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Rhode Island emergency workers respond to a mock chemical attack. (AP)

Covering homeland security on Main Street

ASK THIS | July 27, 2004

Attention has focused on the national issues relating to homeland security, but it's the local and state plans — and news reports — that will most impact readers and viewers. (Second in a series on homeland security.)

By Judi Hasson

Q: Does your community have a plan in the event of a terrorist attack in your backyard? What is it and who coordinates it? How often do local authorities get terrorist bulletins from the FBI or other federal law enforcement agencies?

Q: What happens to children if there is an attack while they are in school? Is there a lockdown? An evacuation plan? Will parents be allowed to pick up children regardless of the situation?

Q: Have local entities such as utilities, government installations such as military bases or post offices, or even nuclear power plants been provided with special emergency communications devices in the event of an attack?

Q: Many people have been purchasing NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather radios to tune into a special frequency in the event of an emergency. Some communities are experimenting with reverse 911 emergency calls that would alert homes near a danger site by calling them in the event of a crisis. Are people in your community doing anything like that? See and, government Web sites that provide some information about emergencies.

Q: How well-prepared are your local first responders to react quickly in the event of a biological, chemical, radiological or physical attack? Have they gotten federal grants to strengthen equipment for local responders? If so, have they used the money for security or to pay mounting overtime bills caused by increased security? See the Department of Homeland Security’s Web page on emergencies and disasters.

While attention has focused on national issues relating to homeland security such as port and airport security, it is the local and state plans that will impact readers and viewers. Here are some questions you should be asking  — of everyone from the school board president to the mayor to your next door neighbor — about what kind of plans are in place, and what’s needed to make your community safe.

One group, the non-profit Partnership for Public Warning, is campaigning to strengthen local, state and national alert systems. On its Web site, the group examines possible alert systems and the challenges, such as how to issue warnings in the middle of the night or during a holiday or quiet weekend when people may be far from a television or radio.

A poll by Federal Computer Week shows that most people will be looking to the news media for as much information as they can get on what to do in the event of an emergency.

Extra tip: In my own community near Washington, D.C., many doctors have volunteered to inoculate the public in the event of a smallpox attack. The plan calls for residents to be picked up at their nearest public school bus stop and transported to the local high school. It calls for inoculating one million people in a four-day period and doing it alphabetically. People whose last names are A-D would go first, and so on. Most people don’t even know the plan exists, and it is unclear how it would be disseminated to the public in the event of an emergency. Does your community have a plan like this? And how will the public learn about it?

Next: The business community and homeland security

Department of Homeland Security's Web site
Information on first responses to emergencies and disasters

Partnership for Public Warning Web site
A nonprofit group campaigning to strengthen national and local alert systems

Federal Computer Week Web site
Survey shows people would go to the news media, not the government, for disaster information.

The website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.