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Preparing for the Worst, Creating the Best: Promoting Preparedness and Self-Care

The video was one I was prepared for – I knew what the content would include, and I knew the purpose for the video. For three years, I have advocated for my university to prioritize preparedness for events mass violence and active shooting. At the beginning of the fall semester, several deans at my institution showed support for preparedness awareness and included the training as part of the first meetings of the academic year. Once the video produced by our campus police department started, however, I noticed my heart rate beginning to soar and I realized I was holding my breath. The video portrayed an active shooter on our own campus, entering our campus center; the victims in the video were actors recruited from our university’s faculty, staff, and students. As the video continued, I my right foot began to bounce, and, much to my shame, I noted tears began welling in the corner of my eyes. Wait, I said to myself, what was going on? This video was not a surprise…it was not new content…in fact, as a faculty member at the university, I teach emergency management and homeland security. In addition to my role at the university, I also volunteer for a major international humanitarian organization – and as a part of this organization, I train people to be prepared for emergency and crises. Over the previous few days, I had been closely following the impact and predictions for Hurricane Dorian. This was my professional bread and butter, and I was horrified I was losing my composure because of a simulation video. Why couldn’t I hold myself together?

September represents a “perfect storm” of sorts – not only is it National Self-Care Awareness month, but also National Preparedness Month. Throughout September, professionals like myself focus on communicating how to prepare for a response to any number of emergency events. The emphasis of National Preparedness Month generally focuses on natural hazards, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, and wildfire. More recently, however, emergency preparedness training has also included response to threats of violence. During the month, we ask members of our communities, “what would you do?” We guide individuals through brief scenario events, like “what if, right now, you had to evacuate your home? What would you bring? What if you had to shelter in place?” with the hope that they will be inspired to prepare their own disaster plans. We hope people will go home, and work with their families to work out sheltering, evacuation, and communication plans. We hope they think about what members of their households (including pets) would need if they had to leave in a rush, what dietary and medical needs must be met, how they might communicate if different languages are spoken in the household, and how to facilitate family reunification if an emergency occurs during the day with adults at home or work, and children at home, school, or daycare. On Facebook and other social media outlets, we use the month’s focus to share websites that list emergency supplies, remind people about pet preparedness, and note terrible stories of poor evacuation planning or lack of situational awareness. The latter refers to the knowledge people have about their environment at any one point in time – in terms of emergencies, this means local weather conditions and local response capacity. For example, did you know that limitations may be placed on the use of response vehicles based on wind conditions? A 2003 report by the Florida Institute of Technology Wind & Hurricane Impact Research Laboratory suggests crews operating fire trucks, response sports-utility vehicles (SUVs), and ambulances should seek shelter at points where wind speeds reach between 50 and 70 miles per hour (a tropical storm is characterized by sustained winds above 39 miles per hour). What this means for trainers and preparedness advocates is that we often have to use our own experiences or case examples to press home the importance of situational awareness. In other words, whereas the public might prefer to forget these unfortunate things happen, professionals have to remember, share, and feel the negative consequences of having to forcefully raise stress levels in others as part of an educational process.

As I mentioned above, September is both National Preparedness Month, as well as National Self-Care Awareness month. Very little is known about the stress preparedness training and awareness puts on the trainers and advocates, themselves. Why, in the midst of training, advocating, social media posting, and reminding the public, should professionals reflect on the impact of the very message itself? You may think, “if this my job – a job I love and would not trade for any other – I shouldn’t feel this way! Some may even wonder, if I experience stresses when I train, should I even have this job? These narratives of self-doubt are what, in many ways, keep our first response community from engaging in self-care. These internal voices represent the idea that, as emergency preparedness and crisis response professionals, training and advocacy staff should be immune to stresses associated with prolonged focus on the negative outcomes of emergency events. In addition to stresses experienced by staff and preparedness advocates, there is relatively less measurement of stresses felt by participants in training exercises and drills. Although there has been a respectable move toward including critical de-briefing during exercises and drills (not just after real-life incidents), the efficacy of debriefing is still clouded by potential stigmatization (real or perceived) for sharing emotional responses.

Preparedness training necessitates – for both trainers, advocates, and participants – a version of short-term negative future thinking. For trainers and advocates, it likely involves prolonged, intentional rumination on negative events as we develop and share our preparedness messaging. What if this happens? What if that happens? What story should I use to communicate the urgency of evacuations? Should I watch yet another horrific Facebook report of someone losing their life because they drove into flood waters – should I even listen to the released 9-1-1 call? As humans, we tend to avoid spending too much emotional effort worrying about how future events can harm us and interrupt the comfort of our daily lives. This is part of the reason why preparedness advocacy is so difficult – people don’t want to be reminded they live in a world with natural and human-made hazards! I can personally recall instances where audiences who requested preparedness training actively dismissed the information, not out of malicious intent, but, I believe, a natural inclination to avoid thinking about the potential consequences of their own lack of planning, or an uncomfortable feeling of luck that may end with the next hurricane (or act of violence).

Preparedness planning is a short-term stressor designed to create a greater potential for resilience following an emergency event. Of course, preparedness training is not, and should not, be all gloom and doom. We also share stories of ways families, friends, and community members who worked together to enact emergency response plans when threatened. Recent data suggest significant positive changes in preparedness behavior following emergency preparedness education (McNeill, et al., 2016). For as often as the hairs on the back of my neck rise when I think of a potential threat (for example, during the aforementioned active shooter video), those hairs also stand on end when I see community members complying with evacuation orders or checking their shelter-in supplies. In those instances, I see communities acting to ensure the safety of all – themselves, their families and friends, and first responders. Emergency preparedness education can provide opportunities for learning about resources in your community, introducing yourself to neighbors, and identifying common concerns and unique areas of capacity. Preparedness requires us all to think about negative consequences – but in doing so, we create stronger, more resilient communities. My message during September is, therefore, two-fold. On one hand, be prepared (see links below for taking steps toward preparedness)! Engage in continual learning, hold a community preparedness fair, or create and practice your own family disaster plan. On the other, prioritize self-care during this time if you are tasked with reminding the public about hazards in our society and environment. As highlighted in previous posts on this blog, self-care is important for all service-providers and professionals who strengthen our communities with their work.

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Reference links:

McNeill, C.C., Alfred, D., Mastel-Smith, B., Fountain, R., and MacClements, J. (2016) Changes in self-reported household preparedness levels among a rural population after exposure to emergency preparedness campaign materials. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, 13(1),

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