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A decade after 9/11, focus on emergency preparedness

A decade after 9/11, focus on emergency preparedness

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The Safe America Foundation has launched a campaign to rally a million Americans to drill for preparedness in 2011. 'If we don't want another Twin Towers... or New Orleans, we need to practice drills on how to survive,' the CEO said. 'We can’t wait for FEMA.'

The Safe America Foundation has launched a campaign to rally a million Americans to drill for preparedness in 2011. The nonprofit organization’s president and CEO, Len Pagano, said many employers don’t understand their liability in terms of training workers for an emergency. Participating in a 15-minute drill, he said, can have far-reaching benefits.

I recently called Pagano at the foundation’s suburban Atlanta headquarters to talk about why practice prevents panic, and how we can be our own first responders.

You have a March to 1 Million campaign underway. Tell me how that works.

We’re very pleased that over the last two years we’ve engaged a collective 1.2 million people in Drill Down for Safety. As we saw the number increase over those couple years, we thought this year we could top a million. All 310 million Americas have a vested interest in our country’s safety, yet we’ve rallied very few people other than first responders.

We have a slogan: We think everyone needs to be their own first responder. In an emergency in the first 72 hours, people need to be responsible for themselves. Part of what we’re doing is helping people realize that they can do something to protect themselves and that they can survive. We can see ourselves through a lot of situations if we just don’t panic and if we practice—just like people do in sports or music.

September is National Preparedness Month. Working with Federal Signal, we’ve been educating people on simple things they can do, like learning to text—if the phone lines are jammed, you can try sending a text. We have a term for this—people should remember to, “Text first, talk second.”

I think most of us understand now what individuals can do to prepare, but what do you recommend for a business?

If they don’t have a continuity of business plan, we encourage them to create one. Each year we have a series of free webinars; we’ll be posting those starting in June. We offer free advice on what companies need to do legally for their employees and what will make an employee feel comfortable enough to leave their family and go to work in an emergency. If people aren’t comfortable their families are safe, they won’t go to work. So we try to point out to companies that they should have key employees identified in case of an emergency.

What grade would you give businesses today?

There are some companies that are very exemplary, and some have a long way to go. Part of the reason for our program is we still have too many companies with a long way to go. Some of it is cost--and something like funding for training gets cut off easily. But as the economy improves, we see this as an important step.

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is a perfect time. I think all of us will be reflecting on what happened 10 years ago. If we don’t want another Twin Towers incident or what happened in New Orleans, we need to practice drills on how to survive. We can’t wait for FEMA.

In terms of the content in the webinars—what do you think people would find most surprising?

We work with Dilworth Paxson, a law firm in Philadelphia. They are one of the expert firms we use, pro bono, for the webinar. Once you know something to do for your employees (or customers), if you don’t take action, you are liable. If there’s something you can do for them and you know about it, you can’t plead ignorance. It would be kind of like, you knew your employees needed certain training and you chose not to give it to them and that put them [at risk]. There should be a level of integrity, and employers should ask themselves, do I really know and have I taken the action I need to? Each year we realize there are a lot of employers that have no idea of their liability—for hurricane, tornadoes, earthquakes--not just a suicide bomber.

How are you tracking the million people participating in the preparedness drill?

We do it by state. We ask companies and individuals to pledge on our website to do the drill.

Is an annual drill enough practice?

It’s not enough, but it’s a good first step. But we’re trying to create a culture of readiness year-round, not just limited to September, and not just to the workplace. UPS has encouraged its employees to take the information home and to practice with their families. Verizon and Motorola are some others that have done a great job extending it to their employees and to their employees’ families.

There are so many different occasions when it would help us to be prepared—and most of us in our lifetimes will face some sort of disaster. Practice how kids would escape from a fire, practice being on a bike or in a car and knowing what to do in severe weather. Be prepared, not scared—that’s our motto.

We’re committed to using the whole 10th anniversary and March to 1 Million to help everyone recognize that disasters can be survived. The key is to know in advance what to do. There were some heroic stories out of Haiti where people who were not literate were able to use texting with pre-loaded messages to communicate that they were stuck. If they can do that there [with their infrastructure] then we can do better.

If businesses are concerned about the cost, how do you persuade them that this is a crucial investment—or that it won’t cost a ton?

Part of it is just putting certain policies in place. We say just start educating people. You can get most of the information for free online. And then we have drills people can execute in 15 minutes. Last year the New York Stock Exchange had 2,500 employees doing safety drills.

Usually when people go through some sort of an exercise they learn some efficiencies that have value back to the working environment. It’s like, who would have thought going to the moon would bring us Velcro and microwaves? It’s in that same vein that doing these drills may be beneficial beyond just the preparedness; you might not have a database of all the employees numbers, and once you put that together, you’ll have it for other purposes. It’s a simple thing. It’s not that a company has to write out a check to get started.


Click here to read my Q&A with Federal Signal about its 2010 Public Safety Survey: Most Americans still lack emergency plans, kits, know-how.

Click here to read my Q&A with the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness: Why Americans aren't prepared for the next mega-disaster.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure