I recently had the opportunity to interview Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, on the subject of citizen preparedness. Speaking in his Capitol Hill office, Thompson told me that he believes there needs to be more emphasis on public readiness and engagement in the U.S.
He says he hopes President Obama will take the lead by urging Americans to prepare: “The President has the bully pulpit to encourage preparedness in the same way he has done on public service.” Thompson also thinks the government should provide citizens with more info about the range of homeland security threats as part of the preparedness process: “The public needs a constant flow of information so they know what to do to protect themselves.”
Thompson remembers that on September 11th, 2001 there was chaos on Capitol Hill, even with all the law enforcement there. But he observes Americans are not all that much better informed almost eight years later on what to do if something happens. Though the Chairman cautions that the public education has to be done in a careful, balanced way: “You don’t want to scare people to death to get prepared.”
According to Thompson, there is a need to bring back the preparedness ethic of the Civil Defense-era, updated for the new century, including integrating a preparedness curriculum into U.S. schools. ”When I was a kid we had civil defense drills in school, so we knew what to do.” Though he notes that while ‘duck and cover’ would not have done much good in response to Russian missiles during the Cold War, there are things that citizens can do now to mitigate the impact of potential threats. The Chairman explains that citizen preparedness should not be seen as something unusual or drastic but just part of our normal life which will strengthen our communities’ readiness for emergencies small or large, natural or man-made.
U.S. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS)
In the interview, Thompson also emphasized the importance of the public’s role in assisting authorities in homeland security: “We can’t buy enough equipment to prevent every terrorist attack. We need your eyes and ears.” He says the U.S. can learn from elements of the “Israeli model” for public readiness and engagement and making preparedness part of everyone’s responsibility.
In sum, Thompson says that the more prepared the public is, the more resilient the nation will be. (His committee held an interesting series of hearings last summer, titled “The Resilient Homeland” with an terrific group of witnesses, which focused on “the Nation’s ability to quickly and effectively bounce back from large scale disruptions.”)