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Whole Community: A Government-centric Approach for Emergency Preparedness

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The inevitability of change has become the one constant of modern community life (Plodinec, Edwards, & White, 2014). Some changes can be anticipated such as natural disasters but others such as terrorism and random violence cannot be. Both natural and human-caused disasters have become more common and more severe (Sobelson, Wigington, Harp, & Bronson, 2015). What distinguishes the successful and resilient communities from those that are un-successful when these changes occur? It is those communities ability to engage all members of the community to prepare for emergencies instead of one facet or another. This uniting of the community as a whole is known as the Whole Community concept.

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As natural disasters are often local events, local organizations and individuals are critical in responding to them (Hagar, 2014). Some research has been completed around how the Whole Community concept can be adapted into communities and how beneficial it is in those communities. This research has provided the ability for community resilience to create a well vetted playbook for enhancing community awareness. Whole Community also gives the communities an extensive long-term recovery and emergency development plans along with the increases likelihood of success after the natural disaster.

However less research has been completed in regards to how whole community is connected to the social classes within the community. In these areas individuals might not be able to help mitigate the disaster in the same ways others can. This would include those in the communities with disabilities, the youth and elderly along with those in a poverty based area with low incomes. These social subsets of the communities tend to be overlooked or passed over because it is not thought that they can be of assistance in the time of need. For a community to be successful and engaged in the mitigation and recovery processes all of these subsets need to coordinate and become part of the whole community.


The importance of social capital for disaster mitigation and resilience cannot be underestimated (Waugh & Liu, 2014). In 2001 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) created a “Whole Community” framework that outlines the need for individual preparedness and community engagement. The “Whole Community” concept aligns officials and their communities to understand the complexity, capabilities, and needs along with fostering relationships to foster local actions and leverage. Plodinec et al. (2014) states that the basic premise behind any Whole Community approach is relatively simple, if the whole community is going to be impacted by a disaster, then the whole community should be involved in planning to respond to and recover from disruptive events.

The Whole Commnuity approach defines three principles and six strategic themes (See Table 1) that are used to guide emergency management how to incorporate the approach. The principles and themes focus on understanding the communities needs by empowering community members to strengthen daily practices. The framework is not designed to be a “how-to” guide, but rather a starting point that may lead to further discussions on how to implement a whole community approach (Sobelson, Wigington, Harp, & Bronson, 2015). This forces emergency management agencies to learn how to let go of the control and micromanagement of the community activities. Once the agencies understand the need for this and start allowing for citizen participation, the creative flow of ideas will begin along with community ownership of solutions.

Engaging the “whole of community” in a comprehensive, genuine, and authentic way, while complex, can pay dividends in achieving community resiliency (Biedrzycki & Koltum, 2012). This is a focus driven engagement set to reduce community reliance on federal resources and encourage self-reliance in the face of a disaster.  Engaging the community entails more than just an invitation to discuss the community. Inclusion must acknowledge and emphasize community knowledge and other assets, as well as enact a truly collaborative process between all stakeholders (Biedrzycki & Koltum, 2012).


While a disaster does indeed threaten everything in its path, and for a brief period of time during and immediately following the event there is a loss of “culturally derived discriminations and social distinctions” disasters do not affect all members of society equally (Gill & Peek, 2004). Across the world individuals along with groups confront barriers that prevent them from fully participating in their political, economic, and social life. These groups can be excluded from the community through a number of practices ranging from stereotypes, stigmas, and superstitions based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, or disability status. This causes a sense of loss of dignity, security, and opportunity to live a better life. The moral imperative associated with social exclusion can become costly if not acted upon in a timely manner especially in the time of a national disaster or emergency situation.

The whole community concept offers the opportunity for providing accommodations and making adaptations to accommodate people with diverse backgrounds (e.g., linguistic/ethnic minorities, low socioeconomics, aging, and disability) by involving all constituent groups from initial planning through execution of the plan (Cripps, Cooper, & Austin, 2015). By adopting the above concept by government emergency management agencies will not only result in enhanced trust, but also a better calibrated response to catastrophic events. This will happen through better anticipation of community needs as well as availability and deployment of community assets when needed. Biedrzycki & Koltum (2012) stated an added benefit is the impact on resiliency and the ability of the community as a whole to mitigate the consequences of such events through more strategic coordination and collaboration across the whole of community sectors, disciplines and citizenry.

Community Resilience

Natural and man-made hazards have and continue to cause significant loss of life and property damage worldwide (Kapucu & Sadiq, 2016). Too often, the local emergency management system, which includes agencies managing the disaster preparedness, response, and recovery are not connected with the community before a disaster. Most definitions of resilience refer to the notion of rebound or bouncing back from distress. The concept of community resilience has evolved in the aspects of psychology and behavioral health as a means to continue functioning effectively when facing adversity to promote positive outcomes.

Communities are composed of built, natural, social, and economic environments that influence one another in complex ways (Norris, Stevens, Pfefferbaum, Pfefferbaun, & Wyche, 2007). To reduce community vulnerabilities to disasters and stem disaster-related losses, governments at all levels have begun to promote community resilience as a possible panacea (Kapucu & Sadiq, 2016). This has caused the concept of resilience to become a coined term within the academics, practitioners, government, and the general public. Effective community disaster resilience outcomes involve not only government agencies across all levels, but also multiple groups of non-governmental stakeholders such as non-profit organizations, faith-based groups, private sector organizations, individuals, families, and communities (Kapucu & Sadiq, 2016). Resilience initiatives and interventions are said to help improve mental and physical health, foster social wellbeing, and reduce inequitable health status for those traditionally excluded for social or economic reasons.


Identifying vulnerabilities and resilience will also allow us to identify social issues or trends that are not necessarily part of the narrow area of emergency management (Buckle, 1999). Social vulnerability is the resilience of the communities during external stresses from natural and human caused disasters or disease based outbreaks. Along with the social vulnerabilities there are also vulnerabilities associated directly with the disaster itself.

Disaster Vulnerability is socially constructed, i.e., it arises out of the social and economic circumstances of everyday living (Morrow, 1999). According to McEntire (2004), vulnerability is a product of inaccurate assumptions about disaster behavior and is related to race, gender, age, disability, etc.  These circumstances and assumptions place barriers between emergency management personnel and the citizens they are trying to help. These barriers tend to involve those living in poverty, the youth, elderly individuals, and those with disabilities. More importantly these categories of vulnerability are not obviously relevant to vulnerability and therefore disaster generated need and therefore protective and support services (Buckle, 1999).


Socioeconomic factors play a significant role in all areas of social life, including in disasters, as they, too, are social phenomenon (Gill & Peek, 2004). Lower income individuals around the world suffer the greatest from disaster losses because they have limited access to public and private recovery assets. This holds true in both developing societies as well as wealthy industrialized nations like the United States. Some research has revealed that low-income individuals have greater risk perceptions and lower socioeconomic status experience.  This produces heightened levels of risk perception caused by poorer people having little control over their lives, and holding little power in the world.

Typically, poor households recover more slowly and many never fully regain pre-impact levels, increasing their vulnerability to future hazards (Morrow, 1999). This is attributed to the poor typically living in poorly built and inadequately maintained housing. These houses are also typically located in vulnerable locations because of the cheaper land costs. Nearly every community has some residents that are totally vulnerable such as the homeless. These individuals typically do not have any form of protection from the emergency and normally loose what little they do have. After a disaster, as dislocated families vie for housing the previously homeless are even less likely to find a place to live and their numbers can be expected to grow (Morrow, 1999).


Adolescents tend either to be ignored as a target group during times of emergencies or to be conceptualized as passive victims or active security threats (Cahill, Beadle, Mitch, Coffey, & Crofts, 2010)  Adolescents are generally classified between toddlers, who are believed to be the moves vulnerable, and adults, who are deemed most capable. Adults often do not recognize the value of the adolescents’ views along with sometimes restricting them from access to information and opportunities to participate. This lack of participation causes them to be typically over looked during an emergency situation.

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While on one hand it is important to emphasize the vulnerability of children and adolescents and the requirement for protection and assistance, it is equally important to recognize their ability to form and express opinions, participate in decision-making processes and influence solutions (Cahill, Beadle, Mitch, Coffey, & Crofts, 2010). Education is a key role in preventing conflict in the future along with building lasting peace and stability by using it as a prevention mechanism in young individuals. Young people who participated in various risk management and risk reduction programs relating to emergency management have demonstrated better knowledge and understandings of mitigation and recovery projects.




The population’s age is a major demographic factor that plays an important part in emergency management planning. Between 1960 and 1994, the “oldest old” population increased 274% (Fernandez, Byard, Lin, Benson, & Barbera, 2002). The 2030 census forecasts that the older adults from the baby boom generation will account for 20% of the nation’s population up 13% from previous numbers (See Figure 1). Those who are twenty years of age do not have the same abilities, capabilities or needs as a seventy-five year old. The age of the members of the public will determine the necessary mitigation and recovery steps needed. A community with a larger population of elderly will require more evacuation transportation than that of a younger community. If the special needs of the frail elderly are not incorporated into emergency planning, resources may be overwhelmed and critical needs will not be met (Fernandez, Byard, Lin, Benson, & Barbera, 2002).

Figure 1: Older Population by Age

Most definitions of “frail elderly” focus on the health related conditions that limit the individual’s independence, and increase his or her need for assistance and dependency on others (Fernandez, Byard, Lin, Benson, & Barbera, 2002).  During an ongoing emergency situation the elderly are more likely to experience medical emergencies. Due to the age of the individuals these medical emergencies will be more serious as well as more demanding of medical resources and emergency personnel. The same resources needed for the elderly may be applicable to other similarly impaired special needs populations.


There is relatively little research or evaluation on the efficacy of preparedness efforts, particularly for those with disabilities (Engelman, Ivey, Tseng, Dahrouge, Brune, & Neuhauser, 2013). Victims, who are house-bound, socially isolated, or who have impaired mobility may be compromised in their ability to respond to and recover from disasters (Fernandez, Byard, Lin, Benson, & Barbera, 2002). These individuals can be reliant on regular medication, treatments, nursing care, or the provision of care and food from service or volunteer agencies. However these individuals can also have physical disabilities that would also compromise their ability to be helped or help during an emergency.

The needs of citizens with disabilities must be addressed by emergency personnel just as they are for any other group. The emergency manager must know how many blind or deaf people live in the local community and how they need to be communicated with. In particular, these communication barriers contribute to increased vulnerability in an emergency situation and present unique considerations for emergency responders (Engelman, Ivey, Tseng, Dahrouge, Brune, & Neuhauser, 2013). These individuals may very well miss local emergency notification messages, and may require special efforts to reach safety. Similarly, those with mental and physical challenges may require special evacuation assistance, shelter arrangements, or special medical support. Before the emergency manager can initiate any of programs to assist these individuals they need to analyze the size and nature of the citizen base with these barriers.

Community Relations

Unique communities require unique solutions to what can be complex planning models forwarded by emergency management agencies (Biedrzycki & Koltum, 2012). Government emergency management agencies must learn to let go of the need to control and micromanage community preparedness activities and instead find ways to incentivize citizen participation to ensure a creative flow of ideas during problem solving as well as enable community ownership of solutions (Biedrzycki & Koltum, 2012). Buckle (1999) stated that emergency managers can do nothing about age, they cannot make the old young, or the very young more mature. They cannot modify the values and behaviors of ethnic groups. They can do nothing about teaching the illiterate to read and write (Buckle, 1999). However, to accomplish the concept of Whole Community they need to recognize the barriers to the community engagement and effectively choose processes to circumvent them. Previously emergency preparedness education had overlooked certain groups that should not be neglected and need to be included as part of the whole community. These individuals can be an active citizen from the initial stages of emergency preparedness planning through recovery.


More exploration in the area of emergency preparedness involving the Whole Community concept holds the promise for a safe and inclusive future for all individuals no matter what your social level is. A stronger and more pre-emptive approach to public engagement in all aspects of emergency management will not only minimize the severity of health impacts on vulnerable communities, but also the economic, social and political consequences of an event and subsequently improve community resiliency (Ahmed, Biedrzycki, Opel, Nelson, Sandy, & Franco, 2010).


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  • Biedrzycki, P. A., & Koltum, R. (2012). Integration of Social Determinants of Community Preparedness and Resiliency in 21st Century Emergency Management Planning. he Journal of the NPS Center for Homeland Defense and Security.
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  • Engelman, A., Ivey, S. L., Tseng, W., Dahrouge, D., Brune, J., & Neuhauser, L. (2013). Responding to the deaf in disasters: establishing the need for systematic training for state-level emergency management agencies and community organizations. BMC Health Services Research, 1-10.
  • Fernandez, L. S., Byard, D., Lin, C.-C., Benson, S., & Barbera, J. A. (2002). Frail Elderly as Disaster Victims: Emergency Management Stratagies. Prehospital Disaster Medicine, 67-74.
  • Gill, A. F., & Peek, L. A. (2004). Poverty and Disasters in the United States: A Review of Recent Sociological Findings. Natural Hazards, 89-110.
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  • Waugh, W., & Liu, C. Y. (2014). Disasters, the Whole Community, and Development as Capacity Building. In Disaster and development, 167-179.


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