Skip the annex, just be inclusive and flexible

I’m reading an article Children and disaster planning: The National Commission on Children and Disaster’s finding and recommendations by Emily Cathryn Cornette and Angelique Pui-Ka So in the Journal of Emergency Management (Vol 9, No 2, March/April 2011).  From the article:

The [National Commission on Children and Disasters] recommends that children should be categorized independently of at-risk populations because grouping them with other special needs populations leads to a lack of concentration on, and the eventually marginalization of, children’s needs.  The Commission feared that placing children in the all-inclusive “special needs” category would also encourage disaster planners to merely push children into the appendix or annexes of current plans instead of incorporating children’s needs into the body of the plans themselves.

Advocates that represent — or at least claim to represent — segments of the population want more specific attention to their cause.  The natural turn was to assume the disaster plans were for the mainstream population and this special interest group had special needs not addressed in the plan.  Appendices were added to the end of the plan to handle these “special” situation.  Advocates keep pushing for more special appendices which creates unwieldy plans with many very strict paths.  At times, it feels like the advocate is telling the EM “don’t worry, we’ll kick you in the seat of your pants if you’re wrong” and less like a meaningful partnership to help all.

When will the entire emergency management community and all special interest advocates recognize that we’re all in a segment of the population that needs special attention?  Nearly everyone in the population could fit in at least one the categories of children, elderly, disabled (visibly or not), economically depressed, under-insured, socially isolated, dependant on some form of technology, or just basically ill-equipped to response to and recover from a disaster.

We need a broad base disaster preparedness effort that starts with individual responsibility.  History is full of evidence that the mentality of “I pay my taxes, the government must protect me from disaster” never succeeds as it is impossible to meet that expectation.  Individuals must start to take on personal responsibility for being more prepared.  Everyone can take a step deeper into preparedness.  My mentor taught me that there is no such thing as “being prepared” as there is always one more step you take.  My three-year-old daughter knows the sound of the smoke alarm and what to do.  As an aside, she gets to practice every Saturday morning that I cook breakfast.  My five-year-old son knows how and when to dial 9-1-1.  I would never expect them to fully handle an emergency situation on their own, but they’re getting moved along the continuum of preparedness to an increased self-reliance.

It is a shame that disaster preparedness efforts are falling victim to the budget axe.  But I do understand (although not accept) that short-term budget planning vision can’t see the long-term benefit of a prepared community.

Disaster response and recovery plans need to address the whole community in the core of the document.  The varied needs of the populations are not if/then decision points such as if __ shows up then find appendix __ to do __.  The varied needs of the population are there on every disaster so include them in the core of the document.  Unnecessarily dividing the population in the plan is just as bad as segregating the population during a disaster.  Cracks that exist in society pre-disaster will get magnified into large chasms during a catastrophe.

This is not a call to treat everyone the same in a one-size-fits-all-regardless plan, but instead a call for plans to be flexible enough to meet the diverse needs of the population with understanding, acceptance and inclusiveness.  We know we will have succeeded when there are no attachments to an emergency plan with special instructions for different segments of the population.