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5 Things to Consider When Engaged in Disaster Preparedness Planning

A two-lane road with a giant hole, caused by a landslide, in the middle of the road.

June 20, 2017

It was in the shadow of recent terror attacks that panelists at the 2017 Chicago Forum on Global Cities convened to discuss what cities can do to prepare for natural and unnatural disasters. The latest, a pedestrian attack on the U.K.’s London Bridge, revealed London’s preparation for events like this, a response credited with saving lives as the police stopped the terrorists within eight minutes of the start of the incident.

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What can city leaders learn from this act and countless others that have occurred around the world? R. David Paulson, former FEMA Director and UL Board of Trustees member, offered the following disaster preparation advice to city leaders:

  • Continuously review preparation and response plans while keeping an eye on the future--What is the worst case scenario? How are shifting conditions changing future predictions? Do plans need to adapt to these changes? A good plan prepares for both known (i.e. hurricane) and hidden hazards (levees breaking during the storm).


  • Build resilience into the design--”Exercises are so scripted it does not show where the weaknesses are,” explains Paulson, who encourages leaders to develop exercises that challenge responders, allowing both people and processes to adapt, not break. “Train better, process better,” he concludes.


  • Involve leaders in training exercises--Often, the lead person does not participate in preparation exercises, making it difficult for tough decisions to be made during a crisis. Giving leaders an active role can prepare them for a rapidly changing situation and the number of decisions to be made during an event. As Paulson points out, “What you know changes minute by minute and the people involved in making the call need to be prepared for an event’s complexity and shifting demands."


  • Build cooperation and communication at both the regional and national level—If a substation goes down, it can affect areas greater than a city’s boundaries. The magnitude of an event often varies, requiring coordination between several authorities. The time to build out the coordination process is before an event occurs.


  • Prepare people for a disaster--Focus on how people can protect themselves in the event of a critical situation. “Say yes, and this is what you do to prepare yourself and your family in the event of one,” advises Paulson. Additionally, residents need to be aware of the area’s disaster preparations without knowing all the details. Encourage residents to prepare their own emergency plans while communicating just enough information to reassure the public that their leaders are also prepared in the event of an emergency.