Four Steps to Improve Whole Community

by Vincent B. Davis

The whole community concept has come a long way over the past five years, but it is time for the mission focus and community outreach to change with the changing needs of the target populations. To effectively make these changes, the effort will require establishing measurable benchmarks and creatively collaborating with the private sector.

A roundtable discussion at the 2015 annual conference of the International Association of Emergency Managers in Las Vegas, Nevada, led to a spirited dialogue around community preparedness and where the nation is going in the future with whole community efforts. As the discussion shifted to what is working and what is not, it became obvious that the program is in great need of a makeover. Despite the efforts of many organizations and individuals, the reality is that communities are no more prepared – and in some cases less prepared – than before the formal concept of “whole community” began. Simply put, it is not working.

The participants at the roundtable related many accounts of the outreach, projects, and programs they have undertaken. Nonetheless, all participants seemed to be seeking answers to the same question, “How do we reach our communities and get them to prepare?” After pondering the many preparedness challenges faced in every community – for example, apathy, funding, and resources – four steps for change with regard to whole community emerged.

Step 1: Sharpen Whole Community’s Mission Focus For the past 15 years, the mantra of preparedness has been “Get a Kit, Make a Plan.” The problem is, most people (60 percent by conservative accounts) have done nothing in that regard. Instead of continuing to commit funding and effort on getting people to prepare a disaster kit, it is time for the focus to change. Unfortunately, the mainstream community household is stuck in one of the four stages of disaster denial:

  • “It won’t happen.”

  • “It won’t happen to me.”

  • “If it does happen, I’ll deal with it at the time.”

  • “If it does happen, I can’t do anything about it anyway.”

The unwilling cannot be ignored, but rather need to be engaged in a different way. For example, most full-time employed families have some form of health savings plan offered by their companies. A “Disaster Savings Plan” for people in high-risk areas could work the same as a health saving account, with tax-deductible money banked for recovery expenses to bridge gaps in underinsured households following a disaster or local emergency. The average citizen with the means, infrastructure, or personal and family support systems should no longer be a major focus for outreach, funding, and resources for preparedness. Their indifference to these efforts is a personal choice. The reality is they can and, in most cases, will recover from a disaster with minimal help.

The focus then should shift to the underserved populations: the elderly and children; those who are homeless or poverty-stricken; people with physical or mental disabilities, or with limited English-speaking skills; and those who are transportation challenged or technology illiterate. Statistically, these groups are most likely to die, be injured, or left behind in a major disaster, as was seen following Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. For the mainstream household, a disaster is a major inconvenience – barring serious injury. However, for the underserved who are already struggling to cope, it can be life-changing. For example, 46 percent of people with disabilities do not know their communities’ emergency planning contacts; and 53 percent still need to develop evacuation plans at home and 34 percent at work. Their likelihood to prepare is much less than the general population, but the solution for underserved populations is simple:

  • Stop sending mixed messages such as, “You need to prepare, but don’t worry, the government will save you”; be honest and tell them they are on their own in a major disaster and their focus must be on survival, not minimizing inconvenience.

  • Create an atmosphere where preparedness is part of their everyday lives. Displaying billboard advertisements on the freeway is not effective outreach for underserved populations that are focused on daily survival. For example, telling a single mom with two kids and a minimum wage job that she should prepare a disaster kit with no money has no effect; her two extra cans of tuna are tomorrow’s dinner, and her extra cash is tomorrow’s bus fare.

  • At one 2013 whole community conference with about 150 people, all of the attendees were emergency managers, Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters, and consultants, with only a few members from the community. The reason for the low resident participation was simple: the event was held at a suburban hotel; the underserved residents who may have attended had no transportation to get there; and they may not have even known about the event.

Step 2: Establish Benchmarks & Metrics As a mentor and instructor, the late Brigadier General William Lanagan said in 1979 at Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indiana, “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t matter.” Practitioners must avoid becoming too enamored with their own successes and accomplishments in preparing their communities. In reality, without established minimum standards and goals, such accolades are meaningless. Some simple metrics would provide realistic direction to whole community efforts, including:

  • Number of people trained in CPR/first aid;

  • Number of faith-based and community-based organizations with written disaster plans in place;

  • Number of shelter beds by neighborhood;

  • Number of nongovernmental organizations conducting evacuation and shelter-in-place drills; and

  • Number of private sector companies and small businesses with active employee emergency programs.

Step 3: Reconstitute & Overhaul Citizen Corps The Citizen Corps Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program was successful in suburban and rural communities, but not as viable to most large urban centers. Mission focus and training on urban search and rescue is discouraged by many big city public safety departments, thus CERT teams tended to be of little interest to citizens, especially in high-poverty neighborhoods. A “new” CERT program could become a major force multiplier in whole community outreach with a few caveats:

  • Ease requirement of CERT to be affiliated with a public safety organization because training standards can be maintained just as easily by a nongovernmental organization, a faith-based organization, or another local community group.

  • Do not expect CERT teams to deploy outside their local neighborhoods because such requests can deter many residents from participating.

  • Build CERT around the needs of the targeted community members, then fund and equip them for that work. For example, in urban communities, safe passage of children walking to school in gang-infested neighborhoods may be a greater need than search and rescue or traffic control.

Step 4: Be Creative When Working With the Private Sector Corporations have traditionally been relied upon for disaster relief donations of goods, services, and money. Although they will likely continue to be “good neighbors” and partners to help those in need, they are also feeling the financial impact of increasingly frequent disasters and shrinking resources. Corporate pockets have limits, so asking them to do even more has to be met with creative focus on a win-win proposition. Contrary to popular belief, corporations do not “make up” for disaster losses during recovery, and actually suffer up to millions in losses in the cost of recovering assets, losing productivity, and reconstituting normal business operations. As such, whole community efforts to engage companies should consider the following:

  • Do not ask without offering some return on investment – for example, if a company donates preparedness kit funds for senior citizens, offer free workshops or training for their employees in return.

  • Be prepared to do more than talk about the “great work” being done in the community, but also to show corporations tangible evidence of how their support is making a difference in the community (see Step 2).

  • Show the direct benefit for companies in industries such as retail to develop a whole community relationship. A great example is the Senior P.R.E.P. collaboration between Walgreens and the South Carolina Department of Aging, which provides monthly mini-preparedness events held on “senior discount” days at Walgreens stores statewide.

  • Embrace new technologies such as ICE4 Autism, which is a mobile application that provides first responders and caregivers with important information when encountering people with cognitive disabilities.

Doing good business while doing good for the community is mutually beneficial for companies and others engaged in whole community efforts. It is time to take decisive steps to change outcomes for the underserved, help first responders reduce recovery costs and risks, and maximize use of limited financial resources. Anything less is wasted effort and will yield no real change in a community’s preparedness posture.


Vincent B. Davis, CEM, is senior preparedness manager for Sony Network Entertainment, where he is responsible for developing disaster plans and programs for the company’s North America locations. Before joining Sony, he was program manager of emergency preparedness and response for Walgreens Co., where he designed emergency plans and coordinated emergency operations center operations for the company’s 8,300 stores and facilities during major disasters. Following his career in the U.S. Air Force and Illinois National Guard, with 23 years in military public affairs, he served as: external affairs and community relations manager at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); regional preparedness manager for the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago; and private sector consultant to the Illinois-Indiana-Wisconsin Regional Catastrophic Planning Team. He holds certifications as an Illinois Professional Emergency Manager and FEMA Professional Continuity Practitioner, and is a member of the International Association of Emergency Managers Children’s Caucus and a lifetime member of the Black Emergency Managers Association. He authored, “Lost And Turned Out, A Guide To Preparing Underserved Communities For Disasters,” and founded Consulting. He also is vice president of strategic alliances and community relations for PrepWorld LLC, creators of PrepBiz Video Gamification for Disaster Preparedness Education APP for children.