Most Americans still lack emergency plans, kits, know-how

A recent pubic safety survey from Federal Signal shows Americans are unprepared, and that the majority want to be notified of an emergency not by texting, but by the trusty telephone or TV.
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive

Living nine blocks from the U.S. Capitol and across from a Marine Corps base, I take it for granted that I would find out quickly about any local emergency. I just assume I would hear aircraft overhead and sirens outside my windows.

But last week, while I was talking to Joe Wilson, vice president and general manager for Federal Signal’s Safety and Security Group, I realized that I don’t know the emergency notification system for my neighborhood. I also join more than half of my fellow Americans who still do not have an emergency plan.

Federal Signal, a maker of public communications equipment and systems, recently announced the results of its 2010 Public Safety survey, done in partnership with Safe America Foundation and Zogby International, to reveal Americans’ attitudes and preferences in emergency situations.

The survey, of 2,020 adults, showed that Americans are most fearful of an emergency taking place in an airport (60 percent), followed closely by some form of mass transit (52 percent). And surprisingly, half of Americans want to be notified of an emergency by the old fashioned yet trusty telephone or TV. Below are excerpts of my conversation with Wilson. Now I’m going to draw up an emergency plan.

Three in five Americans are most concerned about emergencies involving a natural disaster or terrorist attack. How has this changed over the years?

Unfortunately these things go in waves. You could start back in the Cold War, and we have these various events, working backwards—some of the flooding we’ve recently had, Katrina, the tsunami in 2004, then you’d go to 9/11, Three Mile Island, Oklahoma City, Mt. St. Helens eruption. They all add up. Some are manmade disasters and some are natural. But as they get into the press and the national dialogue, there’s more attention given to them.

Some of the respondents’ fears are about going to places like airports or shopping malls. Is that affecting their behavior?

We didn’t ask that question. Certainly we saw it right after 9/11—people traveling a lot less. You saw what happened in England an Spain, and the public transportation terrorist attacks there. I haven’t read anything abut ridership being down. It would be hard to say. Air passenger volume is back almost to previous levels. I think it’s more affected by the economy than by anything else. With air travel I don’t think it has changed behavior too much.

What surprised you about the findings?

The first thing that took us back, with all the communication layers out there, we thought texting was going to come out much higher--it was only 18 percent. Traditional telephone and television were almost tied at about 26 percent each. That really surprised us, with all the talk about social media.

The other surprise was that [respondents] put airport security at the top of their list of places they thought were most at risk now. With all the enhanced security there, personally I think airports are some of the safest places you can be these days. It just goes to show how 9/11 still resonates with people.

The last major surprise was how many people didn’t know what their local community had in place in terms of emergency notification systems. We’re in this business, so I know exactly what my community’s notification system is.

So what does your community do? I have no idea what mine does.

We have a siren system. It’s about 20 years old, so it’s not exactly state-of-the-art. I live in a community of about 16,000 people. You’re supposed to go inside, turn on your TV, and they’ll tell you why the sirens are going off and what to do next. In the case of a tornado, it’s usually followed by a weather warning.

So from this survey, how will you alter your R&D?

We manufacture outdoor sirens, and we also have a texting and telephone software-based messaging product. Our sense of urgency in driving the software-based products are a little less now. It won’t stop us from investing in either one.

We bought a company with a text and email-based system specifically because of what we saw in the marketplace—the way people were communicating was changing. Since we know the siren side of things very well, we were spending much more of our time on the software piece of the solutions. I think now we will strike a more balanced approach on both systems.

My parents are a great example. They have cell phones, but they don’t keep them on. They have them in the car, just in case, but they are not texting. For a certain part of the population you need more traditional approaches.

One of the things Safe America talks about during an emergency is, “Text, don’t talk.” They want people to text because it takes up much less bandwidth. Like I would text “r u ok?” to keep things simple and fast.

I think multi communications layers are important. Sirens will always be part of a communications network. This new technology makes things more complicated because the emergency managers have to figure out how to spread their budgets across multiple layers.

What did you personally learn from the survey?

A couple months ago, my wife and I were watching television, and a message comes across the screen with a tornado warning. We looked outside, and it was perfectly clear. Then we realized we were watching something on TiVo. It struck me that the very technology that is making my life easier—and able to watch television shows on my own schedule--is also making things more complicated, if I’m depending on my television as my priority method of being notified in an emergency. It really goes to show you need multiple ways of getting the message out to people.

What can the industry learn from the survey, and what needs to be done next?

There has to be a national dialogue about this subject. There are some things that are pretty simple to do--like having an emergency plan with your family. We have fire drills in our building here in Chicago every quarter, for our 650 employees. But how many people have fire drills in their houses?

The pet part is also interesting. Sixty-some percent of Americans have pets. [And among respondents who have an emergency plan, two-thirds have their pets in their preparedness plan.] As a pet owner I was struck by the number of people during Katrina that wouldn’t leave their house without their pets. I don’t think many of the shelters and emergency people have thought about that.

These emergency managers—are they mostly employed by the towns and cities?

The last survey we did, we spent time learning more about emergency managers, and it’s very much a diverse group of people. Larger towns have a dedicated person. When you get into smaller municipalities, it might even be the fire chief. In many cases the emergency managers tend to be part-time employees or they might be volunteers. Each town is different, and I’m sure much of it is budget driven.

The survey showed fewer than half of American households have an emergency plan. Is that not a surprise?

I lived in California, and to be prepared for earthquakes, it was not only knowing what to do, but also following the instructions from the municipalities. After I moved there I got a welcome package from the state with instructions on what to do in case of an earthquake. They are very regimented about it. That’s the biggest thing I came away with—the significance of the job the emergency managers have in educating the public. In some cases they will have one message of what to do in an emergency for the school kids, one for adults and maybe a different one for the seniors. But from the results, it seems that a lot of people didn’t even have an emergency kit on hand.

What emergency are you most worried about, personally?

I’ve been with Federal Signal for 23 years. My family is well prepared. If I’d answered the survey, I'd answer the question about the next target by with “public transportation,” understating what targets are most vulnerable and would have the most visceral impact. That is the goal of any terrorist attack—not only to create a lot of damage but also to create a lot of fear.

At Federal Signal we do a lot of work with warning and evacuation systems with industries, and I think that’s an area that should be of concern because it’s vulnerable to certain types of attacks. Chemical plants or refineries are obvious targets.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards