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The “R” Word

Words have meaning, and people can ascribe multiple definitions to each one. But as Dr. Kelly E. Wright, an experimental linguist, points out, “True meaning … is akin to standing on the banks of a rapid flowing river and asking someone to decide which molecule of water is actually the river.”

Resilience is a word that has multiple meanings for public health, emergency, and homeland security management professionals. There may not be an exact definition, but professionals use it often and recognize it when they see it. Resilience and its variants appeared more than 150 times in the Domestic Preparedness Journal throughout 2023 to describe such matters as supply chains and communications systems. Still, it is most often used to describe individual and community resilience, including public health:

Despite tendencies to use this word broadly and often about people and communities, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) doctrine mostly relegates resilience to hazard and disaster mitigation. Given how people commonly use the word, and since FEMA declared 2024 the Year of Resilience, now is the time to rethink the concept of resilience.

Resilience and National Preparedness

Regardless of how the word may have been used over the years, if one utilizes a system’s approach, the examination has to begin with the National Preparedness System. Presidential Policy Directive 8 (PPD-8) of 2011 required the Department of Homeland Security to develop this system and the National Preparedness Goal, which became:

[A] secure and resilient nation with the capabilities required across the whole community to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk.

PPD-8 defined resilience as “the ability to adapt to changing conditions and withstand and rapidly recover from disruption due to emergencies.”

This usage implies a broad meaning for the term resilience that is applicable across any phase of a disaster and any type of threat. However, drilling down into the National Preparedness System’s five mission areas and core capabilities, “Community Resilience” only appears under the Mitigation mission area, which aims to “reduce the loss of life and property by lessening the impact of future disasters.”

Figure 1. Core Capabilities by Mission Area from the National Preparedness Goal (2nd ed.).

Each core capability addresses a significant national risk, so FEMA provides worksheets as tools to build capabilities and close gaps. For Community Resilience, there are two capability objectives listed:

  • Maximize the coverage of the U.S. population that has a localized, risk-informed mitigation plan developed through partnerships across the entire community.
  • Empower individuals and communities to make informed decisions to facilitate actions necessary to adapt to, withstand, and quickly recover from future incidents.

The first refers to hazard and disaster mitigation as commonly understood and practiced. Hazard mitigation planning breaks the cycle of disaster damage and reconstruction, and hazard mitigation actions reduce long-term risk to communities from future disasters. In practice, mitigation requires funding for flood insurance, land redevelopment, and other projects to minimize hazards. The Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 provides communities access to such funds when they proactively reduce their vulnerability to natural disasters. The Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program also offers funding opportunities for hazard mitigation projects.

However, the second is a wide-ranging statement and could be interpreted in various ways, including beyond the Mitigation Mission Area. Empowering people to make informed decisions is applicable in every mission area, from Prevention (deciding how much convenience to sacrifice for security) to Recovery (determining how to spend recovery funds to build back better).

A Core Capability for All Mission Areas

To make the definition of resilience fit its common usage, two changes to FEMA doctrine could have a significant impact. The first recommendation would be to add a new capability objective that captures the term’s common uses regarding people and communities.

In March 2023, FEMA announced a new “effort to create guidance and resources for the whole community to help everyone understand and fulfill their critical roles related to increasing national resilience.” The National Resilience Guidance, published in February 2024, promotes this Vision of Resilience, which captures in the following statements some ways to use resilience:

  • Resilient people with optimal health and wellbeing. The whole community has a sense of security, social connectedness, and diminished vulnerability that serve as the foundation for thriving and resilient communities.
  • Resilient society that has a robust sense of belonging and a high degree of trust. Empowerment and cooperation within and across communities is fostered and supports strong civic engagement.
  • Resilient economies that support all members of society. These economies are built around a diverse range of industries and draw on regional strengths and assets.
  • Resilient built environment that supports a high quality of life that includes adequate, safe, secure, and humane housing, and critical infrastructure systems that are robust, adaptable, and support economic growth and innovation.
  • Resilient natural environment with clean land, air, and water and healthy ecosystems that can withstand shocks and stressors.

Notably, this vision puts people first (with health at the forefront) and provides an ideal reference for a new capability objective under Community Resilience. A new list of objectives could look something like this:

  • Support the National Resilience Vision by reinforcing community determination to address threats, preparing people for the challenges, collaborating with key stakeholders to overcome natural and human-caused disasters, and adapting and recovering stronger than before to face future adversity.
  • Maximize the coverage of the U.S. population that has a localized, risk-informed mitigation plan developed through partnerships across the entire community.
  • Empower individuals and communities to make informed decisions to facilitate actions necessary to adapt to, withstand, and quickly recover from future incidents.

Because there are many constructs of resilience, the expanded objectives can consider multiple perspectives and not just hazard mitigation, for example, public health, disaster recovery, and cybersecurity. It also maintains the aspirations of partnership and empowerment of communities for decision-making.

These objectives can apply to any mission area, which leads to the second recommendation: to expand the Community Resilience (or simply Resilience) core capability and increase its usage across all five mission areas. This is already the case for three Core Capabilities: Planning, Public Information, and Coordination. Not only are these capabilities necessary for success in every mission area, but applying them across the system also helps to unify the mission areas. It should be the same with Resilience – it must be integral to every mission area.

Figure 2. Expanded Community Resilience Core Capability, adapted from the National Preparedness Goal (2nd ed.).

2024: Year of Resilience

At a United Nations conference in 2023, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell announced that 2024 would be the agency’s Year of Resilience. She commented, “FEMA is typically recognized as a response and recovery agency, but now more than ever, we are a resilience agency.”  Shortly afterward, FEMA also announced that it was supporting the Year of Resilience with a new round of low-interest loans directly to local communities to reduce their vulnerability to disasters and reduce disaster impacts. These loans will profoundly affect the environmental resilience of communities throughout the country.

In her 2023 article entitled “The Power of Words,” Harvard Business Review editor Lucy Swedberg wrote that “there are specific words that, when used in the right way at the right time, are more impactful than others – at changing minds, engaging audiences, and driving action.” With the new vision of resilience, a declaration that FEMA is a resilience agency, and the announcement of The Year of Resilience, now is the right time to clearly define the term resilience and use it to make more impact.

George Schwartz

Dr. George Schwartz is anassociate professorat Immaculata University and has been thedirector of thebachelor’sdegree in Emergency Planning& Management program since 2014. He is also a retired senior Army officer with more than 30 years of service overseas and in the homeland, including leading National Guard units during domestic response operations. 



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