Earlier this year, students in a graduate level disaster management course at Elmira College had the opportunity to speak with Holly Harrington, special assistant to the director of the office of public affairs at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The focus of this conversation was not, however, nuclear power. Rather, students were given the opportunity to learn, in depth, about one aspect of Holly’s former position with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); the creation of FEMA for Kids.
It is understood that anyone can be affected by a disaster, but children require special attention when it comes to explaining disasters and disaster mitigation. In 1996 Holly was given the task of creating an interactive website, to be used both at home and in the classroom, the mission of which was to educate children about disasters. Although originally designed for children in grades 3-4, the site eventually included sections that covered Kindergarten to fourth grade and is even used occasionally with older children.
The main goal of the site is to educate children on what disasters are, why they happen, and what the children themselves can do to prepare for and mitigate disasters. From the moment one logs on, the appeal to children is evident ranging from Herman, the hermit crab in search of a disaster proof shell, stories, a section for games, and an opportunity to become a Disaster Action Kid who knows how to survive and prepare for a disaster. The site even offers trading cards, modeled on baseball cards, which display rescue dogs used in various parts of the country.
The site has more sobering aspects as well, including a section of photographs of disaster damage containing straight-forward captions that explain what has occurred in plain, easy to understand language, and an interactive map of the United States that allows children to learn about possible disasters in their areas. A conscious decision was made to allow pictures of destroyed homes and cities, but not include injured or killed people or animals in any of the uploaded content.
According to Holly the site has gone through several changes since its first inception. Originally FEMA for Kids was to be called FEMA for School. This idea, however, was scrapped in favor of the current name that refrains from labeling the site as a purely classroom resource. The site also led to instructions pertaining to children being included in press releases. The need for this had always been evident but it was not until FEMA for Kids that it became easy to communicate to children on an understandable level during disasters.
Other changes included the addition of terrorism to the FEMA for Kids site. Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, FEMA for Kids was focused solely on natural disasters. After such a prevalent attack however, it became necessary to give terrorism a real presence on the site. Holly recalls how on 9/11 repeated footage of aircraft flying into the twin towers caused children to think that the event was being repeated all over the country because they did not understand that they were seeing recurring footage. Although a request from the government ended the replaying within half an hour, it was evident that children, regrettably, needed to be educated about terrorism as well as natural disasters.
Although the main goal of the site was instruction for children, there was a second motivation behind beginning FEMA for Kids. Adults in the United States seemed reluctant to heed advice pertaining to disaster mitigation, and it was hoped that if children were well versed in disaster preparedness they might convince their parents. This was envisioned as being similar to the way in which children sometimes remind their parents to wear a seatbelt or hound them to stop smoking. The site could both educate children and hopefully work towards changing bad habits in their parents.
FEMA for Kids had to appeal to all races and creeds across the nation, and therefore the illustrations on the site are either cartoon animals or very ambiguous in terms of ethnicity. Additionally it was understood that in 1996, when the site was released, many families would not have internet access at home. Therefore the site content was distributed on CD, and the stories contained therein were distributed in book form as well.
Since its inception, FEMA for Kids has been used in homes and classrooms across the nation to educate children and their families on disaster preparedness, mitigation and recovery.
FEMA for Kids can be accessed at http://www.fema.gov/kids/.
Adam Prestopnik is the assistant director of distance learning at Onondaga Community College. He is also a graduate student at Elmira College studying emergency disaster preparedness management. His undergraduate degree from St. John Fisher College is in the field of military and diplomatic history.