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Improving terrorism preparedness: emergency planning--if it's for the people, shouldn't it be by the people?

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.


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. But few shopping malls are set up to function as safe havens with crisis counselors.

Grassroots involvement of citizens in their communities' emergency-response planning could go a long way toward creating plans that actually work, as the demonstration projects intend to show.

"This is going to do a lot for the trust issue," says Johnson. "Up until now, the people who live in Savannah have been left out of the city's planning process. But as they become involved, through groups like the Eastside Neighborhood Alliance, they'll know firsthand that planners are listening to them. And when they help planners develop strategies that protect them as much as possible from the risks and concerns they'll actually face, I bet they'll have a lot more confidence in what I and other officials tell them to do in an emergency."

Besides Savannah, the four planning demonstration projects supported by the Academy and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation are in the city of Carlsbad and South Eddy County, New Mexico; the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago; and several counties in southeastern Oklahoma.

The "best practices" emerging from the demonstrations could help make communities safer as well as more resilient socially and economically from these risks--and other wild cards they may face in the future. And, by drawing from the common sense of the people, "we'll learn how to get a much better return on the investments we are making in emergency preparedness," says Barbara Sabol, Kellogg Foundation program director.

As Carlsbad Fire Chief Mike Reynolds put it, "Planning without public involvement is flawed planning."

Source: The New York Academy of Medicine, 1216 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10029. Web site The Academy's report Redefining Readiness: Terrorism Planning Through the Eyes of the Public (2004) is available online at
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Title Annotation:Government
Author:Wagner, Cynthia G.
Publication:The Futurist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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