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Who Should Do What: The Role of Citizens, Government, and Nongovernmental Organizations in a Disaster

Community Conversation, Hosted by the Ashland University Center for Civic Life on June 16, 2014.

The Ashland County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency and Medical Reserve Corps Unit 1181/Ashland County-City Health Department invited public input into their updated disaster plan. About 15 people attended a public forum to discuss the topic. Before the Community Conversation, citizens were interviewed to ask their opinion on the roles of the different groups. The following is a compilation of ideas generated at the June 16, 2014, meeting and the ideas hear during 30+ interviews. Examples of nongovernmental organizations would be Red Cross and Salvation Army.

What Should Be the Role of Government in a Disaster?

The role of EMA
• They should be the go-to-person/agency who takes the lead in a disaster

The role of law enforcement

• To tell/communicate to the citizens what should be done.
• Protect property from looting
• Clear roads
• Keep order

The role of the fire department

• To provide heat, food, shelter, and oxygen

What can or should be done in advance:

1) Teach people in advance how to respond and follow up with drills. Training agencies include the health department, the police department, the fire department, and national weather service. Local plans are necessary, because roads cannot be depended on.
2) Teach people who is in charge of each group and whom to call in an emergency.
3) Each agency should have a plan, and they need to practice and train constantly. They need to train all citizens how to respond according to the plan. They should train volunteers with extra training so that they can help to lead emergency response.
4) Agencies’ plans should be communicated among all groups.
5) Teach people about resources: what the government agencies do on a daily basis and what they will and will not do in an emergency. One suggestion included listing disaster plans and contacts in the Ashland Times Gazette’s “Ashland County Today-Community Guide.” (Ashland, OH) A page could be entitled “What to Do in a Disaster” and include where to go. Another suggestion is to have a Health and Safety Day for everyone, but to especially target vulnerable populations. A third suggestion was a mailing to every household.
6) Need to consider the transitory population of students at Ashland University.
7) Teach people how to receive aid, should they need it.
8) Build relationships with the community and responders.
9) Work on establishing communication lines that can be relied upon during a disaster.
10) Train children in schools. Schools should have disaster plans that include specific steps for every possible disaster. They should practice drills often.
11) Fire department has a list of people with special needs.
12) Determine emergency shelters (such as churches) and sources of food/water (such as grocery stores). Develop Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with these places. These places should maintain supplies (e.g. diapers, clothing, blankets, water, generator) so that they are prepared for an emergency.
13) Include an emergency shelter for pets.
14) Each person needs to have access to the county/city plans for emergencies.
15) Have mock disasters to train people. These should be by section, village, quadrant, neighborhood, etc.
16) Develop a Civil Defense Corps, such as were used during the world wars. This would provide ongoing training for volunteers and broaden the effectiveness of agencies in a disaster.

What should be done after the disaster:

1) An Emergency Operations Center (EOC) should be established and people need to be informed of where it is and what is the chain of command. People should be informed by way of multiple technologies: newspaper, radio, television, ham radio, texts, Twitter, Facebook, internet website, etc. Communication should be constant. People should be informed of what happened, how it happened, and what to do. Government should communicate to the public, to the state, and to the federal government (as appropriate).
2) Their primary role should be to fulfill their emergency plans.
3) Leaders should remain calm and do their best to keep people peaceful.
4) People in charge need to figure out the costs of the disaster.
5) Government will serve as an umbrella for activities that need to happen. They should coordinate local resources, agency personnel, and volunteers. Organization is key. They should also not impede the actions of other organizations, such as churches and citizen groups. They should make sure needs are being met without duplicating services.
6) Government should not overreach their services. That is, they should not do what they are not able to do. They should seek outside help (such as the Ohio Police Department Association or the state fire chief) if necessary, but only if local resources are exhausted. They should keep it local as long as possible because they know the area the best and are trusted by local people.
7) Teach people how to receive aid, should they need it.
8) Communication is critical. People need to know what to do, where to go, how to get help.
9) Be very clear about who should communicate to citizens.
10) Provide financial aid to rebuild infrastructure. Their goal should be to restore life back to normal as soon as possible.
11) The Medical Reserve Corps provides medical care in a disaster
12) Village and City Councils should be assigned areas and visit homes in that area.

Concerns expressed:

1) Citizens seem too willing to complain about response time.
2) Citizens show lack of willingness to talk about disaster planning. They need to participate in educational sessions and trainings.
3) Citizens are often unknowledgeable about their neighbors and their neighbors’ needs.

What Should Be the Role of Nongovernmental Organizations in a Disaster?

What can/should be done in advance:

1) Each agency should have a plan, train their personnel, and practice drills. They should also train citizens in how to respond according to the plan. They should have volunteers who are trained more and who can help to lead emergency response.
2) Agencies’ plans should be communicated among all groups.
3) Teach people about resources: what the NGOs do on a daily basis and what they will and will not do in an emergency.
4) Provide information as the disaster is approaching.
5) Agencies should each have a plan and train constantly.
6) Cultivate and train volunteers.
7) Teach people who is in charge of each group and whom to call in an emergency.
8) Need to have records of patients and people with special needs so that people can still get the correct treatment.
9) A radio station can be the center of communication, with a number to call with questions or a need for help.
10) 2-1-1 should be made known. They post emergency information, but not everyone knows this.

What should be done after the disaster:

1) Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) should be directed by governmental officials and assist the public wherever possible: identify needs and provide support. They need to work together; coordinate their activities; communicate clearly; and observe established rules.
2) Fill gaps in assistance.
3) Be a liaison between citizens and emergency services.
4) Provide restrooms and comfort areas for citizens in need. Provide generators.
5) Help the elderly and their pets.
6) Utility and insurance companies should follow through in a timely manner.
7) NGOs are very effective at the local level because they are objective and lacking in governmental politics. Disaster relief is most effective, efficient, and compassionate when delivered by local agencies and organizations.

Concerns expressed:

1) Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules regarding privacy.
2) Current lack of knowledge among the populace.

What should both Government and NGOs do?

1) Emergency infrastructure should include tornado sirens, weather channel, Red Cross, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Guard, Health Department.
2) Government and NGOs should provide the greatest good for the greatest number. They should not be expected to do for people what they can do for themselves.
3) Government and NGOs should work together for the health, safety, and security of citizens, doing such things as:

o Pre-emergency warnings
o Tend to medical needs first
o Law enforcement
o Martial law, should it be necessary
o Safety and health services
o Emergency shelters
o Emergency food and water
o Emergency command center
o Communications network between agencies (using generators to power network)
o Public communication via radio, tv, print, web
o Safe and orderly evacuations, including family pets
o Safe-guarding public utilities and public transportation
o Protecting property from looters

What Should Be the Role of Citizens in a Disaster?

What can/should be done in advance:

1) Clergy should go through disaster-preparedness training.
2) All citizens should go through instruction in preparedness for all different disasters and then follow-through on being prepared. They should know the county disaster plan and whom to turn to in an emergency.
3) They should pay attention to emergency warnings and stay aware of developing situations.
4) Parents need to prepare their children and practice drills with their families.
5) People should get to know their neighbors and their neighbors’ needs. They should keep an eye out all the time for their neighbors and their neighbors’ property.
6) Citizens should be responsible for their own preparation and be able to carry on, if possible, after a disaster. They should make sure that they have extra supplies in case of a disaster: nonperishable food, water, flashlights, battery-powered radio, extra batteries, candles, auxiliary power, blankets, first-aid kit, medications, generator, and money. They should know how to turn off the utilities in their homes.
7) Have gardens and save own food. Also be willing to share with others.
8) Build community.
9) Learn how to use a fire extinguisher. Check them every year.
10) Keep safety kits in their cars. They should include first aid and supplies for different kinds of emergencies.
11) Every business/organization/family should have a disaster plan and practice these.
12) Learn–and continue to update–skills in CPR and first aid.
13) They should pay taxes to fund services that people need, donate blood, and pray.

What should be done after the disaster:

1) Churches can participate in checking on their members.
2) Everyone should find a place to serve in a disaster. They should volunteer to help with disaster preparedness and relief.
3) People should check on their neighbors. They should take care of one another, feed pets, provide first aid. They should offer food and shelter to those in need.
4) People need to stay positive, good-natured, kind, cooperative, and peaceful.
5) Be aware of transportation limitations and roads that are impassable.
6) They should be be available to assist in any way that they are asked or directed to by government or NGOs. They should use their skills for assistance. For example, they can clear roads or assist fire fighters and safety services, but should do this only as directed within the chain of command.
7) Stay informed. Cooperate with agencies and comply with directions. For example, if there is an evacuation, they need to evacuate.
8) Report injuries, looting, etc. Take pictures with cell phone. Use weapons cautiously.
9) Citizens should be responsible and use common sense. They should not gawk; nor should they act as vigilantes. They should not impede rescuers’ actions. They should not put themselves at undue risk because, to do so, might mean risk to the responders.
10) Citizens are often the first on the scene. They should help their neighbors and do what they can to care for themselves, their families, and others, freeing resources for those with a greater need. Physical and emotional needs should be tended immediately.
11) Citizens should organize, determine needs, can communicate to government and NGOs. Natural leaders will emerge.
12) After the initial disaster, they can collect money and raise funds to help those who are in need.
13) Patients should be informed and assist where they can.

Concerns expressed:

1) Often people mistrust the government. They want the assistance but they don’t want to cooperate (think they are being bossed around).
2) People are complacent, thinking a disaster won’t happen or won’t happen again. They don’t seek education or training. They need to be prepared ahead of time.
3) People can and want to help during disasters but safety can be a factor.
4) People often don’t pay attention to alerts.
5) The Good Samaritan law helps to protect volunteers, yet people should not go beyond their training and ability to help. People are afraid that, if they help someone, they might be sued.


Patty Dineen (not verified)
Anonymous's picture
Thanks very much for sharing

Thanks very much for sharing this report. Very interesting and informative.

Almost my thoughts

I feel very strongly about this topic.. Especially experiencing the recent devastation flood of 2016.. I feel there's a way to let community volunteer ratio way up.. Especially the way us southerners have knowledge and resources to help in a crisis.. I feel It should start with law enforcement so to except individuals knowhow with out feeling belittle.. A army is better than just limited law enforcement..

Thinking Outside The Box On DRR And Disaster Preparation

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