Emergency preparedness is a must for our kids
In New Zealand this week, everyone is thinking about emergency preparedness. With over 500 active fault lines running through the country, our susceptibility towards earthquakes is always at the back of our minds. However, these have been brought to the fore recently as we get ready for our annual New Zealand Shake Out event.
This year this is taking place on Thursday 17th October (today). At precisely 1:30pm, local time, the entire nation will be encouraged to practice the national earthquake drill (Drop, Cover, Hold), and the tsunami hikoi (evacuation), in coastal areas.
Schools, businesses, shops and institutions taking part will blow a whistle at 1:30pm, shout ‘earthquake drill’ and remind students, staff and customers to drop to their hand and knees to prevent falling but still allow movement; cover their head and neck by crawling under a table or desk; and hold onto their cover until the shaking stops. In coastal areas, the cry will be ‘tsunami drill’ and participants will head outside and make their way along a planned evacuation route, leading either inland or to higher ground.
Common sense and survival instinct tells us that this national exercise is an absolute must. It’s an opportunity to learn and practice the best course of action to take, should disaster strike.
Fine line between skills and scary
And yet, it’s scary stuff. Earthquakes and other natural disasters are terrifying, especially for our children. So, how do we create the balance between teaching them about emergency preparedness and not frightening, panicking or worrying them unnecessarily?
How do we ensure we don’t overburden them or impose upon them a sense of responsibility too great for them to cope with?
The answer, it seems, lies in involving them more.
Traditionally, teaching children the basics of staying safe in an emergency was been largely focused on creating an emergency kit, and planning an evacuation route. For years, schools and colleges have had their students well-versed in this. It would be fair to say that most school age children (many pre-schoolers too) in New Zealand will know what their school procedure is should an earthquake or other emergency take place. We can be proud of this.
Engagement with children is increasing
More recently, however, there has been a move toward increased engagement with children in the emergency discussion. The thinking being that – while knowing the basics of what to do at the time of the event is crucial, true preparedness requires the opportunity to participate, as well as gain deeper understanding and practical knowledge, all in a safe environment.
Schools and colleges regularly run practice drills, like today’s. Some schools use role play and games to demonstrate situations. Others use props and sensitive age-related resources to explore emergency scenarios.
Since the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011 and the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016, more households are answering to the New Zealand’s call to ‘Get Prepared’, with many including the whole family in the conversation.
There is still work to be done here, especially as there is a still a lack of preparedness planning exercises and material development that carry the voice of children. But, we are heading in the right direction.
Creators of emergency management resources are also including more young people in the development of their products to ensure the pitch, tone and language is appropriate and easy to understand.
We know this because Situate Me is one such company.
Students take comfort in being prepared
Recently, we engaged with year 7 and 8 students at a local school in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, to help us test our newly developed animal welfare in emergencies chatbot. This virtual disaster bot has been designed to allow animal owners to register their unattended pets and livestock to a cloud-based system so emergency responders can view real time geo-mapped data ahead of commencing their rescue mission.
We asked the students, aged 11 and 12 years, to imagine that there had been a minor event, such as a landslip, that was preventing the family from accessing the home to check on their pet. Their task was then to access our app, Ema for Animals, and register an unattended pet.
The students worked through a series of questions, asked compassionately and conversationally by Ema, – our virtual disaster assistant – about the type of their pet, its gender, location and whether there are any medical issues or dangerous characteristics.
By engaging with the students, our aim was to ensure that this animal welfare chatbot was empathetic and absolutely user-friendly. We wanted to know that the language was easy to understand, that the instructions were clear and that the whole process was without difficulty.
We figured if our 11 and 12 year olds can smoothly work through the questions, then anyone can. If there’s one thing about this age group it’s that they belong to the digital native generation. These students are arguably the most discerning and demanding digital users. If we can satisfy them, then everyone else is relatively easy by comparison.
Being prepared is being empowered
The opportunity also gave the students an insight into reporting information during an emergency. And they took to it like ducks to water.
We found that these students understood the importance of emergency preparedness and felt comfortable discussing the issue together, with their teacher and with us. They enjoyed exploring the app and were unphased by talking to a chatbot. In fact, there’s nothing strange about chatbots to this digital generation.
They liked the idea that if their family did have to leave their pet unattended in an emergency, they could help their parents by knowing how to use this technology.
Importantly, we also learned that having increased knowledge about what resources are available during an emergency gave the students greater confidence, and better understanding about how to act and react.
Emergency preparedness is a scary topic but handled correctly, it can be empowering for our children.
Situate Me is in the market of developing technological resources for emergencies but, similar to many other groups working in the emergency management space, we are acutely aware of the emotional and mental impact that emergencies can have on everyone – including the most vulnerable; our children.
Good preparedness and arming our children with the right tools (pitched at their level), to cope with an emergency can help to significantly reduce the occurrence of stress, trauma and anxiety later on.