Risk Must Be Personalized

Risk communication must be understood and believed and it has to be confirmed

Emergency preparedness isn’t about three days of water or extra batteries for your flashlight. If it were, we could stop investing in emergency preparedness campaigns and put the money toward buying 72-hour kits for every person in America. But we don’t, because that won’t make our communities more disaster resilient.

Preparing people for emergencies is about changing the way they think, not just before disasters, but also during them. What will make our communities more disaster resilient is to use emergency preparedness outreach as training for individuals to become effective disaster decision-makers: to teach them how to think in a crisis; to know what the disaster environment looks and feels like; to adapt; and to be empowered to take the necessary actions once decisions are made.

Effective disaster communication is not new territory. Researchers have been identifying ways to make risk and crisis communication more effective since the days of duck and cover. What’s missing is the practical application of those lessons in emergency management.

Emergency workers aren’t ever sent into a crisis without training — and if they were, we wouldn’t dismiss their failure to respond correctly with a shrug and a “you can’t cure stupid.” Yet we expect members of the public to respond correctly without any training or understanding of what might impede their response. We don’t necessarily need to do more than we are already, but we need to do it smarter. If the goal of our risk communication is awareness, we’ve already lost the disaster resilience battle. Being aware that tornadoes can happen in your area isn’t the same as realizing that a tornado can hit your home, damage your possessions and possibly injure your family. Being aware will not incite you to take action, create a disaster supply kit or identify your best shelter area and hold a tornado drill with your family. Risk has to be personalized. Risk communication must be understood and believed. It has to be confirmed, and the people hearing it have to assess it in light of their own experience, knowledge, resources and abilities. They have to believe that the outcome is worth the expenditure of the time, resources and emotional energy it will take to do what they are being asked to do. But doing that thing isn’t all there is to it. Resilience comes from the information that motivates the action as much as from the action itself. Teach people to anticipate uncertainty. Help them build mental models that will orient them in a crisis. Give them confidence so they are ready, willing and able to take timely action during a disaster. Research shows that people are likelier to do new things when they have been successful at doing other things. Taking one small step toward reducing their risk makes them more likely to take another step — with effective risk communication to guide them. Let’s stop settling for awareness and finally make our communities resilient. We can make our messages smarter by being consistent, credible, accessible, empowering and engaging. It’s not as hard as it sounds.

Ronda Oberlin is the co-founder of the Do 1 Thing emergency preparedness program, www.do1thing.com. She has been an emergency management specialist with the Lansing, Mich., Office of Emergency Management since 1999.