Advice on Preparing for Disaster

Feds give practical advice on preparing for terrorist attacks

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

As the threat of terrorist attack appears more real every day, officials have some advice on how to prevent and prepare for possible terrorist attack. Aside from the usual "be aware of your surroundings" rhetoric, new guidelines urge Americans to take more practical steps ranging from assembling a "disaster supply kit" to keeping a supply of duct tape and plastic sheeting on hand to seal off their homes if necessary.

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security say most of the precautions aren't necessarily new and are based on disaster preparedness programs of the American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The report outlines recommended responses to a variety of potential acts of terrorism, including bomb scares as well as biological, chemical, nuclear, and cyber attacks and is the first major public education effort launched by the newly formed Department of Homeland Security.

High-risk targets include military and civilian facilities, international airports, large cities, and high profile landmarks. But terrorists might also target food and water supplies, large public gatherings, utilities and corporate centers.

The nature of terrorism means there is often little or no warning, so officials says preparedness is the best defense.

Preparing for a building explosion:

  • Know where emergency exits are located.
  • Keep fire extinguishers in working condition, know where they are, and how to use them.
  • Learn first aid (contact the local chapter of the American Red Cross for information on training).
  • Building owners should keep a kit containing the following in designated place on each floor: portable radio with batteries, several flashlights and extra batteries, first aid kit and manual, several hard hats, and fluorescent tape to rope off dangerous areas.

Preparing and responding to a chemical or biological attack:

First and foremost, in this type of attack tune in to your radio or TV for instructions from authorities about whether to evacuate or remain indoors. They will advise you of what to do during and after the attack. Among other things you can do:

  • Assemble a disaster supply kit containing: battery-powered radio; non-perishable food and drinking water; a roll of duct tape, scissors, and plastic for doors, windows and vents to seal off an internal room from air that may contain dangerous chemicals; first aid kit, sanitation supplies including soap, water, and bleach.
  • In case of attack, turn off all ventilation, including furnaces, air conditioners, vents and fans and seek shelter in a sealed off, internal room.
  • If you are outside in an unprotected area during an attack, attempt to get upwind of the contaminated area, seek shelter as soon as possible, and listen to your radio or TV for further instructions.
  • After a chemical or biological attack use caution with helping others. Remove all clothing and other items in contact with the body, flush eyes with lots of water, gently wash face and hair with soap and water, blot other contaminated body areas with a cloth soaked in soapy water and rinse with clear water, and change into uncontaminated clothes (clothing stored in drawers or closets is likely uncontaminated).

Preparing for nuclear attack:

  • Learn the warning signals and all sources of warning in your community.
  • Assemble a disaster supply kit with enough food, water, medications, fuel and personal items for two weeks.
  • Find out what buildings in your area have been designated as fallout shelters, and give everyone in your household clear instructions about where these shelters are located.

In case of nuclear or radiological attack:

  • Do not look at the flash or fireball, it could be blinding.
  • If you hear the warning signal, take cover below ground if possible. If you are caught outside, take cover under anything that might offer protection and lie flat on the ground and cover your head.
  • If you are close enough to see the flash of an explosion, the radioactive fallout will arrive in about 20 minutes. But fallout can also travel hundreds of miles, so take shelter and stay there until instructed by officials to leave.

For more information on reducing your risk after a nuclear attack, see Threats Heighten Radiation Worries.

Originally published Feb. 11, 2003.

Medically updated March 18, 2003.

SOURCE: Federal Emergency Management Agency Report, "Are You Ready?" Feb. 10, 2003.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005