What the 'Whole Community' Means to the Whole Community

Disaster response involves the whole community. To support a united effort, leaders must build a network of trust, establish a history and habit of cooperation, and learn the goals and vulnerabilities of stakeholders. By asking a few key questions, leaders can expand the sphere of their preparedness, response, and recovery efforts.

Because disasters involve the whole community and greater resilience results from optimizing use of all available resources, the whole community must be mobilized toward effective cooperative action. As seen time and time again when whole communities come together ‚Äď for example, in Joplin, Missouri, after the devastating tornados in 2011 ‚Äď to be effective during response and recovery, improvements in preparedness and mitigation are needed to prevent a potential disaster within a disaster. By coming together, localities can capitalize on the strengths of each stakeholder, who can thereby be a valuable contributor. Recently, significant efforts and attention have been leveraged to bring together resources ‚Äď including diverse nongovernmental agencies ‚Äď to¬†improve preparedness and response. To improve cooperation, aspects that would help or hinder effective cooperation and resource management must be considered. This becomes more of a challenge when considering the variation in¬†collaborating potentials, resources, and dynamics of private sector, faith-based, nonprofit, public, individual, and other entities that are involved in and make up the community, but they are essential in¬†building resilient communities.

One Community, One Goal

There are many potential obstacles to effective implementation of the ‚Äúwhole community‚ÄĚ approach, but they can be addressed with consideration of the key points that create a whole community. First, the system must be based on a network of trust. The stakeholders must beentified before a disaster strikes so that people are aware of who is involved, whom they should contact, and what resources are available through each of the contributing parties. These groups must be able toentify and trust each other, and they must be able to communicate effectively and efficiently, as well as to maintain¬†organization of actions. However, it may be less clear how to build these networks to engage and mobilize the community and to do so with limited funding.

The definition of leadership is that ‚Äúpeople follow you,‚ÄĚ but the question is, ‚ÄúWhy?‚ÄĚ Leaders who demonstrate goal orientation with the same values and concerns of their constituents would have their trust: If leaders share a goal, they are more inclined to work cooperatively because trust emerges from knowing that their interests do not compete. Therefore, the power and resources that one cooperating group has become an asset to an in-group instead of a threat.

Second, leaders must demonstrate an aptitude such that their leadership can be trusted. These factors contribute to the establishment of a history and habit of cooperativity. However, these successes and this habit must be established before a crisis when it is needed. Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative’s description of the Boston Marathon bombing response provides an example of how this has been implemented effectively and a more in-depth analysis of the aspects of cooperation that contributed to its success. Crises highlight the need for collaborative action, but uncontrolled variables and feelings of threat could lead to a breakdown of a cooperative system that is not well-honed.

Third, learning each stakeholder’s goals and vulnerabilities is key to the establishment of this system. Speaking with and listening to the contributors to the whole community bring leaders back in touch with the interests and concerns of their constituents, and also demonstrate the care that underlies goal sharing and trust networks.

The limitation of funding also seems to be a limitation on the capacity of the whole community approach. However, it could be exploited as a potential strength: When individuals are given extrinsic reward, it diminishes the intrinsic drive and intrinsic reward. Instead, the driver is encouraging people to help other people rather than the extrinsic reward of money, which also introduces competition and quantification of resources that can encourage social comparison and diminish generosity and cooperation. The effect of money can be outweighed by compensatory value from intrinsic reward or by secondary gains ‚Äď such as improved local reputation of businesses.

Bringing People Together

Many initiatives have been undertaken to increase involvement of nongovernment groups, resulting in the promising successes seen in the integration of community resources during federal responses. The response in Joplin is an example of how the whole community came together with large amounts of volunteers, private sector companies, nonprofits, and all levels of government to help the city recover and rebuild. However, these efforts toward inclusion must be more extensive to truly capitalize on community resources. For instance, private sector companies including large chain establishments are valuable contributors to community resilience, but the effects would be more expansive if smaller businesses were also effectively involved.

Similarly, the whole community of affected persons is not limited to area businesses and organizations, but is actually every individual who is part of the community. Significant efforts should challenge innovators to bring everyone together and to forge a true whole community. The following questions expand this sphere:

  • Who is missing from consideration?

  • How do we bring people who are not there to the table by engaging them and their values?

  • How do we work with novel contributors, such as new technology startups and unrepresented faith-based communities, instead of relying only on those who already contribute?

Interdisciplinary teams and innovative solutions are required for complex problems, but leaders still must continually ask the right questions to forge an inclusive approach that brings out the best in the community.

Richard Serino

Richard Serino, is a distinguished visiting fellow at Harvard School of Public Health, National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) 8th deputy administrator in October 2009 and served until 2014. He responded to over 60 national disasters while at FEMA. During Super Storm Sandy, he was the lead federal area commander for New York and New Jersey. Prior to his appointment as deputy administrator, he spent 36 years at Boston Emergency Medical Services, where he became chief and oversaw 35 mass causality incidents. He also served as the assistant director of the Boston Public Health Commission. He is currently a senior advisor for numerous organizations such as Airbnb and the MIT Urban Risk Labs. He attended Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Senior Executives in State and Local Government program, completed the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (a joint program of the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government), and graduated the Executive Leadership Program, Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Jennifer Grimes

Jennifer Grimes, B.A., M.A., is a medical student at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University. Previously, she was: an intern at Harvard University, National Preparedness Leadership Initiative; the research coordinator for Harvard Faculty Physicians Fellowship in Disaster Medicine, an affiliated fellowship of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative; a clinical research assistant at Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging; as well as a research assistant at Harvard University Psychology Department’s Systems Neuroscience of Psychopathology Lab and at the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab.



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