Emergency Preparedness - Keeping our Heads out of the Sand

Ostriches have gotten a bad rep. For generations, we have admonished our fellow human beings for acting like ostriches. There goes Bob again, refusing to face the facts; he really should stop sticking his head in the sand! Ostriches have good reasons for doing this, and it has nothing to do with trying to hide from danger. Not to do any further injustice to ostriches, but why, when it comes to preparing for emergencies, are humans so often the proverbial ostrich with our heads buried?

The last survey conducted in 2014 on emergency preparedness and resilience in Canada found that almost three-quarters of Canadians are confident about their ability to manage emergencies. Still, less than half of Canadians have a home emergency supply kit. Since 2007, FEMA has been conducting the National Household Survey (NHS) on household preparedness and indicates similar activity levels in setting aside supplies for a disaster. More recently, FEMA shows these levels have increased significantly to over 80%. If a similar survey were conducted now in Canada, would we see the same increase? There is no way to know whether preparedness interventions are working without current data.

The creation of a household emergency kit is just one measure of household preparedness examined by FEMA. The survey also looks at other actions and, importantly, examines the factors that influence individuals to begin preparing. This is key to designing interventions to increase household preparedness. FEMA uses the Stages of Change (SoC) model to guide its interventions. The SoC model is based on the theory that changing an individual’s behaviour occurs progressively across five stages, from precontemplation to maintenance. FEMA uses the national survey to track its progress over time.

This model is important because behaviour change is complex, and it requires time. There are many behaviour-related challenges in preparing for emergencies that can create significant barriers to the best-intended programs and policies for improving preparedness.

Four major challenges presented in this Guidehouse podcast highlight this complexity: 
  1. More information does not equal better decision-making. Giving people the facts does not mean they will act rationally in response. People will go to great lengths to avoid information if it does not align with their goals. In some cases, it can backfire, making people more resistant to the behaviour.
  2. Humans are bad with probabilities. We tend to overestimate the likelihood of good events and underweight the likelihood of bad events. We are easily biased and focus more on what our neighbours are worried about and recent/current events.
  3. Even emergency managers are not immune to these errors in judgement.
  4. We discount future losses in favour of our present selves. Temporal discounting is when we underweight the impact of future outcomes for more immediate benefit. We need interventions that allow us to pre-experience the losses of the future in the present.
  5. We are a diverse bunch. Interventions need to be targeted and specific and work with the local characteristics of a population. The same intervention is not going to work for everyone. We need to pay attention to the attributes of our vulnerable populations that typically have very different needs than the general population. In thinking about hazards, we also need to understand how different people may have different responses to various hazards and risk perceptions.
Household preparedness is a crucial part of a community’s overall resilience in the face of an emergency.  An individual’s engagement in preparedness means understanding the attitudes and motivators that drive action and the barriers preventing behaviour adoption. Applying interventions grounded in behavioural science can move people toward preparedness. Feedback and evaluation are necessary for programs and policies to measure progress. As emergency managers, we should share our successes and failures in changing behaviours so that pulling our heads out of the sand gets a little easier for everyone.