Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How to Stay Put

In a new report, the Redefining Readiness Workgroup argues that, with better preparedness on the part of communities, citizens can successfully shelter in place in the event of an emergency:

In 2004, the Redefining Readiness study found that many people will not be able to shelter in place in an emergency. Exploring how the American public would handle a “dirty bomb” explosion, the study found that only three-fifths (59%) of the population would stay inside a building other than their own home for as long as officials told them. This is cause for concern because people who do not shelter in place will endanger themselves and others. When they go outside, they will expose themselves to toxic dust and radiation, and when they open the door to leave, they will put others in the building at risk by letting dust and radiation inside.

The Redefining Readiness study showed that three-quarters of the people who would not be able to shelter in place under existing conditions would do so if certain issues were addressed.
To examine how to resolve these issues, the RR Workgroup conducted discussions in a variety of communities, in which a number of residents examined the problems they might experience in a sheltering-in-place event. Many of the findings are pretty obvious, but a few are worth highlighting:
People can’t protect themselves by sheltering in place unless they have timely, specific, and believable information about the emergency.

Informing people about the emergency and what to do is important, but the ability of people to protect themselves by sheltering in place depends on a lot more than communication and public education.

Much of what people and organizations currently are being told to do does little to help and sometimes makes matters worse. ... Currently, the public is being instructed to keep a supply of food and water in their homes, and most keep their medications there as well. But in a shelter-in-place emergency many people will need to take shelter in buildings other than their homes ...

Managers are also being told to identify “safe rooms” where people can go to be protected from toxic substances outside. But while detailed instructions are usually given for sealing the room, little or no attention is paid to identifying and preparing rooms that:

(1) can accommodate the number of people who are likely to need shelter;
(2) give the people inside safe access to the supplies and facilities that are critical to meeting their basic, medical, and emotional needs;
(3) assure breathable air and tolerable temperatures; and
(4) minimize other conditions that can provoke unruly or violent behavior.
Rather than tell people what to do, the RR Workgroup presents a series of questions for citizens to think about, in 4 contexts:
  • Households
  • Workplaces
  • Childcare settings, including schools
  • Government settings
The questions provide good food for thought, but some of them are general and of limited use to a person without specific information about the threat. For example:
How will we be protected from toxic substances outside if we are some place else at the time of the emergency, such as at work, school, day care, shopping, or in a restaurant?
The answer depends on which toxic substance you're talking about, where you are in relation to it, what your options are for sheltering in place, etc.

My biggest question is simple: How do you ensure that people will drill it? Compared to other, more common risks (e.g., fires, storms), accidents or attacks that might involve sheltering in place are relatively rare. Especially in contexts such as workplaces and schools, employees and students won't act correctly in an emergency unless they've drilled it.

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