The U.S. 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 many aspects of the nuclear threat, one of the most important themes that has emerged is citizen preparedness.
In fact, though yesterday’s hearing was called “Nuclear Terrorism: Providing Medical Care and Meeting Basic Needs in the Aftermath”, a good deal of the witness statements focused on public communications shortfalls. There was a consensus in the hearing that there is a real need for far better public communications before and during a nuclear attack. According to Committee Chairman Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) improving that area could ”save a lot of lives.”
The hearings have reinforced my strong belief there is a need to develop a new strategic plan for public communications before and during a nuclear attack but also for any catastrophic emergency.
At today’s hearing, witnesses agreed that the American public is not at all prepared or informed enough about the nuclear threat. There were a number of reasons discussed to explain for the current 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 not other more ’scary’ threats like nuclear terrorism. It is something that I have seen as well and have expressed concern about.
In his testimony, 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 Responsibility offered a specific 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 some some myths about a nuclear attack, including “The Myth of Extreme Improbability” and ”The Myth of Planning Futility”, so the public (and their leaders) understood the situation. In the questioning, Redliner even offered 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 American (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 our existing disaster communications for citizens — from DHS, CDC, FEMA, states, cities, the Red Cross, etc. — and begin to build a new model reflective of the threats and challenges of the 21st Century.