Training Community Members to Prepare for Disasters


Disaster events can turn an ordinary day into a life-threatening situation. Having a disaster preparedness plan in place, before a disaster strikes, makes good sense. And while most people know they should plan for disasters, very few do. This practice offers five key steps for educating yourself and your community about how to be prepared when disaster strikes.


Research on preparedness shows that people who believe themselves "prepared" for disasters often aren't as prepared as they think. Forty percent of survey respondents did not have household plans, 80 percent had not conducted home evacuation drills, and nearly 60 percent did not know their community's evacuation routes (Community Renewal, n.d.).


The challenge is maximizing awareness and encouraging participation in disaster preparedness activities to affect change at the community level. Five key steps for completing a disaster preparation project:

1. Identify local disaster needs

Use the following topics to perform a disaster needs assessment for your community and to generate ideas for your event.

  • Terrorist targets. What potential targets might exist in or near your community (e.g., power or chemical plants, airports, high-profile landmarks, bridges, government buildings)? Discuss the likelihood and consequences of an attack on any of these targets. Community members should know how to identify suspicious behavior or activities and where to report them.]
  • Community warning system. In the event of a disaster, local radio and television stations provide information on evacuation routes, temporary shelters, and other emergency procedures. Depending on the circumstances, any one of three protective actions (shelter-in-place, prepare-to-evacuate, or evacuate) may be appropriate.
  • Neighborhood directory. Create a list of home/work phone numbers and e-mail addresses for all community members, noting contact information and plans for children and seniors who may be home alone during emergency situations. Also include numbers for local emergency management and the non-emergency numbers for the police department, fire department, and FBI field office.
  • People with special needs. Who in the community may need special assistance during an emergency? They might include seniors, individuals who are hearing or mobility impaired, and children who are home alone. Develop a specific plan to assist them during an emergency.
  • Special skills or equipment. Identify members of the community who have special skills (e.g., medical, technical) or equipment that they would be willing to share in the event of an emergency. Consider CPR and first-aid training for community volunteers. To find CPR and first-aid training in your area, contact a local hospital community outreach program or the American Red Cross.
  • Mail safety. Community members should know how to identify and protect themselves from suspicious mail.
  • Pet safety. Community members should know what to do with pets in different emergency situations.
  • Property protection. Community members should have working fire extinguishers and know how to use them; they should also know how to shut off utilities (e.g., gas, electricity, and water) and when this action is necessary. House address numbers should be large and well-lighted so emergency personnel can find homes easily. Consider having a representative from a local utility company or fire department speak about property protection during a disaster as well as other kinds of disasters that strike anywhere, such as house fires, sustained blackouts, or water-related emergencies.
  • Evacuation procedures. Contact the local emergency management office and find out what evacuation routes have been designated for your area. Consider distributing maps to community members so that they can become familiar with major and alternate evacuation routes in the event of a disaster.
  • Local shelters. What is the location of county shelters for community members? (Shelters are often located in public school buildings.) What are their pet policies? Identify any community members who would be willing to provide shelter to others in an emergency.
  • School emergency plans. What do local school districts and daycare centers plan to do in the event of an emergency? Many school districts stagger school hours so schools can share buses, and therefore might not be able to evacuate all schools at the same time. Make sure children know where to meet parents in the event schools are evacuated or an early release occurs.
  • Family emergency plans. Encourage community members to develop family preparedness plans that cover emergency contact information for family members, predetermined meeting places, home evacuation procedures, emergency pet care, safe storage of food and water, and assembling disaster supplies kits.

Nonprofit and government agencies such as local preparedness programs, your local Red Cross, and FEMA offer valuable information about what supplies you should have on hand for any and every disaster. Representatives from these or related organizations may even be available to speak to your group as part of your service event.

2. Establish a team and plan the event

A successful group effort requires a motivated team whose members agree on clearly defined tasks, set reachable goals, and act with inspiration and purpose.

  • Start off planning with a core group of folks you know, and ask them to recruit others to join your efforts.
  • Post your project so that people in your area can join your efforts.
  • Meet regularly, especially as the event day approaches, and solicit input from everyone.
  • Set realistic goals for yourselves, such as number of people trained, kits supplied, and people pledging to pass along what they've learned to others. If you need to revise, make sure you and your team choose goals you can all agree on. (See sample concrete goals.)
  • Assign concrete tasks; this keeps everyone motivated and on track.
  • Research what supplies and give-aways you'll need, and decide how you'll obtain or prepare them. This should be done well in advance of the training, so they are ready to go. (Typical supplies include nonperishable food, first aid kits, batteries, bottled water, access to photocopiers (for critical documents), flashlights, and hand tools.) Include all ages in this work — the youngest volunteers can carry light objects, decorate preparedness kits, or serve refreshments to the adults at work.
  • Solicit funds from team members and/or others as well as in-kind donations of supplies from businesses; if it's impossible to obtain sufficient donations, consider providing training and educational materials only, so participants can purchase supplies on their own.
  • Scout out a location for your disaster preparedness training; ensure it offers adequate room for the number of attendees you anticipate, as well as the assembled supplies you may be using or giving away.
  • Publicize the training so the whole neighborhood can attend. Post flyers on telephone poles and community bulletin boards; place free ads in local papers; ask area businesses to spread the word; make announcements at schools, churches, or civic groups.

3. Prepare and implement your activity

  • Before conducting your community training, make sure any handouts and/or supplies you intend to provide are ready. If the training is scheduled early in the day, this may require prep work the day before.
  • Make sure project leaders or coordinators are at the site early, ready to greet participants as they arrive.
  • Provide clear instructions and constructive corrections, if needed, as the service takes place.
  • Set up your supplies in an orderly fashion, accessible to all.
  • Provide clear information, allow time for questions, and create time and space for folks to meet and mingle.
  • Track progress towards your goals (see sample score sheet).
  • After the event, thank your volunteers and sign them up for the next project.

4. Reflect and assess

  • After the project is completed, take some time to assess and reflect on it.
  • Host an official debriefing meeting for team members after the service day.
  • Examine the goals you set for yourselves and consider which ones you met, which were exceeded, and which were not quite reached. Why?
  • Whom did your work impact? What did you accomplish? How did it feel?
  • Ask everyone for an honest assessment of what went well and how to improve for next time.

5. Share your story

You can inspire others to hold a community event once they hear what you accomplished. Share your service story.

Related Resources: 

Citations:  Corporation for National and Community Service. (n.d.). Community renewal: Community preparedness. Retrieved from

Corporation for National and Community Service. (n.d.). Train neighbors to prepare for disasters. Retrieved from


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