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Notes and Observations from the Bloggers Roundtable with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate

After rushing back from meetings at the Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, MD, this morning, FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate held a Bloggers Roundtable in which I was fortunate to participate.  With Hurricane Season 2009 opening yesterday, the session focused on the core message of preparedness proved to be an energetic exchange among the 3 bloggers: Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post, John Solomon of In Case of Emergency and me.

This was (I believe) the first foray of the new DHS leadership in engaging the Blogosphere in a Roundtable and needless to say FEMA Administrator Fugate is more than comfortable with jumping into this pool and can successfully swim in it.

While the session was held via teleconference, the ensuing 35-minute Q&A roundtable could have been a conversation taking place at a backyard picnic table. It was relaxed, candid and to the point with no fluff attached.

In opening the session, Administrator Fugate wanted to dispense with giving any type of formal introductory statement.  He was ready to dive right into the conversation and engage in a give and take with us.

He did use the opening moments to share the direction and tone he wants to set for America’s preparedness.

He declared himself to be “a generalist in approaching this job,” imparting that he plans to pursue a larger view of national preparedness rather than focus on individual stove pipes that are often seen as individual parts of it.

He offered almost out of the starting gate, “As we prepare for disasters we have to look at the public as a resource, not as a liability.”

This was in his estimation “a pragmatic view” because, “a better prepared public helps us all and allows us to focus more attention to vulnerable populations who may need an extra hand.”

In terms of preparing the general public: “We need to give them the information they need.  We need to empower them on how to best prepare and how to best respond in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.”

“This is an area you will see me talk about the most.”

“I want to treat the public as a resource and make sure people have the information to know the hazards; what they should do for their families and their neighbors.”

“We need to make available the tools to help people know what they can do to protect themselves.”

“I really think that we can do so much more in working with people; making sure they know they can be part of the team.”

It was also his perception that in many cases, “the first responder is really a neighbor” who checks in on the person next door to see how they are doing after an event.

In offering his opening comments, he was relaxed, very candid and more than comfortable. Fugate then dispensed with the formality that comes with senior government titles when he took his first question from Ed O’Keefe who addressed him as “Administrator Fugate.”

He stopped O’Keefe mid-sentence, “Call me Craig.”

Wow!  That was a shock.

While I didn’t expect him to be overly formal in the roundtable based on my previous interactions with him and my observations of him speaking and working in other environments, his tone and approach were immediately complementary to the words he  uttered.

I guess if he is going to bring the average American into partnering with FEMA in preparedness, he wants to be addressed as an average American.

He made it perfectly clear that that it is his intent to engage in a proactive dialogue with Americans about what FEMA could for them; but more importantly what Americans (by preparing themselves and their families and businesses) could be doing for FEMA and their country.

By no means is he looking to step away from the responsibilities that he and the Agency have to the American public by saying that citizens could be doing more.

Rather, it is his intent to treat the public as members of “the team” and “not as a liability.”

His challenge in fulfilling that quest is how to make that happen.

In offering his plan, he was more than honest in stating that he doesn’t have all the answers.

He offered that “the bully pulpit of his office could only induce so much change.”

Scaring people into preparedness action isn’t necessarily the answer either.

In probably one of his most candid comments (that probably had his press staff cringing), he offered, “that Drivers Ed didn’t do it and showing us ‘Blood on the Highway’ [the classic Drivers Ed film] didn’t either because we still wanted to know how fast a car could go.”

In his mind, real cultural change was what was needed to improve auto safety and that required “reinforced messaging.”

“You can’t do it with just a sound bite – you need sustained messaging” to keep people focused on what they need to do to change their lives.

As examples of cultural change, he pointed to the reduction in cigarette smoking and the use of seatbelts.  People knew generations ago that quitting smoking and using seatbelts could save lives, but the public did not embrace those behaviors immediately.  It took time for people and culture to embrace them as acceptable things to do. He sees the same thing with preparedness.

When pressed further on other means to build a culture of preparedness, the Administrator, excuse me… Craig, shared that it is going to take real social science research to help us strategize on approaches that work.

He went further, “I’m not sure what’s going to work, but we shouldn’t be looking at punitive measures to get people to prepare.”

“You want incentives on the front end.”

Prior use of some of those incentives, though, have had some unforeseen consequences.  He then described the challenge some Florida homeowners experienced in improving their homes to sustain the regular hurricane season.  The money they invested to reinforce their homes only made their property assessments go up – a problem they didn’t necessarily need when it came to paying their taxes.

As to the timetable on making America more prepared, “At this point I know it [preparedness] isn’t going to happen overnight.  The public is a resource and I want us to treat them as such.”

“It’s a journey I want us to take.”

His enthusiasm for what can only be described as probably the most thankless job in public service (next to his boss’ – DHS Sec. Napolitano) was impressive.  He offered no hesitation in his delivery of any of his comments.  He certainly didn’t come across as a braggart or “cowboy” or saying, “Bring it on…” either.

Rather, this was a guy who knows he has a tough job; he knows he is ready for it and he knows he has good people around him (at FEMA, states, local, tribal governments, private sector, etc.) to help him with it.

He also recognized that he is going to need some additional hands to make one of his toughest assignments possible – American preparedness.

He shared that he is prepared to put forward the energy and resources (e.g., information, tools, training, etc) to get those hands engaged, too.

All he asked was that Americans take his counsel, “Get a plan; get some training and check on a neighbor.  We need everybody involved.”

Sound advice from a guy named Craig.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More
  • gm tunnell

    Having worked with Craig under some very stressful times (Florida hurricane seasons ’04 and ’05), I know that he’s sincere and up to the task!