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Thinking Anew: Security Priorities for the Next Administration

Citizen Preparedness: Harnessing an Engaged Public  


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On January 30, The George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI) hosted a panel discussion titled “Citizen Preparedness: Harnessing an Engaged Public.” This event, the fourth and final in HSPI’s Presidential Transition Roundtable Series: “Thinking Anew: Security Priorities for the Next Administration,” featured presentations by leading journalists and authors Andy Carvin, Senior Product Manager for Online Communities, National Public Radio; and Amanda Ripley, reporter for TIME Magazine and author of The Unthinkable - Who Survives When Disaster Strikes. Jan Lane, HSPI Deputy Director, and former government relations lead for the American Red Cross, provided comment.

HSPIRipley suggested that the U.S. government writ large tends to attempt to carry the burden of preparedness, response, and recovery during disasters, rather than including ordinary citizens in the process of making and facilitating such policy. However, Ripley notes that “the most important people” that government needs to include are its citizens, those who will be on the scene and responding in their communities. To better involve “regular people”, Ripley suggests that these citizens not only be at the table during policymaking, but that the government should also be specific in directing citizens about what they could be doing to prepare, respond, or recover. Finally, the government should tell the truth, including about the threats for which communities should be preparing. In other words, by being “frank and specific,” the nation as a whole will better understand the nature of the threat, and society will become more resilient. According to Ripley, the federal role in public preparedness efforts is, in short, to “inspire, facilitate, and then get out of the way.”

HSPICarvin presented the evolution of online-mobilization of citizens during crises starting with the earthquake in Los Angeles, California in 1994. As use of the internet has increased over the last 15 years, so has the ability of the public to communicate using new technological tools. In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., volunteers set up email list-servs to discuss where they could assist; by 2006, citizens on the ground posted information and photos on blogs during the tsunamis that ravaged Southeast Asia, a phenomenon now known as “citizen journalism.” In preparation for Hurricane Gustav in 2008, over 500 volunteers across the globe worked together to build a citizen-coordinated website to provide real-time information. Carvin noted that through such movement of information, “taken as a whole, you can observe the trends” of what is occurring on the ground—in effect, situational awareness. Carvin suggested that “we need to create various ways of visualizing” how to exploit this mobilization of volunteers online, and “have the infrastructure available” so that next time there will be a portal through which to channel people who wish to assist. An additional challenge is balancing the needs of specific communities in particular geographic locations, while finding ways to take advantage of organized communities online whose members may reside in different parts of the world.

HSPILane noted the HSPI Presidential Transition Task Force recommendation that active civic engagement underpin the new Administration’s homeland security efforts. She pointed out that President Obama’s calls for public service and personal responsibility provide the opportunity for greater engagement. Noting that there has been a history of government reluctance to bring the public into preparedness planning, Lane said “we need a real discussion with the American people of what the threat is, why it matters to them, and how the public can be effectively involved.” Government officials need to understand the evolving nature of public preparedness and how to incorporate social media to aid in public safety, situational awareness, and mobilization of resources outside of government control. Civic engagement is vital to rebuilding the public’s trust in governments’ disaster preparedness and response capabilities following Katrina. In response, Cilluffo proposed that “trust and confidence is crucial” to calibrating the discourse and cementing the bonds between the public and government.

In the discussion that followed, the key themes of education and training arose. During crises, citizens able to overcome the paralysis engendered by such an event are those that in past have been educated and trained to respond, whether on the job or through volunteer organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America. If people know what to do and have practiced it, they are more likely to take action. Many city fire departments have engaged the public on issues including risk assessment (geared to prevention) and have instructed citizens on response techniques. Public outreach, whether in the schools or online, is crucial to effective preparation for disaster.

The Ready.gov campaign is one example of government action; but Ripley and other experts participating in the roundtable discussion posited that government could do more – and better. For example, DHS provides a list of various supplies families might gather in preparation for a disaster. The lists are not tailored to specific geographic locations, though effective preparation is context-dependent. One suggestion made to improve this list was to add a forum to its online version, in order for the public to give their opinions on what else could be helpful to have on hand. By comparison, the United Kingdom has made baseline threat and risk information available to its citizens, which facilitates preparedness efforts.

Clearly, the keys to drawing successfully upon volunteers during a disaster include education, training, engagement, and the use of social media tools before, during and after disaster strikes. That said, “you don’t have to wait to have all the pieces right before you act,” as Cilluffo notes, “you just have to act.”




Event Resources


New Media’s Moment in Mumbai: A white paper on the use of New Media in National Security,” by Chris Battle, Foreign Policy Journal (January 15, 2009).

The author argues that “[t]he real value New Media offers in the homeland and national security environment…will fall into three broad categories: emergency response, open-source intelligence gathering, and the ideological struggle for hearts and minds….As tragic as it was, Mumbai may finally serve as a catalyst to overcome the government’s inertia and skepticism regarding the role of New Media as a valuable tool to be used, rather than feared. In any case, continuing to ignore its use by our enemies will undoubtedly result in more tragedy.”

It’s an Emergency. We’re Not Prepared,” by John D. Solomon, Washington Post (May 25, 2008).

The author explains, “public engagement is important not only in responding to emergencies, but also in helping prevent them in the first place. “The weakest part of our homeland security is the citizen," 9/11 Commission chairman Thomas H. Kean told me. "Addressing that is very, very, very important. Ultimately, it's as likely that a terrorist attack here will be stopped by the CIA or FBI as by someone who sees something suspicious and, instead of just going home for dinner, decides to tell his or her local police.’”

The Moment,” by Amanda Ripley, Time Magazine ( February 2, 2009).

The author reviews America’s latest plane crash on the Hudson River in New York City, “A plane crash is not a natural time for optimism. But maybe it should be. The ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, coming in the dark of winter in a country short on confidence, was more revealing than it was astonishing.”

Learning to Be Your Own Best Defense in a Disaster,” by Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times ( August 5, 2008).

Parker-Pope reviews Amanda Ripley’s book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why.

America The Resilient: Defying Terrorism and Mitigating Natural Disasters,” by Stephen Flynn, Foreign Affairs (March/ April 2008).

“A climate of fear and a sense of powerlessness caused by the threats of terrorism and natural disasters are undermining American ideals and fueling political demagoguery. Rebuilding the resilience of American society is the way to reverse this and respond to today's challenges.”

Editorial: Community Resilience for Catastrophic Health Events,” by Monica Schoch-Spana, Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, Center for Biosecurity, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. (2008).

“Community resilience—a phrase now common to many policy documents and political speeches—signals an important advance in thinking about the role of the public in disaster management. But like some of the erroneous ideas that it helps dismiss, does this new concept come with its own set of mental blinders? The possible meanings and implications of resilience deserve much more discussion and debate as resilience enters the public health preparedness lexicon.”

Backchannels on the Front Lines: Emergent Uses of Social Media in the 2007 Southern California Wildfires,” by Jeannette Sutton, Leysia Palen & Irina Shklovski, University of Colorado (2008).

“Opportunities for participation by members of the public are expanding the information arena of disaster. Social media supports “backchannel” communications, allowing for wide-scale interaction that can be collectively resourceful, self-policing, and generative of information that is otherwise hard to obtain. Results from our study of information practices by members of the public during the October 2007 Southern California Wildfires suggest that community information resources and other backchannel communications activity enabled by social media are gaining prominence in the disaster arena, despite concern by officials about the legitimacy of information shared through such means. We argue that these emergent uses of social media are pre-cursors of broader future changes to the institutional and organizational arrangements of disaster response.”

Homeland Security 3.0: Building a National Enterprise to Keep America Safe, Free, and Prosperous,” by David Heyman and James Jay Carafano, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and The Heritage Foundation (September 18, 2008).

“Protecting America at home is a national mission that requires the concerted effort of the nation, including state and local governments, the private sector and nongovernmental organizations, local communities, families, and individuals. Many of the most vital tasks are conducted most effectively in a decentralized manner. The national enterprise must facilitate cooperation, innovation, resiliency, flexibility, and adaptability, not promote rigid Wash­ington-centric solutions.”

Commentary: U.S. Needs Culture of Preparedness,” Interview of Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, CNN
(September 1, 2008).

“CNN Editor's Note: Lt. Gen. Russel Honore led the military response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. As Commanding General First U.S. Army, Honore commanded Joint Task Force - Katrina. In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called Honore "a John Wayne dude" who can "get some stuff done." Honore, 60, is a native of Louisiana and has many relatives living there. He retired from active service in March and is a CNN contributor. The following is an edited interview with Honore conducted [August 31, 2008].”

Cultivating a Culture of Preparedness in the United States,” by Brendan Gallagher, Stimson Center ( November 1, 2007).

“In the two years since Hurricane Katrina, much public attention has focused on the failure of government entities to first protect, help the people of New Orleans and other affected areas recover, and to mitigate the effects of future hurricanes in the region. However, the Federal government has not made progress in resolving an underlying shortcoming in our Nation's preparedness: Developing a universal culture of preparedness.”

DHS’ Ready Kids Campaign Joins Sesame Workshop In Launching New Guide For Parents Of Young Children On Emergency Preparedness,” Office of the Press Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (September 17, 2008).

“[In September] the Department of Homeland Security's Ready Kids Campaign announced with Sesame Workshop a new tool on emergency preparedness for parents of young children called "Let's Get Ready!" This guide aims to get families planning together for emergencies through simple activities and games that focus on talking to young children about the people, places and things that will keep the family safe during an emergency.”

Responding to Catastrophes,” by Karin von Hippel and Frederick Barton, CSIS ( March 19, 2008).

“Human decisions frequently exacerbate the effects of disaster agents, as, for example, when earthquakes tear through areas that either should not have been populated in the first place or should have been retrofitted once the area’s vulnerability became clear. In this sense, all disasters are “man-made,” and the dichotomy between acts of war and acts of God is largely false. Unfortunately, catastrophe response organizations—both within the United States and abroad—mostly have not incorporated this thinking into their practices. Responding to Catastrophes seeks to integrate thinking about the nature of—and response to—future catastrophes into the policymaker’s decisionmaking process.”

Citizen Communications in Crisis: Anticipating a Future of ICT-Supported Participation,” By Leysia Palen and Sophia B. Liu (2007), Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

“Recent world-wide crisis events have drawn new attention to the role information communication technology (ICT) can play in warning and response activities. Drawing on disaster social science, we consider a critical aspect of postimpact disaster response that does not yet receive much information science research attention. Public participation is an emerging, large-scale arena for computer-mediated interaction that has implications for both informal and formal response.

Public Preparedness: A National Imperative,” American Red Cross, The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the Council for Excellence in Government (January 28, 2005).

“This report summarizes the thoughts of the experts and community leaders who are on the front lines of emergency preparedness every day. It is a compilation of the ideas expressed during the symposium and represents a vital first step in improving the public preparedness climate by hopefully serving as a catalyst for future discussion and action.”

News and Resource Links

In Case of Emergency, Read Blog

From the author: “The blog will be a major part of the research for the book [In Case Of Emergency, Read Book: Simple Steps To Prepare You and Your Family For Terrorism, Natural Disasters and Other 21st Century Crises, currently in production], and the book research will augment the content of the blog. And, in the event of a real emergency, I intend that this blog will be a resource for citizens. I’d like to hear from people around the nation and the world. I encourage your comments, ideas, suggestions and criticisms. We are now in the pro-am Wikipedia era of preparedness where the public has both a major responsibility and role in their own preparedness. The fact is that post-9/11 emergency preparedness is such a new and multi-disciplinary area that there really aren’t any experts in all of it. We’re all learning together. I hope this blog will contribute to that important education process.”

Homeland Security Watch

Authored by expert Jonah Czerwinski, “Homeland Security Watch is a blog that features breaking news, rigorous analysis, and informed commentary on the critical issues in homeland security today. It takes a cross-disciplinary approach to the subject of homeland security, spanning issues such as transportation security, preparedness and response, infrastructure protection, and border security. Its content is intended both for an expert-level policy audience as well as the broader general audience of people interested in homeland security. The blog is non-partisan and non-commercial.”

President Barack Obama’s Agenda for Homeland Security: Executive Office of the President

U.S. Department of Homeland Security campaign for citizen preparedness: Ready.Gov; National Preparedness Month’s Blog

Citizen Corps, sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency

Non-Governmental Organizations: InterAction (American Council for Voluntary International Action), American Red Cross, International Red Cross/Red Crescent, National Organization on Disability Emergency Preparedness Initiative

University of Colorado: National Hazards Center Disaster Research

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center: Center for Biosecurity


HSPI’s Presidential Transition Roundtable Series seeks to foster thoughtful dialogue in order to generate actionable recommendations designed to meet the most vexing challenges the United States faces today. The findings of the Series are expected to supplement and complement the work of HSPI’s Presidential Transition Task Force.