Commentary: Creating a culture of disaster preparedness

With the New Year comes the inevitable urge to make ambitious resolutions for 2009. High on people's lists should be a resolve to become better prepared for emergencies.

Indeed, looking back at 2008, we see the importance of preparedness as we recall the return of an extremely active hurricane season, especially along the Gulf Coast.

While Hurricane Ike wreaked particularly serious devastation, the big bright spot throughout the season was the exemplary degree of preparedness displayed by large organizations.

In the wake of such storms, nonprofits like the American Red Cross and their local affiliates and counterparts pre-positioned food, supplies, and volunteers near the affected areas, providing critical help on multiple levels for people and neighborhoods in need. At the governmental level, state and local officials worked well with our Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in evacuation planning. DHS mobilized equipment, supplies, and people, including military and law enforcement resources, to operate side-by-side with these officials and their governments in order to protect life and property. Our Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA had ambulances available to help individuals whose medical conditions warranted special intervention.

All too often, people take this assistance for granted. They assume that first responders will routinely ride to the rescue, arriving in time to meet human needs. Unfortunately such a benign outcome cannot be guaranteed. For one thing, disasters are unpredictable. Responders can't always reach the beleaguered in time. A host of obstacles can delay their arrival. News accounts of coordination lapses between fire and police departments in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, highlight what can go wrong in the aftermath of a disaster.

Thus, preparedness should not be left to organizations alone. Individuals and families must engage in it as well. They must take preparedness measures of their own ahead of time, measures that can enable them to respond safely and faster when an emergency occurs.

That is why DHS, through its "Ready" Campaign, is now launching a nationwide effort, "Resolve to be Ready," to persuade individuals and families, as well as businesses and communities, to take decisive steps to prepare for emergencies in the coming year.

Americans are being encouraged to do three things – get an emergency supply kit; make a family emergency plan; and inform themselves about the difference kinds of potential emergencies in their area and how to respond to them.

While the "Ready" Campaign's annual survey this year, conducted by the Ad Council, reveals continued progress on this front, more needs to be done. Although nearly 60% of respondents claimed they had done something to prepare for emergencies, only 40% said they had created a family emergency plan.

Similarly, in a recent study funded by DHS and the National Science Foundation, while 85% of respondents said they had become more vigilant since the 9-11 attacks, only 31.3% have developed emergency plans, 34.5% have stockpiled supplies, and 21.9% have bought items designed to make them safer.

Clearly, Americans still have far to go in building a culture of preparedness.

What can be done to help create such a culture?

"Resolve to be Ready" is certainly a step in the right direction, as is the Ready campaign itself, a year-round outreach by DHS, which issues public service announcements about the need for disaster preparedness while directing Americans to its Web site for the necessary information and instruction.

These and other kinds of outreach can make a real difference.

In addition, other organizations and institutions – such as schools, daycare centers, and employers – can help spur personal and family preparedness. When institutions lead by example, Americans will continue to embrace disaster preparedness as respected members of their community become preparedness advocates.

These are some of the ways that preparedness can be gradually woven into the fabric of Americans' lives. Creating a culture of preparedness is indeed a challenge, but it is one that is well worth engaging.