In today's blog, I wanted to help people understand the idea of emergency preparedness: what it is, how it relates to pandemics, and what people do who work in the field. To explore this, I asked my colleague Samantha Penta to answer a few questions.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and what you study?
I’m an assistant professor of emergency preparedness in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany.
I view myself as a disaster researcher. My training is in sociology, so I focus on the human and organizational dimension of disasters and other kinds of extreme events. Much of my research has focused on how people and organizations make decisions related to disaster relief, whether that is individuals deciding if and what to donate to disaster relief efforts, or looking at how people plan and implement international medical relief efforts. I’ve studied people’s responses to tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and the Ebola epidemic from 2014-2016, often looking at how people respond and health and medical issues in disasters.
People may hear the word 'preparedness' in the media. Can you describe what that means?
The term preparedness can be used in a couple different contexts. It can be used to reflect a state of being (i.e. stating that someone or something is prepared). Preparedness is the name for one of the phases of the emergency management cycle, and it can be used to describe the activities and measures people or organizations engage in. In general, when people talk about preparedness in the context of emergency management, they are referring to things people and groups do to better enable them to respond when a disaster takes place. A common example of these kinds of activities is making a disaster plan or stockpiling a three day supply of food and water. Planning allows people to anticipate what will happen in a disaster and front load that decision-making so they can react faster (and potentially more appropriately). Having a supply of food and water means that if something happens making it difficult to acquire supplies after a disaster, people have the flexibility to ride out that disruption.
Are preparedness strategies the same for all possible emergencies? Or are there specific preparedness recommendations just for pandemics?
Some preparedness strategies adhere to an all-hazards approach, generally meaning that they are applicable across a range of disasters (think relevant across earthquakes, floods, etc.). Others are more specific to some types of events. Still others lie somewhere in the middle. Take planning as an example. Having a plan and the act of planning for a disaster is relevant whether you are preparing for a hurricane or an epidemic, but there are some things specific to hurricane or epidemics that you would plan for. For instance, households may figure out how they will handle childcare if kids have to say home school for both events, but planning for a hurricane would also involve thinking about where a household might evacuate to and how they get there, while a pandemic plan would be focused on how to stay at home. There are some protective actions that are more specific to particular hazards.
I have seen pandemic preparedness guides. For instance, King County in Washington has one.
Do you think these guides are being used?
There are a lot of factors that can shape if and what preparedness activities people engage in. Sometimes this has to do with people’s risk perception—people who don’t anticipate being affected by an event would be less likely to engage in preparedness activity for it. However, even when people want to engage in preparedness, they may face other obstacles in doing so. Some people may want to stockpile three days of food (or for the COVID-19 epidemic, more like 14 days), but do not have the financial resources to do so.
What type of people specialize in preparedness work? And some people may wonder what they do when there are no emergencies going on. What are their jobs typically like?
Jobs related to emergency management are everywhere. The type of jobs people immediately think of are folks in local, state, or federal government specifically with an emergency management title, often working in an emergency management agency, like FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency). Emergency management is in other areas of government as well. For instance, within Health and Human Services, there is the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. However, there are emergency management jobs in the non-profit and private sectors too. There are nongovernmental organizations, such as the American Red Cross or Team Rubicon, for which disaster response is their primary mission or one of their missions. In the private sector, large companies will have individuals or entire teams dedicated to continuity of operations. Basically, their jobs are figuring out how to minimize the disruption to keep the company going in a time of crisis.
When people in these fields aren’t actively responding to a disaster, they are still doing important emergency management work. They may be engaging in preparedness activities like planning. They are often trying to find ways to reduce the likelihood of these events from happening or reducing the severity of the disruption caused when these events do occur (this is called mitigation in the emergency management world). In many cases, they are also still supporting people, organizations, and communities recover from the previous event. Long term needs persist long after the event itself is over, and people in this field will work to help these folks bounce back for years after a disaster. There is always work to be done in this field, even when skies are blue.
Is there anything else you want to add about emergency preparedness for pandemics?
With pandemics especially, it is important for people to adopt a community mindset. Actions people take will directly affect the overall duration and severity of the pandemic, and can shape how individuals experience these events. If people are considering gathering with other people rather than staying home, they need to think not just about the risk to themselves, but the risks they are potentially exposing others to. As people purchase supplies for their personal stockpile, it’s important that they make sure they meet their own needs, the extent to which people may purchases beyond their needs directly affects the availability of resources for others. Communities make it through pandemics in large part due to the actions of people within those communities. Everyone has a part to play in making our communities safer.
Keep in mind a pandemic is just one type of emergency situation. It is good for everyone to have a preparedness plan and emergency supplies for any type of event that might occur. Learn more at Ready.gov about how you can prepare, including what supplies you should have.
If you would like to learn more about emergency preparedness in general, you can go to the following websites:
Centers for Disease Control
Department of Homeland Security