Tod Pritchard jokes that he wears many hats as Wisconsin Emergency Management’s assistant public information officer — but his Student Tools for Emergency Planning (STEP) hat might just be his favorite.
“This is a part of the job I am really passionate about,” he said.
STEP is a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program designed to encourage youth to take an active interest in preparing for emergencies. Pritchard attended the first STEP meeting in 2010, and was an early believer in the program.
“I knew we needed to find something to reach kids,” Pritchard explained. “We did several statewide research projects and we found that when we asked folks where they were getting their information about emergency preparedness, zero percent came out of schools. But when you look at the data around the country, school-age kids want this information — they get into it, they understand it, and if it’s presented in the right way at the right age group, it’s very valuable … it’s not scary.
“You want to hit that sweet spot, which we feel is 5th grade,” he continued. “We knew kids were the way to go, but that was not happening in Wisconsin so we started looking for a program.”
Pritchard’s dedication to the STEP program and his work with neighboring states to help launch their own STEP programs recently brought him to Washington, D.C. There he took part in a FEMA workshop promoting the STEP program with other states, and collaborated with the National Youth Preparedness Council as well as the Proud Affirmers of the National Strategy Supporting Youth Preparedness Nationwide.
“We’ve become nationally recognized as the leader in youth preparedness in the country,” Pritchard said. “We are successful on many different levels just in sheer numbers, the impact it’s having on many lives here in Wisconsin. It’s been acknowledged by FEMA and many other organizations — we really have this program down and are executing at a high level.”
Pritchard coordinates with schools across the state to participate in the free program, and has averaged 12,000 student participants the past few years. More than 50,000 students have been part of the STEP program since 2010. STEP provides students with a starter emergency planning home kit, and teachers with a simple-to-use curriculum.
“The great thing about STEP that we embraced immediately was it was free, fast and fun,” Pritchard said. “We needed something where I could send a box to schools, they crack it open and run with it, and that’s exactly how STEP is designed.”
The starter kits are the key to the entire program, Pritchard said. Students bring the kits home and begin a conversation with their families about what they need to do to be prepared for an emergency such as severe weather or a man-made disaster. When he explained the program to state representatives at the FEMA conference who were not familiar with STEP, he could see “the lights going on.”
“I think they realized the value of it in terms of the turnkey nature of it, in terms of how easy it is to deliver,” Pritchard said.
That’s not to say the STEP program runs itself. Building strong public-private partnerships — local businesses that will help fund the program and provide volunteers to assemble the starter kits — is a vital component, and Pritchard expressed his gratitude to the businesses that have partnered with Wisconsin’s STEP program over the years.
And Pritchard said the investment of time and money has already paid off. In April of 2015, STEP student Angela Connolly used what she had learned to prevent her mother from running into a burning barn at their home near Frederic, Wisconsin. Angela told her mother they needed to follow the emergency plan she had just learned about in school. Firefighters quickly arrived to extinguish the fire.
“We’re in the middle of flooding and tornado season, and winter storms — we’re going to have these things happen to us, so it’s not a question of if, but when and where,” Pritchard said. “Making sure we get as many people ready for that as possible, that’s critical.”