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The Specter of Terror

July 24, 2007

504307072_b73cdaafee Late last week, a high pressure steam pipe in New York City blew through the street, killing one woman, injuring dozens and costs local businesses millions of dollars because the immediate area has been declared off-limits to pedestrians and auto traffic. Just about every headline filed addressed the fact that this explosion was not tied in any way to terrorist activity. That everyone’s first thought in emergency situations is a testament to the retooling of America’s psyche – while we may not necessarily be prepared, we are hyper-vigilant.

And frankly, that’s a shame. Because while terrorism is a continuing threat, the fact of the matter is that there is a much higher chance that something else will kill you. Disasters happen every day. And like John Bowen says:

If you’re prepared to mitigate a release of radioactive and/or toxic materials, it doesn’t matter if the source is natural, accidental, or intentional.

We’ve talked before about all hazards planning, and I continue to preach about the need for planners to think beyond the oh-so-sexy terrorism angle. But what to do about the public? The public who jumps at every car back-firing with the thought of another 9/11? Are we, as planners and responders, and otherwise engaged in preparedness efforts feeding this, frankly, irrational edginess?

My thought is this – I’m young. I haven’t tried to get folks prepared for hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes for the last twenty years, only to be ignored until 9/11 rolled around. In the wake of those attacks, and the subsequent anthrax mailings, emergency preparedness groups were flush with money, purpose and staff. We could easily transform a disease surveillance proposal that’s been sitting in a drawer for years into one that responds to an RFP for bioterror surveillance. And with pandemic influenza perpetually threatening, there’s even more money and purpose. Experienced planners tell me that this is the moment in the sun – this is our one chance to command resources and attention, so if we need to scare folks in order to accomplish true preparedness, well, we should be alright with that. And really, in preparedness, is there such a thing as “crying wolf?” Can we really say, “Be ready, ’cause you never know what might happen,” too many times before we get tuned out? I can’t imagine that it would happen anymore than it already does happen. This is not, of course, the case for warnings (like the now completely-ridiculous color-coded threat level), just for preparedness messages.

So, I continue on – scaring the bejeezus out of everyone – in the hope that (A) my worries are unfounded, (B) that someone listens to me, and (C) that I don’t end up akin to the scraggy old coot standing on the corner holding his “The End Is Near!” sign as folks drive by ignoring my pleas.

What about you? Do you think we’ve pushed this whole “Be Ready” thing too far? Or are we justified in our rantings?

Photo credit: wiseacre photo

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