Scott Zaffram wants you to know that it could take weeks, if not months, for FEMA to respond to an emergency.
Zaffram is a FEMA spokesperson and he’s noticed an alarming trend: the American people are becoming increasingly reliant on government programs in the wake of tragedies. But limited resources and reductions in funding may delay any first-responder assistance for weeks at a time
That dissonance means one thing: we must better prepare ourselves and our communities.
Around the United States, some communities are already doing just that. Community groups can be quite large, like Project Wildfire in Deschutes County, OR, or hyper-local, like Bainbridge Prepares in Bainbridge Island, WA. But they all have the same goal: to better prepare their members and surrounding area for emergencies.
Your Community Needs an Emergency Response Plan
There is a risk of natural disasters no matter where you live in the United States. Along the West Coast, however, there is 100% chance of a major earthquake or volcanic event at any given moment.
It’s not a matter of if but a matter of when and, as Zaffram says, “you are the help before the help arrives.”
But you can’t do it alone.
Imagine an earthquake striking your community: homes destroyed, loved ones injured, utilities inaccessible. Devastation everywhere you look and it could be months before any help arrives.
What would you do in that situation? Sit and wait or do something to help?
The fact that you’re reading this tells us that you’re the type of person who wants to do something. It’s very likely you’re not alone, so picture that situation again— but now, imagine coming together with your neighbors. There is strength in numbers.
Alone, the burden falls on you to supply food, water, shelter, medical supplies, backup power sources, transportation, and communication for your family.
If your community comes together, you may be responsible for only one of those necessities.
If just one person in your neighborhood has a backup power generator, another person can supply the communication, while yet another one determines the logistics of transporting injured loved ones to a medical facility.
Together, you are stronger, safer, and far more resilient.
You’re also in good company. All over the country there are local groups dedicated to keeping their communities safe.
The Neighborhood Empowerment Network in San Francisco, for example, was started by Mayor Ed Lee (then City Administrator) after he witnessed the devastation of New Orleans in 2007. He recognized a need for community involvement in the preparation for and response to natural disasters. Now, the Neighborhood Empowerment Network is a massive group of organizations all committed to helping their community prepare for and respond to emergencies.
But you don’t need a big community to make a big impact.
The Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe of California has only 203 people, but they were recently recognized by FEMA with the “Whole Community Preparedness Award” for their outstanding preparedness and contributions to public safety.
Whether large or small, you can help make your community a safer place.
How to Prepare Your Community for an Emergency
The first step toward making your community safer is preparation.
Preparation for individuals can be as simple as creating an earthquake bag, writing a family communication plan, and earthquake-proofing your home. But, as an individual, trying to prepare hundreds or even thousands of people may seem daunting.
Government Programs and Materials for Community Preparedness
Fortunately, we’re not the only ones who think a well-prepared community makes all the difference in a disaster. There are several federal and state agencies that advocate for community preparedness and response.
One of those programs is the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program comes in. This program, sponsored by FEMA, educates volunteers about disaster preparedness so that they can assist their communities in a time of need. Volunteers also learn basic response skills like fire safety, search and rescue, and disaster medical assistance.
There are over 2,700 local CERT programs nationwide and you can choose to join an existing CERT team or create a local one within your community.
In addition to advocacy, government programs provide the necessary materials and assistance needed to help organize like CERT or Citizen Corps.
- Information about CERTs
- Community Preparedness Toolkit
- FEMA’s Preparedness Portal
- Face to Face is the best way to get to know your neighbors. One way you can facilitate this is by throwing an end-of-summer block party to get to know each other.
- Social Media apps are another option to connect with your neighbors. Try finding a local group on Facebook or even starting a neighborhood group on Next Door. You can also check out Meetup to find established groups in your area.
- Community interest groups like your local PTA, church groups, or even clubs and gyms can provide a great way to meet people in your community. Some of these groups may already have an interest in preparedness, as well as the funds necessary to start the preparations.
- Resources What can your team do with what they already have? If your team is hyper-local, like a neighborhood group, create a registry of items you already possess and items you may still need. Which resources can be shared and which must stay with their owners?
- Skills can include those already possessed by team members as well as skills that are still needed. Who has the skills necessary to assist with search and rescue? Are any of you prepared to assist with injuries or other medical needs?
- Needs in the community should be identified so your team has an idea of where your time, energy, and money will be best spent. Common needs include a communication plan, a community evacuation plan, a response team phone tree, or a triage plan for injury and clean up. Your community’s needs will vary based on your geographical location and the skills and resources of your members.
- Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium-This organization provides free training across the country, specifically for first responders in rural areas.
- CERT-In addition to training provided by your local CERTs, FEMA provides an independent study course online for individuals interested in becoming a CERT member.
- FEMA’s IS-909 Program (Community Preparedness: Simple Activities for Everyone) -This program is for community members who are interested in learning the basics about disaster preparation and recovery efforts. Course modules include Preparedness on a Shoestring, Fire Extinguisher Operation, and Disaster Planning. You can take the online course or, if you plan on sharing it with your team, download this guide to print the course materials for distribution.
- Other Training Programs by FEMA-FEMA provides a massive catalogue of Independent Study programs, including several regarding disaster preparedness.
- The official Department of Homeland Security website allows you to find and apply for grants relating to preparedness.
- This list explains four separate grants for disaster preparation and relief.
- The Lions Clubs International Foundation offers several grants for disasters preparedness and relief.
With the materials and information those agencies provide, the next step is to talk to your community.
How to Begin
Talk to your family, friends, and neighbors about disaster preparation.
Once you connect with people in your area, you can open up a discussion about disaster preparedness by discussing your own concerns. Identify ways that you can assist each other in times of need and determine who would like to help on a larger scale.
Build a Team
You can start local with a team in your neighborhood or join a bigger organization. Whichever you choose the idea is the same: find like-minded individuals in your area who are willing and able to work together toward the common goals of preparing your community and responding to potential disasters. Consider the following among your team:
Identify Your Goals
Now that your team is established and you understand the resources, skills, and needs that you bring to the table, you can begin to determine your goals.
One of your first goals as a team should be to find training. In addition to CERT, there are several other training programs for first responders.
Look for Additional Funding
In addition to partnering with local organizations, your team can also seek grants from outside organizations that have an interest in promoting community preparedness.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help and put the word out! Other local organizations and nonprofits may step up to provide the funding you need.
This Neighborhood Preparedness infographic by the CDC explains the profound impact that a prepared community can have before and after an emergency, as well as how to engage your community.
FEMA put together this sample meeting agenda to help you plan your first community preparedness meeting. The agenda can be used in conjunction with this Leadership Team Worksheet to create a cohesive team goal and plan.
The National Home Security Alliance has a webpage dedicated to preparing you and your community. Check their map to see what natural disasters are a threat to your area.
A community communication plan is crucial in emergencies, and the New York Times has some great tips for how to create one with your team.
In the past, neighbors knew each other’s names. They kept spare keys for each other, watered plants, and came together in times of great need. We know our nation can have that again because we’ve seen it in action.
Community organizations like Evacuteer and the Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Neighborhood Network saw a need for disaster preparedness and relief in their communities, then stepped up to fill it.
When disaster strikes, which kind of person will you be?
The kind to sit back and wait for help, or the kind who steps up to help?