We recently interviewed Dennis Mileti, one of the leading experts on preparedness in North America, director emeritus of the Natural Hazards Center who authored over 100 publications focusing on the societal aspects of mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery for hazards and disasters. His book Disasters by Design, published in 1999, involved over 130 experts to assess knowledge, research, and policy needs for hazards in the U.S. He was co-founder and Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Natural Hazards Review, an interdisciplinary all-hazards journal devoted to bringing together the natural and social sciences, engineering, and the policy communities.
CRA: You’ve been in this business for many years and you’ve worked with some of the giants. If you were to boil down everything that we know about preparedness into three main points: what would you like everyone to know?
Dennis: You would have a different answer from me if you were talking about the preparedness of households and individuals then if you’re talking about the preparedness of communities.
CRA: Let’s start with the individual and household level.
Dennis: In reference to individuals and the family here’s what I’d say if I were summing it up.
Number 1: The single most important influential thing that gets human beings to prepare for disasters is experiencing a disaster. And what that means is if you give San Francisco a big earthquake after the earthquake is over and after the horse is out of the barn: people will prepare like crazy. However, what I would say to those who would wish to increase public preparedness is to be ready to take full advantage of that and be ready to steer the public in the right direction when you have their attention after an earthquake. And quite frankly, I don’t know anyone in this nation or any other that does that. And so the time to get people interested in earthquake insurance is after the earthquake not before. So that’s number 1.
Number 2: Short of experiencing an earthquake, when you’re talking to people to be prepared in general, to mitigate their homes more extensively etc. The most influential vehicle for influencing human behaviour is totally ignored by people like FEMA and the Red Cross and Offices of Emergency Services, Association of Floodplain managers etc. The single most influential spokesperson to motivate the public to prepare are other people in their life. Their friends, their relatives, and neighbours. And this is not unique to preparedness although the data is in that it is. How human beings are wired, how we’re made up genetically, and that is: we are copy cats or “monkey see, monkey do”. That’s how motivation spreads. The thing to get going to is to get people who have taken steps to mitigate or prepare for a natural disaster to open up their mouths and tell their next-door neighbour and friends steps they took. For example: I live in a very earthquake vulnerable part of the country and after I have friends over for dinner I typically walk them over to a statue on a table in my living room and say try shaking that statue, they try shaking the statue and it doesn’t move. Then I giggle and say “try shaking the box it’s on” and they try shaking the box and it doesn’t move. Then I say try shaking the table that the box is on, they try shaking it and it doesn’t move. Then they look at me like “why is everything glued down?” And that’s how I can protect the lives of people I live with and protect them from injuries in the event of an earthquake. And I know that when they’re driving home, the wife pokes the husband and says “When are we going to glue things down?” That’s how you do it. It’s not government. Government isn’t the best spokesperson to motivate preparedness, it’s the people you know and love, admire, trust and are a part of their everyday life. And so given that do you know of any public efforts to motivate people who have already prepared to share with and tell their friends and relatives what they have done? That’s the most productive way to do it so why are we continuing to do it in other ways, rather than the most productive way. It’s an interesting question isn’t it?
The bottom line is that most public agencies that engage in public education efforts it’s really not about motivating the public, what it’s really about is having them look good. And to look like they’re doing their jobs. And so that’s number 2: Getting human beings to share what they’ve done.
Number 3: if you want to motivate the public to prepare it needs to be repetitively messaged if you want to break through the malaise of everyday life when the average human being has 1000 problems to worry about – they’re probably going to be worried about getting clean clothes on their families back, putting a dinner down and what dress to wear to dinner before they ever get ready for something they don’t believe is ever going to happen to them. Now the way you get to people, the way you get into the human mind is repetitive messaging. Let me ask you a question? How old were you when you could remember hearing your first ad for Coca-Cola. And when was the last time you heard an advertisement for Coca-Cola? And how many did you hear in between the years? Coca-Cola knows we need a repetitive message while agencies that are trying to encourage preparedness don’t.
You’ve got to market it. If you want the public to prepare you can’t put on big extravaganza event one day a year and expect that anybody is going to do anything. You’ve got to remind them to do it daily. And so you need to invent a repetitive message campaign.
Now listen to this you’re not the only one if you’re engaged in motivating the public to prepare that’s talking to the public. So let’s just say for flood hazard mitigation let’s pick a town like Boulder, Colorado. You have the NOAA talking to them, you have the state talking to them, you have the Red Cross talking to them you have local emergency management talking to them. And so on and so forth you get that there are many different spokespersons. They need to be saying to same thing otherwise it confuses people and people think nobody knows exactly what they should or shouldn’t do. They also have their friends talking to them and so what needs to happen is you need to have the message coordinated and so the Red Cross, FEMA, the city, the county, state etc. are all saying the same thing. And that means you need to brand the message not the messenger. And that involves organizations giving up their favourite personal emergency preparedness activities and coordinating with each other. And that’s very difficult to do.
To summarize: Number 1: have people that have already prepared talking to their friends and relatives talking to their friends/loved ones, sharing with their friends what they’ve done and that will accomplish more than anyone else on the planet can do.
Number 2: get different groups who are giving out information who are interested in getting the public to increase their preparedness to disseminate the same message rather than their own unique message
Number 3: The message has to be repeated frequently, not infrequently, just like advertising. Why would Coca-Cola keep spending money on advertising if they’ve been around 100 years? Because they know the minute they stop advertising people will forget all about them. You’re dealing with human beings. Those are the things that would enhance preparedness levels, even the most you could accomplish isn’t as much as you would ideally want, most human beings aren’t going to prepare no matter what.
Interview was conducted by Lily Yumagulova. Crisis Resilience Alliance would like to thank Shaun Koopman for transcribing the interview.