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New Study Indicates Most Washington, D.C. Area Residents Would Be Willing To Follow Instructions To ‘Shelter In Place’ After ‘Dirty Bomb’

April 29th, 2010 · 3 Comments

A new study by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management found that most people in the National Capital Region would follow instructions to stay where they are after a radiological dispersion device, or “dirty bomb.” The survey, “Population Behaviors in Dirty Bomb Attack Scenarios: A Survey of the National Capital Region,” explored how people get their information in an emergency, information sources residents trust, the amount of advance preparation people have completed, and the actions they would take under increasing levels of personal threat.

According to the Department, three scenarios – at minimum, moderate and maximum hazard levels – were created for the survey, starting with a single dirty bomb released in the region, but not near the survey respondent. The maximum level involved a situation with multiple dirty bombs released throughout the region and exposing the population to radiation. The scenarios were varied to learn the effects of four factors: the level of hazard, whether the respondent was at home or at work, whether there was prior notice of the event, and the source of information and instructions about the event.

Among the overall findings from the report (which was done for the state by the University of Virginia Center for Survey Research and the Center for Risk Management of Engineering Systems):

* Of those at home during the event for all three scenarios, nearly 80 percent decided to stay home.

* For those at work during a minimal event (in which no shelter-in-place order is given for the respondent’s area), only 41 percent would stay at work, with 33 percent leaving to go home.

* For those at work during a moderate or maximum event when a shelter-in-place order is given, approximately 70 percent would stay at work.

Other findings include:

*The president, the Department of Homeland Security and the governor were cited as the most trustworthy sources of information, with the youngest respondents giving the president the highest level of trust.

*During the first 48 hours after a major local emergency, whether they chose to stay or to evacuate, residents expect emergency managers to supply information about the emergency and help with any needed decontamination, more than they expect food distribution or anti-looting patrols.

*About 54 percent have prepared a personal emergency plan, an emergency supply kit, or arranged a meeting place away from home for use by family members. Only 13 percent had done all three.

This appears to be a thorough, comprehensive study of an important issue — how the public would react to a dirty bomb — that has been discussed extensively on the blog. The findings would seem to report the good news that most citizens would be willing to ’shelter in place’ in their homes if that was the correct response and would follow instructions from authorities during a dirty bomb emergency. It also appears to show a relatively high level of knowledge about the dirty bomb threat among Washington-area residents.

As officials will be using the report to help develop emergency plans for the National Capital Region and surrounding areas, I would offer a couple of thoughts. I would be encouraged by the findings. But I do think that the unfamiliarity and newness of a radiological device that Americans have never experienced is something that really cannot be fully captured in a survey. These numbers might lead the authorities to think that there isn’t as much need for public education about the dirty bomb and other threats or more explanation about ’shelter in place’ vs. evacuation, or discussion of how workplaces and schools would be integrated into the response (ie. will parents be willing to stay home or at work if they don’t know what their kids are doing). That would be the wrong conclusion.

I am also concerned that there may be a little too much confidence among the survey respondents in the capacity of emergency responders (including the survey result: “During the first 48 hours after a major local emergency, whether they chose to stay or to evacuate, residents expect emergency managers to supply information about the emergency and help with any needed decontamination.”) That may not be the case in a post radiological situation. There needs to be more information provided on what those expectations really should be when it comes to radiation. And, the time to do it is not after the incident has occurred.

The survey will not only provide data for emergency planning but also help raise the profile of the issue of dirty bomb civilian response. I hope the authorities in National Capital Region and across the nation will also use it in helping to better educate and prepare their residents for this important — and unfortunately somewhat likely — possibility.

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Tags: Nuclear Terrorism · Preparedness Resources

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 JB Haber // Apr 29, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    I live and work in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. It’s probably safe to say that “stay or go” decisions around here are based on the terrible traffic congestion. One popular story in my workplace took place during a bad snow storm. Our building of approximately 3K people in a dense office park decided to close mid-day and allow people go go home early. One guy tells the story that it took him 45 minutes once he got in his car to just get out of our parking lot … due to all the traffic on the main roads. He made it as far as the main road, turned right, and then just re-entered our campus at the next traffic light.

  • 2 “Gimme Shelter: The Need For A Contemporary Civil Defense Program” // Apr 29, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    [...] Tags "What Should We Tell The Public?" Alerts Amanda Ripley American Red Cross Andy Carvin Books CDC CERT Citizen Corps Craig Fugate Cross Blog David Stephenson DHS Drills ESNA-CERT FEMA Go Bags H1N1 Homeland Security Inside & Out Homeland Security Watch Hurricane Preparedness Janet Napolitano Media Michael Chertoff National Preparedness Month New York Times NYC-OEM Preparedness 2.0 Preparedness Tips Ready.Gov Red Cross Resilience Rich Cooper Robin Parker Schools Social Media The Unthinkable Tips Twitter University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center Video Volunteering Washington Post WNYC YouTube ← New Study Indicates Most Washington, D.C. Area Residents Would Be Willing To Follow Instructions To … [...]

  • 3 Are Americans “Seeing” And “Saying” Enough? Times Square Scare Offers Opportunity To Assess, Improve Public’s Role In Homeland Security // May 5, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    [...] Though the response was widely regarded as very successful, they were some teachable questions. Why, for example, were guests evacuated and not allowed into the Marriott Marquis hotel while the police kept the audience in the theater downstairs in the same building locked down? (Of course, many of those in Times Square were tourists, but this type of discussion would be helpful nonetheless.) The evacuation vs shelter in place is something that deserves some attention from the authorities, because it will almost definitely come up again, maybe after an actual explosion. [...]

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