Public Less Fearful Of Terrorist Attack
Trend Worries Preparedness Officials
By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2004; Page A12
The percentage of Americans who have created an emergency plan for a terrorist attack has dropped in the past year, along with the proportion of Americans who believe that terrorists may strike near their home or workplace, according to two new studies released yesterday .
Civil preparedness experts said these and other trends are going in precisely the wrong direction, with U.S. authorities warning that al Qaeda is determined to strike the United States this summer or fall. The findings were announced at a conference yesterday at George Washington University.
"We need to narrow the universe of the unprepared, of those we need to worry about in a catastrophic situation, and it is not going to be easy," Red Cross President Marsha Evans said in a speech yesterday outlining her group's survey on emergency preparedness. "Every one of those unprepared Americans is a potential barrier to the effectiveness of our response to any disaster."
The Red Cross survey, conducted last month by Wirthlin Worldwide, found that the percentage of Americans who have created a family emergency plan on where to meet after a terror strike has dropped from 40 percent in August 2003 to 32 percent today.
The percentage of people who expressed concern that terrorists might strike near their home or workplace has declined more dramatically, from 71 percent right after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to about half today, according to a separate poll, also released yesterday, by the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government.
Preparedness specialists believe that the number of people readying themselves for the aftermath of a terrorist attack has dropped as time has passed since the Sept. 11 strike without another attack on the United States.
Evans said the Red Cross survey found that unprepared Americans fall into five categories: "head scratchers" who don't know where to find preparedness advice; "head in the sand" types who believe preparation is unimportant; "head in the clouds" people who mistakenly believe they are ready; the "headset crowd" that is too busy and can't find time to do it; and people who "simply haven't thought about preparedness."
U.S. officials and counterterrorism specialists say encouraging Americans to stockpile supplies for an attack, prepare themselves emotionally and take action to ready their families is vital to both self-protection and bouncing back from any strike that does occur.
The Red Cross poll also found that the percentage of people who had assembled home emergency kits remained stable between 2003 and this year, at 42 percent. But only one in 10 families has taken all three steps considered crucial for preparation: creating emergency kits and family plans for reuniting after a disaster, as well as getting training in first aid, the Red Cross study said.
The Department of Homeland Security stumbled in its first attempt at a civil-preparedness campaign in February 2003, when they recommended that Americans purchase duct tape and plastic sheeting to protect their homes against chemical attack. The agency drew the ridicule of late-night comedians and generated public confusion. Nine days later the department announced a more thought-out "Ready Campaign" using radio ads to urge citizen preparedness.
Some public relations experts said stepped-up marketing efforts for such citizen involvement could ingrain terror preparedness into the popular consciousness just as the ad campaigns to buckle seat belts in the 1980s had children reminding their parents to secure their safety restraints. Those ads are credited with increasing seat-belt use from 10 percent in 1981 to 79 percent in 2003.
Terrorism experts say there are a number of national security reasons to keep the threat of terrorism in the public mind: People could report suspicious activity and help prevent an attack; after an attack, they will know what steps to take to protect themselves and get out of the way of rescuers; and in the weeks afterward they can help deny terrorists a sense of victory by getting U.S. society and the economy running again.
Preparedness experts cite Britain and Israel, both with decades of experience countering terrorism, as nations with citizens who are well informed about the dangers and possess a sense of social cohesion that has allowed a rapid return to normality after an attack.
Frank Cilluffo, a former counterterrorism official in the Bush White House who now runs George Washington University's homeland security program, said Americans need help from the government and public health groups in defining possible terrorist scenarios.
Patricia McGinnis, president of the Council for Excellence in Government, said the data "makes you wonder if the American people are fickle, disingenuous or in denial."
"We are probably a little of each, and that presents a very complex social marketing and communications challenge," she added.
The council poll, conducted by the Hart-Teeter firm, found that 47 percent of Americans say the country is safer today than it was on Sept. 11, 2001. Only 38 percent said that a year after the attacks.
In October 2002, 55 percent of the public said another major terror attack was "very likely," while today only 34 percent say that, the council poll found.
But some people want to avoid being overloaded with terror warnings. While 45 percent in the latest council poll wanted all available information about potential threats, 52 percent said, "I only want to know about the most serious threats because there is only so much I can do personally to prepare."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company