There was an interesting story on WNYC, the New York City National Public Radio affiliate, this weekend, “How NY Officials Prepare for Threat of Dirty Bomb,” by Bob Hennelly. The piece described the City’s extensive efforts to prevent and respond to the use of a so-called ‘dirty bomb,’ a traditional explosive laced with radiological material, which is considered a likely terrorist weapon. The dirty bomb would not have the same physical impact of a nuclear device, but according to experts it could have a huge psychological impact, particularly if the public is unfamiliar with the weapon.
That’s why this story was so striking. It showed how the City, along with federal officials, have developed an impressive operation to combat radiological weapons — since 9/11, the New York Police Department has assigned 1,000 officers to counter-terrorism — but also underscored how uninformed and unprepared the public is for such an attack. Though the authorities have worked extensively on their plans, they have yet to really include the citizenry. According the WNYC story:
[New York Office of Emergency Management Deputy Commissioner] Kelly McKinney says one of the biggest challenges for city planners is having to inform the public about a specific emergency while at the same time educating people about an invisible threat they know little about.Â â€œRadiation is a risk that is perceived very differently by the public than it is by the experts,” McKinney says.
Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, a health physicist and one of the nation’s top experts on radiological event response, agrees. â€œItâ€™s not something that is taught in schools, and it is not something that gets a proper and objective view,” she says.Â Gordon-Hagerty has served in leadership posts at the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Security Council and says it’s hard to inform the public about relative risk if they don’t know that radiation at background levels already occurs naturally or that forms of radiation can save lives.
“More often than not, you hear people talking about the horrific effects of being exposed to radiation,” she says. “Well, we live with it in our everyday lives and we are exposed to it in the countless numbers of people that have been saved from cancer treatments to other types of treatments involving other kinds of radioactive materials.”
Hagerty explains why the lack of citizen knowledge is dangerous:
She says without a basic understanding of radiation the public will fall back on their survival instincts, and this could have dire consequences for them and their families.Â â€œWhen being exposed to radiation, we have the desire, as humans, to fight or flight. Sometimes sheltering in place is the best way of minimizing exposure. So staying in the house, closing off ventilation systems, and things like that are often the most suitable way of protecting yourself,” Gordon-Hagerty says.
Dr. Michael Edelstein, a social psychologist and professor at New Jersey’s Ramapo College, noted in the story the delicate balance involved in briefing the public on these issues:
…while officials have to worry about not panicking the public, they can’t be perceived as having a hidden agenda either. He says the job for New York City officials coping with a radiological attack will be complicated by public skepticism. The Environmental Protection Agency under the Bush Administration hurt the government’s credibility, Edelstein says, when it announced that air quality around the World Trade Center after September 11 was all clear.
This may not seem like an easy discussion, but it is timeÂ for officials on the national and local levels to start it. Because as the story indicates and I have beenÂ writing on this blog, the public’s lack of knowledge is a weak link when it comes to terror readiness.Â David Shenk, who wrote Slate’s Survivalist column and is the author of the new best -selling and well reviewed book, The Genius In All Of Us, brought this radio story to my attention. He had his own suggestion on how to address it: “They ought to have a half-dozen Saturday press conferences with the mayor etc. educating the public about the basic to-dos and not-tos in specific emergencies.”
In a speech last week, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said Americans deserve a “clear appraisement” of terrorist threats. Part of that appraisement should include more specific information. It is not enough to say citizens face ‘dirty bombs’ — or nuclear, biological, chemical and other threats for that matter — without specifically explaining what they would entail and how would the public be expected to deal with them.