Thursday, July 05, 2007

Modern civil defense: Spin vs usefulness

It's really interesting how, despite the decades of additional knowledge available, today's "Emergency Preparedness" booklets sound an awful lot like those of decades ago. Just as in the 1950s, they're vague, incomplete and practically useless in a real crisis.

Recently I came across a print copy of the Emergency Preparedness Manual from the Northeastern District Department of Health (NDDH), the regional health agency that covers Windham County, CT. Having had frequent contact with NDDH people since last September, I know they mean well, are generally competent at their jobs, and have been holding periodic disaster drills of various types to improve regional response coordination. Unfortunately, this guide doesn't show it.

Simply put, such guides should be written assuming the reader has ZERO experience preparing for an emergency and knows next to nothing about the potential hazards. The bold text on page one certainly implies that: It states the agency wants people to be "in the know and ready to go," and tells us to "Prepare now so you'll be ready when seconds count."

Great. The only problem is that, 15 pages and a few passing references later, they still haven't told you how to do the most basic thing -- create an emergency kit. It has several pages defining highly unlikely weapons and diseases that might be involved in a crisis, including sarin, soman, shigellosis and Q fever, but doesn't say word one about what a kit should contain or where in the area to get its contents. Same is true of creating a household emergency plan. ##

The one clear emergency kit reference is itself problematic. Under the section on sheltering-in-place, it states, "Take your emergency supply kit [to your safe room] unless you have reason to believe it has been contaminated." Ummm ... If the kit's being stored at home and is contaminated, doesn't that usually mean the HOUSE is also? You shouldn't stay there, obviously, unless going elsewhere is worse.

Getting into what the guide does say, it's quite correct in noting that "where you should shelter during an emergency is different depending on the emergency." It recommends sheltering upstairs in biological or chemical crises (on the grounds that those toxins tend to be heavier than air, which is true), and underground in radiological or nuclear incidents (also true, with caveats we'll get to). When there, it recommends (as usual) keeping tabs on radio, TV, the Web and other news sources, which might be useful in some circumstances, but wouldn't exist (at least locally) in others.

It fails to note a serious catch-22 in its suggestion for securing that safe room by covering all doors, vents and windows with plastic "Home Guard Barrier Sheeting" (that's never clearly defined) to keep out air -- It notes that the air will eventually become unbreathable, but fails to note that it may be NECESSARY to stay in the shelter for several days (beyond the air's breathability limit) under some circumstances. That would put people in the unwinnable situation of having to choose between, say, radiation exposure and suffocation.

Of course, it also fails to note that the plastic sheeting might indeed keep out particles and toxic gases, but is useless against radiation. Later, when it defines radiation, it generalizes that radiation is "present all around us" (which is true) but completely ignores that different types of radiation (i.e alpha, beta and gamma) require different thickness of shielding and approaches to cleanup. Under "acute radiation syndrome," it lists symptoms, but fails to clearly ID the pattern of onset, the two that are generally seen as characteristic of serious exposure -- hair loss and blood changes -- or that the highest exposures typically spark the fastest symptom onset and have the worst prognosis.

The brief sections on earthquakes (not a big threat here), explosions, fire, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes are largely just common sense and need no comment. But those involving nuclear weapons are dangerously understated.

A glaring case in point is this line -- "... any shield or shelter will help protect you from the immediate effects of the blast and pressure wave" of a detonation. Although technically true, this depends greatly on how close to ground zero you are. Most structures that aren't built of reinforced concrete would become fast-flying shrapnel if you're unlucky enough to be too close.

Most likely, this area won't experience nuclear thermal or blast effects because we're too far from the nearest real target; the real threat around here is fallout, which could come from targets in almost any direction. In that case, residents do need to seriously consider the guide's question of whether to shelter nearby or evacuate the area, but a viable evacuation would depend on what the target was and if there were more than one. Being New England, there aren't many places that aren't at risk of some fallout, except maybe parts of Maine, but NE Conn. is much more susceptible than most. (In passing, it also mentions community shelters, but doesn't say where they are or which ones are potentially fallout shelters.)

That raises a concern the guide also doesn't touch at all -- psychological issues. In crisis, people tend to fall back on very basic, well-learned skills and reactions or, lacking those, panic. At the extreme, people literally shut down, becoming walking automatons or doing nothing at all and letting the horror overwhelm them. What is available to counteract that tendency? I know NDDH has some connections to local mental health services and the state DMH, but what could these agencies do NOW to help people buttress themselves during the crucial period between the emergency event and any relief effort (if there is one)?

From what I've seen, NDDH seems to be pretty good at training police, fire, EMTs and similar services to cooperate, but there's very little effort to get the everyday citizen in on the act.

## The state of CT's preparedness guide, by contrast, very clearly spells out what such a kit should contain, using the standard three-day minimum rule. It also notes something I find encouraging: The first statement (after political blathering) is "Identify and understand your surroundings, including potentially dangerous weather conditions, flood plains, chemical facilities, nuclear plants, etc." That info could be very important, and I'll bet a large number of people couldn't say what the potential risks are in this area. In case of nuclear detonations, I'd also suggest having an idea of what the possible targets are within, say, 100 miles and what the typical wind pattern is.

I also like its simple checklist for creating an emergency communications plan, including the important reminder to have contacts in the area AND out-of-state to contact in case of separation. That would be beneficial in all but the worst catastrophe (namely, nuclear holocaust).