This past September, a range of organizations—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Red Cross, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency—participated in 2015's National Preparedness Month. Throughout the month, these and other organizations have been encouraging individuals and community groups to (1) learn what protective measures they should take before, during, and after emergency events, like hurricanes, floods, and wildfires; (2) make a plan to implement those measures and stay informed of emergencies; and (3) seek out ways to support community preparedness. Visit Ready.gov for more information on actions you can take to be prepared.
Looking back on the past month, and reflecting on the goals of today's National PrepareAthon! Day, I couldn't help but think about three important concepts in risk communication that affect how likely people are to take preparedness steps: severity, susceptibility, and efficacy.
Most of us recognize that natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and wildfires are extremely destructive and, in many cases, life-threatening. These events are associated with a huge degree of severity, or the magnitude of negative consequences. The severity that we associate with a natural event is directly tied to how compelled we feel to act.
A key to understanding the severity of an emergency is receiving accurate and timely information about what is happening. If I fail to check the weather app on my phone in the morning before I leave, I won't know that I'll probably be caught in a huge storm on my way home from work. In the same vein, staying apprised of information about emergency events in my area, such as by receiving a flash flood warning, is a key component of being prepared. This is why connecting to emergency alerts is important regardless of where you live.
Connecting to alerts also is important in identifying how susceptible we are to an emergency event. As with severity, our desire to act is directly impacted by our perceived susceptibility, or how likely some event is likely to impact us personally.
In general, the more likely that we are to experience the consequences of an event, the more likely we are to take action. When I lived in Arizona, for example, had to worry about two common summer events: Monsoons—strong storms accompanied by violent winds—and haboobs—intense dust storms—which can result in power outages, personal harm, and property damage. My increased perception of susceptibility led me to take some preparedness steps, including keeping bottled water and snacks in my car at all times and following a monsoon tracker Facebook page.
Unfortunately, many events cannot be forecasted until they are about to occur, which may be why we do not always have an accurate understanding of our susceptibility until it is too late.
Efficacy involves two components: (1) the effectiveness of the recommended behaviors in keeping us safe and (2) our ability to successfully enact those recommended behaviors. Just because some behavior will keep us safe, that does not mean that we can easily do it—one does not simply build a flood-proof, fire-proof, landslide-proof house. By the same token, just because a behavior is easy to do, that doesn't mean it will keep us safe—I can put a sign in my yard that reads "No Floods, Please," but an actual flood would take that sign out with ease.
Efficacy is the most important component here. We may believe that we are very likely to experience an event that will have negative consequences, but if we don't feel that we can do anything to protect ourselves, we are unlikely to take preparedness steps. In these cases, no increase in our feelings of severity or susceptibility will matter much. Consider people who live somewhere that is at risk for wildfires, such as near forest land in Oregon or Colorado, but who may not have the means or resources to take preparedness steps. Without federal or state assistance, such as through the Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant program in Colorado, these residents may be reluctant to act because they do not feel that there is much they can do to help themselves.
Although I've suggested that efficacy is the most important component when it comes to taking action in preparing for emergency events, let's not forget that severity, susceptibility, and efficacy are intertwined—and that susceptibility is one particularly tricky aspect. I might know that hurricanes do incredible damage and that there are steps I can take to prepare for one. However, I might also think to myself, "I don't live in Miami, so why should I even think about it?"
We as individuals would do well to remember that emergency events happen all around us, almost every day, and we are primarily responsible for our preparedness. In fact, the east coast, and perhaps even those of us in the DC area, can expect heavy rain (and hopefully nothing more!) this week as a result of Tropical Storm Joaquin.
So keep tabs on websites that list actives alerts, make a plan for emergency events that are likely to impact you, and don't forget to keep that pair of galoshes handy.