U.S. Citizens: The First Line of Defense

Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the U.S. government made numerous political, economic, and structural changes to provide greater protection for the nation as a whole. Among the most important of those changes were the actions taken to: (a) establish the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – and that department’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA); and (b) reorganize the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as part of a broader program to better protect the U.S. homeland from additional and possibly even more damaging attacks in the foreseeable future.

Of almost equal importance is the fact that billions of dollars allocated by Congress have been invested in interoperable communications, alternate care facilities, and fusion centers. In addition, state and local police departments across the nation have created their own homeland security departments to combat terrorism within their communities. Obviously, considerable progress has been made, but all of those actions combined and billions of dollars spent still may not be enough.

Changing Criticism Into Action

The numerous post-9/11 initiatives taken over the last decade have significantly altered the daily routines of most Americans – particularly those who have gone through the much enhanced security screening at U.S. airports and numerous sports arenas. However, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Irene in 2011, as well as numerous other disasters, served as sharp reminders that increased security checks and greater vigilance by the nation’s first responders will probably provide greater protection for the nation as a whole.

Recent history has amply demonstrated that: (a) various political entities can improve security significantly; but (b) government actions alone are not enough. Regardless of improved surveillance, enhanced communications, and other technological advances, individual citizens – particularly those living or working in or near a disaster site – are the real first line of response and should, in practice as well as in policy, be an integral part of effective preparedness planning.

All citizens – not only those who volunteer to serve in a local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and/or who have already prepared and have quick access to three-day family emergency-supply kits – have enormous responsibilities in building domestic preparedness and for that reason must stay fully informed of their potential roles on the front line of preparedness, response, and recovery. As was learned during Hurricane Katrina, total reliance on government agencies during major emergencies is not always the most effective approach.

The nation’s federal, state, and local governments have a responsibility to be ready at all times to cope with both manmade and natural disasters. It is sometimes forgotten, though, that part of that responsibility consists of preparing the American people at large for situations when first responders are unable to reach and/or rescue everyone during or immediately following a catastrophe.

Those who have carefully stored enough provisions and emergency kits to care for their own families, neighbors who are willing and are accustomed to helping one another in times of crisis, everyday citizens who report suspicious activity – all are or should be powerful components of a “whole-community” approach that would substantially enhance domestic security and free up valuable resources for use elsewhere. Although some nations have a more widespread response system, the type of activities and plans that individual citizens should understand and implement is fairly universal. Personal preparedness has many commonalities that exist across different political, economic, and social divides. However, if local residents do not understand their individual roles in helping to build local preparedness – and/or fail to plan for disastrous contingencies within their own communities – no sudden outpouring of government-controlled resources will be sufficient when a major catastrophe does occur.

An increased focus on personal preparedness will help emergency managers significantly. For example, an unattended bag is found at an airport terminal. The passenger who (unintentionally, in most situations) left the bag has by his or her negligence undermined local security initiatives, and used up valuable resources. Clearing the area, sequestering and examining the bag, and ensuring that it does not contain an explosive or infectious substance, not only wastes the valuable time and material resources of law enforcement responders but can also desensitize those who witness the scene. Such false alarms could quickly lead to a general indifference the next time unattended luggage is found, and that indifference could have deadly results.

The lesson is clear. Fear and paranoia are counterproductive, and for that reason alone situational awareness should be exercised by all citizens rather than being the exclusive responsibility of professional responders. Slogans such as DHS’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign and the clever “Zombie Preparedness” program promoted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are more than mere gimmicks but, rather, calls to action – on the part of all citizens.

Personal Continuity of Operations

One fundamental requirement assigned to U.S. government organizations by presidential directive is that they develop and promulgate their own Continuity of Operations (COOP) plans to ensure that all departments and agencies will be able to continue their essential functions regardless of the type of event or incident that occurs. Such plans would be used to respond to all types of hazards across the full spectrum of potential disasters: natural, man-made, technological, and national-security emergencies.

Similar plans do not have to be developed by individual citizens, but there are certain aspects of such plans that translate easily into the personal preparedness domain. The most important aspect is ensuring that each person takes at least some degree of responsibility for his/her own preparedness – and, by doing so, helps reduce the overall burden on first responders (who can then focus more attention on those who are unable and/or unwilling to help themselves).

Similar to COOP plans, proactive government efforts like the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) “Ready” campaign persuade American citizens at large to help in determining: (a) the essential functions assigned to each family member in times of disaster; (b) ways to ensure the continuance of those essential functions and necessities (food, shelter, power, education, healthcare, etc.) during an emergency; and (c) various contingency plans (e.g., designating alternate sites that can be used for housing when homes are temporarily inhabitable). By promoting concise, yet flexible, emergency plans spelling out a few basic procedures with which all family members should be comfortable, maintaining order will be easier and compliance will be greater during and after a disaster.

Throughout the United States, the emergency services systems available are, for the most part, both effective and efficient. Somewhat surprisingly, though, that efficiency raises additional concerns. For many Americans, it is almost unthinkable that they might someday have to call for help and no one would be able to reach them (or even to hear the call in the first place). The assumption that the help needed will somehow, some way, almost automatically, be quickly available not only leads to complacency but also creates yet another daunting challenge for emergency managers. Proactive measures should be taken well ahead of time to ensure that families, individual citizens, and entire communities are as prepared as possible to take action, to protect both themselves and their families, in the immediate aftermath of a sudden emergency.

Brochures and other information literature about personal preparedness kits should be written, promoted and publicized, and made readily available, in both print and broadcast form, covering such essential topics as: potential hazards; the location of local police and fire departments; local shelter information (for pets as well as humans); the assistance available to meet the medical needs of all family members; and even provide advice and assistance on a number of legal and financial matters. The distribution and use of such plans would not only benefit the “properly prepared” families during and after a disaster, but also would enhance the reach and effectiveness of the community’s trained first responders.

The National Capital Region Approach

The National Capital Region (NCR) – comprised of Washington, D.C., and the surrounding counties and cities in Maryland and Virginia – has undertaken numerous initiatives in order to enhance citizen preparedness. By using a series of focus groups representing the numerous jurisdictions involved, the NCR leadership started by defining the risks faced by constituents of the various locales and communities within the Region. The findings and information developed were then used to create a series of public service announcements that are released each year during National Preparedness Month (since September 2006).

The NCR’s website now provides a wealth of information to enhance personal preparedness. One example is the “Be Ready, Make a Plan” project, which contains a helpful template for developing a preparedness plan at home, as well as a link that allows residents to sign up for Capitalert, which transmits emergency alerts (via text or email) and can also be accessed through Twitter. The FEMA Office of National Capital Region Coordination has also developed resources to assist federal employees in the development of their at-home preparedness measures. These and other materials provide detailed in-depth information on the types of issues that employees should consider in protecting their homes. The materials were written specifically for federal employees, but anyone else who lives or works in the NCR or nearby areas would find the content useful.

Many other jurisdictions have taken at least some steps to improve the “home preparedness” of local residents, but there are several unique aspects of the NCR’s approach that are still worth studying. First, the NCR used focus groups to target the risks and threats faced by all residents of the various communities in and around the nation’s capital. Second, although the materials included on the NCR website are based on the use of an all-hazards approach, they also identify specific risks particularly relevant to the NCR community at large – incidents or attacks involving the greater Washington, D.C., Metro system, for example; severe winter storms; and chemical or biological attacks. Finally, the alert mechanism now in place allows users not only to access the information available through myriad avenues but also, if and when necessary, to limit the overall volume and types of information received. The concept of using multiple outlets for information – while at the same time preventing the user from being overwhelmed with too much information too fast – makes the NCR system uniquely effective, particularly in and around the nation’s capital.


For additional information on:

FEMA Office of National Capital Region Coordination, visit https://www.fema.gov/about/offices/national-capital-region​

FEMA’s Ready campaign, visit http://www.Ready.gov

Vernon Herron

Vernon Herron has more than 35 years of experience in public safety and law enforcement. For the past seven years, he served as Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Public Safety and Director of Homeland Security in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Prior to assuming that post he served for more than 27 years in the Maryland Department of State Police, where he commanded the Violent Crime Strike Force before retiring in the rank of Major. He holds an M.S. in Management from Johns Hopkins University and a B.S. in Criminal Justice from the University of Maryland, University College. He also graduated from the FBI’s National Academy.

Michael Vesely

Michael Vesely is a certified instructor of COOP, Incident Command Systems (ICS), and other DHS homeland security courses. He led the team responsible for rewriting the Homeland Security Strategic Plan for the National Capital Region, and also worked as a planner for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research. He holds a J.D. degree from the University of Maryland School of Law and currently plays a leading role on economic security issues in the University of Maryland’s Center for Health & Homeland Security.



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