Preparing for Health Crises or Other Emergencies Isn’t Someone Else’s Job

Julia Galdo and Alicia Eberl-Lefko

In a March 19thNew York Times op-ed, Bill Gates writes passionately about the lack of an effective international system to contain and defeat a future pandemic. He urges the United Nations to create a new organization responsible for worldwide planning and a coordinated response. This will doubtless prompt needed debate over what the World Health Organization and leaders of wealthy nations, including our own, can do now to spur worldwide preparation for an aggressive, coordinated response to such a crisis.

Yet, here is the reality. The responsibility of preparing for a health crisis, such as the pandemic Mr. Gates warns us could happen—a natural disaster like a hurricane or earthquake, a hazardous materials accident, or even a terrorist attack—belongs to all of us. Disasters are local. No matter what nations and states do or do not do to prepare, individuals, families, and communities will feel the effects when a disaster hits close to home.

Few of us want to think about or imagine disaster in our lives and even fewer of us plan for it. According to the 2012 FEMA National Survey Report published in 2013, fewer than half of the respondents believed their community will experience a natural disaster. Under one third had spoken with others about preparedness of any sort, and only half of those folks who had talked about it had made household emergency plans. It’s understandable that disaster planning can seem like a low priority, compared to immediate needs, and both the press and normality of daily life. But, just as we all bear responsibility for taking care of the everyday needs of our families and loved ones, we bear responsibility for our own safety and the safety of our loved ones amidst a disaster.

Getting ready for a health or natural disaster is no different than installing a smoke detector in your home or wearing a seat belt in your car. Taking the time to think ahead and take precautionary steps can save lives.

Getting started is fairly simple. An effective family preparedness plan includes storing important contact information, preparing a disaster kit, establishing a meeting place in case family members are separated when disaster strikes, and having a record of important medical information, among other safety measures. (See plans on READY.GOV or the American Red

Beyond planning for ourselves and our families, some of us must also take responsibility for our neighborhoods and communities. In work by AIR to support CDC preparedness efforts, we evaluated the dynamics in communities, asking the question, “What are the key elements necessary for a community to be ready to help those in need during a disaster?” The single most important element, essential for community planning, was leadership. That leadership can come from many places and from different types of people—leaders of volunteer organizations to local first responders, such as public health officials and fire departments, to leaders of religious communities and businesses, for example.

There are many ways to help local communities prepare (see—both formal and informal. More formal options range from learning CPR and first aid to becoming a Red Cross volunteer and working with other community groups, such as the Medical Reserve Corps that trains volunteers to respond in crises. Informal options can be as simple as huddling with neighbors to determine who in the community might need help in a disaster and who could provide it.  

Let’s heed Mr. Gates’ warning, but not limit concerns about lack of preparedness to critical international issues. We have a long way to go until we have a society where individuals and communities take responsibility for our own preparedness. We each have to take the lead personally. And some of us have to take the lead for our communities. Find out who is preparing for possible disasters in your community and see what you can do to help. If there isn’t anyone, is that leader you?

Julia Galdo is a managing director for communication and social marketing at AIR. She co-authored Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication with Barbara Reynolds at the CDC and has worked extensively to support communication preparedness for public health.

Alicia Eberl-Lefko is a principal communications specialist at AIR. She has led numerous public health crisis and emergency risk communication projects on terrorism, pandemic influenza, and other public health threats.