August 7, 2017 - “Who is the most responsible for preparing communities for disasters and disease outbreaks?” When we added this question to our annual poll on preparedness attitudes, I was particularly eager to analyze the results because the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t think I could predict how Americans feel about what entity is responsible for ensuring preparedness. On the one hand, federal agencies like FEMA and the CDC have a highly visible role, especially following an election when they feature prominently in discussions about the federal budget. On the other, ‘all disasters are local’ and dozens of studies, not to mention real world responses, have shown that communities rely on and trust local authorities, suggesting they might believe local authorities are most responsible for protecting them. At the same time, the emergency management and healthcare preparedness communities have encouraged individual preparedness for years and maybe that had translated into Americans believing individuals were most responsible.
The results suggest my indecision is shared by public. Responses to this question resulted in a three-way tie. 22% of respondents cited individuals, 22% cited local entities (e.g. fire and health departments), and 21% cited the federal government as having the most responsibility for preparing communities. While this tie was thought provoking on its own, the percentages of the remaining answer options adds to this: just short of making the three-way tie a four-way tie, 17% of respondents cited state government agencies as having the most responsibility.
Interestingly, just 1% each cited national non-profits (e.g. the American Red Cross) and local non-profits. These significantly stratified results are interrupted by the 7% of respondents that indicated Not Applicable - I don't think anyone has more responsibility for preparing my community for natural disasters and disease outbreaks over anyone else. So while Americans are split over what entity holds the more responsibility for preparedness, they’re not necessarily skewed towards one entity, which could present an even greater messaging challenge for planners.
Having a better understanding of whom Americans feel is responsible for preparedness is important because it can help planners and decision makers understand which organizations Americans will rely on and turn to during an emergency.
What I found even more surprising was that overall percentages varied minimally when examined by demographics including gender, age, and race. The biggest variance in gender was 4%, with 19% of men citing state government as having the most responsibility, compared to 15% of women. Variances in age were a bit bigger, with individual responsibility trending upward with age. (16% of 18-34 years olds cited individuals as having the most responsibility, compared to 21% of 35-54 year olds and 27% of 55 years and over), but federal responsibility trending downward with age (24% of 18-34 years olds cited the federal government as having the most responsibility, compared to 22% of 35-54 year olds and 17% of 55 years and over).
Variances were largest among racial groups. Respondents varied most in their opinions of the federal government’s responsibility, with a greater proportion of blacks citing the federal government as having the most responsibility. (36% of blacks, compared to 22% of Hispanics, 17% of whites, and 17% of others). Another dichotomy between perceptions of responsibility by race is seen in individual responsibility, with 14% of blacks and Hispanics citing individuals as having the most responsibility compared to 24% of whites and others.
The implications of just one of these findings on the preparedness and resilience of a community could fill numerous articles, let alone a blog post. We felt it was important to share findings like this with the wider preparedness community to help inform and influence policy conversations and planning priorities. Regardless of who we in the preparedness community feel is most responsible for ensuring communities are prepared, it is vital to ask and understand who community members feel is most responsible for preparedness, as these attitudes will influence the spectrum of preparedness, from individual to national.
Differing opinions of who is most responsible for preparedness underscore the complexity of the field, to be sure. But knowing where and how they differ also offer an important educational opportunity. Targeted outreach can help the public understand how their local agencies should interact with the state, and how the state can engage with the federal government. And a better informed public can more readily understand the importance of adequate preparedness funding and join us and our partners in advocating for sustainable funding for all the different preparedness players at the local, state, federal, even individual levels.
Email ContactUs@healthcareready.org with questions or requests for additional information on the data supplied by the annual poll.