Does Trust Matter in Managing Emergencies?

When emergencies occur — hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, wildfires, winter storms, pandemics, terrorism, hazmat spills, radiation leaks, and more – people expect government to act. Emergency managers at all levels must move quickly and effectively to protect life and property. And to do so, they need something that is increasingly scarce: the public’s trust.

Many observers believe we live today in an era of mistrust. Poll after poll has chronicled the continuing decline of trust for our major institutions, especially the public sector. In its most recent “Trust in Government” survey, the Pew Research Center found that “By almost every conceivable measure Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days.” Building on previous surveys, the 2010 report found that half of the population continues to believe government runs its programs inefficiently; that there has been a sharp increase in the last decade in people believing that government has the wrong priorities; and that the number of people who believe the federal government has a negative effect on their day-to-day lives has also increased (to 43%).

Why should this concern emergency managers? Does mistrust of government and other institutions matter when it comes to protecting the public?

Stay or go?

While first responders are the ones we rely on to take action following a disaster, being prepared requires that people know what preventative measures they can take before an emergency occurs. And during an event they need to understand, accept, and follow protective action instructions from officials, including whether to shelter in place or evacuate. Yet three years after Hurricane Katrina, a survey by the Harvard School of Public Health[i] found that, despite the well-publicized destruction of that terrible storm, a sizeable number of people living in high-risk hurricane areas said they would not evacuate due to a major storm if government officials said they had to leave. Nearly one in four (23%) Katrina-affected respondents and 28% of other high risk area respondents would stay in their homes.

Deciding to either stay or leave where you during a disaster can be a hard decision. Trusting local emergency management officials to make the right protective action decision requires a leap of faith. Clear, understandable and frequent instructions that are accepted by the public may make the difference between safety and injury. This can be especially challenging in diverse communities where warning messages need to be delivered in multiple languages and venues.

Is it getting warmer?

Evidence continues to mount that increasingly volatile weather patterns will pose added challenges for emergency management: more intense storms, increased flooding, greater wildfire potential, declining water supplies, and sea-level rise. More and more scientists and emergency managers – including the National Academy of Sciences[ii] and the National Emergency Managers Association[iii] – think we need to be paying attention to these risks and planning accordingly. Yet a major barrier to action is that climate change is a controversial and highly contentious issue that continues to divide people. Can we believe, and trust, what we are hearing from government in this ongoing debate? While evidence regarding climate volatility may seem clear, real change in how we prepare for these expected hazards won’t occur until we hear the same information from multiple sources that we find credible.

Can we work together?

Events over the last several months remind us how interrelated government and private sector response needs to be during a major disaster such as the BP oil spill.  Public-private partnerships in emergency management are more important than ever, especially given that, according to Department of Homeland Security estimates, 85% of the critical infrastructure in the United States is privately-owned. Quick and effective response following an event requires joint planning and exercises, sharing of resources and information, and transparency to the public. Hampering these efforts is the public’s continued wariness of business, fueled by recent events in the financial and energy sectors and allegations of lax oversight by regulatory agencies. Working to reduce mistrust of both business and government is essential to ensure that public-private collaboration in emergencies is accepted and supported, and that it works.

What do you think? From where you sit, is trust important for emergency management? What gets in the way? And how can we work to build, and maintain, a culture of trust?


Author: Mark Scott, Manager of Critical Infrastructure

[i] “In Florida, Turning a Blind Eye to Hurricanes,” New York Times, August 16, 2008.

[ii] “Adapting to the Impacts of Future Climate Change.” National Academy of Sciences, Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, 2010.

[iii] Remarks by David Maxwell, President of the National Emergency Managers Association, to the CSEPP/KY Emergency Management conference, Louisville, KY, June 23, 2010.