Improving Terrorism Preparedness: Emergency Planning-If It's for the People, Shouldn't It Be by the People?

Article excerpt

Terrorism and emergency-response planning that does not include the public puts millions of people at risk, according to the New York Academy of Medicine.

Community planners need to work with residents and local organizations such as schools and businesses in order to plan the most effective response to emergencies, such as terrorist attacks. Citizens who are involved are also more likely to cooperate in the emergency itself, says Otis Johnson, mayor of Savannah, Georgia.

Johnson and other leaders are participating in demonstration projects to show how to prepare communities for emergencies, using a smallpox outbreak and a dirty-bomb explosion as case studies for the exercises. The goal is to create plans that would protect the most people from harm if these events unfold--including unexpected events related to such emergencies.

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In studying previous community threat-response plans, the Academy discovered that most plans did not take into account public behavior and psychology. Plans may work perfectly on paper, but in real life, people must execute those plans. And in an emergency, citizens may not be so cooperative, due to ignorance, panic, or simple distrust of authority figures.

In a smallpox-outbreak scenario, for example, existing plans offer no protection for people who may experience life-threatening complications from smallpox vaccines (some 50 million Americans, including pregnant women, babies, and chemotherapy patients). The strategy calls for these at-risk individuals to report to public vaccination sites in order to determine their risk from vaccination. But the study found that, in any kind of emergency, people are unlikely to leave the safety of their homes--and certainly not in order to go to a place where other people may have smallpox.

Similarly, a dirty-bomb explosion is most likely to occur in a public place where people are already separated from their families, such as shopping malls or schools. The Academy found that few people would follow instructions to stay inside unless they were certain that their families were also safe. …