The U.S.Â Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs has been holding a very interesting series of hearings on nuclear terrorism. Though the hearings have covered manyÂ aspects ofÂ theÂ nuclear threat, one of the most important themes that has emerged isÂ citizen preparedness.
In fact, though yesterday’sÂ hearingÂ was called “Nuclear Terrorism: Providing Medical Care and Meeting Basic Needs in the Aftermath”, a good deal of theÂ witness statementsÂ focused on public communications shortfalls.Â There was aÂ consensusÂ in the hearingÂ that there is a real need forÂ far better public communications before and during a nuclear attack. According toÂ CommitteeÂ Chairman Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) improvingÂ that area couldÂ ”save a lot of lives.”
The hearings have reinforced my strong belief there is aÂ needÂ toÂ develop aÂ new strategic planÂ for public communications before and during a nuclear attack but also forÂ any catastrophic emergency.
At today’s hearing,Â witnessesÂ agreedÂ that the American public is not at all prepared or informed enough about the nuclear threat. There wereÂ a number of reasons discussed to explain for the currentÂ situation. But I was struck most by Senator Lieberman’s observation that emergency response officials — both national and local — shy away from talking about the possibility of a nuclear incident with the public. In fact, he observed that officials are very happy to discuss hurricane plans with their citizenry but notÂ other more ’scary’ threats like nuclear terrorism. It is something that I have seen as well and have expressed concern about.
In his testimony,Â Joe Becker of the Red Cross pointed out:
“The investment in telling American citizens ahead of time what to do in a nuclear scenario has not been made on the appropriate scale. We need to make it easy for Americans to know — and to have accessible in advance — what steps to take in a nuclear terrorism event.”
Ira Helfand of Physicians for Social ResponsibilityÂ offered a specificÂ example in his statement:
“We need to have in place an effective means of communication an order to evacuate or to shelter the public, and we need to do enough prior education so that people ordered to shelter in place will be able to understand why this is the best thing to do instead of jumping in their cars and trying to drive as fast as they can away from that terrible mushroom cloud hanging over their city.”
Columbia University’s Irwin Redliner pointed out the need to correct someÂ some mythsÂ about a nuclear attack, including “The Myth of Extreme Improbability” andÂ ”The Myth of Planning Futility”, so the public (and their leaders) understood the situation.Â In the questioning, Redliner evenÂ offeredÂ some concrete tips (ie. don’t stare into the fireball) about reacting to nuclear explosion that he has told his kids who live in New York and that he feels every AmericanÂ (including Senator Lieberman’s kids who live there as well) should be told in advance.
As these hearings have underscored, there is a real need to look at ourÂ existingÂ disaster communications for citizens — from DHS, CDC, FEMA, states, cities, the Red Cross, etc. — and begin to build a newÂ model reflective of the threats and challenges of theÂ 21stÂ Century.