AFTER THE BRIEF duct-tape fiasco, we now have the Department of Homeland Security's real public education campaign on how to prepare for a terrorist attack, complete with TV and radio ads and a first-class Web site. It's too bad the campaign wasn't unveiled first, but that's about the worst that can be said about it. This is information the public needs, thorough and detailed but not overwhelming, making the threat seem real without causing panic. The advice is common sense mixed with science, all laid out in a brochure or on the Web site, The section on making a kit of emergency supplies reminds you to take a manual can opener and comfort food, and it explains why you might need an air filter. The section on a family communication plan discusses a prepaid phone card, whether to stay home and what to do with a family pet. Another section breaks down the different kinds of attacks: biological, chemical and nuclear.

The campaign was subjected to polls and focus groups, and the results reveal much about the nation's psyche: The department tried the citizen soldier approach, appealing to the angels of volunteerism that appeared right after Sept. 11, 2001: "You can be a soldier in your own neighborhood." But that seemed to scare off the focus groups; what motivated most people to prepare was the desire to protect their families. For its TV commercials the campaign settled on a few spots with Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security, sounding folksy and casual: "Terrorism forces us to make a choice," he says. "We can be afraid or we can be ready." The rest draws on familiar symbols from Sept. 11: firefighters and emergency response people who chat about the "real simple things" anyone can do, who speak with accents, unscripted; one scratches his beefy arm. The subconscious message is mixed: Count on us, the authorities, but count on yourself too, because when the alert comes, we won't be standing there in your living room

Americans tend to think of safety in absolutes. With terrorism there is no absolute assurance that preparations will guarantee safety. The trick is not to let that realization stand in the way of sensible measures that have some chance of proving useful. This campaign points nicely in that direction.