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Is DHS Site Really Ready? Science Intern Thinks Not

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 10, 2006

Emily Hesaltine was a sophomore at the University of Virginia looking for a summer internship where she could apply her engineering background to a public policy issue.

This summer, as an intern at the Federation of American Scientists, the 20-year-old did that in a big way: She analyzed the Department of Homeland Security's emergency preparedness Web site, Ready.gov, and came up with a new version of the site that the federation calls significantly improved.

The government site, which has had more than 20 million visitors since 2003, offers advice for what to do in the case of a natural disaster or chemical, biological, or nuclear attack. But since it went up in February 2003, the site has been lampooned for what critics said were obvious or dubious suggestions.

Hesaltine set out to examine the site's flaws, by consulting emergency preparedness research and experts at the federation and elsewhere, and create a more comprehensive, accurate and easy-to-understand version, ReallyReady.org, which went live last week.

The site's main problems, her analysis said, "include generic advice, unnecessarily lengthy descriptions, and verbatim repetition of details on multiple pages, all encapsulated within a confusing navigational structure."

Hesaltine's efforts prompted her boss, biology policy director Michael Stebbins, to write on his Web log: "FAS hopes to see Ready.gov updated so that it is more useful to the public that has paid for it, especially since a 20 year-old college student was able to single-handedly complete the same task in only two months."

In a statement, DHS spokeswoman Joanna Gonzalez defended the government site and said that "however well intended, the work done by the Federation of American Scientists, relegated to an intern, runs the risk of confusing rather than benefiting the public."

Hesaltine and Stebbins offered several examples of what they consider flaws of Ready.gov.

The government site says, "If you see signs of a chemical attack, . . . consider if you can get out of the area or if you should go inside the closest building and 'shelter-in-place.' " But Hesaltine said a Rand Corp. think tank study on chemical attacks made clear that "trying to get away from the chemical cloud after the attack is dangerous because it's hard to tell which direction the wind is blowing." The new site urges people to go directly to a building and seal themselves inside a room.

The government site says that if there is no warning of a nuclear explosion, "quickly assess the situation." To which Stebbins moans: "Duhhhhhhh." The ReallyReady site dives right into how to identify a nuclear attack and what to do.

While most of the new site revises and clarifies advice already on the government site, it substantially adds to one facet. Stebbins and Hesaltine found a dearth of guidance on Ready.gov for disabled people. Stebbins noted that about the same amount of information is offered for disabled people as for pets.

After consulting the National Organization on Disabilities, Hesaltine made suggestions for crisis situations that disabled people might face, such as, she said, "if you're on the 14th floor and you can't go down the elevator and you're in a wheelchair." The government site doesn't mention, she said, that "you should get an evacuation chair so you can help people get you down the stairs."

Hesaltine doesn't know whether she'll continue in this area after college, but she said the summer experience was gratifying because "it was an independent project and the fact now that it's being linked to as useful preparedness experience."

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