Are you ready?
Duct and cover? Government advice on terror and safety triggers both panic and skepticism
2 How useful are the government's new guidelines in helping families prepare for a possible attack?
Most of the government recommendations issued last week are common sense and applicable to any disaster, natural or not: Stock water, batteries, a first-aid kit. But the one that most puzzled preparedness experts was the one that sent people scurrying to their hardware stores for plastic and duct tape to make "safe rooms." Indeed, by last weekend the duct-and-cover method had been dismissed by many as at least unnecessary and maybe unsafe. "It just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense," says Peter Katona of the Infectious Diseases Society of America's bioterrorism work group. Even in the highly unlikely event that an attack is instantly apparent, "you can't tape up every crack." Even if you could, he adds, the chemicals could permeate the plastic. Furthermore, though much has been said about going upstairs in case of chemicals and downstairs for radiation, experts point out that it's unlikely that the average citizen will even know the nature of the attack soon enough to make that choice.
Others of the recommendations are faulted more for being vague or obvious. For example, it is unquestionably good to have a family communication plan in place, including a point person that everyone should call. But communications experts add that you shouldn't count on your cellphones to make those calls. On 9/11, the cellphone system was quickly overwhelmed. Using a wireless phone's text-messaging features or a two-way pager may be the faster way to keep in touch.
3 It's likely that our kids will be in school when an attack occurs. Are the schools prepared?
The school may or may not be a good place to be, depending on the nature of the crisis--and also the level of preparation by the school. Virtually all of the nation's schools have some kind of disaster plan in place, but the plans may have been conceived with a tornado rather than a dirty bomb in mind. Well-prepared schools have three basic components: a trained staff, plans for a couple of days of shelter, and a system for communicating with parents. The custodian should know where, and when, to turn off the water and ventilation system. The school nurse should have three days of medication for children with serious disorders. The cafeteria should have two days of food and water for the children. Parents should know where to call, or log on, or listen for information about whether or not they should pick up their children. And while the principal is ultimately in charge, "three deep" is the rule: That is, two other employees should be able to step in if the principal is absent or disabled.
Experts advise parents to query their school principals about the particulars of their plans. But in fact, few schools can point to such comprehensive plans. In a survey of school-based police officers, 95 percent said their schools were vulnerable to terrorist attack, and 79 percent said they were not prepared to respond. Why? Each school district must strike a balance between responsible vigilance and fanning hysteria. And there is no better way to fan hysteria, says Stewart Roberson, the president of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, than "to send out ill-advised messages across a school community." Not all agree with this. Says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services: "Fear is really created by not giving people adequate information."