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Readiness for Natural Hazards

Summary and Keywords

Humankind has always lived with natural hazards and their consequences. While the frequency and intensity of geological processes may have remained relatively stable, population growth and infrastructure development in areas susceptible to experiencing natural hazards has increased societal risk and the losses experienced from hazard activity. Furthermore, increases in weather-related (e.g., hurricanes, wildfires) hazards emanating from climate change will increase risk in some countries and result in others having to deal with natural hazard risk for the first time.

Faced with growing and enduring risk, disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies will play increasingly important roles in facilitating societal sustainability. This article discusses how readiness or preparedness makes an important contribution to comprehensive DRR. Readiness is defined here in terms of those factors that facilitate people’s individual and collective capability to anticipate, cope with, adapt to, and recover from hazard consequences. This article first discusses the need to conceptualize readiness as comprising several functional categories (structural, survival/direct action, psychological, community/capacity building, livelihood and community-agency readiness).

Next, the article discusses how the nature and extent of people’s readiness is a function of the interaction between the information available and the personal, family, community and societal factors used to interpret information and support readiness decision-making. The health belief model (HBM), protection motivation theory (PMT), person-relative-to-event (PrE) theory, theory of planned behavior (TPB), critical awareness (CA), protective action decision model (PADM), and community engagement theory (CET) are used to introduce variables that inform people’s readiness decision-making. A need to consider readiness as a developmental process is discussed and identifies how the variables introduced in the above theories play different roles at different stages in the development of comprehensive readiness.

Because many societies must learn to coexist with several sources of hazard, an “all-hazards” approach is required to facilitate the capacity of societies and their members to be resilient in the face of the various hazard consequences they may have to contend with. This article discusses research into readiness for the consequences that arise from earthquake, volcanic, flood, hurricane, and tornado hazards. Furthermore, because hazards transcend national and cultural divides, a comprehensive conceptualization of readiness must accommodate a cross-cultural perspective. Issues in the cross-cultural testing of theory is discussed, as is the need for further work into the relationship between readiness and culture-specific beliefs and processes.

Keywords: readiness, preparedness, human responses, culture, disaster risk reduction, community, family, risk, warnings, mitigation


The ability of natural hazard activity (e.g., from volcanic, wildfire, storm, flooding, tsunami, and seismic processes) to inflict considerable loss and disruption on societies and their members is undeniable. When impacted by hazard activity, citizens suddenly find themselves having to deal with demands that differ considerably from anything they would encounter under normal conditions and in circumstances in which normal societal functions and resources are marked by their absence (at least during the early period of hazard impact). However, while the hazard event that triggers a disaster may be comparable for all those in an affected area, those people affected differ with regard to the degree to which they cope with and adapt to the circumstances in which they find themselves (Paton & McClure, 2013). In other words, the degree of loss and disruption experienced are not distributed evenly among those affected.

This article discusses how this distribution of loss and disruption is, at least in part, a function of the degree to which people and communities had, prior to hazard events occurring, developed the knowledge, skills, and relationships that facilitated their ability to anticipate, cope with, adapt to, and recover from hazard consequences—that is, to explore how readiness contributes to disaster risk reduction (DRR).

Readiness strategies aim to mobilize community resources and capabilities in ways specifically intended to increase the likelihood of people and communities being able to respond in planned and functional ways to complex, challenging, emergent, and evolving hazard experiences and demands rather than having to react to them in ad hoc ways. Readiness is one component of a comprehensive DRR strategy. Readiness complements other components of DRR such as land use planning, structural mitigation, and warnings processes and should be developed accordingly.

Irrespective of whatever else a society does to protect its citizens from hazard consequences, readiness remains an important component of a comprehensive DRR strategy. One reason for this derives from appreciating how other aspects of DRR, such as structural mitigation, can never offer 100% protection.

For example, structural mitigation measures are developed based on some combination of what could happen (e.g., estimates of the potential magnitude of a hazard event) and the level of protection people are willing to pay for. It is not, however, inconceivable that future events can exceed the design parameters of structural measures (i.e., exceeds what a society thinks could occur or the level of protection they are willing to pay for). Consequently, people, the communities, societies, and risk management agencies must be ready to deal with (unexpected) consequences.

In areas susceptible to experiencing large-scale hazard events, another important aspect of a comprehensive societal-level DRR strategy involves monitoring hazard activity. Monitoring is usually linked to a capacity to issue warnings to advise citizens of an impending event. However, the effectiveness of a warning is a function of people’s ability to receive it and to be able to respond in effective and timely ways on receiving it.

Readiness complements warning processes by increasing the likelihood of people being able to act on receipt of a warning rather than the warning acting as a trigger for people to consider what they should or will do. Readiness is particularly important for events such as earthquakes, which (at least for the present) occur with no warning.

While it might be assumed that awareness of the hazards present in their environment would act as a catalyst for people to ready themselves for future hazard activity, this assumption is unfounded. Research into hazard preparedness has made it clear that facilitating sustained preparedness involves more than just informing people of their risk and how it can be managed (Lindell, Arlikatti, & Prater, 2009; Lindell & Whitney, 2000; Paton & McClure, 2013). People differ considerably in what they do to manage the risk they face from natural hazards.

Readiness research has identified how some people prepare comprehensively. Others, however, despite sharing comparable levels of risk (and even when acknowledging their risk) adopt only a few protective measures, and yet others decide not to do anything at all. Being able to understand why such differences occur will make important contributions to developing comprehensive and effective disaster risk reduction strategies. Here, I also review current knowledge of how readiness can be facilitated.

Understanding why people do or do not choose to prepare, even when they acknowledge their risk, starts with discussing what is involved in being ready. Once this has been done, the next step is to identify the factors that influence why people decide to prepare for natural hazards. The discussion commences with an introduction to what readiness means.

Functional Readiness Categories

Readiness encompasses several separate but related categories. Russell, Goltz, and Bourque (1995) defined readiness as comprising structural (e.g., securing house to foundations, securing water heaters and tall furniture), survival (e.g., ensuring a supply of water to cope with loss of utilities for several days, having a radio with spare batteries etc.), and planning (e.g., developing household hazard plans and attending meetings to learn about hazards and how to deal with their consequences) functions.

A subsequent study (Lindell et al., 2009) subdivided readiness into direct action (e.g., learn how to shut off utilities, have a 4-day supply of canned food, strap heavy household objects) and capacity building (e.g., join an earthquake-related organization, attend meetings about earthquake hazards) components. To this has been added a need to include psychological (e.g., dealing with stress associated with impact and aftershocks, temporary living arrangements, adverse reactions among family members, loss of social relationships and support), livelihood (e.g., loss of work, having to travel to work), and community-agency (e.g., represent community needs to government agencies, nongovernmental organizations [NGOs], and businesses) readiness (Paton, Johnston, Mamula-Seadon, & Kenney, 2014).

Functional readiness categories thus include identifying how people need to be ready to deal with challenges emanating from everything from building and contents loss and damage (structural) to loss of power and water utility loss (survival) to a need to provide for family needs over time (planning) to dealing with the psychological impact on self and family members (psychological) to working with neighbors to deal with local issues (community). People’s ability to adapt to hazard consequences is also enhanced if they are ready to deal with loss of or disruption to employment (livelihood). Finally, people need to be ready and able to work with businesses, NGOs, and response management agencies during the disaster response period and with government departments, insurance companies, and building tradespeople during the recovery and reconstruction phases of a disaster. Additional complexity is introduced into the readiness context by the fact that knowledge of the relevance and importance of the content of each functional category cannot generally be developed only through experience but requires some pre-event action.

Readiness and Preparedness

If people have had regular, direct experience of hazard events, this may well be sufficient to mobilize the development of mitigation and adaptive measures. This does indeed happen. For example, the government and citizens of the city of Kagoshima (Japan) experienced ashfall and ballistic debris on some 113 days per year from their proximity to Sakurajima volcano. As a result, they have developed building codes, ash removal practices, and community attitudes and adaptive practices that facilitate the continuity of societal functions during frequent volcanic episodes. The adoption and maintenance of these adaptive practices has allowed Kagoshima and its citizens to live more or less normally despite their regular exposure to volcanic hazards. Regular exposure means that people know what can occur and what they need to know and able to do during periodic volcanic episodes. They know from experience that readiness is important and that it works. There are, however, not many places around the world that can base their choices and actions on such consistent experience.

In other areas characterized by potential geological or meteorological events it is possible that people may not experience a hazard event for years, decades, or longer. However, the possibility of experiencing one tomorrow cannot be discounted. Consequently, in communities and locations where hazard activity and consequences are considerably less frequent than those occurring in Kagoshima, a more challenging DRR environment prevails. In the absence of regular, direct experience, anticipation comes to play a key role in people’s readiness decision-making. If people are to develop their readiness for infrequent, complex hazard events, they must first anticipate what could occur.

Anticipation of Future Events

The generally infrequent nature of large-scale hazard events means that an important influence on people’s understanding of, and motivation to engage in, readiness activities is the degree to which they anticipate the circumstances they could encounter. The process of anticipating future hazard events is complicated by several factors (Paton & McClure, 2013). Some of these reflect dispositional factors that affect a minority of citizens. Others involve cognitive biases that can both affect people’s perception of their risk and deflect their accepting and attending to their need to act onto others. Work in this area has built on the seminal work of Paul Slovic and colleagues (e.g., Kahneman, Slovic, & Tversky, 1982).

With regard to dispositional factors, people who are fatalistic and hold external control beliefs (e.g., they hold a general belief that that they cannot influence or control any event that affects or impinges on them) may believe that there is nothing that can be done. Holding such a belief reduces the likelihood of their engaging in any readiness activities.

If, however, the public education components of DRR strategies are framed in ways that include, for example, asking people to anticipate what might be done to prepare highly vulnerable members of society (e.g., elderly residents, young children in schools) and can help overcome this anticipatory constraint. If people can generate ideas about what might facilitate readiness in those less able than themselves, it becomes harder for them to maintain a belief that they have no control over consequences. This may reduce their fatalism, increase the likelihood of their perceiving readiness actions as achievable and manageable, and increase the likelihood of their adopting at least some readiness measures.

Similar issues can arise if people assume that because they cannot control the causes of hazard events (e.g., they can do nothing to prevent earthquakes happening), they believe they are powerless to protect themselves. Or if they perceive natural processes (e.g., earthquakes) as being too powerful and overwhelming for any personal risk management action to be of any use, they can develop the belief (e.g., negative outcome expectancy—see community engagement theory below) that there is nothing they can do to influence their safety. Constraints on anticipation from these last two factors can be countered by providing information that focuses attention on differentiating the (uncontrollable) causes of hazard events from their more controllable consequences.

For example, showing people pictures of earthquake-affected areas in which a collapsed or badly damaged home sits adjacent to one that is undamaged and that remains habitable directs their attention to manageable consequences. This demonstrates that earthquake damage is not absolute and that the actions of a homeowner (or designer—as long as it focuses on how human actions mitigate risk) contributed to a home remaining intact. Information presented in this way increases the likelihood of people appreciating how actions they can perform will mitigate their risk or increase their ability to cope should a hazard event occur, and so take action.

The capacity of the factors in the preceding paragraphs to act as constraints on people’s ability to anticipate what they could experience arise in part from their lacking experience to challenge these beliefs. However, experience itself, particularly if it occurs at the lower end of the levels of hazard intensity that could occur, may result in a kind of future-oriented decrease in the perceived need for readiness. One mechanism proposed to account for this is the so-called gambler’s fallacy.

For example, the first seismic event of the Canterbury, New Zealand, earthquake and aftershock sequence occurred in September 2010. This event had little impact on Christchurch residents and led to some stating that the occurrence of the 2010 earthquake (in their backyard) contributed to their reducing their earthquake preparedness. Why might this have happened? The experience of a low return period event (like the 2010 earthquake in Christchurch) created an expectation that it would be many years (in this case possibly centuries) before the next hazard event would occur.

An event interpreted as being unlikely to be followed by anything similar for many years to come resulted in some people reducing their level of readiness. Those people that reduced their level of readiness increased the scale and implications of the losses experienced when the 2011 earthquake occurred some five or so months later. This example suggests that it is important for risk information to impress upon people the “not if, but when” message (particularly for hazards such as earthquakes and locally sourced tsunamis that occur without warning).

Framing messages in ways that highlight family safety and how actions can have more general benefits increase their hazard preparedness function. This could include, for example, how structural house mitigation measures can reduce maintenance costs or increase resale values or how community readiness programs can provide a local voice to lobby for local needs or support neighborhood watch goals and so on.

There are other biases that can act to reduce the likelihood of people engaging in the readiness process. Two of these are unrealistic optimism and risk compensation. These cognitive biases can influence both people’s capacity to anticipate their risk and the degree to which they take responsibility for managing it.

Unrealistic Optimism

Unrealistic optimism describes a cognitive bias that results in people thinking that, compared to the average person, they are less likely to have calamitous experiences (Weinstein, 1980). This does not mean that people deny the possibility of disaster occurring, but it does reduce the likelihood of their believing that they will be among those affected should a hazard event occur. This bias increases the likelihood of people underestimating their risk relative to a notional “other.” The same process has been found to result in people overestimating their level of preparedness relative to others in their community. This bias effectively results in people transferring risk from themselves to others.

Thus, while a given person may accept that hazard readiness is important, unrealistic optimism bias can result in their perceiving risk messages that advise of the need for readiness as applying to others but not to themselves, reducing their belief in their need to prepare or to attend to risk messages. This bias is less likely to occur if people actively discuss readiness and what they are doing with others. This is not the only bias that affects how people anticipate their risk. Another is risk compensation.

Risk Compensation

Risk compensation is a cognitive bias that results in people’s perceived need for personal readiness being proportional to their beliefs about how personally threatening the environment is (Etkin, 1999). This bias takes on added significance in circumstances where, for example, structural mitigation, land use planning, and warning systems are prominent components of regional or local DRR strategies. Ironically, the presence of these and informing citizens of these activities (often via public education programs) can, under some circumstances, reduce the likelihood of people anticipating their need to undertake personal/household readiness activities.

For example, receiving new information about what scientists and civic agencies are doing to mitigate risk (which often occurs during risk communication programs) can provide people with information on mitigation they did not have or know beforehand. Receiving this information can result in people perceiving their environment as safer than they had previously thought. This may reduce people’s sense of their need for personal protective action. Another way of looking at this is that this bias can effectively result in people transferring responsibility for managing their risk from themselves to the scientific and government agencies whose actions they see as being responsible for making (their) environment safer.

This cognitive bias can be reduced by explicitly informing people that societal mitigation and personal readiness complement one another (rather than being substitutable) and by explaining that personal action is required to cover the fact that societal resources cannot cater for all eventualities. Risk compensation can be reduced if people appreciate that societal actions do not change, for example, the degree to which their home or their job is susceptible to experiencing loss or disruption, and that it is their responsibility to manage these aspects of their risk. This approach underpins the shared (social) responsibility approach to DRR, with citizens and civic agencies playing complementary roles in comprehensive DRR.

Actions recommended to reduce both unrealistic optimism and risk compensation rely to some extent on designing risk communication and community engagement strategies in ways that include encouraging citizens to engage with others in ways that undermine the deleterious influence of biases that can otherwise reduce the likelihood of people taking action. The discussion of biases introduced another important issue in DRR planning, that is, information, irrespective of its accuracy or quality, may not motivate people to act. Rather, it becomes important to understand that it is how people interpret their circumstances and the information available to them that determines what, if anything, they decide to do to manage their risk. Understanding the nature of these interpretive processes has led to the development and use of several theories of hazard readiness.

Readiness Decisions and Actions

While risk management agencies can make information available on the range of hazard behaviors that might occur or on how environmental characteristics increase or decrease risk, they cannot present it in ways that meet the needs of specific individuals or groups. People need to select, interpret, and use this information themselves. Hence, readiness programs need to consider both the information people have at their disposal and the interpretive processes required to tailor it for their specific circumstances.

While agencies have considerable control over the information they make available, they have less influence on how people interpret the information. Both are important. Information and interpretive processes are often considered separately. It is important to consider how they complement one another. To understand the interpretive term of the readiness equation, we turn to theories of readiness.

Readiness Theories

Several theories have been pressed into service to account for observed differences in the nature and level of hazard readiness. These theories offer insights into what underpins people’s motivation to act, how people search for and use risk and environmental information, and how this, in turn, influences readiness.

A common denominator across these theories is their recognizing that simply giving people information about a risk or hazard is insufficient in itself to motivate people to act. Rather, these theories suggest that action derives from both having high-quality information about hazard(s) and their mitigation and ensuring its recipients have the personal and social competencies required to interpret and use information to guide readiness decisions (rather than information alone, which is a common assumption in public education).

Collectively, because they differ with regard to the mechanisms proposed to account for behavior change, the number and nature of the variables they include, and the interrelationships between the variables they identify as influencing behavior change, these theories provide more detailed insights into what a comprehensive set of predictors of hazard preparedness would look like.

The theories discussed here are the health belief model (HBM), protection motivation theory (PMT), person-relative-to-event (PrE) theory, theory of planned behavior (TPB), critical awareness (CA), and the protective action decision model (PADM). The following discussion focuses on identifying the contribution of each theory to identifying the social and psychological predictors of readiness and introducing how the interpretive precursors of action are best conceptualized as a process.

Research using the HBM identified how earthquake readiness resulted from the interaction between people’s perceived susceptibility to a threat from earthquakes and their interpretation of the severity of the threat (Dooley, Catalano, Mishra, & Serxner, 1992). In a study of flood readiness, PMT demonstrated that readiness occurs when fear-arousing communication convinces a receiver of the existence of a threat to them, with this perception instigating “threat appraisal” (people accepting that they face a risk and then personalizing it [what it means for them specifically]) and “coping appraisal” (considering what they might do to adapt to this risk), with the relative balance between these processes determining whether or not a person acts (Grothmann & Reusswig, 2006).

The strength of a person’s threat appraisal is a product of the perceived severity of hazard impacts and people’s perceived vulnerability to experiencing adverse hazard consequences. The level of threat appraisal is reduced if the value attached to not preparing (e.g., financial savings from not acting) is high. If a threat from a hazard is acknowledged, interaction between response efficacy (i.e., beliefs about the likely effectiveness of protective measures), self-efficacy (i.e., people’s beliefs regarding their ability to perform protective actions), and the costs (financial, time, effort, or inconvenience) of engaging in protective behavior determine what one does. Taken together, readiness research using the HBM and PMT highlights a need to provide information not only about the risk people face, but also about the costs of measures and how and why they will be effective. A variant of protection motivation theory developed specifically for investigating hazard preparedness is PrE theory.

PrE theory (Duval & Mulilis, 1995; Mulilis & Lippa, 1990) predicts the emergence of protective action under conditions of increased fear in the presence of insufficient resources relative to the magnitude of the threat people perceive as emanating from a hazard. PrE theory argues that the degree to which a person perceives him- or herself at risk from a potentially harmful hazard event interacts with person (self-efficacy, outcome efficacy) and event (severity of event, and probability of occurrence of the event) variables to predict readiness activity. It thus posits a need to examine person–environment interactions if an understanding of differences in people’s preparedness levels is to be understood.

The PrE model also includes a combinatorial rule that describes how different mixes of levels of person and event variables combine in determining the degree to which negative threat appeals will persuade people to act. PrE theory has been supported by research on earthquake and tornado readiness. Another approach to understanding interpretive processes introduces how attitudes and social factors play a role in this regard.

The TPB proposes that action is a product of the interaction between people’s attitude toward readiness, “perceived subjective norms” about readiness, and perception of their behavioral control (and in some later versions, self-efficacy) over implementing protective actions. Research on earthquake readiness provided support for positive attitudes to hazard mitigation and positive social norms about hazard readiness playing roles in increasing the likelihood that people will adopt protective measures for earthquakes (McIvor & Paton, 2007).

Attitudes are difficult to change, even more so when the target of the attitude relates to infrequent events such as earthquakes or other infrequent natural hazards. One approach that could be adopted would be to invite people to first produce reasons why preparing could be effective (for them, their family, their house, their employment, etc.) and, only after they have done so, provide them with information on what to do. Risk communication usually does this the other way around.

The TPB research introduced above also identified how if people believe that their significant others (parents, spouses, friends, peer group, etc.) hold favorable attitudes toward readiness or if the act of adopting readiness measures will be interpreted favorably by significant others, they are more likely to adopt protective measures—that is, social norms influence readiness.

One way social norms influence readiness is by increasing the likelihood that people will think about hazard issues and talk about them with others. The role that actively discussing hazards and the protective measures that can be implemented to mitigate their consequences plays in increasing readiness has been given a central role in another readiness theory.

The relationship between the relative importance of hazard issues to members of a community or neighborhood and the degree of discussion of hazard issues this creates within a community has been described in a theory of hazard preparedness that derived its name from the central role it gave to the construct of critical awareness. CA describes the relative salience people attribute to environmental (and other) issues. Critical awareness is manifest in the extent to which people think and talk about a specific source of adversity or hazard within their environment (Paton, Smith, & Johnston, 2005).

CA theory also allocated a role for anxiety as a variable that affected people’s motivation to prepare. Anxiety about natural hazards (e.g., earthquakes) has been implicated in several studies as an influence on people’s decisions about whether or not to adopt protective measures. Empirical analysis of CA theory identified that both anxiety and critical awareness could act to increase or decrease the likelihood of people adopting hazard adjustments.

CA theory offered further support for the role of outcome expectancy, self-efficacy, and action coping as predictors of readiness. It also identified how personal resource (e.g., time, skill, financial, social competencies) availability, trust, willingness to accept personal responsibility for their own safety, and beliefs regarding when the next hazard event would occur influenced readiness decision-making.

Earlier, this article discussed the need for readiness DRR strategies to encompass both information provision and the social and psychological interpretive processes that influence how information is used to guide readiness decisions. The theories discussed above provided a good overview of interpretive processes, but not of how information fits into the readiness decision-making process.

Hazard events are infrequent and complex events. This increases people’s need to source information and advice about risk and its management from other sources (e.g., risk management agencies). How people deliberate about readiness must be considered in the context of the need for information. This is an issue tackled in the next theory.

The PADM argues that hazard readiness decisions reflect interaction between people’s judgments of the threat posed by a hazard, their identifying actions available and capable of protecting them against hazard consequences, and identifying the sources from whom information about hazard and protective measures can be obtained (Lindell & Perry, 2012). The PADM proposes that readiness develops when people work through a series of pre-decisional and decision-making stages.

Pre-decisional processes focus on how people must first become aware of a need for them develop their readiness. Whether people become aware of this need is a function of (a) the quality of their exposure to, attention to, interpretation of, and comprehension of environmental cues, and (b) their receiving, attending to, and interpreting and comprehending information from their social context identifying the presence of potentially threatening environmental issues. Only when information from social and physical environments can be identified, accessed, and interpreted in ways that meets people’s needs and expectations and reduces their uncertainty, is it capable of informing and guiding action and their progress to the decision stages in the model.

According to the PADM, people then enter a sequential, multi-stage decision-making process comprising risk identification, risk assessment, protective action search, protective action assessment, and protective action implementation. In parallel with these, the PADM includes information search and evaluation functions (assessing information needs, identifying pertinent sources of information, and assessing when information is needed) that inform all stages of the decision-making process. For action to occur, people have to evaluate and personalize the consequences a hazard event could have for them. If this risk assessment affirms susceptibility to experiencing adverse hazard consequences, this elicits protection motivation (Lindell & Perry, 2012). The PADM draws attention to how the information that informs the preparedness process is sourced from people’s social context. Prominent sources of information can be found in the family and community contexts in which we live.

The variables identified in the theories described above are summarized in Figure 1. Figure 1 identifies factors that reduce (linked by arrows with an adjacent minus sign) and those that increase (top of Figure 1 and those linked by arrows with an adjacent plus sign) the likelihood of preparing. Figure 1 also introduces a need to include facility, community, environmental, and societal factors in the comprehensive conceptualizations of readiness. The discussion of these factors commences with family, place, and community factors.

Readiness for Natural HazardsClick to view larger

Figure 1. Summary of readiness predictors and readiness categories, including variables from PADM, HBM, PMT, PrE, TPB, CA, and CET theories.

Family, Place, and Community Influences on Readiness

Family factors influence readiness. For example, gender role relationships within a family affect the distribution of perceptions of responsibility for readiness and response decision-making among its members (Paton et al., 2014). The latter work discussed how these factors can act as barriers to planning and inhibit the development of shared views on readiness needs within a household. Similarly, the existence of conflicting views about the need for preparing within the family, particularly if the husband attributes a lower priority to readiness than other family members, can act as an impediment to household readiness, especially with regard to the structural aspects of readiness. Precursors to readiness also emanate from the community contexts people inhabit.

Hazard impacts are locational. They affect people where they live. This raises the possibility that the extent to which people feel connected to a place will influence what they might do to protect themselves. This notion is supported by evidence of the fact that people’s relationship to their environment can influence readiness. For example, people’s sense of place attachment (e.g., the emotional bond between person and place), acts to increase the likelihood of people adopting readiness measures (Altman & Low, 1992). Place attachment has also been implicated in coping and adaptive outcomes during recovery, suggesting that in addition to increasing the adoption of protective measures, it may also influence people’s ability to put these measures into action should a hazard event occur.

Forming emotional bonds to places and to other people may enhance one’s sense of “embeddedness” within a specific area, with this sense of emotional investment in place acting as a catalyst for taking steps to protect oneself and significant others. Thus, community members’ sense of attachment is a social-environmental resource capable of contributing to the development of sustained community adaptive capacity and is, accordingly, a resource that can be used to facilitate the enactment of DRR strategies to confront the consequences of environmental hazard events. If community members share feelings of geographic attachment, they may be more likely to develop social networks that see them participating in communal activities, which might extend to sharing information about hazard preparation and assisting and supporting each other in protective activities.

Social capital and levels of prevailing social cohesion have been established as precursors to hazard readiness (Forrest & Kearns, 2001; Koh & Cadigan, 2008). For example, when sense of community (people’s sense of belonging, of being important to one another, of possessing shared beliefs, and acting to ensure the mutual meeting of needs) is high, others within that community are more likely to be regarded as credible and trusted sources of information. When these others have local hazard experience and knowledge, they become an important resource for developing shared representations of risk and its management and for facilitating the development and maintenance of locally relevant risk management activities. While sense of community can describe membership in both relational (e.g., community defined by shared interests) and locational (e.g., community defined by geographical location) communities, other constructs have been identified that describe the role of more localized relationships.

One concept, people’s sense of “bondedness” (e.g., time spent living in a neighborhood, identifying a neighborhood as home, and the presence of friends and relatives nearby) predicts earthquake readiness (Lichterman, 2000; Turner, Nigg, & Paz, 1986). Evidence from several sources has concluded that people’s level of active involvement in informal community and neighborhood networks not only increased adoption of protective measures, it was a more important predictor than risk information per se (Mileti & Fitzpatrick, 1992). A role for a sense of social responsibility to others has been found to be a significant predictor of earthquake and wildfire hazard readiness (McIvor, Paton, & Johnston, 2009).

Research identifying social relationships as playing pivotal roles in readiness decisions and actions introduces a need to consider relationships beyond those that arise within family and community settings. The inherent uncertainty that surrounds future natural hazard events and the fact that large-scale events are infrequent means that people cannot readily find out about hazards and preparedness issues through personal experience. Rather, they become dependent on expert sources to obtain the information and resources they need to understand hazards, the risks they pose, and readiness issues they need to consider if they are to manage their risk. However, expertise alone does not automatically guarantee that expert sources are used in ways that might be anticipated. Advancing understanding of readiness next calls for considering the dynamics of the relationships that develop over time between citizens and civic and expert sources of information and how these dynamics affect readiness decisions and actions.

Relationships Between People and Agencies

Historically, risk communication processes have been driven by scientists and risk management agencies acting as providers of expert information. It has been assumed that their expertise and the quality of information (in an objective sense) they provide would be sufficient to motivate people to act. Experts are trained in risk management and the collection and analysis of hazard information. The recipients of this information, the citizens themselves, do not receive special training in DRR. Consequently, when they are assessing their circumstances and interpreting the information available to them, people draw on beliefs, experience, and relationships developed in everyday social contexts to interpret hazard issues and risk information (Paton & McClure, 2013). One aspect of this interpretive process that has a significant bearing on readiness concerns the fact that people make judgments about the sources of information (i.e., about the civic agencies themselves) and not just about the information they make available.

Some people may accept the information that comes from civic and societal sources at face value and may use it to inform their decision-making and readiness actions. Others, however, will not. For the latter, their interpretation of the value or otherwise of risk information is influenced by their beliefs about the source of information (rather than the information per se). This can include elements derived from people’s past experience with (e.g., as information sources) or of (e.g., through media portrayals of agency responses to past emergencies or disasters) civic agencies (Paton, 2008).

People’s past experiences with a source of information (e.g., direct experience with government agencies and scientists, indirect experiences with these sources filtered through media reporting) contribute to the development of (diverse) attitudes and beliefs about agencies. People sum the experiences they have had with risk management and government agencies over time to define their relationship in value-laden ways—helpful or unhelpful, empowering or disempowering and so on—with these interpretations informing their beliefs about how much they trust a source (Paton, 2008; Siegrist & Cvetkovich, 2000).

Levels of people’s risk acceptance and their willingness to take responsibility for their own safety are increased, and decisions to take steps to actively manage their risk more likely, if they believe that their relationship with formal agencies is fair and empowering (e.g., agencies are perceived as trustworthy, as acting in the interest of community members). When the relationship between people and agency is not perceived as fair, the consequence can be the development of mistrust in agency sources of information.

If they construe their relationship with a source as being fair and empowering, people are more likely to trust that source and become more likely to use the information provided by that source to inform their readiness decision-making and actions. If, on the other hand, people do not trust a source, they are more likely to question the validity of the information provided by a source or question the motivation of that source as a provider (e.g., whether they believe a source is acting in its own interests) and, consequently, become considerably less likely to use information from this source.

The importance of including trust in theories of readiness derives from its importance in conditions in which people face uncertainty. Faced with uncertainty, especially when they cannot find out about hazards and what they can do to manage their risk through their own experience, people need to rely on civic sources for the information they need to understand the hazards they face and what they can do to mitigate the risk they pose when they. The greater the degree of uncertainty present in their environment, the more important become people’s general trust beliefs about, and past trust experiences with, the source(s) of information they turn to or have to rely on.

This means that the quality of the relationship that people perceive themselves as having had with a source over time can influence their willingness to use information from civic sources (e.g., risk management agencies, the media) to inform their readiness decision-making. Hence people’s beliefs about the trustworthiness of a source (agency) of information can make a contribution to decision-making that is independent of the information a source provides. Exploring this relationship and its influence on readiness is the issue tackled in the next theory, the community engagement theory (CET) (Paton, 2008, 2013; Paton, Smith, Daly, & Johnston, 2008).

The community engagement theory describes how readiness is a function of the interaction between two separate but related constructs—empowerment and trust (Paton, 2008). This theory offers insights into how relationships between community members and agencies (e.g., risk management, government, emergency services) influences readiness decision-making. It describes readiness as being influenced by the degree to which empowered communities are complemented by relationships with agencies perceived as empowering. When these play complementary roles in DRR contexts, the relationship between people and agency sources is more likely to be one characterized by trust. If people trust a source, they are more likely to use the information they provide to inform their readiness decision-making and actions.

The CET describes interpretive processes at three interdependent levels. At the person level, outcome expectancy beliefs influence people’s beliefs about whether actions on their part will be effective. If people believe that action can be effected, they then rely on social interpretive processes to determine what to do. At this level, people’s experience of active community participation and the collective efficacy they have developed from working with others to deal with local issues inform their ability to develop an understanding of their risk and what they can do about it. Given the uncertainty inherent in the risk environment, people may need some additional information and resources from civic sources to develop their understanding and making decisions about what to do. At this point, whether people can advance their readiness planning and actions is a function of the degree to which they are empowered by the agencies they turn to. If they are, they are more likely to trust the source and use the information provided to make and implement their hazard readiness decisions. Support for the utility of this theory has come from research on earthquake, volcanic, flood, tsunami, and wildfire readiness (Paton, 2008, 2013). The relationship between these variables and readiness is summarized in Figure 2. The findings of some of this work, conducted in New Zealand and Australia, can be found at the bottom of Figure 2. This theory has also been used to explore the cross-cultural equivalence of readiness theory.

Readiness for Natural HazardsClick to view larger

Figure 2. The community engagement theory and cross-cultural readiness. (Adapted from Paton, 2008, 2013; Paton et al., 2013).

Cross-Cultural Issues

Hazard events occur worldwide. While hazards from the same natural process (e.g., earthquake) may occur in different places, the social and cultural characteristics of the peoples that experience them differ in many ways. The theories introduced above have made significant contributions to enhancing understanding of hazard readiness. However, their findings originated in research conducted in Western, culturally individualistic countries (e.g., the United States, Australia). While this does not negate their applicability, the fact that many disasters occur in countries, particularly in Asia, that are culturally very different from those in which the original research was conducted calls for an assessment of the cross-cultural applicability of readiness theories.

Exploring this issue has theoretical and practical implications. For example, if evidence supporting the ability to apply theory across cultures is available, it would provide a common basis for collaborative learning and research across national borders. From a practical perspective, confirmation of cross-cultural equivalence would make information about how to facilitate preparedness available to countries that lack the resources to undertake this work themselves. It could also provide risk management agencies in different countries with access to a wider range of risk management options.

This section explores the issue of the cross-cultural applicability of hazard readiness theory by discussing work applying the community engagement theory to earthquake, volcanic, and wildfire readiness in countries (Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, and Taiwan) that differ with regard to their respective positions on a significant cultural characteristic, individualism-collectivism (I-C) (Hofstede, 2001). The I-C dimension is the most commonly studied cultural dimension. It is discussed here as a starting point for a cross-cultural analysis of the readiness process (i.e., how personal and collective factors interact to account for differences in levels of readiness).

A significant reason for specifically exploring the cross-cultural utility of theories derives from the fact that the countries that have dominated readiness research (e.g., the United States, Australia), fall at the extreme individualistic end of an important cultural dimension, the I-C dimension. In contrast, Asian countries, which experience the highest incidence of disaster-related losses, are typically situated at the more collectivistic end of this cultural dimension (Eiser et al., 2012). Given this difference, it is important to inquire whether theories developed in the Occident can be used effectively in the orient.

The I-C dimension describes how cultures can be differentiated with regard to the social and psychological bases of people’s beliefs and actions. For example, in more individualistic cultures people act consistently across situations in accordance with a self-concept that is relatively independent of social situation and in which achieving personal goals is a prominent objective. This makes it easy to see how person-level variables (e.g., outcome expectancy) would influence preparedness. It also means that if collective action occurs, it reflects personal choice regarding levels of collaboration and cooperation rather than a cultural predisposition. In contrast, in more collectivistic cultures (e.g., Asian countries such as Taiwan), the activities of daily life are underpinned by culturally embedded beliefs that are reflected in shared purpose and activities that align with social norms to achieve collective goals through engaging in activities related to future goals that emphasize social relations.

The community engagement theory was test across hazards (earthquake, volcanic, and wildfire) in cultures that differ in their relative positions on the I-C dimension. This comparison included Australia and New Zealand as representing highly individualistic countries and Taiwan, Indonesia, and Portugal as representing collectivistic countries. Cross-cultural comparison (summarized in Figure 2) illustrates that the community engagement theory has some predictive utility across all three countries (Paton, Okada, & Sagala, 2013). The bottom right-hand side of Figure 2 summarizes the findings from more individualistic countries for earthquake, volcanic, and wildfire hazards. The top right of Figure 2 lists findings of applying the community engagement theory in more collectivistic countries (Indonesia, Taiwan, Portugal) for the same three hazards.

These analyses (Figure 2) offer support for the view that community (community participation and collective efficacy) and community–agency relationship characteristics (empowerment and trust) can influence readiness outcomes irrespective of cultural characteristics (Paton et al., 2013). Hence, irrespective of culture, the more citizens can collectively formulate their risk management needs and relevant local strategies (community participation and collective efficacy) and the more they perceive their needs as having been met through their relationship with civic agencies (empowerment), the more likely they are to trust them and the information they provide and to use it to inform their readiness activities.

There are some limitations in the above work. The research on collectivistic cultures summarized above describes that, for example, actively and regularly participating in activities with others and engaging with others on problem-solving activities predict preparedness irrespective of country or culture. However, this work does not consider why and how people participate or how social and cultural practices influence factors such as collective efficacy or empowerment. The importance of asking about the latter issue derives from the fact that cultures are often characterized by unique social and cultural practices that affect many aspects of life.

Paton et al. (2013) discussed how culture-specific social mechanisms, such as Gotong Royong in Indonesia and the Hakka Spirit in Taiwan, present opportunities to explore how culture-specific mechanisms inform how factors such as community participation, collective efficacy, and empowerment are developed and enacted in readiness decision-making and actions. A fruitful line of future inquiry will be exploring how culture-specific processes influence interpretive and decision-making processes. An understanding of cultural processes and characteristics has other implications.

It is important to acknowledge that a failure to accommodate cultural issues could increase vulnerability (e.g., because people will not support or adopt measures) or increase the risk of community fragmentation (e.g., fueling disagreement among members of the same community, reducing future levels of community participation on hazard issues) and ignore the social capital of communities (community own capacity). Proposing measures that conflict with cultural beliefs or practices could increase distrust of civic authorities responsible for risk management and result in risk management being inconsistent with social justice principles and thus have the effect of reducing community resilience. This work has additional implications for risk management in multicultural countries such as Australia and the United States.

Cross-cultural work offers much fertile ground for the development of readiness research. It is not the only area. Another involves conceptualizing readiness as a developmental process.

Readiness: A Developmental Process

Readiness is not an all-or-none phenomenon (Paton & McClure, 2013). Rather, it should be regarded as a developmental process. The PADM essentially incorporates a developmental perspective. Other work on the developmental nature of hazard readiness has involved integrating the trans-theoretical model (TTM), or stages of change model, with other hazard readiness theories (Bočkarjova, van der Veen, & Geurts, 2009; Dooley et al., 1992). The TTM argues that behavioral change programs must accommodate differences in people’s readiness to act to confront a potential threat and describes how readiness involves people transitioning through a series of stages—pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination—that reflect the development of progressively more comprehensive preparedness.

For example, in the above studies (Bočkarjova et al., 2009; Dooley et al., 1992), in the pre-contemplation stage, perceived vulnerability and response efficacy (outcome expectancy) were the most effective predictors. In contrast, in the contemplation stage, response efficacy was the best predictor, with information about the severity of consequences, the costs of protective actions, and subjective knowledge playing marginal roles at this level also being influential in readiness decision-making. Thus, strategies focusing on providing information about hazards, coupled with clear explanation of the effectiveness of proposed measures, could positively influence the likelihood of people in this stage advancing to the action stage. For those at the “action” stage, enhancing people’s perception of the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits (to both the individual and the society) of engaging in protective behavior is beneficial. Finally, when actively engaged in preparing, people’s choices are driven by coping appraisal. Furthermore, high levels of response efficacy (positive outcome expectancy) and self-efficacy help sustain preparedness over time.

Research using the other theories discussed above (HBM, PMT, PrE, TPB, CA, CET) identify the variables implicated as readiness predictors. What studies using the TTM approach identify is a need to consider how the relative salience of these variables may change, as well as the resources and information that should be made available, change as people progressively develop their readiness. More research is needed to investigate this.


People, communities, and societies will continue to experience hazard events that may occur with no or little warning. In the past, the tendency, across all levels of society, was to focus on response and recovery. Societies cannot afford to keep doing so, especially given the increase in the anticipated frequency and intensity of future large-scale hazard events. Strategies (e.g., structural mitigation) designed to safeguard people and property must be complemented with those that increase people’s ability to anticipate, cope with, adapt to, and recover from the experience of disaster.

Pursuing this will include developing policies, plans, and strategies using the theoretical work discussed above to provide an appropriate evidence base that will support developing the capacity of people, communities, and societies before any hazard event occurs. These strategies must be designed to encourage the progressive development of readiness. Furthermore, given the infrequent nature of hazard events (low return periods), readiness strategies must also be designed to maintain readiness over prolonged periods of time and against a backdrop of changing community membership, issues, needs, and goals. Doing so will increase community and societal capacity to deal with hazard consequences that are only likely to become more frequent in the future.

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