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Survival of the educated?

Article, 16 November 2007
Domestic Security, Information
This article advocates greater information-sharing by government in order to promote successful contingency planning.

"Be informed, be prepared, take action!" This is the motto adorning the website of CitizenCorps in the USA. The rationale for its existence is to encourage citizens to be aware of disasters they potentially face and to provide them with information on relevant protective measures. The capacity to act in response to non-terrorist incidents (flood, transport accidents and so on) is balanced by a recognition that the public should be aware of how to respond to a terrorist threat and/or incident in their neighbourhood.

This approach stands in stark contrast to the message from the UK government, which maintains citizens that should "go in, stay in, tune in" in the event of a terrorist attack. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) intends to "provide the public with memorable and easily kept instructions on how to recognise and respond to messages…" Memorable the slogan may be; useful it may not. A motto resembling a commercial might not be enough to satisfy the public or help them to protect themselves.

Perhaps the government's refusal to increase education on contingency planning in the UK is not just a question of not wanting to alarm the public with too much information. Possibly there is confusion between information and intelligence. Or perhaps, as was recently suggested by Emergency Planning Officers (EPOs) in Greater London and North West England, the real dilemma rests with fear of being blamed for giving out the 'wrong' information in the event that it is it is misinterpreted. "The current lack of information from government is indicative of a desire to protect itself," one emergency officer says.

Regardless of the reasons, the debate is escalating over the type and volume of information that should be made public on issues surrounding contingency planning.

One particular area of contention focuses upon the benefits and value of an informed public response. It can be argued that if given information on how to respond to particular incidents, the public can prepare in advance. People could activate their preparations and avoid being thrust into 'panic buying' or self-imposed evacuation following an attack or announcement of imminent risk.

Countering this argument is the question of what exactly the public would prepare for. It is a fundamentally difficult task for the government and the emergency services to 'prepare' for a terrorist attack. So, one is entitled to ask what the public is supposed to do when it has neither the training, equipment nor the information that the government and/or the emergency services are privy to.

Despite containing an element of truth, this argument fails to take note of the fact that terrorist attacks increasingly occur without warning. EPOs, members of the emergency services and the emergency planning college note that in the event of a terrorist attack, emergency services will be carrying out the functions for which they are trained and will deal with the situation at hand, as will local authorities. However, they also suggest that planning by the public will not necessarily help. The public is at the scene when an attack happens; emergency service staff enthusiastically support the view that "better public preparation could actually serve to help the role of the emergency services", especially if a large-scale incident affected the capacity of their response.

The Home Office offers a rather simplistic suggestion of how to approach the issue of public preparedness measures for terrorist attacks in the UK. It says: "If a warning is necessary to protect safety, we will issue it without hesitation. If you need to take specific action, we will issue new advice and information…Knowing what basic self-protection steps to take, and understanding the work going on behind the scenes to protect us all, can help us stay alert but not alarmed."

Unfortunately these statements rest uneasily alongside government proclamations that the threat level remains high but non-specific and Sir John Stevens' suggestion that a terrorist attack is inevitable. When instructed to take specific action, will it be too late or too soon to comprehend in the face of what one can only assume will be an immediate threat? Furthermore, how is the public to know what "basic self-protection steps to take" if the government is reluctant to issue information until a situation arises? Following the exercise at Bank underground station on 7 September 2003, UK Home Secretary David Blunkett said that "…the British people will be reassured". He added that the UK government was being as honest as possible about potential threats the UK faces and was making sure that everything is in place to look after the public. If part of the 'live' exercise at Bank Underground station was to serve this purpose, it failed dramatically. EPOs in London continue to criticise the inconsistent and contradictory nature of statements issued by the government, and support the introduction of more streamlined and accessible public information. One EPO says: "When it comes to issuing advice to the public, the government is undoubtedly contradictory."

If the public were provided with information and given time to equip themselves with the most basic items, this would surely alleviate some of the stresses that would affect already exhausted emergency services following a terrorist attack. It may also deter people from behaviour that would otherwise make the tasks of the emergency services more laborious.

The Emergency Planning Society maintains that if there was greater public awareness of emergency planning, members of the public "would be better able to protect themselves."

The Emergency Planning Review asked in 2001: "What advantage or disadvantage might there be from seeking heightened public awareness of emergency planning arrangements?" The Emergency Planning Society responded: "It is essential that the public become more aware of emergency planning arrangements."

To this day the public remains virtually ignorant of local emergency planning arrangements.

Members of the public cannot determine when another terrorist attack may happen and cannot be expected to prepare for every eventuality in detail. However, it is not beyond the competence of most people to be more responsible for their own survival.

To assume that the public would either co-operate or panic, or that information would actually cause confusion, is undermining the public capacity to respond. Throughout the IRA bombing campaign on the UK mainland, posters were displayed in public places informing people what to do if they saw suspicious packages or witnessed unusual behaviour. This did not result in a frenzy of fear, nor did it add to panic or confusion when there was an incident. Hysteria, fear and survival should not be confused with panic resulting from information overload. If anything, people may fear a situation because they do not know what to do. While the instructions and actions of the emergency services and supporting bodies remain of paramount importance, simple measures taken by the public may help everyone. Many people working in office blocks, for instance, are aware of responses to a bomb threat. These simple measures are not difficult to remember. It does not require expert knowledge of bombs, terrorists, or the structure of buildings but it does make people aware of how to increase their own security and chances of survival.

Some may ask why more information should be issued if there is already much in the public domain. Currently the UK Resilience, Health Protection Agency and MI5 websites provide basic guidance on what to do in the event of an attack. Information is patchy, however. One can also look at numerous other websites, including those of local authorities, which may include descriptions of their role in the event of an emergency. Yet this trend is far from universal and reflects opinions of each authority with regard to how much information they think the public needs.

The problem with providing information is that the task of sifting through it can be a lengthy one. For those unfamiliar with contingency planning, it can lead to the very type of information overload that critics are warning of. Searching from one set of guidelines or reports to another and looking at government reports, academic papers or business guidance - to name but a few of the many sources - one searches for a coherent and relevant body of information. One can also encounter media hype, which further blurs perception. Relying on people to search for information makes three fundamental mistakes. It assumes that people know where to look and what to look for, and that they will distinguish between fact and hyperbole. Too much information will be ignored and yet may equally be too much for some to cope with, resulting in confusion as people try to remember instructions. The idea that "information is already out there" places huge responsibility on people to search for and collect the information they think they need.

Contingency planning needs to be relevant to those it affects, and terrorism is not something from which anyone is immune. The public needs a realistic and basic set of guidelines and information to come from one central body, with local authorities supporting the information flows at local level. Without compromising security the public could be provided with reference points and further sources of information should they choose to find out more details. It would be easy to produce simple tips on preparedness and a brief guide as to which agencies would be involved in a response to a terrorist. It would also be essential to do this in the present climate while people are receptive to information, and should not be a lifeline distributed in the aftermath of an attack.

Alison Dale is Junior Research Fellow of the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) Domestic Management of Terrorist Attacks Programme at De Montfort University specialising in terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction.

1 http://www.citizencorps.gov/index.shtm.

2 Civil Contingencies Secretariat Newsletter, 4 May 2003.

3 Interview with Emergency Officer in North-West England April 2004. Similar views were expressed by those in London.

4As opposed to natural disasters such as floods where meteorological monitoring may provide some advance warning, or previous IRA terrorism.

5Interview with members of the Emergency Planning College, November 2003. Identities withheld.

6 Interviews with Fire and Ambulance service staff May 2004. Identities withheld.

7 'Terrorism - What We Face' www.homeoffice.gov.uk/terrorism/threat/face/index.html.

8Sir John Stevens. BBC News 16 March 2004.

9 David Blunkett's comments on live exercise at Bank Underground station, 7 September 2003.

10 Interviews held with a London emergency planning officer, March 2004. Identity withheld.

11 Emergency Planning Society response to the Emergency Planning consultation 2001, p5.

12Emergency Planning Review 2001, paragraph 5.5.

13Response of the Emergency Planning Society to the Emergency Planning Review p5.

14http://www.mi5.gov.uk/.

15In 2003 the CCS UK Resilience site published "Taking sensible precautions - Biological / Chemical Threats by Post'. Derived from the Health and Safety Executive's 2001 guidelines.

16There is also a dangerous assumption that everyone has Internet access.

17 Clear Information and Advice on Terrorism for the Public, Home Office press notice 3 March 2003. Reference: 061/2003.

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