Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Effectively engaging citizens in disaster and emergency management - 3 steps we need to take

One of my motivations behind creating this blog was to make a better connection between the world of emergency management, and the everyday world most of us inhabit. Emergency management has well thought out tools and resources for preparation, response, mitigation and recovery from emergencies and disasters, from the federal to the local government level, but somehow most of these remain walled off from the general public, and the approach of EM to the public has tended to lack engagement (despite worthwhile efforts like CERT and citizen corps). For example, how many Emergency Management departments even make their hazard analysis easily available to the public? Yet such information can help individuals make much better decisions about how to prepare themselves (see my blog entry on this).  Everyone agrees that the key to disaster planning is engagement of the public, yet participation is very low (see In Case of Emergency blog post). So what is wrong? Well I think part of the problem is that we still think of this as a top-down process - how can we engage them, the citizenry in our processes? This results in a paternalistic approach to citizen involvement (as characterized by the duct tape debacle on the federal level). So what can we do better? Well, here are three things I think we could practically do now to improve citizen involvement in preparing for disasters.

1. Take the social media bull by the horns. At all levels, from local to federal, use social media (Twitter, blogs) to ask questions, not just disseminate information. Employ a programming-whiz intern kid to develop social media apps like Google maps for your local community. Ask people to submit their resources. Give prizes for social media resources voted the most useful. Be honest and ask for input on matters for which we are ill prepared. Just get on board and do it properly, rather than in a "I don't quite understand this but I know I'm supposed to have a twitter account" kind of way. If you don't believe this is important, see "10 reasons social media is important in a real crisis"

2. Start true innovation in the use of technology in Emergency Management. Identify where the rest of the world is technologically way ahead of the EM community, and embrace these rather than trying to replicate them in an expensive fashion. Buy everyone involved in EM an iPad. Employ people to write apps for EM. Give these away free to everyone, not just emergency managers. This could be done cheaply and effectively, while engaging citizenry in the process. Federally, start an equivalent of Innocentive for finding solutions to hard problems. Get out of the grants-expensive vendor model.

3. Find ways to give people real, concrete qualifications and powers rather than nominal ones. Work with universities and training institutes to let people train as EMT's or firefighters for free, then use them in a real official capacity when resources are stretched. Give them free BLS kits. Employ volunteer directors (and give them real power) who actively recruit key members of a community who can help in disasters. Talk to survivalists about how to scale up their worst-case-scenario planning to a local community (see my blog post on this).


  1. Great ideas and practical too.

    Claire B. Rubin

  2. David,
    I used your piece as my muse this am. I wrote an article in iDisaster: "How can we use technology to improve community resilience?"

  3. Kim, many thanks for the mention! I just left a comment on your posting, it got me thinking...

  4. You may already know we're on the same page. Thanks for the link to your blog. It is a pleasure to see your post. And now I'm going to explore more of your posts. Again, thank you for your candor.