You say that we, as individuals, need to become our own “first responders”. To that end: what do you keep around your home in case of a disaster? Do you suggest citizens take any classes so that we can all better respond to an emergency?
Our family has a two-week supply of non-perishable foods (at least three days are recommended), water, flashlights with spare batteries, a crank-powered radio, telephones that do not require electricity to operate and a reserve supply of prescription medications. We know where our “important papers” are and can grab them, along with some very selected “irreplaceable mementos”, if we have to leave in a hurry. But most importantly, we’ve met with our extended family to talk about plans for caring for children and elderly relatives, decided on gathering places if we get separated and have identified out of state and local numbers to call as “information central”.
People should make up their own versions of what to stock-pile if they need to stay at home for a prolonged time or if they have to evacuate in a hurry. There are several very good websites which describe the details of preparedness planning for citizens. (For instance: www.Ready.gov) In addition people should consider taking courses in first aid, offered by local chapters of the Red Cross. There are also very interesting community-based disaster response training programs offered by the federal government in association with local disaster agencies. These are particularly worthwhile.
What is the best way to become "disaster informed" about your own community?
Learning about risks that may be specific to your area is, indeed, very important—and not always obvious. New Yorkers may have to face a major hurricane and people in Tennessee live over a major earthquake fault. Some may be surprised to discover that there’s a nuclear power plant close enough to be a real concern in the event of a terror attack or melt-down of the reactor for any reason. Small towns in rural areas may be very close to train routes that regularly transport dangerous chemicals.
The best way to get a sense of what kinds of emergencies might present themselves in your community is by contacting local chapters of the American Red Cross or offices of emergency management in the region or state. Most large cities will have their own offices of emergency management.
How plausible are the five megadisasters in the book? Aren’t they a little bit alarmist?
The specific megadisaster scenarios in Americans At Risk were all carefully selected to describe very plausible events which could actually occur. They are, for the most part, among the officially recognized threat scenarios which the federal government considers to be possible enough to require specific planning. The scenario describing a terror attack on schools in Tucson is, of course, a difficult and terrifying read. Unfortunately, it is a highly feasible possibility, especially in light of knowing that such an attack actually occurred on a school in Beslan, Russia in 2004.
All of the details in each scenario were checked and cross-checked in collaboration with subject experts identified in the book. My hope is that understanding what actually unfolds during a megadisaster will prompt us to accelerate the process of preparing the nation for whatever might occur in a very uncertain future.
The scenario involving a school as a terror target is particularly unsettling. What can parents do to help protect their children?
Yes, the school scenario is, indeed, very unsettling. The prevention of such attacks in the first place is the job of law enforcement and the American intelligence and counter-intelligence professionals. That’s why we all need to keep the pressure on elected officials to make sure that everything possible is done to ensure that relevant agencies have sufficient resources and are properly coordinated and accountable.
There are roles for schools, too, as well as parents. Every school should have well-rehearsed emergency response protocols covering a variety of possible scenarios, from fire to armed intruders. Schools should have good lines of communications with local emergency response officials and practice those relationships in drills and special exercises. Parents and parent organizations should work with schools to make sure those preparations have been made and that emergency response protocols are updated and practiced. Schools should have reliable means of contacting parents.
And every parent should be aware of the school’s disaster plans, including where children will be taken in the event of an emergency requiring evacuation.
Legislation plays a large role in many of the suggestions you give for increasing our disaster preparedness. What do you see as the most pressing issue politicians need to address on the local and federal levels?
From the governmental and legislative points of view, there are important roles for every level of government. When in comes to planning for and responding to true megadisasters, the general understanding of major natural or man-made threats, protocols for federal intervention, detailing of assets to be made available to affected communities are the responsibility of the federal government. The actual organization of services, the structure of response command operations and the coordination of local, regional and federal assets is more the purview of local governments. Obviously, local communities will simply not have the resources to respond effectively to a major disaster. How and when state and federal assistance becomes available are critical issues to be worked out long before a megadisaster actually strikes. The failure to coordinate governmental resources was one of the major failings in the flawed response to Hurricane Katrina last Fall.
One of the most important jobs for government is to insure that properly experienced people are in charge of key response agencies. This begins with the federal government where legitimate questions have been raised about the qualifications and capabilities of senior leadership, particularly in the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and certain key agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services. The same principle applies to local governments. What qualifications do the disaster response personnel actually have? Elected officials have a responsibility to make sure that key positions are filled with experienced individuals who can perform when it counts.
One of the points I make in Americans At Risk is that we have not made intelligent use of the military in responding to megadisasters. For a host of reasons, we have not sufficiently included the one sector with the most experience in moving large numbers of people quickly and efficiently. The U.S military can rapidly deploy large-scale medical facilities and it functions under a command structure that actually works in a major crisis. Addressing these realities are among the most important priorities in terms of improving the nation’s ability to respond to megadisasters.
In the book, you advocate the need for radio communications between response teams to work on one frequency—something that is necessary for efficient rescue operations in virtually any disaster. This was also a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, and has been called for repeatedly by various politicians. In your opinion, why has this not been addressed, given the outcry from experts like yourself and political leaders, and the fact that it seems a logical and relatively simple fix?
One of the most important—and inexplicable—preparedness deficiencies since 9/11 is the utter failure to solve the communications conundrum. This is a matter of identifying appropriate technologies (surely well within our reach) and establishing the systems of communication to determine who needs to communicate with whom and under what circumstances. Neither the technological nor the human side of this equation have been solved. All of this reflects some of our most basic difficulties in organizing an appropriate state of disaster readiness. And it’s not even about lack of money—huge sums have been spent without knowing what we’re buying or if we’re even safer than before. Most importantly, we lack leadership, coordination and political will.
If anything could serve as a wake-up call for Americans to prepare for disaster, it should have been Hurricane Katrina. Why hasn’t the message sunk in? And what do you think would be an effective way to get the point across to the public that every individual needs to be responsible when disaster strikes?
Americans do not have a good track record when it comes to preparing for disasters, unless they see a clear possibility of personally being in harms way.
People who live in hurricane risk areas may be more apt to prepare for evacuation than others, for instance. For many citizens the idea of “preparing” is too abstract and too easy to put off to another day. We need to look at getting the message across in different ways and we have to learn how to approach people from varying backgrounds, cultures and philosophies. The government has been using a “one-size fits all” approach – and it’s just not working. We must look at new strategies and focus on the basic message: in a major emergency, you and your neighbors are the real first responders, so here’s what you need to know.
What can corporations better do to protect their employees? Are there any basic steps you'd like to see companies take that can make a big difference in a disaster?
There is much that corporations can do to make disaster plans that will keep employees safe and permit continuity of business to the extent possible. Protecting the lives and safety of employees always comes first. Developing emergency plans, including evacuation procedures is critical. Regular drills and coordination of disaster response protocols are also essential. Back-up and redundancy of business-critical information can be accomplished in a variety of ways, depending on the nature of the enterprise. In addition to these general measures, there is a great deal that can be done to prepare employees—and the business in general—in the event of certain specific megadisasters, like pandemic influenza.
Any resources you recommend for further reading/information?
The National Center for Disaster Preparedness website, www.ncdp.mailman.columbia.edu is an excellent resource. The government site www.ready.gov is also quite useful.
In terms of reading, I recommend Freedom from Fear, by Gregory Thomas, and What You Should Do to Prepare for and Respond to Chemical, Radiological, Nuclear, and Biological Terrorist Attacks: Pocket Edition Survival Guide, prepared by the Rand Corporation.
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