providing alternative power for critical facilities and services.
- A security subgroup working with the local police department to provide resources and man-power.
- A safety, health, and sanitation subgroup working to prevent disease and injury as sanitation services are interrupted and people are forced to do non-traditional tasks to survive.
- An outreach subgroup focused on training and education – teaching the public preparedness, homesteading skills and self-reliance.
- A finance subgroup soliciting donations, grants and organizing activities to fund the civil defense program.
And other subgroups based on your particular community’s needs. What a resource multiplier! With a civil defense organization like this, your community is moving rapidly towards a true culture of preparedness and true pre-disaster mitigation.
Of course, you didn’t really wake up—this is just a vivid dream. But if we are men and women of action, we can turn this dream into reality for our communities.
In my March 7, 2018 letter, I outlined key concepts for bringing back civil defense as a means of building a culture of preparedness in the United States. A year has passed with little progress, but we now have a great opportunity with the March 26, 2019 Executive Order (EO 13865) to increase our nation’s resilience. I hope we can start making progress and not waste another year – and possibly risk many lives.
We need FEMA to act with a sense of urgency if we want the nation to adopt the same sense of urgency.
I would be happy to meet with you to further discuss how we can build a true culture of preparedness in the U.S.
Footnotes: Emergency Management Magazine. “Report: We’ve Failed Miserably at Preparedness.” March 1, 2019. https://www.govtech.com/em/preparedness/Report-Weve-Failed-Miserably-at-Preparedness.html (accessed March 24, 2019).  The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 2019. “Building Cultures of Preparedness: A report for the emergency management higher education community.” Washington, DC: FEMA. https://training.fema.gov/hiedu/docs/latest/2019_cultures_of_preparedness_report_10.22.18%20final.pdf (accessed March 24, 2019).  Ibid. Page 6.  Ibid. Page 8.  My blog is located at https://securethegrid.com and my book, “The Civil Defense Book.” ISBN-13: 978-1974320943, 2nd Edition October 17, 2017 is available https://www.amazon.com/Civil-Defense-Book-Emergency-Preparedness/dp/1974320944 (accessed March 24, 2019).  One of these presentations at New England College is available here: https://securethegrid.com/the-cavalry-is-not-coming/ (accessed March 24, 2019).
- 2019 NH Integrated Emergency Volunteer Training Exercise, Saturday April 6, 2019, Bow, NH. https://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/eventReg?oeidk=a07eg4bwjwed5e50dd8&oseq=&c=&ch= (Accessed March 24, 2019).
- Maine Partners in Emergency Preparedness, April 23, 2019, Augusta, ME. https://www.maine.gov/mema/maine-prepares/maine-partners-emergency-preparedness-conference (accessed March 24, 2019).
- 2019 Governor’s Conference on Volunteerism, May 20, 2019, Manchester, NH. http://volunteernh.org/event/2019gc/ (accessed March 24, 2019).
- NH Emergency Preparedness Conference, June 4, 2019, Manchester, NH. http://www.nhemergencyprepconference.com/home.html (accessed March 24, 2019).