The 72-hour fallacy: Preparing your communities for the unexpected
By Kaitlin Secord
In emergency management, it’s important to know where initiatives or directives originated from, and they should be consistently re-evaluated to ensure that they are still current and required. The 72-hour preparedness rule came to fruition during World War I as a directive given from national levels of governance. There were requirements to be self-sufficient due to competing priorities from national defence. Individuals needed to sustain continuity of their livelihood for 72-hours.
Chris Collins, professor of emergency management at the Emergency Management and Public Safety Institute of Centennial College and level 3 trainer with Emergency Management Ontario, said, “We are still using a method of preparedness from war-times, but have advanced as a society in every other way. So, what’s wrong with this picture?”
Public Safety Canada released a report in 2010 called the Emergency Preparedness Week 2010 Evaluation which had a market researcher company conduct a survey among Canadian residents to “explore issues related to Emergency Preparedness Week.”
The results showed that 72 per cent of those surveyed strongly agreed that an emergency plan and kit are necessary in ensuring the safety of their family. It also found that 54 per cent assumed their area would not likely be affected by disaster and 48 per cent thought if disaster did strike, it would be over soon. Forty-four percent felt the government would take care of them if a large-scale emergency were to occur.
Fifty-eight per cent said their family had never looked into what to do in case of an emergency.
Since 2010, demographics, geographics and population have changed significantly across Canada. “An increase in immigration and a rise in natural disasters, construction and inflation have all led to changes in budgets, and municipalities and individual needs,” said Collins.
Support from government agencies is different among rural, suburban and urban areas, and so are their needs. “This is why 72 hours cannot be something that is universally applicable,” said Collins.
So, what can be done?
Collins says the first step is to look at your community, municipality and specific neighbourhoods you serve.
“No one can prepare a community better than members of that community,” said Scott Cameron, co-founder of Emergency Management Logistics Canada.
Many regions are transitioning away from a generic approach by incorporating tools that are unique to them.
FireSmart Canada and B.C. FireSmart have launched two unique initiatives that directly help communities support themselves. The Local FireSmart Representatives (LFSR) program is described as “people from all walks of life, unified by a central purpose: to mitigate the damages caused by wildfires to our neighbourhoods and communities.” These representatives are neighbours that “foster FireSmart values at a grassroots level.”
Collins was a LFSR during his time living in B.C. “The program provides risk assessment on an individual level. We’d look at things like trees in someone’s front lawn and the impact that has on the wilderness-urban interface,” said Collins.
The other initiative is the FireSmart Canada Neighbourhood Recognition Program. This program recognizes neighbourhoods “that have taken critical steps to reduce their vulnerabilities to wildfires.”
The program hits on a couple of areas of preparedness that are often weak within province-wide planning. First, they utilize LFSR’s to create a plan that identifies locally agreed-upon solutions and that are attainable for each neighbourhood to achieve.
These goals and solutions are tracked by progress or status and are used to create “dedicated local FireSmart programs.”
Fifty-eight per cent [of people surveyed] said their family had never looked into what to do in case of an emergency, 60 per cent said they had not purchased or prepared an emergency kit and approximately one-third felt they did not need one.
“People like to be recognized and self-sufficient,” Collins said. “By showing communities we see their efforts, we’re setting everyone up for greater success.”
The FireSmart B.C. initiatives are one example of provinces taking charge of preparedness, but is one of the few that considers each community in its approach.
Ontario recently released its first-ever Provincial Emergency Management Strategy and Action Plan. While its “one window for all Ontarians” approach seeks to coordinate with emergency management partners on preparedness, it may not directly consider that the time and need for emergency response varies across the province.
The Alberta Emergency Management Agency works in a similar function by coordinating emergency operations.
These co-ordination plans, while obviously important, unfortunately don’t create enough “buy-in.”
Collins explains that the most effective way to engage someone is by connecting with their emotions. “You only have about three seconds to grab someone’s attention. Storytelling lets people put themselves into situations,” he said. “It lets them think about their reactions and realities.”
A study, called “Interventions for Preventing Residential Fires in Vulnerable Neighbourhoods and Indigenous Communities: A Systematic Review of the Evidence” shows that partnerships with Indigenous communities and education through tailored programming saw improvements in engagement with targeted populations.
One of the most common areas of improvement is communication.
“We often emphasize pub ed, but I think emergency services need to start sharing their initiatives more often,” said Collins. “Our goal as emergency personnel is to help our communities stay safe; by sharing what we’re doing, we can learn and develop at an even more impressive rate than we are now.”
“Traction gained in public awareness could be lost or contribute to confusion about standards if it were to be changed,” said Cameron.
While 72-hours may not be enough time to be prepared for, its marketability and memorability are two things that make the concept attractive. The 2010 Emergency Preparedness Week study found that greater than 70 per cent of participants understood what “72-hour” referred to.
Provinces and territories are updating the language they use when it comes to preparedness. Most suggest “a minimum of 72-hours,” while regions like Sidney, B.C., are encouraged to be prepared for seven days due to their remote location.
Choosing what to communicate with the communities you serve and how shouldn’t be based on a generalization. Shifting focus to how you can best prepare your communities for the unexpected will provide relief to everyone being impacted.
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