Volume 75, Number 17 | September 14 - 20, 2005

Civilians are learning about emergency preparedness

By Caitlin Eichelberger

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
David Gershon, C.E.O. and founder of the Empowerment Institute, speaking in The Cooper Union’s Wolman Auditorium last week, informed local residents about how to organize their buildings for emergency response.
While a fellow American city suffers from a major disaster, and as the anniversary of 9/11 passes, some New Yorkers are thinking more seriously about preparing for an emergency.

All Together Now, a household emergency preparedness program coordinated by the New York City Office of Emergency Management, drew double the usual crowd to The Cooper Union’s Wolman Auditorium for its final information session last week. The program, aiming to empower New York City residents to take the practical steps necessary to be prepared for any emergency, will train over 200 preparedness leaders by the end of the month, and pending renewed funding, it may make its way to even more Villagers’ blocks.

In its second phase of implementation, All Together Now is currently conducting a citywide demonstration by training concerned residents as team leaders. These leaders work to establish a preparedness team in their building through hosting four biweekly meetings with their neighbors. Being a team leader is a two-hour-per-week commitment over six months. Together the team works to prepare for emergencies of varying scales. For individuals not interested in a leadership role, there is an abridged household program, and for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and the disabled, a mentoring program is also available.

Although there will be no more team leader training sessions, all training and team-building materials, as well as those necessary for individual households, can be found online. The materials break down the preparation process by streamlining the necessary steps into 32 specific actions for residents of an individual building to complete. Most actions are presented in a form similar to a recipe, easing participants into the process. Most items recommended, like a survival blanket and a KWIK cook stove, can be found at stores like Campmor. However, the actions aren’t simply a shopping list; others include establishing a communication plan and considering management of children and pets.

The Empowerment Institute, a consulting and training organization specializing in the methodology of empowerment, originally designed the program for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1999 as a Y2K precaution. When O.E.M. partnered with the institute in 2003 as part of its Ready New York campaign, the program found a new objective. The institute’s strategy is to network with neighbors and to foster self-reliance.

"The key to preparedness is each other because if I've done everything and my neighbors have done nothing, I am not prepared," said David Gershon, C.E.O. of Empowerment Institute "We can't do this by ourselves, we really do need each other. It's about neighbors helping neighbors."

Twenty-five years of behavior studies has influenced the design of the materials. The studies identify ways to propel people into action and away from the hypothetical. “The [intention] is to get people to move from ‘I should be doing something,’ to doing it," Gershon said.

Results of the pilot program, from May 2004 to February 2005, suggest the materials do encourage action in New York City residents. Twenty-nine households participated in the pilot to develop five teams in three buildings. All completed the program. After the first cycle of phase two in the spring, the program is implemented in 41 buildings and blocks over all boroughs and at various stages of implementation. Following this month’s training, which is booked with more than twice the number of participants than were in the spring training, the program could potentially be established in another 200 buildings.

At the information session, Gershon recalled the August 2003 Northeast blackout to remind attendees of the reality of emergency.
"Imagine if that had happened for a week," Gershon said. "If you had the classic hand-to-mouth lifestyle of many New Yorkers you would not be in good shape."

According to surveys conducted since 9/11, a majority of New York residents are not suitably prepared for an emergency of a similar or even smaller degree. A Red Cross survey from 2003, for example, found that 80 percent of New Yorkers had done nothing to prepare for an emergency and the remaining 20 percent had only done a few actions to be prepared. A more recent O.E.M. survey showed some improvement, finding that 65 percent of New York residents have done nothing but that one-third have taken some precautions, though not enough.

The trend towards preparedness appears to continue. Myra Cappas, chairperson of the Community Board 3 Public Safety Committee, said she was encouraged by the turnout of over 50 residents from the C.B. 3 district, many of whom attended from the fringes of the district.

"People are becoming aware, and we finally have gotten them to pay attention and to do something about it; so it's a proactive movement at this point instead of a reactive one," Cappas said. Cappas will participate in the upcoming leadership training along with 15 of last week’s attendees.

Peter Opperman, an Upper West Side resident, attended the previous leadership training held in April. He brought the program to his building and said he was “blown away” by his neighbors’ response.

"I thought this was kind of a weird thing to go knocking on people’s doors," Opperman said. "But the neighbors were so thirsty for the knowledge and to reconnect with other neighbors."

When Opperman held the first meeting, seven of the other nine residents in his brownstone participated.

Despite Opperman’s success, some at last week’s informational session had hard questions for Goshen, citing communication and indifference as two major obstacles not addressed in the program.

Gershon said one should not to be daunted by the size of one’s building because often large buildings with a lot of residents are the ones most eager because “they see themselves as the most at risk.”

The largest residence in the pilot program was a co-op apartment building at 303 W. 66th St., and Goershon said response and participation was positive.

Aside from issues of communication to a large number of people, others were concerned with communication to a large number of non-English speaking families. Gershon said some leaders have recruited translators to address the problem. The materials, he added, are now available in Spanish.

Elaine Abse, who lives on Sixth Ave., said she has too many “yuppies” in her building who are uninterested in emergency preparedness. She said she was alarmed by the reaction of her neighbors when she brought up the subject of training.

“They were very frightened,” she said. “They would turn away from the topic. Some would ask, ‘Will it be fun?’”

Gershon said not to expect 100 percent participation.

"We think we can make it with on-third of a building," Gershon said.

The third phase begins next spring and involves training team leaders as program managers who will expand the program. All Together Now awaits renewed funding from Senator Hillary Clinton, who previously requested the congressional appropriation in support of the initiative. The institute has high expectations of receiving the funds, and should know the funding status by November.

New York City serving as a national model for civilian emergency preparedness is the institute’s ultimate goal for the program.

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