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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

D.C. Panel Emphasizes Public’s Role In Preparing For IED Threat To Nation; New Survey Says Americans Expect IED Attacks In U.S. But Not On Them

April 12th, 2010 · 3 Comments

I wanted to bring your attention to a recent panel held by George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute. The title of the event was “Improvised Explosive Devices: Perceptions and the Domestic Threat” After watching the webcast, I was struck by how each of the panelists, including the Washington D.C. police chief, highlighted the centrality of the public’s role in dealing with the IED threat here in the U.S..

Darby Miller Steiger from Gallup began the panel by presenting a new survey that found “a vast majority of Americans believe it is likely the U.S. will suffer an IED attack within the next two years. Few, however, believe an attack will happen in their community. Even in New York City and Washington, DC, only one in five respondents felt such an attack was likely to occur in their city.” In her presentation slides, Steiger elaborated that a ““I’m OK but you’re not’ phenomenon plays out, with only 9% believing their communities are at risk of an IED attack, yet 61% think the U.S. is likely to be attacked in next 2 years.”

The subsequent panelists picked up on the theme of better informing and preparing the public to both prevent and respond these potential attacks. The event featured: Corey Gruber, Assistant Deputy Administrator, National Preparedness Directorate, FEMA, Department of Homeland Security; Cathy Lanier, Chief, Metropolitan Police Department, Washington, DC and HSPI Steering Committee Member; Josh Meyer, Director, Education and Outreach, Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, Northwestern University; Mark Mueller, Acting Deputy Chief, Office for Bombing Prevention, National Protection and Programs Directorate, Department of Homeland Security; and, Adam Thiel, Chief, Alexandria Fire Department, Alexandria, Virginia and HSPI Steering Committee Member.

According to the Institute’s writeup of the panel:

Gruber stated that Gallup’s findings correlate with FEMA’s Personal Preparedness in America survey. Stating “information is the key,” Gruber noted that both data sets support the idea that information can have a direct and indirect effect on how people react in a crisis. He expanded his point by highlighting two important elements that shape crisis behavior. First, how information is received—how it is communicated to individuals. Second, how it is observed—what others observe the people around them doing with said information.

Mueller echoed the importance of an informed public. According to him, what is needed are mechanisms that would allow officials to build upon the knowledge and awareness that already resides within the public. Mueller also stressed the necessity of providing concrete guidance to the public, and the role citizens play in providing key intelligence. He argued that “quite often it is the alert clerk, it’s the off-duty police officer, it’s the neighbor” that notices key indicators that enable law enforcement and national level assets to intercede before a threat comes to fruition.

Building on this theme, Lanier stressed that we must recalibrate our thinking on who is actually responsible for preparing for and preventing attacks. She contends that citizens, not the government, have the primary responsibility. However the challenge is that, “there’s no picture in the public mind of how to get in touch with Homeland Security.”

Chief Lanier also made a point that her counterpoint in New York City Ray Kelly has also highlighted: one often overlooked responsibility of citizens is to tell their elected officials that local law enforcement needs ongoing resources for terrorism prevention even as time continues to pass since the nation was attacked.

On the other hand, I think it is up to law enforcement and government officials to be more open and frank with the public if they expect that level of understanding and involvement. Gallup’s Steiger reported that “while 8 in 10 report familiarity with the term IED, this does not necessarily mean that the public understands the threat and how to respond.” But there has been very little public conversation — outside industry events like this — about IED’s and the potential danger so it is not surprising that Americans would not be informed or prepared.

IED Event Panel

Panelists at the Homeland Security Policy Institute’s ”Improvised Explosive Devices: Perceptions and the Domestic Threat”

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