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Preparedness in Local Communities
With Derrick Span
National President, Community Action Partnership in Washington, D.C.

Friday, Feb. 14, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

The nation is in a heightened state of alert although there are no specific threats or warnings from officials. Details of a possible terrorist attack remain vague, but Washington area businesses, public institutions and residents continue to prepare for the worst.

Around the region, police and FBI officials are briefing hundreds of business leaders and students in area schools are practicing emergency drills. At most public institutions, guards and the military are visible.

How can communities be better prepared for an unknown threat? How are area officials and police discussing terrorism to communities? In local communities, who distributes safety information and where can residents go during emergencies?

Derrick Span, national president of the Community Action Partnership in Washington, D.C., will be online Friday, Feb. 14 at 2 p.m. ET, discusses how local communities can keep safe and connected to national Homeland Security efforts.

The Community Action Partnership was established in 1972 as the National Association of Community Action Agencies (NACAA) and is the national non-profit organization representing the interests of the 1,000 Community Action Agencies (CAAs) working to fight poverty at the local level. Currently, the organization is working on Community Land Security -- an anti-terrorism education and training program geared toward protecting and safeguarding low-income neighborhoods. More information about the program is on the Community Action Partnership web site.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Derrick Span: I am delighted to have this time to discuss Community Land Security which is a anti-terrorism outreach program for local communities and neighborhoods. Community Land Security seeks to bring Homeland Security efforts to the local community level.

Dumfries, Va.: I live in an apartment in Prince William County. How is a person supposed to protect themselves in an apartment. My apartment is set up almost like a townhouse, we aren't in a building, we walk to our individual doors. Everyone talks of going into a basement, or seeking shelter elsewhere, well, where is someone to go in an apartment, I have windows throughout my apartment, the only room without windows is my laundry room and it's big enough for 2 people, and I have a family of 4. It seems as if, everyone has forgotten about those of us in apartments. What are we supposed to do?

Derrick Span: Your question is excellent. The Community Land Security Program developed by the Community Action Partnership suggests that you organized people in your apartment complex. You should have a plan for going underground or evacuating. This plan should be rehearsed over and over. A designated building in your complex should be determined by neighbors and management.

Washington, D.C.: Mayor Williams keeps saying he has sent a wonderful "preparedness" brochure to everyone - I live in DC and have not received A THING. Not that it would help much - but there is NO ACTION PLAN that I am aware of as a DC resident.

Also, what good does taping yourself up in a room do? Walls and floors are not impervious to microbes and chemicals and what happens when you need to go to the bathroom (and so do your family members) - it is just laughable (if it wasn't so scary what our "leaders" are leading us into) that they think this is the way to prepare the nation and those in the crosshairs. I think Bush really couldn't care less what happens to the average citizen (most of whom did not vote for him), he certainly doesn't care about DC citizens, as long as the Government is safe.

Thanks for letting me voice my opinion. Ready or Not? A Capital Question (Post, Feb. 12, 2003)

Derrick Span: the Community Land Security Program also has a handbook that describes what local neighborhoods should do in the case of an attack. Your question is good because most government agencies have plans to protect individuals in the workplace. But there are few plans that protect individual neighborhoods. Herein lies the value and significance of the Community Action Partnership's Community Land Security program. It brings Homeland Security initiatives to the community level.

Herndon, Va.: What can I do at work to feel a little safer?

Derrick Span: Although the Community Action Partnership deals specifically with neighborhood protection, you can talk to your employer about security and evacuation plans in this time of heighten alert, government officials are talking with business leaders and urging them to prepare their employees for emergency responses. Community Land Security is an anti-terrorism education and training program, geared toward the protection and safeguarding of low-income neighborhoods. You can find more information about the program on the Community Action Partnership web site.

Arlington, Va.: It has been noted that families should set up a meeting place in case they are separated. How many miles away from downtown, or from where an attack is centered, should this be?

Derrick Span: We suggest that you immediately organize interested family members and neighbors and begin community discussions around selecting various centrally located spots for evacuation.How far those location should be from downtown hinges upon where the attack is. Planning and organizing is the key.

Washington, D.C.: Hi, thanks for being here.

Folks in my office are split - some are trying to follow the preparation guidelines (such as they are) while others think that nothing we do will matter.

For example, what impact will having an N95 mask make in the event of a chemical attack on the Metro? Is it worth having?


Derrick Span: We suggest the most important thing to do now is to keep abreast of the warnings being issued by the Department of Homeland Security. In addition to that, local employers should be preparing their employees for possible threats. With respect to the Metro, Metro, and local and federal officials continue to monitor transportation. But, a more serious concern remains around community preparedness. Just as you are engaging in conversations in the office, we strongly urge preparation dialogue among neighbors.

Harrisburg, Pa.: State and local governments are being asked to do more for homeland security. At the same time, many state and local governments face severe budgetary difficulties. How can we expect them to respond in these critical times without the resources to respond?

Derrick Span: Your question is well-taken. However, it does not cost much for you to help prepare your local neighborhood by organizing local neighbors into watch groups, establishing important relations with local law enforcement officials, disseminating information to the elderly about possible attacks and helping neighbors understand the security color codes. You should also work with local officials to establish an evacuation plan while also receiving first aid training to assist in a neighborhood disaster.

Long Island, N.Y.:
Do you think we're a little too paranoid? Isn't the media blowing a lot of this out of proportion? Stores up here are out of duct tape for heaven's sake. I don't think duct tape will help in a bad situation. Thanks.

Derrick Span: You make a very valid point. Panicking is not is not a solution. However, coordination and organization are the keys to survival and being able to effectively respond to a disaster. We suggest that you begin immediate dialogue in your local community. Preparedness, response, and recovery are all essential reactions in a disaster.

Rockville, Md.: I like your idea "Homeland Security initiatives to the community level."

My question is kind of scientific... If there is something like anthrax or an air-bourne pollutant, how far can it possibly spread? How far is far enough to be away from the initial target?

If some sort of attack occurs, how can we avoid traffic in getting away from DC? Where should we go?

Wonderful that you are available online, thank you very much for your time.

Derrick Span: Thank you for your response. Our program suggests that your community develops a specific relationship with local law enforcement officials, FEMA, Red Cross, and other emergency preparedness agencies. Soon, a local Community Action Agency in your area will have an anti-terrorism handbook which will detail how communities should prepare and respond in the event of an emergency. Local law enforcement officials are currently determining local evacuation routes out of the area. Yesterday's Washington Post, page A14, expressed and explained this.

Gaithersburg, Md.: Okay, I just put 12 gallons of water in my guest room shower. Along with a couple bags of nonperishable, easy access food. And some diapers and wipes for my baby.

How come I feel like an absolute idiot?

Derrick Span: You really should feel smart. There is no substitute for preparation. Nor is there much information on what local communities should be doing. Let us suggest to you in addition to the water and diapers you've stored, community discussions should now take place. You should act now as a community leader and begin to formulate teams of neighbors who can respond to an emergency situation.

Alexandria, Va.: I have been unsuccessful in attempting to contact the Virginia Dept. of Emergency Management (resource listed on Post web site) for information on local emergency shelters. This is not reassuring. Any information I am able to find about preparedness in Virginia is vague. Do these agencies have a clue?

Derrick Span: You may want to contact your local Community Action Agency for more information or assistance in contacting the Virginia Dept. of Emergency Management. While you did not state your purpose for contacting them, our program helps you to connect with government officials to assist you with answers and preparation. D.C. Advises Businesses on Crisis Planning (Post, Feb. 13, 2003)

Washington, D.C.: As an off-campus university student in Northwest DC, I don't know what my 'strategy' should be in the event of a strike: should I hunker down in a basement? Evacuate the city? Go to my school? Should I be carrying my passport with me?

Derrick Span: This is a good time to assess your community preparedness. As a student, you may want to organize other off-campus students in your community and begin the process of discussing preparedness in an emergency situation. You may want to host an information night in your local neighborhood and invite representatives from law enforcement and emergency response agencies to discuss types of terrorist attacks and what should be your community's defense. The questions that you raised should be answered in a community forum.

Washington, D.C.: What kind of a disaster are you talking about? Preparations for hurricanes and heavy snow are one thing, but when you talk about evacuations? To where? I can see the Interstates becoming parking lots. Once the bomb goes off you can forget all the best laid plans of government and kiss off "community". It will be everyone for themselves.

Planning. The DCPS had an evacuation drill the other day. Elementary education students, all 165 of them and their teachers, in a school in Dupont Circle walked to their evacuation location a few blocks away - a Jewish Community Center! Talk about planning!

Derrick Span: Your question is exactly why we have developed a neighborhood program. We also believe that without community planning and organizing chaos would be the result of any attack. That's why you and other concerned community members should keep working with local officials to develop an orderly evacuation plan. Safety routes out of town presumably will be developed by local law enforcement officials and will aim to avoid congestion. But, teams of organized and trained neighbors assisting with an evacuation will help reduce mass confusion.

Washington, D.C.: It seems that depending upon the kind of attack you need to do totally opposite things (seal the room, don't seal the room, go to the basement, go to higher levels). How can you know what to do. Also you didn't answer the earlier question about what kind of radius would a chemical or biological attach have, how far away is far enough away?

Derrick Span: Local neighbors like you should hold frequent community meetings. these meeting should be attended from FEMA, Red Cross, and other emergency preparedness agencies who are in your area. These officials can help prepare you and your local neighborhood around various attacks and what you should do to protect yourself. Your local Community Action Agency can provide you with a list of disaster organizations that you and your neighbors can begin an important dialogue.

ventilationhington, D.C.: I have read the suggestions to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting to secure windows in my home. What about airborne agents that could enter through central ventilation in houses? And how big is this threat? Terror Attack Steps Urged (Post, Feb. 11, 2003)

Derrick Span: What you and your neighbors should be aware of is that in the event of a chemical or biological attack, all venilation in the home should be cut off.

Arlington, Va.: I'm confused. I'm told I should head to the basement, but that's also bad because some chemicals are heavier than air and may leak down there. Therefore, I'm told to get above ground, but that's bad because I could expose myself to radiation and bio-weapons. And if I tape myself into a room, I've got roughly 5 hours of good air to breath, after which...what? Go outside into the very environment I've been trying to avoid? Seems to me the best thing to do would be hit the road...if so, what are the chances that someone in Arlington could actually drive their way outside the beltway? And once outside the beltway, how far should one go?

Derrick Span: Depending upon the type of attack, creating a designated room in your home that's safe could be important protection in a chemical attack. A recent Washington Post article offered valuable information on how to create such a room. Secondly, FEMA ( has a guidebook that could be helpful as well, particularly when you are discussing types of chemical attacks. We suggest that you not panic and take the time to read the Homeland Security Web site as well as FEMA publications along with recent, helpful Washington Post articles.

Washington, D.C.:

What impact will having an N95 mask make in the event of a chemical attack on the Metro? Is it worth having? Should we attempt to buy these N95 masks or is that as futile as taping up a room (considering that there will be no warning)? Where are they sold?

Derrick Span: We highly recommend reading "When Every Moment Counts" by Senate Majority leader Bill Frist. The N95 mask will indeed help in certain types of attacks. Fore more information, please contact us.

Kensington, Md.: I understand the value in discussing things with our family and community, but if we don't have the expert opinions (re: where and how far away should we evacuate if the authorities say we should evacuate), what do we do?? You mentioned, "Your local Community Action Agency can provide you with a list of disaster organizations that you and your neighbors can begin an important dialogue."

Please answer this:
How can we find/contact our neighborhood "Community Action Agency?"

Thank you so very much for your help!!

Derrick Span: You are correct, you do need expert opinions. That's why we have been suggesting that in addition to discussing preparations with family members, you should also do so in a forum that includes representatives from local government agencies. Consider taking the lead in arranging such a meeting and include your local Community Action Agency. they can be important partners in anticipating needs, planning for contingences, and making adequate preparations.

You can contact the Montgomery County Community Action Agency in Silver Spring, Maryland (301-565-7460).

New York, N.Y.: Greetings,

I live in an apartment building in Manhattan and use the subways here daily. I have trouble imagining that there are effective ways of preparing for major catastrophes like 9/11, or gas attacks in subways, or dirty bombs detonated in crowded areas. This is an environment characterized by overpopulation and chaos. What's the answer, armored space suits?

Derrick Span: Suffice it to say, there are no textbook answers for total security against an insane attacker. Awareness and preparation still remain our most potent weapon. We suggest that you begin discussions with tenants and management about the development of a "safe room" in your apartment complex and discussions with city officials about an evacuation route and finally meetings with emergency preparedness agencies to learn more about the types of threats your community may be under. While this guarantees no full proof protection, it could prove to be a vital strategy for survival.

Derrick Span: The Community Action Partnership and its 1,000 Community Action Agencies wish to thank for allowing us to discuss our anti-terrorism program. We seek to work with the Administration and the Department of Homeland Security to protect and defend our American communities. That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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