It’s obvious that much has changed in the ten years since 9/11. Ask Americans what they think is the most important problem facing the United States and terrorism doesn’t even make the list. The number of Americans willing to have the government violate their “basic civil liberties” in order to prevent additional acts of terrorism has dropped by almost half. So has the number with a great deal of confidence that the government can protect citizens from terrorist attacks. But what about the preparedness of newsrooms to cover a terrorist attack?
In the immediate aftermath of the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington and the anthrax attacks that followed, newsrooms stepped up efforts to train and equip journalists to cover all kinds of terrorist threats. RTDNF produced workshops in association with the National Academies and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Some newsrooms acquired protective gear; a few even showed staffers how to use it. But inevitably the focus shifted. How many newsrooms even talk about covering a possible terror attack today?
There’s no way to know all there is to know about every possible terrorist threat. But every journalist should know something about what one expert calls B-NICE: biological, nuclear, incendiary, chemical and explosive hazards.
Here are some tips from experts who spoke at the “Media and the First Response” conference in Washington, hosted by the National Academies in 2003. We think they’re still useful today, as is this terrorism glossary and this journalist’s guide to covering bioterrorism.
Be prepared. Know the potential targets in your area. Government buildings, military installations, storage facilities, plants, public buildings, places where large groups gather.
Be alert. Notice the out-of-the-ordinary, and know what it could mean.
1. Something obvious like an explosion is probably a conventional attack. If it’s a dirty bomb (an RDD or radiological dispersion device), says George Whitesides of Harvard, you are more likely to be run over by somebody trying to get away than to be hurt by the radiation. “A dirty bomb sounds terrible, but the risk is moderate.” (Radiation fact sheet PDF)
2. Are there people down? Likely a chemical attack. Stay away. Stay upwind.
3. Unexpected incidents of disease in hospitals? It could be biological, but be very careful with reporting until something is confirmed. (Biological agent fact sheet PDF)
Be careful. If you hear gas escaping, you are too close. If you smell an unusual odor (like new-mown hay, corn, garlic, camphor, or bitter almonds), you may have been exposed and may be contaminated. Avoid further risk by retreating, says Warren Campbell, formerly of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute. Do not eat, drink, smoke or chew gum anywhere near the scene. You could ingest the substance.
Escape hoods and masks are great devices for one thing only: escape. These are not for reporters to put on in a clean area and go into a dirty area. That requires training, fit testing, and different suits for different classes of agents (from A, the highest protection to D, the lowest).
Change your reflexes. Think of the situation as an unfolding event, not just as a story to cover. You [in the news media] may be a primary target. Terrorists want to take out the first responders, including journalists.
Take action. If you have droplets on you, blot or scrape them off immediately. Don’t scrape hard enough to break skin. If you’ve been exposed to a blister agent, seek treatment. Don’t damage the blisters. If you’re dealing with biological agents, don’t share food or drink. Keep trashcan lids on tight and remove standing water, or varmints and insects can spread the damage. If dealing with radiological contamination, safety can depend on time, distance, and/or shielding. Avoid inhaling dust or smoke. Shower and wash hair thoroughly.
Be informed. Exposure and contamination are different. If you walk through a gas there is no need to decontaminate. Only a liquid or solid will stick. The effects of an attack depend on the substance involved, the route of exposure and the level of exposure. The poison is in the dose. If the route is skin absorption, the weather matters. On a hot day, the rate of absorption is faster. Effects are cumulative. Just because you aren’t affected by one exposure doesn’t mean you won’t be affected.
Know the drill. First responders will typically set up three zones:
Hot—in the immediate area of contamination
Warm—not contaminated yet, but it likely will be
They will deny entry to both hot and warm zones. A command post will be set up in the cold zone (no suits or masks required). They will establish an access corridor to send people in and a decontamination corridor to get people out.
The incident response team will take these steps:
1. Look for a second device.
2. Remove casualties through triage and send them for medical care.
3. Detect and identify what they’re dealing with, taking samples and testing (not a fast process).
The incident commander can decide to send reporters into the zone and will provide them with appropriate gear. Problem: it’s likely to be a one-way trip for the equipment. It’s just not clear how you would decontaminate a camera.
Know what to ask. Ask officials for a timeline, and ask for it now. Make them tell you when they’ll provide what kind of information in a crisis.
Phase your questions to improve your chances of getting answers.
1. Public health: what is the hazard and how can people protect themselves.
2. Environmental/economic: what is the damage and how can it be cleaned up.
3. Intelligence/national response: what does it mean and what will we do about it.
Ask better questions to get better answers, says Margaret Hamburg, former VP for biological programs, at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Example: Don’t ask when a location will be cleaned up; ask when it will be clean enough to not endanger public health.
Be useful. People are going to make their own decisions. “It’s a Washington fallacy to think people will do as they are told,” says Jay Davis of ANSER. Give people useful information that will help them decide what to do. For example, he suggests this simple rule of thumb:
If the glass is broken in your building, leave.
If the glass is intact, stay there until told otherwise.
Avoid the blame game. When information turns out to be wrong, it doesn’t mean that officials are either scoundrels or incompetent, says Davis. You can draw different conclusions when you have more data.
- A chemical attack is silent. It doesn’t start with a bang. Symptoms become apparent, leading to fear, confusion, and incapacitation.
- Gases are heavier than air so the plume moves along the ground. Avoid low-lying areas.
- Protective gear is bulky and may not help. You don’t know what mask to put on unless you know exactly what you are dealing with.
- If an attack is indoors, it may not be clear whether ventilation will help or hurt. Do you turn the system off or on?
- Don’t be misled by the 2001 experience with anthrax. This was much more like dealing with a hazmat situation than with a biological attack. It came with a note, at a specific time and place.
- A biological attack is not a “lights-and-sirens” event. There would be no announcement, no signal, no area to cordon off and clean up. The site of release might never be identified.
- First responders are not police and fire but public health workers, emergency rooms. Ground zero would be clinics and labs.
Warren Campbell, formerly Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (now at National Fire Academy)
Jay Davis, director, ANSER Institute for Homeland Security
Baruch Fischhoff, department of engineering, Carnegie Mellon University
Margaret Hamburg, formerly VP for biological programs, Nuclear Threat Initiative (now FDA commissioner)
Alice Gast, professor of chemical engineering, MIT
George Whitesides, professor of chemistry, Harvard