In our opinion: Battling complacency in emergency preparedness

Published: Monday, April 8 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

"Victims" Austin Stokes and Tony Keysaw get medical attention during a mock drill with the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness program in Stockton. How prepared is Utah for a natural disaster?

Laura Seitz,

A few years ago, the Centers For Disease Control undertook a comprehensive survey on how well 72 American metropolitan areas are prepared to survive a significant emergency. Salt Lake City did not fare well. In fact, the study indicated that in the event of a particular disaster — a bioterrorist attack — Utah's capital city would be among a few communities that could face, in the study's harsh and clinical language, "elimination."

It was a surprising result considering a strong ethic of preparedness has long been embedded in this community's culture. But it was not surprising in the sense that the study, as with many similar surveys, tended to show that the places best prepared for an emergency are the places that have the most experience dealing with emergencies.

Towns adjacent to flood-prone rivers, or communities in the tornado belt, or along coastal shores where hurricanes land, or areas that have recently experienced major earthquakes, all tend to invest more in emergency management than do places lucky enough to encounter infrequent disasters.

Those places have a different enemy to battle — complacency.

This month, the state will hold its annual Utah Prepare Conference and Expo as part of an ongoing campaign to remind us that even though the threat of imminent emergency may not be top of mind, being prepared for such an event ought to occupy a prominent space in our collective mindset.

The conference, co-sponsored by Utah State University's Extension Service, is an effort to educate Utahns on the risks of disaster and the things we should do to minimize disruption. In the last three years, the state has experienced localized emergencies severe enough to warrant issuance of presidential disaster decrees. Three were for flooding; one was for wind damage in Davis County. But we have not, gratefully, been subjected to the kind of emergency that impacts large geographic areas in degrees of varying severity, testing the entirety of our state and local emergency preparedness systems.

We trust those systems will function effectively, but until they are tested in a real emergency, no one can be sure. What we can be certain of is our own level of individual and family preparedness, and that is why it is critical for the state to reach out and promote greater awareness. Studies show that only a small percentage of households are equipped to allow residents to withstand loss of power and access to basic necessities for more than a few days.

Consider the possibility of a major earthquake occurring along the Wasatch Front in mid-January, at the moment of a major snowstorm, crippling utility and transportation systems. It would take days — longer in some areas — to restore any level of efficient service. How do you think you would fare in such a scenario?

If you aren't sure of your answer, there are ample resources available to mount a preparedness plan. State-sponsored websites including beready.utah.gov and shakeout.org offer portals to a vast array of information and advice, as will the preparedness exposition scheduled for April 13.

Beginning or bolstering a household emergency plan requires some time and resources, but the upfront costs are tiny compared to the downside risk of not making such an investment in the first place.

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