Why People Don’t Plan for an Emergency

A majority of households are unprepared for an emergency, according to Statistics Canada

As emergency management professionals know, having an emergency preparedness plan in place is positively correlated to the speed and quality of recovery.

Efforts to improve public preparedness in Canada has included messaging from Public Safety Canada, provincial/territorial emergency management agencies and municipalities. South of the border, FEMA maintains preparedness resources and situational fact sheets to assist U.S. residents. Messaging is repeated on social media platforms and in other online arenas people tend to congregate. 

Yet – despite the ubiquity of resources available, 2014 statistics show that a majority of Canadian households are unprepared for an emergency situation. To account for survey methodology and response bias, similar studies were undertaken in the United States, Australia and Scotland. All produced similar results. 

Despite the obvious benefits of having a personal preparedness plan in place, why do so few households actually have a preparedness plan in place? This question was studied in a January 2020 article by Junghwa Choi and Wesley Wehde in the Journal of Risks, Hazards and Crisis in Public Policy

According to Choi and Wehde in studying U.S. residents, the trust of an individual towards the emergency authority may have a strong bearing on their cooperation with emergency preparedness recommendations. The trust of the emergency authority is closely linked to trust levels in government overall, according to public administration scholars.

A possible explanation for this may be rooted in social science. Social proofing, by Robert Cialdini in his 1984 book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion explains the tendency for individuals, when unable to determine the appropriate behaviour, to rely on surrounding people for information. The theory of social proof is driven by an assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the current situation, whether they actually do or not. 

In the obvious uncertainty surrounding an emergency, senior officials responsible for emergency management would be wise to understand and incorporate six principles of influence in promoting emergency preparedness plans. These principles, and their relation to emergency management practise, will be discussed in depth in a future post. 

How does your agency or organization promote preparedness? How do you measure and track whether your constituents have an emergency preparedness plan in place?