“If Johnny jumped off a bridge, would you?”
It’s a familiar refrain for parents worried about the influence of their children’s friends. As much as kids might respect their parents’ advice or words of caution, the words of their peers—good and bad—tend to resonate better. And particularly in the narrow worldview of teens, no one but someone their own age can ever understand what they’re going through. Certainly not adults.
It’s the idea of letting children and teens speak for themselves, then, that’s at least in small part responsible for FEMA’s recent creation of its Youth Preparedness Council. FEMA Deputy Administrator Rich Serino had met previously with leaders from the U.S. Department of Education and the American Red Cross to discuss joint initiatives, and over the course of discussions it became apparent one of the things they were lacking was the youth voice—incorporating and elevating it in whatever strategies the agencies agreed upon.
“We need America’s youth to be an active part of our disaster management team and whole community approach to national preparedness,” Serino says. “While I was chief of Boston EMS, we engaged young people to help us tackle problems ranging from drug use to gang violence to emergency response. What we found was that youth in the community wanted to be part of the solution and they were able to make a real difference. The same idea can be applied nationally.”
Officially formed on July 23, 2012, the Youth Preparedness Council met for the first time August 6 in Washington, D.C. Thirteen council members and a chairperson (13–17 years of age) representing each of FEMA’s 10 regions participated in roundtable discussions and plenary sessions on the first day of their two-day visit to the nation’s capital. The council also met with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to discuss steps to strengthen the nation’s overall resiliency. In addition to developing their annual work plan to address youth preparedness during national disasters, the council met with other federal and private sector partners committed to supporting their work.
“We tasked the Youth Preparedness Council with finding new ways for young people across the country to become involved in national preparedness,” says Serino. “I’ve been incredibly impressed by the talent, enthusiasm and fresh perspectives in the Council and I look forward to seeing their ideas and leadership on behalf of our nation’s youth.”
Representing FEMA’s Region III, Donald “Diesel” Embrey of Mineral, VA, says emergency response is in his blood. Just 18 years old, the recent high school graduate became interested in emergency services when his parents got involved. He’s a Virginia state firefighter and EMT, a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteer, and is certified in CPR/first aid and incident command structure. In February 2012, Diesel responded to a massive 2,500-acre brush fire in Louisa County, VA. Six months later, when a5.8 magnitude earthquake rocked his community, Diesel assumed a leadership role at his school, helped evacuate his fellow students and performed triage on injured students. He then responded to the Mineral firehouse where he worked to establish an emergency evacuation shelter and triage center and then helped secure damaged buildings and search for injured persons.
Diesel’s project with the Youth Preparedness Council is creating a community day in his local area. “Right now, we’re just starting out locally,” he explains. “Hopefully, the idea will spread to different communities and regions. Basically, I want to use the event to promote community awareness about the importance of being prepared for any emergency, anything from a fire in your house to a big earthquake or hurricane.”