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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

From 1-10, How Would You Rate The American Public’s Preparedness For A Nuclear Explosion?

June 30th, 2008 · No Comments

That was the question Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) posed last week at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the nation’s preparedness for a nuclear attack. It was the fifth in the series of the Committee’s important set of hearings aimed at bringing some overdue attention to this issue.

To be precise, Lieberman asked the hearing witnesses to rate how ready the U.S. is for a nuclear attack (not specifically the public) on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “totally prepared” and one being “totally unprepared,” according to a story by CQ’s Daniel Fowler:

“I would say . . . representing the locals that it’s probably in the four to five range,” said James H. Schwartz, chief of the Arlington County Fire Department, who was speaking on behalf of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “And, I realize we’re being somewhat arbitrary here.”

At the other end of the spectrum was Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator R. David Paulison, who gave the highest score of the three federal officials who testified. Paulison rated the preparedness to respond at a seven, while Health and Human Services’ W. Craig Vanderwagen said it was “probably around a six, maybe a five,” and the Defense Department’s Paul McHale ranked it at “probably a five.”

The officials agreed that a good deal of improvement in preparedness has been made since 9/11.

“I would say on Sept. 11, we would have struggled to be a two,” Mc Hale said. “Today, we are probably a five. And to improve our capabilities in the face of a challenge that is almost impossible to calculate, the consequences of a 10-kt nuclear detonation in the heart of a major American city, I think from a DOD standpoint, now that we have designed the right kinds of capabilities . . . we’ve got to bring an operational reality to the concepts that we’ve developed.” McHale suggested it would be possible to move from a five to an eight.

I mention this hearing, as it regards citizen preparedness, for two reasons:

1) If Lieberman’s question had been to rate the public’s preparedness for a nuclear explosion, I can’t believe any of the officials could have given anything more than a “1″. Though overall first responder readiness for such a major catastrophe has markedly improved since 9/11, the public’s knowledge and preparedness has not. It needs to, and these hearings are good first step towards determining what needs to be done in that area.

2) The fact that the Defense Department’s McHale only promised making the level of preparedness an 8 is a good lesson for the public. We should not expect 10’s either in preparedness or response. We should expect competence and strive for excellence, but we are not going to stop every attack and respond perfectly to every catastrophe. Even if it was possible, it would cost too much. We should not be promising 10’s to the public, and they should not expect it.

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