Put one hundred people in a room and ask, “How many of you think being prepared for a disaster is a good idea?” and likely all hands will shoot up.
Then ask the same audience, “How many of you have invested time in preparing for a disaster at home or at your workplace?” and an embarrassingly few will raise their hands.
A study sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found that nearly 60% of American adults have never participated in an evacuation or shelter-in-place (SiP) exercise. The study also found that only 39% had any type of emergency plan or even discussed the topic with their family. This, even though over 80% of the respondents live in communities impacted by a weather-related disaster.1
The people of Moore, Oklahoma can testify to the value of preparedness since their community has been the victim of two powerful tornados in the last few years.
In 1999, Moore was hit by a twister boosting winds of 300+ mph. Then again in 2013, it was struck by a tornado rated as an EF-5, the highest category on the Enhanced Fujita scale. This rating system adopted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in February of 2007, categorizes tornados by their destructive potential. EF-5 is the highest rating and is given to storms that have sustained winds of greater than 200 mph.
Cost is usually cited as an excuse for not investing in a comprehensive disaster plan although aid is available from the government. In tornado-prone communities like Moore, emergency managers recommend households construct storm cellars. Up to 80% of the estimated $3,000 cost for building a storm cellar may be eligible for federal grants greatly reducing the financial burden. 2 So the issue goes beyond just money. What then is the reluctance?
The Growing Cost of Disasters
Organizations are still slow to adopt a proactive attitude toward disaster preparation even though the after-costs of disasters continue to rise. During the 1950s, natural disasters led to combined insurance claims of approximately $53 billion. This rose to $778 billion in the 1990s. Losses continued to rise in the 2000s reaching a record loss of $100 billion in 2005 alone. This was eclipsed in 2017 by single year claims estimated at $134 billion according to Impact Forecasting, a division of Aon Insurance.3 These increased claims were accompanied by a rise in insurance premiums which seemed to further discourage devoting time and resources to preparing for a disaster.
Some reluctance can be attributed to the confusion over the difference between preparedness and disaster mitigation.
Consider mitigation as any action taken, or investment made, to prevent a loss of life or lessen the damage to property. This could include building improvements (hurricane roof clips), support equipment (back-up electrical generators), or disaster-oriented materials (sandbags and spare water).
In contrast, preparedness focuses on creating appropriate and effective reactions to a disaster. It’s a more expansive strategy and includes plans, policies, and training designed to the lower the impact of a disaster by shoring up vulnerabilities and reducing damage.
The diffence between these concepts also shows up in the capital needed to implement each type of program.
Mitigation usually requires spending money on equipment or facility improvements.
Preparedness planning can be limited to rules and policies that have no capital requirements. Often, these policies can be initiated by simply issuing a memo or enforcing safety requirements. For example, posting warning signs and banning smoking near flammable material, requiring the wearing of protective equipment in harsh work environments and periodically holding evacuation and SiP exercises. In these cases, other than time there is little direct cost.
Some of the benefits of preparedness are obvious. These include reducing fear and uncertainty during a crisis, more confident decision making, and an enhanced risk appetite. Other useful developments include ferreting out dangerous or unnecessary steps leading to improve operation, enhanced productivity, and greater job satisfaction.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that preparedness training leads to a reduction in injury rates and an increase in the accident reporting. Increased incident reporting helps identify dangerous workplace conditions and promote changes that enhance safety.
In the United States, preparedness is a legal requirement. Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act requires employers to operate a safe workplace “free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” In furtherance of this requirement under directive 29 CFR 1910.38(b), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that every private business have an emergency action plan.4
Beyond issues of regulatory compliance and the non-financial benefits mentioned, there is a financial return from an investment in preparedness planning. The U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that every dollar spent on hazard mitigation saved six dollars in damage caused by a disaster.5
While business arguments exist for preparedness, human reluctance to deal with the issue of disasters remains a barrier to widescale crisis planning. Overcoming this emotional reaction and asking management to face the reality of unpleasant future events remains difficult.
Some of the discomfort can be overcome by simply speaking openly about dangers and how your organization plans to deal with any crisis that arises. Knowing what to do in an emergency lowers anxiety and the feeling of hesitation associated with unfamiliar and frightening circumstances. Discussing potential dangers will help demystify the risks you face and reduce the negative emotions associated with disaster preparedness.
Other steps you can take include: beginning meetings with a short safety briefing, organizing a volunteer safety warden program, and sponsoring first aid training programs.
The facts support claims that an investment of time and money in hazard mitigation pays for itself. However, it may take passion and creativity to overcome the reluctance seen in many organizations to fully embrace this initiative.
One way to start the dialog is to participate in the Red Cross Ready Rating™ assessment program. Its summary report measures your organization’s level of preparedness and provides guidance on how to improve. Program membership gives you access to a host of tools and support materials that will help you achieve your goals.
Viewed objectively, the value of preparedness is obvious. The challenge is that while people like to think objectively, decisions are often emotional. Making a commitment to being ready for disasters requires both an institutional and personal commitment.
Present the pros and cons of preparedness planning. Show the value that comes from investing time and energy in an organization-wide program. But do it in a way that helps people make the emotional transition from reluctance to enthusiasm.