This past weekend, John Solomon tackled tough issues about preparedness in a straightforward and honest way in a Washington Post piece that includes his recommendations for the top ten means by which the American public can become better prepared for emergencies and disasters.

During my 25 years in the public sector including my tenure overseeing preparedness at DHS and now through my involvement in similar issues in the private sector, there has been so much progress in our nation’s preparedness and response capabilities – but as Mr. Solomon points out, America has a long way to go. Below are my thoughts on some areas that deserve our focus going forward.

  • Preparedness is not simply a responsibility of government. Government cannot be all things to all people at all times, and preparedness is not an exclusive responsibility of government agencies. We should not – and cannot – pretend otherwise. Inherent in the principles of our nation is the premise that businesses and individual citizens will do what is necessary to make our society better. Public leaders must acknowledge the limitations of government in a disaster – but before a crisis strikes. Our elected leaders must provide their citizens with clear expectations of what services they can expect from government in the midst of a crisis and, more importantly, what is expected from them as citizens. We continue to over promise “that everything will be taken care of” at the expense of undermining the incentive for the American people to understand the reality they will face in a crisis and preventing them from taking necessary steps to be better prepared. Our ability to respond to citizen needs is less a policy debate and more about realizing the limitations of government capabilities in a nation as large and diverse as ours.
  • Increased collaboration between the public and private sectors. We need to be leveraging the resources of the private sector – encompassing infrastructure, talent, resources and more – to complement the public sector’s core responsibilities to keep our citizens safe. Private businesses and organizations at every level – ranging from large Fortune 500 corporations to the local corner store – have both a vested interest and inherent capabilities they can leverage to help their communities in the initial aftermath of a disaster.. Without contingency plans and open communication among business and other non-governmental groups, though, much of this leverage is wasted, leaving uncoordinated and fragmented response efforts. Both government and business leaders need to use foresight to recognize potential threats and act collaboratively to ensure resiliency within our communities.
  • Better public education campaigns. DHS’s Ready campaign made great progress in the effort to educate the American public about what to do for their families in case of an emergency. Yet the number of people who continue to lack such a plan is truly amazing – and is really frightening in light of recent disasters in China and Myanmar . Local and state governments – as well as the private sector – must take initiative to bring preparedness issues down to the micro level in a way that relates to the everyday lives of Americans. A farmer in Indiana is unlikely to pay attention to information tips about securing his house for a hurricane, but would see a much stronger connection to information about how to respond to a flash floods or tornadoes. Public education campaigns need to bridge this awareness gap to connect with everyday citizens, changing the “it will never happen to me” mentality to one that recognizes potential threats and plans accordingly.
  • Incorporating (more) technology into preparedness efforts. Our information-saturated world keeps us on constant sensory overload – we consume news constantly: checking our Blackberries on the way to work, hitting refresh on our Internet browsers throughout the day only to go home listening to satellite radio and then turning to an evening of high-definition television complete with scrolling headlines on the bottom of our screens. Public awareness has become inseparable from technology, a fact that FEMA and other state and regional governments have recognized in their increased use of text messaging and SMS alerts to keep citizens up-to-speed on the latest emergency notifications. These steps are admirable, but there is still room for greater improvement – and we cannot overlook populations that lack the technology and/or the physical capability to receive and understand these types of alerts. Technology is only as good as the understanding of how our 21st Century American society gets its news and information.