COVERAGE TIPS FROM TERRORISM EXPERTS
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.
We also have links for
covering terrorism, and a terrorism
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
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 of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute. Do not eat,
drink, smoke or chew gum anywhere near the scene. You could ingest
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
2. Environmental/economic: what is the damage and how can it be
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,
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
- 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 our 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, Maryland
Fire and Rescue Institute
Jay Davis, director, ANSER
Institute for Homeland Security
Baruch Fischhoff, department of engineering, Carnegie Mellon University
Margaret Hamburg, VP for biological programs,
Nuclear Threat Initiative
Alice Gast, professor of chemical engineering, MIT
George Whitesides, professor of chemistry, Harvard