Whole Community Approach:  Defining the Concept

Whole Community Approach: Defining the Concept

The whole community approach was a philosophical thought laid out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to engage the full capacity of all community businesses and members to be prepared for the worst.  In other words, it's an all hazards/whole community way of thinking for emergency management, thus allowing the responders to partner with all their stakeholders and general public to understand and assess the needs of their community. 

This approach is getting everyone on the same page, which will allow them to determine the best way to organize and strengthen their assets, capacities, and interests so that they may respond more effectively and resiliently.  All in all, we are building a foundation to support our newly revised emergency management operations.  We are revising or even rebuilding our emergency management structure to increase disaster resilience at the local, state, and national levels.  FEMA has provided the Whole Community Approach guidance document on its website, but for the purposes of this article, I want to breakdown the principles and themes.

The Whole Community Approach has three main principles (directly from guidance):

  • Understand and meet the actual needs of the whole community.  Community engagement can lead to a deeper understanding of the unique and diverse needs of a population, including its demographics, values, norms, community structures, networks, and relationships.  The more we know about our communities, the better we can understand their real-life safety and sustaining needs and their motivations to participate in emergency management-related activities prior to an event.
  • Engage and empower all parts of the community.  Engaging the whole community and empowering local action will better position stakeholders to plan for and meet the actual needs of a community and strengthen the local capacity to deal with the consequences of all threats and hazards.  This requires all members of the community to be part of the emergency management team, which should include diverse community members, social and community service groups and institutions, faith-based and disability groups, academia, professional associations, and the private and nonprofit sectors, while including government agencies who may not traditionally have been directly involved in emergency management.  When the community is engaged in an authentic dialogue, it becomes empowered to identify its needs and the existing resources that may be used to address them.
  • Strengthen what works well in communities on a daily basis.  A Whole Community approach to building community resilience requires finding ways to support and strengthen the institutions, assets, and networks that already work well in communities and are working to address issues that are important to community members on a daily basis.  Existing structures and relationships that are present in the daily lives of individuals, families, businesses, and organizations before an incident occurs can be leveraged and empowered to act effectively during and after a disaster strikes.

In addition to the three Whole Community principles, six strategic themes were further developed.  These themes share how the Whole Community Approach can be used effectively in emergency management and head towards action for implementation of the principles.


  • Understand community complexity.  Because every community is different and unique, using an approach like this will benefit all responders.  There's not one agency who will be an expert about their community.  It will take a team of agencies to determine all the "ins and outs" of their community.
  • Recognize community capabilities and needs.  This theme focuses on identifying what the community really needs and what the requirements are, without first considering the actual capability limits.  Once the actual needs are figured out, then you will be able to determine what the community's current capabilities are to handle these needs. 
  • Foster relationships with community leaders.  It's always about networking and building great working relationships.  The goal here is to drive interactions and connect with all community leaders!  Find out who your "cheerleaders" are and use them. 
  • Build and maintain partnerships.  Just as relationship building and networking with community leaders is important, you will also need to find a way to keep and sustain your current relationships.  Keeping your current groups interested and engaged will also keep the preparedness goals moving forward and foster the growth of a resilient community by having strong and committed partners.
  • Empower local action.  Every agency and group needs help.  Empower your general public to become more resilient by being involved with their community in emergency preparedness.  By doing this, you are also allowing your community members to help you lead and not just follow.
  • Leverage and strengthen social infrastructure, networks, and assets.  There are many groups and networks out there in each community.  We always need to work on infrastructure to make the response more effective during a disaster.

There are many benefits to using an approach like this, which include a shared understanding of community needs and capabilities, having a greater integration of resources across the community, and a stronger social infrastructure.  This approach also allows for better working relationships between community partners and members, faster and better response and recovery efforts, and increased individual preparedness activities.  By focusing on putting all the pieces together so that everyone is connected and committed, you will have a solid and strong foundation to begin building a resilient community, state, and nation during times of crisis.  Stay tuned for future articles on this topic of Whole Community Approach, as I will be diving deeper into the different Pathways for Action.








*A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management:  Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action, FDOC 104-008-1/December, 2011



Tsoetsy Harris, MPH, MEP

Tsoetsy Harris, MPH, MEP

Independent Consultant

Recent Post

Related Post


we're on a mission

In all we do, we seek to reduce human suffering and loss of life caused by disasters.

We get it done by connecting the preparedness efforts of healthcare organizations, emergency management agencies, and public health departments through effective, financially self-sustaining healthcare coalitions.

Yes, we believe healthcare coalitions are the path forward.

Karl Schmitt, Passionate Founder & CEO, bParati

Karl SchmittPassionate Founder & CEO

(217) 953-0843
600 Wind Meadow Drive
Chatham, IL  62629

send message
bParati eNews logo
bParati logo

600 Wind Meadow Dr, Chatham, IL 62629 | (217) 622-0915 | Send Us A Message Here