We've pulled together some story ideas, along with
background information to get you started. Please let
us know if you find this list to be helpful, and if you have
other ideas to share.
- What has been done to improve intelligence and surveillance?
Baltimore's Mayor Martin O'Malley says preparedness involves three
fronts: intelligence, security, and emergency response. Does your
region have a local intelligence network so that surrounding jurisdictions
can share information? Look for any steps that have been taken
since 9-11 that might improve the chance for early detection of
a terrorist attack and a quick response. Baltimore, for example,
has established a surveillance system that could provide early
warning of a possible bio-terror attack. The city's health commissioner
now receives a daily log of all paramedic and emergency room calls,
plus over-the-counter pharmaceutical sales that could indicate
an up tick in flu-like symptoms. The surveillance report also
tracks elementary school attendance rates, and counts dead animal
carcasses, to spot patterns that could suggest an outbreak. Does
your city have an early warning system in place? What about law
enforcement actions related to terrorism since September 11? TRAC,
the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, has enforcement data online.
- What can be learned from the past? Eight years ago, Milwaukee
had no warning system in place when its water supply was contaminated
by cryptosporidium. One hundred thousand area residents became
sick with what appeared to be stomach flu, a thousand were hospitalized
and more than one hundred died. Baruch Fischhoff of the Center for Integrated Study of Human Dimensions of Global Change
at Carnegie Mellon University says the public health system failed
to detect the outbreak for several weeks because most people who
got sick treated themselves with over-the-counter medications.
It wasn't until pharmacists began to notice a run on products
to treat upset stomachs and reporters began asking questions of
local government officials that the health department finally
put two and two together. Is your city any better prepared to
detect an outbreak than Milwaukee was in 1993?
- How safe is your water supply? Monica Schoch-Spana of
Johns Hopkins University's Center
for Civilian Biodefense Studies says that water systems designed
to protect against e-coli outbreaks are "good enough" to prevent
the spread of a biotoxin being used as a weapon. "[Terrorists]
would have to put an impossible amount in for you to get a lethal
dose at the end of the tap," she said. But she says water systems
must be sure they can take care of "regular bugs," so it's probably
worth investigating your area water systems.
- Has your city done a vulnerability assessment? To be
prepared, O'Malley says, a city needs to count its assets, rank
them in order of susceptibility to attack, and secure them. Baltimore's
list includes railway tracks and stations, highways, airports,
water systems, chemical facilities and hazmat storage locations,
as well as locations where crowds might gather such as sports
- What's being done to protect assets, and at what cost?
O'Malley says the biggest security expense for Baltimore has been
for police overtime to guard vulnerable assets. The city has not
and will not cut back on regular police patrols, he says, and
he denies that shifting security priorities might have led to
a spike in homicides after 9-11. O'Malley's theory is that "tit
for tat" drug killings went up because the purity of drugs on
the street was cut in half after the attacks, when transportation
was disrupted and the supply was down. The additional security
against terrorist threats already has cost the city $5 million.
Unless the federal government provides some funding, O'Malley
says, the city faces a $20 million dollar hole in its budget.
"We'll have to balance the cost against whether we close a recreation
center or a library," he says. How are your city's crime rate
and budget being affected?
- What is the threat of a chemical attack? Bruce Blair
of the Center for Defense Information believes
the danger of a deliberate chemical release along the lines of
the Bhopal disaster has been underreported. "[This] represents
a threat that is more dangerous from the standpoint of casualties
and the accessibility of materials," he said, compared to a biological
attack. Many water treatment systems use chlorine, which they
store in tanks out in the open, in unsecured areas. Baltimore
is now changing from chlorine to bleach, to reduce the risk that
"some jerk with a hand grenade could wreak havoc," says O'Malley.
Is your city planning similar steps?
- How prepared are your local hospitals and shock trauma
system for a possible attack? Schoch-Spana says flatly that the
public health system in the U.S. is totally unprepared to handle
an epidemic, which she says would inevitably result from large-scale
bio-terrorism. Her greatest worry is an aerosol release of a toxin
like smallpox--a communicable disease that cannot be treated--that
would result in the largest number of sick and dying. People are
more vulnerable to toxins today, she says, because they have built
up resistance to antibiotics, most people live in crowded cities,
and the world is hyper-mobile, meaning that pathogens can move
quickly. "If there were a release, it's a global problem instantaneously,"
Schoch-Spana says. From a public health standpoint, the response
to an unannounced bio-terror attack would involve several phases.
First, of course, would be to recognize the outbreak--easier said
than done, given that most American doctors have no experience
with diagnosing an epidemic. If the Milwaukee experience is any
guide, the news media could serve as the first line of detection.
Then health professionals would need to track victims and their
contacts, diagnose new cases and treat, vaccinate, or isolate
victims. Schoch-Spana says the health system has almost no "surge
capacity" to deal with an outbreak, especially of a contagious
disease. Hospitals have few isolation rooms, and little in the
way of stockpiled drugs or supplies that would be needed in an
epidemic. The American Hospital Association
says it would cost more than $11 billion to get hospitals up to
- What's the greatest threat we face now? That depends
on how you ask the question. The biggest risk of all, says CDI's
Blair, is that terrorists could get their hands on a nuclear bomb
and deliver it, but getting one would be a daunting challenge.
On the other hand, Blair does worry that terrorists could get
their hands on what they need to make a bomb, given the lax security
in the former Soviet Union. Or they could secretly enrich low-grade
uranium into bomb-grade material, using off the shelf technology,
and could then set off a "dirty bomb" using nothing more sophisticated
than dynamite. The good news, if there is any, is that a dirty
bomb is so radioactive it could be detected fairly easily in transit.
But Blair is also concerned about cyber-nuclear-terrorism, saying
it's a serious possibility that terrorists could hack into the
electronic control system for Russian or even U.S. nuclear weapons,
and send a launch order that would look legitimate. With U.S.
and Russian forces still on hair trigger alert, Blair says the
risk is high that a rogue launch could lead to nuclear war. "Our
system is still totally geared to the Cold War," he says. "It's
an oddity and a danger." He believes the U.S. should change the
rules and allow more time for deliberation if a launch is detected.
- How much information should be made public? Mayor O'Malley
clearly was not pleased when the Baltimore Sun newspaper printed
a map showing the location of chemical storage areas and how far
contamination would spread if each were hit. But he does believe
in sharing information with the public. "What causes the most
panic is when information gets out incorrectly," he says. Schoch-Spana
believes that the public can handle information that might be
frightening. "There is a cultural stereotype that people will
panic," she says. "The fear is unfounded." As evidence, she cites
what happened during the anthrax scare. People were afraid, she
says, but not irrational. "Over-protectiveness offends the public,
and undermines trust," she says. On the other hand, she advises
journalists not to approach the threat of bio-terrorism by looking
at particular pathogens. "Tell the story about systems of response
and their problems," she says.
- Where are some systems that work well? Schoch-Spana says
New York City is Exhibit A. The public health system was battle
tested before the anthrax scare, having dealt with the West Nile
virus. Los Angeles, she says, has handled disasters of every sort
and as a result has good coordination of law enforcement and public
health. In San Antonio, she says there's a good combination of
military assets and civic responsiveness. And she praises the
state public health department in Minnesota. How does your city
or state compare?
Baltimore Mayor O'Malley, Monica Schoch-Spana,
and Bruce Blair spoke to participants at a Knight Center for Specialized Journalism seminar, December 6-7.
Baruch Fischhoff spoke at a conference sponsored by the Foundation for American Communications, the National Academy
of Engineering, and the National Academy of Sciences Institute of
Medicine, in association with RTNDF and the Associated Press Managing
Editors, December 6.