Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
That was the spirit with which, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government introduced its new vision for building national resilience against disasters. The report, The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned, proposed the creation of an ambitious “culture of preparedness,” or a commitment by the public and private sectors, communities and individuals to maintain a state of readiness.[i] Sadly, more than a decade later, the vision remains unrealized.
Why is it so difficult to achieve a culture of preparedness? The answer may be that the premise is deceptively complex.
The meaning of culture and its implication for preparedness
A 2019 report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) noted that, by virtue of the great diversity of the U.S., approaches to preparedness take place in different cultural contexts. [ii] Many communities are home to multiple cultures, each of which can reflect differences in livelihoods, beliefs and practices. As a result, there may be disparate ideas about a community’s risks and what, if anything, should be done to prepare.
This idea is also true of the workplace. Although organizations live within their communities’ cultural contexts, each has its own culture. Whereas one business may have a fully developed emergency plan and divert enough resources to carry it out, another may not prioritize preparedness. There may also be differences within organizations. Individual teams, departments or divisions may deviate from the overarching culture, resulting in variations in preparedness subcultures across the organization.
Adding to the complexity is that there are different interpretations of what culture means. In fact, researchers in the 1950s noted 164 definitions attributed to the term. In the subsequent decades, “culture” has continued to be used in both academic and colloquial contexts to emphasize different qualities, further muddying its definition. Whereas some use the term to emphasize observable behaviors and rituals, others use it to refer to the unwritten rules that guide those behaviors and rituals, or the way members of that culture feel. As management scholar Mats Alvesson wrote, the word is “used to cover everything and consequently nothing.” [iii]
Perhaps the easiest way to understand culture is to think of it as an iceberg; it is both observable and hidden from view. For example, in the workplace, the factors at the tip of the so-called iceberg could include organizational policies, goals and behavioral norms. Then there are those elements that sit beneath the surface, like the assumptions of what is expected and acceptable, and how staff think and feel. Although it is impossible to address every aspect of your organization’s preparedness culture at once, there are small steps you can take now to begin to shift perceptions, values and behaviors.
Evaluating and improving your organization’s preparedness culture
A good place to start is by evaluating the aspects of your organization’s culture that are most visible, like its emergency action plan (EAP). It is recommended that EAPs be reviewed bi-annually and updated as necessary. If your organization has not done so recently, consider initiating that process now. As you review your EAP, think about whether it accurately reflects the hazards facing your organization. A recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that over half of employers’ emergency plans did not address communicable diseases, which created challenges for those organizations during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. [iv] What blind spots may be present in your organization’s EAP? What would be the consequences to your organization if it did not prepare for a particular type of emergency or disaster? The Hazard and Vulnerability Assessment tool can help you think through these issues and prioritize your efforts.
As you review your EAP, also make sure that it is not what sociologist Lee Clarke calls a “fantasy document,” or an emergency plan that appears superficially sufficient but will not meaningfully increase your organization’s disaster readiness due to unrealistic expectations. For example, a study of business leaders’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic found that although 89% said their organization’s emergency plan addressed a pandemic, 27% reported that their plan was either not good or not useful.[v] It’s not enough to simply have a plan; it should be a plan that is well thought out and actionable. To avoid the pitfalls of a fantasy document, make sure you consider how unpredictable an emergency or disaster scenario can be. If your plan enumerates sequential actions that need to be taken, how will your staff carry them out if they have difficulty completing a step? For instance, what happens if communication services go down and your staff cannot reach each other? Also, does your plan rely on one disaster unfolding at a time, or will your organization be prepared to deal with secondary effects, like fires caused by an earthquake, or two separate emergencies such as a flood taking place during a pandemic?
Another way to improve your organization’s preparedness culture is to review the safety cues that are present throughout the workplace. For example, make sure that exits are unobstructed and marked by an illuminated sign. Fire extinguishers, first aid kits and AED devices should be placed in areas that are easily accessible. Regularly check your first aid kits to replace expired supplies and make sure AED software is up to date. This checklist will help you complete a comprehensive inspection of your facilities.
Conducting a drill is a great way to test your EAP and the thoroughness of your safety inspection. If you are short on time and resources, complete a walkthrough with your staff to familiarize them with their roles and responsibilities as outlined in the EAP; this is particularly worthwhile when onboarding new staff. Alternatively, consider holding a more in-depth exercise, like a tabletop drill or functional exercise. These types of drills invite communication and interactivity among your staff and can help you to identify areas of your plans needing improvement before they are put into action.
You should also consider the elements of your preparedness culture that are less perceptible. For instance, how informed is your staff about the disaster preparedness and response activities taking place? According to the SHRM survey, one-quarter of employees in the U.S. said that their employer had not communicated with them about how they were responding to the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. A lack of open communication may make it difficult for your staff to understand what their responsibilities are before, during or after a disaster. In turn, this may lead them to disengage with your organization’s preparedness culture completely.
Take this one step further by encouraging staff to provide feedback. They may be able to offer a unique viewpoint on your organization’s emergency plans or share concerns about other workplace safety issues needing attention. Inviting staff input can help strengthen your organization’s plans, thereby helping to avoid the pitfalls of creating “fantasy documents.” It can also signal that preparedness is something that everyone should think about, not just certain decision makers.
For more ideas on how you can integrate preparedness into your organization’s culture, browse the Resource Center.
[iii] Palmer, I., & Hardy, C. (1999). Thinking about management: Implications of organizational debates for practice. Sage.