My Preparedness Initia­tive (MyPI) is an award-winning youth preparedness and educational outreach program for American teens ages 13-19. Through hands-on training and classroom instruction, youth learn about their roles in disaster preparedness and response, use emergency response equipment, and explore emergency management careers.

The program has its origins in Mississippi. In 2014, the Missis­sippi Youth Preparedness Initia­tive won FEMA’s national award for Outstanding Achievement in Youth Preparedness. The National initiative, known as MyPI National, replicates the model created and delivered in Mississippi. Both programs are recognized as affirmers of the U.S. National Strategy for Youth Preparedness Education.

We interviewed Dr. Ryan Akers, MyPI National Project Director, about program development from its origins in the State of Mississippi to the award-winning national program. To learn more about MyPI National visit this page.
Dr. Akers is an Associate Extension Professor of Community Preparedness and Disaster Management at Mississippi State University. Dr. Akers coordinates the Mississippi Youth Preparedness Initiative (the forerunner of MyPI National), MyPI National (a national youth preparedness/youth leadership hybrid program), and the Mississippi State University Community Emergency Response Team (MSU CERT), among other programs. In 2014, MyPI was awarded FEMA’s Outstanding Achievement in Youth Preparedness award and also received an Honorable Mention designation from FEMA for “Preparing the Whole Community”. Dr. Akers was named a “Champion of Change” by the White House and spoke on MyPI and youth preparedness at the White House and FEMA headquarters. In 2017, MyPI received another national award when MyPI National received FEMA’s Outstanding Achievement in Youth Preparedness award and another Honorable Mention designation for “Preparing the Whole Community”.

LY: Can we go back to the very origins? How did this program come about?

RA: We take youth preparedness in Mississippi very seriously, understanding the critical role youth can play in preparedness and resilience. In 2013, I was serving on the Mississippi Citizen Corps Advisory Council. Citizen Corps is a grassroots, volunteer-led movement that is usually attached to either a State Emergency Management Agency or a State Homeland Security Department. In Mississippi, Citizen Corps is housed in the Mississippi Office of Homeland Security. Based on my research background and my practical background, I had the opportunity to serve on that board and create a unique partnership, not only with Citizen Corps, but also with Dave Nichols, its Program Manager. Dave and I have a lot of shared interests, paramount among which is the protection and safety of our communities in Mississippi. At the same time, Dave and I both have a rich background in mentoring and working with youth. This model developed because of our two shared passions and our desire to blend them.

LY: What are the core elements of the program?

RA: MyPI is a youth preparedness/ youth leadership hybrid model with three main components.

Component A consists of activities based on the United States DHS/FEMA-certified CERT module-driven curriculum, which focuses on Disaster Preparedness, Fire Safety and Utility Control, Disaster Medical Operations, Light Search and Rescue, CERT Organization, Disaster Psychology, Terrorism and CERT, as well as corresponding specific Hazard Annexes.

At the very heart of everything we do is training our teens through the recognized CERT curriculum. However, we recognized that there are some gaps within the CERT curriculum particularly when working with today’s teenagers, and we wanted out program to be unique. In that respect, we wanted to be more robust than just a CERT program. Dave and I felt that we could come up with a model that addressed the learning styles of today’s teens while capturing their attention and energy, and so we did that through the remaining program components.

Component B, the Add-On Catalog features certification options in CPR and AED, along with a technology track comprised of awareness programs focusing on HAM Radio, NOAA Weather Radio, Smoke Alarm Maintenance, and Smart Phone App and Social Media in Emergency Prepared­ness. The Add-On Catalog also includes a severe weather add-on component, a disaster simula­tion, and a career track focusing on public safety, fire service, and emergency management careers.

We have a technology track because we know teens today love technology. Or even if they don’t love it, they certainly operate a variety of technology that our older generations never had growing up. So we created a technology track that addresses four different areas of technology:

 1) Amateur radio. A lot of teens today don’t know much about Ham Radio. We are bridging that gap by educating them about its benefits and explaining how to be licensed in its use;

2) NOAA weather radio. We created a partnership with the National Weather Service in Mississippi to add a focus on severe weather, and we discuss how NOAA weather radios can contribute to that focus;

3) Smoke alarms. We have a smoke alarm maintenance and education program that our local fire safety educators lead;

4) Smartphones and Social Media in Emergency Preparedness. This is a very popular component of the MyPI program.

Once teens are wrapping up their MyPI experience, they also get to participate in a disaster simulation. Whether they participate in a full-scale exercise, a functional exercise, or a tabletop exercise, they are able to see all of these principles they learned in CERT come together and how they work.

Disaster simulation and triage instructions. MyPI Virginia.Photo supplied by Ryan Akers

The other component of our Add-On Catalog is a career track component. I don’t know how it was for you when you were growing up, but I can tell you how it was for me: I was basically told by family members that I was either going to be a doctor or a lawyer. Most people know something about the academic tracks students must forge to enter those fields.

To enter first responder fields, the academic path is more ambiguous. Youth don’t know where to apply or what to focus on to get into public safety, law enforcement, and the fire service. Especially little is known and communicated about emergency manage­ment, which is a rapidly growing field. There is a perception you either need a law enforce­ment background or a military background to go into emergency management, because that is what people see in those positions—but that’s just not the case.

So in our career track, we bring in representatives from local law enforcement, local fire service, and local emergency management to talk about how they became educated in their fields, a day in the life of their jobs – even what they don’t like about their jobs. Another great thing about the career track is it also creates an informal network. If a teenager in a county in Missis­sippi or another partnering state or territory wants to ask additional questions once their MyPI experi­ence is over, they have now a face and a name they can contact. That adds a lot of value.

Component B, the Add-On Catalog features certification options in CPR and AED, along with a technology track comprised of awareness programs focusing on HAM Radio, NOAA Weather Radio, Smoke Alarm Mainte­nance, and Smart Phone App and Social Media in Emergency Preparedness. The Add-On Catalog also includes a severe weather add-on component, a disaster simulation, and a career track focusing on public safety, fire service, and emergency management careers.

The third component is where we get to see an exponential impact of the teens’ work. On the first day of class, students are given the suggested guidelines for what goes in an emergency supply kit and a family communication plan. They are directed to either develop these from scratch or enhance already existing ones with their household and also with six addi­tional households.

Imagine the local impact of that engagement, as well as the impact across the nation of the work completed by these teens. Every one of our teens that graduates from our program ends up working with seven families. When we deliver MyPI in Mississippi, we attempt to cap our classes at 24 teenagers per county. If all 24 complete the program, that’s 168 families per county directly impacted by the work these teenagers. If we offer the program twice in one calendar year, which is over 300 households per county that have been directly impacted.

Mississippi is a largely rural state, and there are areas where we teach that may not have 300 households. When we offer this program in that a rural area we’re looking at a 100% impact by delivering this program. And that impact is driven by the students, who get to experi­ence everything that goes with it: increased self-esteem, a feeling of civic duty, and pride.

That is the 3-component model we developed in Mississippi in 2013. It won the FEMA’s ICPD National award for Outstanding Achieve­ment in Youth Preparedness in 2014 after 11 months of full-scale delivery. We continued deliv­ering MyPI across Mississippi and expanding our footprint to try to reach all 82 counties as well as the Choctaw Indian Reservation. We wanted to blanket the entire state.

After the award, we had a certain level of newfound clout and viability, which in addition to some established relationships, created a boon in terms of success for our program. Because of a partnership that Dave and Mississippi Citizen Corps had secured with many high schools, we now had school doors opening across the state for us to deliver our programs to teens inside the school setting. We capitalized on that momentum and began to partner with these schools and their teachers. Now, MyPI Missis­sippi is being taught in formal school settings through Allied Health Science classes, Law and Public Safety classes, and as part of Vo-Tech programs. It’s also being taught outside of school settings through organized youth programs and community agencies.

Now we’re not fighting to try to get in front of students—schools are helping us do that. We’re not competing with extracurricular activities after school anymore, as schools are letting us accomplish our goals in their classrooms. That’s been fantastic. As we develop part­nerships with other states in MyPI National, we’re trying to get in those classrooms as well.

We’ve also become an Affirmer for the National Strategy for Youth Preparedness Education. The goal of this Strategy is to create a nation of prepared youth. This branding helps us continue to grow our program in Mississippi and throughout the nation. A particular point of pride I have in the MyPI program, as it relates to the National Strategy for Youth Preparedness Education, is our program incorporates all 9 strategy points or priority steps that the US Department of Education, FEMA and the Red Cross outlined in the National Strategy. Not very many programs are able to say that.

LY: How did you scale up to go national?

RA: First, we continued to expand our county footprint in Mississippi and to see great results. We thought: “We are on to something here in Mississippi with our program, so why should it be contained within our borders?” Then we got out in front and said “Who better to replicate this program and oversee that replication than the people that created it?” So we created an umbrella entity known as MyPI National complete with a team of subject matter experts that would replicate the MyPI model in seven additional pilot states.

In Phase 1, we took the MyPI model to Nebraska, Hawaii, Washington, Tennessee, Illinois, Virginia, New Jersey, and included Mississippi. In March 2017, Nebraska hosted the first ‘Train the Trainer’ program we offered. All of our Phase 1 partners have until July 15, 2018 to graduate a minimum of 125 teens who enhance preparedness efforts for 875 households. W hile that is a small amount, we can capitalize on that impact.

One of our overarching project goals is to reboot emergency preparedness for youth among all of our partners. And we are doing that in an organized and consis­tent manner that has a complete evaluation system providing data and impact. So for Phase 1, once our partners have each graduated 125 teens, we’ll be able to see the community impact they have had on 875 households across each partnered state or territory.

We are collecting and compiling that data for our partners and providing the data and impact statements they need to help them network with other agencies and private corporations to get money to sustain their programs over the long haul. We didn’t go to Washington to train instructors to see MyPI Washington fall by the wayside after two years. We want to make sure that their program is still viable and running when we go back to Washington in 10 years. So we’ve laid a foundation to make that happen. Based on the results and momentum so far from Phase 1, we’ve also decided to expand MyPI National’s umbrella. A lot of states and agencies were contacting us saying “How can we get involved in this movement?” and we were getting a lot of interest from other potential partners that wanted to be involved. So we were fortunate enough to be able to create Phase 2 Expansion for MyPI National and incorporated Georgia, North Carolina, Arkansas, South Dakota, Nevada, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, Alabama, Oregon, and Guam, our first US territory. We are actually in the process of a Phase 3 expansion at the moment, so I hope to able to bring good news to other partners across the US and its territories in the very near future.

We’ve held preliminary talks with other countries about the model as well. Who knows, but we may see a MyPI International partner in the future. With our proximity to Canada, we’ve even considered what a MyPI Canada might look like. We’re very ambitious with this program, with big plans as well as the resources and motivation to follow up on it.

Zachary Schwentor with MyPI First Aid Kit

LY: How was the curriculum developed for this program?

RA: The foundation—Component A—is based on the CERT curriculum developed and certified by the US Department of Homeland Security and FEMA. As they make changes and revisions to that curriculum, we do the same, adjusting as needed for the teens context. Then we added our Components B and C to address some gaps as well as the learning styles of today’s teens.

LY: Are there any context-specific tools that have been developed, or are they primarily national tools?

RA: They are national tools, but they offer a very engaging approach to delivering the material that is completely customized for teenagers. Our program is very different than having teenagers in the classroom learn the CERT curriculum and then leave. We honestly feel like we’re setting the new standard for preparing youth for emergencies in this country. That’s what MyPI aims for, and the data that we’re seeing from the program is suggesting that as a possibility. We’re really proud of what our evaluation measures are showing us with regards to both youth preparedness and youth leadership.

As we start seeing similar results through MyPI National, we’re going to get a little more vocal in terms of the message we deliver to the agencies. We’re hoping in a few more years to be able to go to our friends at FEMA and other relevant agencies and say “Here are the results we’ve compiled on how we have prepared our youth in MyPI, and we are doing it through a program that has been recognized twice as a national award winner for engaging teenagers in prepared­ness. We see this a model that we’d hope to see adopted nation­ally to train teens today moving forward. That’s an ambitious goal, but one that our team strives for in our efforts. No one rises to low expectations, so that’s what we are working towards.

LY: Thinking back to your early graduates back in 2013, have you kept in touch with any of them. What kind of careers have they gone on to? Did the career track make a difference?

RA: That’s a great question. I’ll be blunt: I wish we’d had the foresight to start a longitudinal study when we began MyPI. We’ve considered conducting longitudinal studies across our programs, but unfortu­nately, we don’t yet have data sets to talk about the career decision impact.

What we do have is causative data we collect from our instructors who keep us updated in what their students go on to do after MyPI. For example, we recently had a student who is a MyPI graduate go on to win the championship at an International HOSA (Health Occupational Students of America) competition.

Furthermore, these days, when I watch the severe weather events we are seeing in the state of Mississippi—which are now year-round and growing in number and destructive impact—one of the questions that always comes to mind for me is “Was that a MyPI trained community? Did the teens in that community have the oppor­tunity to prepare their households and enhance community prepared­ness overall? And when I see a community that has been hit, but has had a MyPI cohort, I feel a bit more confidence in that community.

We also have an evaluation system that measures our participants’ retention of knowledge gained from the CERT curriculum. We’ve also adopted another evaluation procedure based on 4-H common measures, which assesses program impact on communication enhance­ment, self-esteem, empowerment, engagement, civic responsibility, family cohesion, family decision making, among other items. We’re seeing enhancement across the board in all of these areas, so we know our program is making a significant impact in people.

Jaenahleyn Kanaha, MyPI Hawai‘i participates in First Aid training

LY: What is your graduation rate?

RA: We don’t turn anyone away from our program, but we don’t graduate everyone—as things come up. However, being in the school system has dramatically helped graduation rates. When we look at the number of emergency supply kits and family communica­tion plans being developed, that’s a good indicator of the work that we are continuing to achieve. My quick estimation is we are graduating around 85-90% of our students, but numbers are still coming in from other MyPI National partners.

LY: My next question is around ‘Train the Trainer’. Who are the instructors?

RA: Our initial point of contact thus far is with the land-grant insti­tution in each state/territory and their respective Extension Service which serves as an umbrella agency that incorporates youth serving programs, like 4-H. The Extension Services have achieved time-honored respect for their work across the states, and also have a pre-existing network and access to youth. Once we’ve identified some Extension personnel—ideally who also have emergency preparedness responsibilities and/or access to youth—we also reach out to state and local emergency management, first responders, CERT programs, and high school teachers to seek volunteers to teach in the program as well. That gives us a nice community of professionals working in emergency management, emergency preparedness and youth outreach. We like to create these partnerships with a broad array of passionate instructors. If the land-grant institutions decline to participate—which is rare—then I go straight to state and local emergency management and begin developing the program through those channels.

In Illinois, where I am conducting this interview, I am also overseeing our Train the Trainer. There are 16 individuals across the hallway currently being trained as MyPI Illinois instructors. Fifteen of them are from the University of Illinois Extension, and one is a local emergency manager who is being trained to help these Extension agents deliver their program.

In Mississippi, we have public health officials that teach MyPI; we have retired individuals that teach MyPI. If our MyPI Instructors also have a background in emergency response and emergency preparedness, that’s fantastic and even better for their students and for us. If not, we get them to where they need to be. The one thing they do need is motivation for working with teens. If they don’t have that passion, this is not the program for them.

LY: What is the role of the MY PI national coordination team throughout the lifecycle of the program?

RA: I have direct oversight of MyPI National. However, I also have a fantastic group of subject matter experts that makeup the National Coordination Team here at Missis­sippi State University. These indi­viduals have highly specific roles and responsibilities related to the success of all state and terri­tory-level MyPIs. There is also a Program Coordinator in each state/ territory. I consider them to be a part of the MyPI National team.

So while MyPI national coordina­tion starts with us at the top, it trickles down to state points of contact who are partnered with state emergency managers or local emergency management, and then down to local instruction teams. Drilling down even further, the local instruction teams have a lead instructor and supporting instruc­tors as well as guest speakers.

LY: I can see how that structure builds resilience and relation­ships across sectors and across communities. My next question is around tailoring curriculum to meet specific community needs. If we take Mississippi as an example, how do you address rural vs. urban vs. reservations, with their very different requirements and levels of resilience?

RA: From the perspective of our model and the curriculum that we teach, there are varying threats that have been focused on in our delivery, but so far the curriculum itself has stayed the same. However, while we do have a very applicable program that’s making significant impact, it is educational in nature and that goes both ways. We have a massive outreach campaign across the country, and we’ve been learning things ourselves along the way, which we take and apply in relevant areas.

I should point out that we do not have a 100% footprint in the state of Mississippi right now. We have been delivering MyPI in Missis­sippi for 6 years, we’ve tried to make a gradual movement across the state. We haven’t reached the Choctaw Indian Reservation, though we do have subject matter experts involved and networks across Mississippi that are in tune with the specific needs of a tribal nation. However, as we grow the program into South Dakota, Nebraska, Arizona and Nevada, we’ll be dealing with larger tribal populations in those areas.

One issue that could arise is in relation to our service projects. MyPI does not assume financial responsibility for developing an emergency supply kit—that falls on the household or the community. We provide our students with the education and the knowhow, as well as an emergency backpack that has some supplies in it, but the remainder of the financial respon­sibility to graduate from MyPI actually falls on individual house­holds. We’re generally not asking households to go out and spend $200 to build emergency supply kit, as most of these households already have most of these items—we’re just getting them to add what they need and pull what they have together into one location.

LY: My next question is around long-term sustainability. As you mentioned you provide some support to each stage in terms of finding funding, long term funding to make sure this lasts. Can you please tell us what are some of the key lessons learned?

RA: In terms of long term sustain­ability, what we’ve learned is that each of our partners is unique. Washington is different than Missis­sippi, and Illinois is different from Washington. We could not come into Illinois assuming we knew exactly how it would operate. We knew the program we were deliv­ering, and what we were going to build there, but the product is shaped by the personalities and the management styles of the partners we’re working with.

As we continue to grow our program, showing and promoting our individual, family, and commu­nity-wide impacts is critical. We do this through social media campaigns, our partners’ websites, and our MyPI National website. We make sure community and govern­ment officials know what the programs are and that our partner’s Extension and emergency manage­ment administrations know about the fantastic work their instructors are doing.

We do this so we can pool our resources and expertise and help everyone involved. We want to band together to work on sustainability efforts. We can form networks that can reach out, whether for a Congressional request or a request to a private corporation or to a national or regional corporation that wants to put a bit of financial focus behind youth leadership and community preparedness. What I have found in my work is that unfortunately, it’s not that difficult to found someone who is not attuned to emergency preparedness, particularly as it relates to youth. It’s my job then to educate them. However, it’s a bit more difficult to find someone not interested in youth development and youth leadership. Often, we find that we have to shape our message around those terms and then drill down to youth engage­ment in youth preparedness.

This networking strategy has also been quite helpful for finding new advocates and instructors in the new states we’re entering. We have non-profits coming on board to have a couple of instructors trained who are then going out and deliv­ering the program. We’re getting to these groups a lot earlier than we did in Mississippi. Now that we know who to contact, we’re building relationships very quickly across the country, and we know they’re going to be successful.

LY: How are you maintaining a communication network and sharing your success stories through social media and other channels?

RA: We get the word out a couple of different ways. The MyPI National Team develops and maintains excellent partner websites and social media accounts for all programs. If you are a partner in MyPI National, that’s part of the package.

The national website provides a breakdown of the program, the subject matter expertise of the people involved with the project, an overview where we are with each individual MyPI partnered program, and contact information. The partner-level websites also provide this information. But behind their public face is a private face with an online resource library housing all the presentation materials needed by instructors. In the private version there is also a reporting system. After lead instructors deliver a class, they complete a template-based form that comes to me as the National Project Director—that way I can see what is going on across the country. There is also an online learning forum with a message board, so when our instruc­tors have questions or comments about anything pertaining to MyPI, such as delivery, planning—anything at all—they can post a message, and state-level and national administration and all of the instructors get an email and can add what we can.

When it comes to social media, every partner and national program has a Facebook and Twitter account. Typically, we use the medium to get preparedness information out to interested parties, whether concerning hurricanes, earth­quakes, volcanoes, or even an eclipse. We put safety and prepared­ness information out there, and we ask that our instructors like and share our pages. People don’t have to be involved in MyPI to benefit from the messages going out from our social media platforms because most of the message is general preparedness tips and suggestions that can benefit everyone.

RA: The goal we have within our program is long-term viability and sustainability with people knowing what our program is about for many years to come. We are always open to talking with people about our program, what it stands for, and possible expansion opportunities.

We are in this for the long haul, and we’ve tied ourselves intricately to entities like 4-H. Usually people recognize the 4-H logo when they see it. Our goal is that likewise, the logo we’ve created for MyPI National and for our MyPI partner-level programs will be recognized long after we are gone from this earth. We hope people will see it and think, “That’s MyPI, the emergency preparedness program that helps me become a better leader and protect the safety of my family and my community, giving me a platform to make a difference in this world”.