Monday, December 31, 2007

Of text messages and avian flu

There have been two things in the news over the last few days of interest to those in the safety and security management career field. First, there was a story about how rumors about student’s alleged plans to commit suicide were spread via text messages over cellular phones. A student had in fact committed suicide several days prior to the incident in Augusta, Arkansas. Originally, concerned parents had contacted the school when it was thought a student was planning on a shooting spree. Police responded by conducting a search of the school with metal detectors. The search turned up no weapons but did start the rumors flying in earnest over the students cell phones. The text messages began to create a whole separate reality where 10 – 12 students had made a pact to commit suicide over the holidays, according to rumors. Panicked parents headed to the campus, and by 10 a.m. only 25 students remained at the 335-pupil elementary school.

Police in nearby Searcy called asking if Augusta police needed help, saying they had a report of a shooting at the school. Ambulances were diverted to the area. All of this of course because of students who claimed said they had received threatening text messages. On Jan. 7, the first school day of the New Year, school officials will institute a zero-tolerance policy on cellular phones. The school also plans an investigation into who caused the panic and promises to push for expulsions.

The story illustrates a very difficult challenge for the safety and security professional. There is no ability to determine the validity of a text message and if parents or students become panicked, you have to respond appropriately. Students may only be spreading urban legends or rumors they’ve heard in school without much regard to the accuracy of the information. Students have always spread rumors and it is only the advent of cell phones and incidents such as Columbine or more recently Virginia Tech that safety and security professionals are forced to take action. Even the merest hint of something going amiss can’t be ignored, the merest scrap of information may be all of the warning police or school officials may receive before a violent act occurs. Of course, the information may prove to be nothing more than a rumor. If discovered prematurely, the guilty parties can try to deny all knowledge of such intentions and may try to cover up any evidence.

Angry parents and school officials may not appreciate what they perceive as a false alarm in the event the potential attackers are never identified or prosecuted. What is often overlooked during such emotional times is that by preventing a potential attack, lives were saved. It is impossible to prove a negative (how can you show there was going to be an attack with no arrests?) but the opposite is far more grave should the indications of an impending attack be dismissed for a lack of evidence or credibility on the part of the source. Parents, school officials, security personnel and even students all need to be involved in identifying and reacting to potential violence before it occurs.

The last point is what concerns me about the reaction by the school officials in Augusta. A rumor got out over a technology that I suspect the majority of school officials there are uncomfortable with and instead of trying to use it to their benefit, they will completely eliminate cell phones. The unfortunate consequence of course is in the event of a hostage or shooter situation, students will have no means of emergency communication. It seems to be an overreaction to a situation that requires a comprehensive emergency response plan and not draconian measures of eliminating cellular phones. Students can still spread rumors after school via text messages and by traditional methods (such as notes and verbally) while in school. The problem isn’t the technology, the real key is getting students to understand an appreciate the gravity of the environment they now live in where such rumors cannot be ignored. Denying students a means of communication during an emergency or disaster situation seems to contrary to the best interests of the safety and security of the students as well as the school and community.

On a different note, four women in Egypt died in less than a week of H5N1 or avian flu. The women appeared to have been infected with the virus as a result of handling dead or diseased birds in their backyards. It wasn’t reported if the women were related or lived in the same area. The cases in Egypt bring up a disturbing problem, even though the Egyptian government has implemented a poultry vaccination program it is impossible to enforce. Over 5 million Egyptian households keep birds on hand for food and there is no way to positively identify and inoculate all of the birds. Humans will continue to be exposed to potentially sick birds as they handle them increasing the likelihood of infection. The close proximity of families in Egypt means the infected person will be exposed to other humans increasing the chance for the virus to mutate. Such a mutation could become a variant that is sustainable via human to human contact. If poultry inoculation programs are not able to be consistently carried out, then humans will continue to be infected by the virus and eventually it could mutate to a strain that could spread from human to human. While it may sound like crying wolf all of the time, it is important for those in the safety and security field to remain vigilant over avian flu and not become complacent merely because it hasn’t happened yet. A migratory bird could spread the disease or a traveler could be exposed to a variant of the virus that is communicable and the first case could appear somewhere where we least expect it.

Friday, December 21, 2007

More Thoughts on Disaster Preparedness

FEMA Region X Administrator Susan Reinertson posted some excellent suggestions on preparing for disasters. She is responsible for coordination FEMA mitigation, preparedness and disaster response and recovery activities in four states in the northwest -- Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. As such, she really understands the challenges the winter weather can pose (as was recently seen with the Dominguez family who were lost for four days in Northern California). The list is very good for families to prepare really for any time of natural disaster including floods, earthquakes or fire. The list includes:

  • Create family disaster communications plans - and schedule biannual practices.
  • Install smoke detectors, freshen batteries and mark your calendar for routine inspections.
  • Keep serviceable fire extinguishers in kitchens, garages, risk areas and autos.
  • Re-evaluate flood insurance coverage to make sure it is adequate to your current needs. If you don't have flood insurance, get some!
  • Consider back-up generators, but be sure to provide for safe operation.
  • Buy a NOAA Weather Radio.
  • Build Pet Disaster Kits (food, water, leashes, dishes and carrying case or crate).
  • Teach all responsible family members how to shut off water, gas and power in case of emergencies.
  • Stock emergency supplies for 72-hour independent action-and rotate stock to keep supplies fresh.
  • Stock or restock disaster kits for home, office and auto (first aid kits, food, water and prescription medications for 72 hours, extra clothing, blankets, flashlights).

The communications plan is perhaps one of the most important things you can do. In the event of an emergency, you need to be able to notify your family members who may be at work or at school. Cell phones and other personal communication devices allow for a quick text message to be sent letting everyone know what is going on. You need to have a plan both to warn family members of impending danger or to let them know you status should you find yourself in the middle of a disaster. Texting seems to be second nature to those under 30, if you are older you may find it difficult at first. Texting has advantages over a voice message as it is succinct and doesn’t require much bandwith. You can have pre-canned messages on your phone or you can use something like Twitter to forward one text message to all of your family members.

New batteries in your smoke detector and flashlights should be done twice a year at the minimum. Many experts recommend during around the time when we switch between daylight savings time and standard time. Even so, I bet any number of readers have flashlights with dead batteries or smoke detectors with batteries that are running out. Take the time to maintain these important pieces of emergency preparedness equipment. If you haven’t had to buy a flashlight lately, many now come equipped with argon or LED bulbs which are many times brighter than older incandescent bulbs. These can provide excellent emergency lighting. There are many excellent pocket flashlights with similar bulbs that produce amazing candle-power for their size. These lights are easy to keep on your person at all times.

Fire extinguishers are one of those ubiquitous pieces of equipment that you should have on hand but many do not. Make sure you have fire extinguishers at a minimum in your kitchen, garage and automobile. Check to make sure your fire extinguisher is current and easily accessible. If you have use a fire extinguisher, remember the acronym P.A.S.S. which stands for

Pull the pin

Aim at the base of the fire

Squeeze the lever

Sweep from side to side

Insurance, especially flood coverage, needs to be reevaluated from time to time. People tend to overlook their insurance as their families and possessions change. Not does this risk having too little insurance in the event of a disaster, it also may mean paying more than you actually need. Flood and earthquake coverage are two that many people overlook unless they live near water or around an active fault line. However, all homeowner should check to make sure their coverage is appropriate to their locality. Many who live in Southwestern Ohio, for example, don’t have earthquake insurance even though we live close to the New Madrid fault!

Back-up generators are always something to think about. Especially if you live in an area with an energy co-op, getting damaged power lines or transformers back on line take time. Homes with electric furnaces definitely want to consider back up power even if power outages are rare. If you do decide to have an back-up generator, make sure that it is regularly serviced and checked. You need to make sure the generator is fueled and ready for use on a moment’s notice. You will be surprised at the number of commercial properties that have back-up generators that are empty!

Regarding a NOAA radio, you may want to consider one with a hand-crank for power. There are several on the market but my choice is the Eton FR400. It is weather resistant and receives AM/FM radio, TV bands (2-12) as well as NOAA weather stations. It is relatively inexpensive and will allow you to keep up on news and other emergency messages during a disaster.

If you own pets, you certainly need to consider their needs as well. Keep an emergency supply of their food on hand as well as additional water for your pets. Develop a plan for how you will travel with your pet in the event you have to evacuate your home for another location. In the event of an evacuation, make sure you and the rest of your family know how to shut off water, gas, and power. The rest of Ms. Reinertson’s list was covered in an earlier blog. I would just recommend that you have the necessary prescription medication on hand BEFORE you need to evacuate and remember some medications require refrigeration. You can get a small travel cooler that plugs into you care cigarette lighter so you don’t have to worry about getting ice before leaving the area.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Soft Targets

Soft targets are an especially challenging situation for safety and security experts to protect. Soft targets are basically any facility or location that may be attacked by a terrorist but lacks the surveillance and security systems to be considered hardened (such as a military base or nuclear power plant). The recent shootings in Omaha and Colorado Springs brought all of this to mind the other day. We have been so focused on protecting targets of national significance (Wall Street, the Hoover Dam, the Statue of Liberty, the Sears Tower, etc.) we tend to overlook other targets of opportunity for a terrorist to attack. To illustrate my point, allow me to use the city of Dayton which is about 50 miles north of Cincinnati with a population of around 160,000. At first look, it doesn’t appear to be much of a target for a terrorist with its relatively small population and distance away from a major metropolitan area such as Chicago or New York. However, there are many reasons why Dayton (and other small or medium sized cities) could become the next target for a terrorist attack.

Dayton hosts several festivals in its downtown area around the Five Rivers MetroPark each year. Thousands of people stroll along the streets and river during the Spring and Summer months walking amongst city streets that have been blocked off. Such a large mass of people out in the open and defended by a relatively small police force could be attacked with any number of chemical or biological agents. The terrorist motive of course is to induce panic so the weapon doesn’t even have to be a real chemical or biological agent as long as the populace becomes afraid and chaos ensues. Despite its small size Dayton has two major universities, Wright State University to the east and University of Dayton located immediately south of the downtown. The combined student enrollment of the two universities is over 20,000. Colleges and universities are designed to be open and thus are especially susceptible to attack. We saw earlier this year what one lone gunmen can do at Virginia Tech, it would not take much to launch a more concerted effort to produce even higher casualties at either of the Dayton campuses. The would-be terrorist need not be successful in executing the attack in order to be effective. The fear and panic caused by what MIGHT happen could seriously cripple university life for many weeks. Many cities such as Dayton have a minor league baseball team. Fifth Third Field (there is also a ballpark by the same name in Toledo) seats over 7,000 fans and is located just north of the downtown. It would not be difficult to fly a small aircraft either over the crowd (with the intent of dropping some type of weapon on to the field) or to actually fly the aircraft into the stands. Of course, I have intentionally left the biggest target in the Dayton area until last. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has a combined workforce population of over 13,000 according to latest U.S. Census figures. Many large military installations exist near small communities (Offut AFB near Omaha or Scott AFB near Belleville, IL come to mind).

The natural tendency is to assume the attack will be directed at the base. However, as most military installations are hardened with a highly trained security force and sophisticated surveillance systems other targets associated with the base are much easier to attack. Rather than go after the base itself, a potential terrorist may target a neighborhood with a large base population. Most base personnel have DoD decals (or other military decals) on their windshields making it easy to identify large concentrations of military families. Launching an attack against a neighborhood presents few deterrents compared to attacking a military installation. A frightening scenario related to attacking a neighborhood is to target a school with a large population of children whose parents work on base. It is not feasible to hardened either of these targets to the degree of a military base nor would most citizens want to live on a military styled compound.

What makes any of these attacks especially alarming is the size of Dayton. A quick search on Google shows only four major hospitals in the Dayton area (not including the hospital on Wright-Patterson). A terrorist attack that produces multiple casualties could quickly overwhelm the medical treatment facilities in the Dayton area. Fifth Third Field alone could produce several thousands casualties in the event of a terrorist attack during a game. The efforts for first responders to treat and transport all of the casualties out of the ballpark would take hours. The traffic problems could grid-lock the city for many more hours or even days. Merely the threat of an attack could create many problems for the city. Funding for homeland security is not sufficient to deal with all of these potential targets and Dayton has to compete with targets in the six other major cities in Ohio.

Department of Homeland Security, as well as other federal agencies, take the position that protecting soft targets is strictly a state or local responsibility. Those familiar with FEMA guidance for dealing with the avian flu know not to expect any assistance from agencies outside the state, basically each state will be on their own. Protection of soft targets in areas outside of New York or Washington, D.C. are in a similar situation, namely the federal government is not resourced to cover every potential soft target. Dayton and other similarly sized cities have multiple targets that could be the subject of attack, yet their national significance is such that little in the way of federal assistance can be expected. More than ever, cities like Dayton need to collaborate with other cities in developing strategies to best prepare and protect their residents from terrorist attacks. Local law enforcement agencies in conjunction with citizens are perhaps the strongest preventive mechanism available to a city. Police officers and the citizens they protect know who belongs in the area and who doesn’t. Citizens know when people in the neighborhood are up to suspicious behavior or activities. Building and fostering this cooperation isn’t always easy. In many communities relations between police officers and local citizens are poor. Even in those neighborhoods were police and citizens cooperate, there is still a stigma of “snitching” to the law or fear of retribution should they report suspicious activity to the police. Fire and EMS personnel are also becoming part of the eyes and ears of counter-terrorism. Exactly because they aren’t law enforcement, fire and EMS personnel may learn of suspicious activity which can they be used to prevent an attack.

All of this of course is pointless without a strategy to coordinate all of these agencies efforts along with a mechanism to share the information. Many states now have intelligence fusion centers to cross-reference information from multiple agencies within the state. The centers are an important step in creating an environment where information can be shared. The personnel in these centers are highly trained but even so are unable (usually) to add the local perspective to a particular report. Thus it is so critical to develop and enhance the cooperation at the local level between citizens and responding agencies. They are the ones who will first note a change in behavior or activity. None of this will matter though if the information isn’t used to help citizens prepare to deter or protect themselves from an attack. Virginia Tech did not have a strategy in place to quickly inform students that a shooter was on a rampage and such a strategy may have prevented additional deaths. Similarly a community has to have a way to communicate a potential threat exists and must communicate to the residents what steps to take to prevent or reduce the likelihood of attack. City officials of course may be reluctant to share information for fear of creating a panic and most likely this would occur if residents have not been involved with the process previously. There are many challenges to implementing a cooperative strategy between local government and residents on this level. The education and training to make this actually work would have to be well-planned out and continuous. There are many challenges to such a strategy and it may ultimately prove too difficult to implement in some cities. However, if the city officials accept the threat to their soft targets than in becomes a matter of principle and honor to do something about it. When you think about it, this isn’t much different than what Civil Defense was used for back in the 1950’s although this will be a much more pro-active model with the goal of not just surviving an attack but outright prevention.

Monday, December 17, 2007

National Emergency Responder Credentialing

The National Emergency Responder Credentialing System was recently published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and FEMA. The document establishes a baseline for 43 different medical and public health job titles most likely to be requested in the event of a major disaster response. The baseline criteria was developed by the Public Health/Medical Working group looking to identify relevant education, training, certification, etc. for medical and public health professionals to participate Incident Management System. The baseline lists the necessary Incident Command System (ICS) and FEMA courses required.

It should come as no surprise that professionals under the credentialing systems will be required to have ICS-100 (Introduction to ICS), ICS-200 (Basic ICS) and IS-700 (Introduction to National Incident Management System). In addition, individuals are to have training in basic HAZMAT Awareness Training. The baseline also goes on to identify, by job title, the necessary experience, certification and licensing required. The standards are to allow professionals to respond under mutual aid compacts which may take them into different states. Some positions have very extensive training requirements beyond the basics but no at least health care workers have some national standard to use for disaster preparedness training. The one omission that jumps out is the lack of a language requirement. Going into a neighborhood or an area primarily inhabited by non-English speaking residents adds another challenge to mitigating a disaster particularly when trying to administer medical treatment. It is still rare to find American born health care providers with proficiency in another language. In the Columbus area, for example, we have a very large population of residents from Somalia. Local exercises should identify language requirements and those most likely to respond should have identify some individuals with the requisite language skills.

The baseline follows the early publication of the National Preparedness Guidelines. In Section 4.7, Strengthen Medical Surge and Mass Prophylaxis Capabilities, these capabilities are identified as the first line of defense against bioterrorism, pandemic flu, and other health emergencies. Surge capacity in these terms means individuals with the highest levels of training and equipment. However, as these individuals tend to little depth to their ranks, they often are depleted after the first 48-72 hours of a disaster. Hospitals likewise are ill-equipped to handle large number of patients requiring immediate hospitalization following any type of incident. The increased possibility of a terrorist attack using some type of chemical or biological agent, or the increased possibility of a pandemic illness striking, increases the possibility that a hospital may be quickly overwhelmed by casualties. Hospital and other medical treatment facilities must be able to collectively handle different types of injuries, including physical and psychological trauma. While some hospitals specialize in treating burns, the number of cases facing their staffs at any one time is usually low. Imagine the flood of burn victims in the event of a refinery explosion. Surprising few facilities train for and are equipped to deal with any kind of injury due to exposure of radiation. Treating patients injured due to chemical or radiological exposure requires additional decontamination procedures for operating rooms and medical personnel that are not normally practiced (due to time and costs).

In anticipation of a mass casualty event that exceeds the capability of local hospitals, medical and public health professionals should conduct regular table top exercises to identify gaps in their capabilities. Hospital staffs s need to have practiced working with an influx of medical health care providers arriving from other facilities or even other parts of the country. Everything from familiarization with local procedures to room and food services needs to be planned out in advance. Such exercises take time and depending on the complexity of the exercise can be costly. A mass prophylaxis campaign, especially one in response to a biological agent or rapidly spreading pandemic illness, could quickly overwhelm local public health professionals. In order to bridge such a shortfall in staffing, it will become necessary to bring in additional personnel from first responders, non-governmental organizations and volunteer organizations. The sheer magnitude of such an effort cannot be conducted on the fly, these needs to be planned and coordinated well in advance of the outbreak.

Working in a collaborative environment is something that is almost alien to many medical professionals. Specialization requires years of training and concentration on one particular task or function. To start talking about a surge capability is to almost go back in time and have individuals focus on basic medical tasks (such as inoculations, taking blood samples, administering IVs) which many don’t practice in their daily routines. Medical professionals are also not immune to institutional biases that may prevent them from wanting to work in a collaborative environment. Hospital administrators may question such exercises or strategies sessions since it doesn’t produce any immediate return on investment. Of course in the event of a major disaster it is revealed the institution was NOT prepared, the financial liability could be huge.

The baseline contained in the National Emergency Responder Credentialing System is an important step in overcoming some of these challenges. It is still rare to see ICS or NIMS taught in the typical healthcare curriculum (and to be sure, adding courses on this material may increase time and expense that the students don’t have). Therefore it would seem to expose healthcare workers early in their academic careers to these topics and require refresher training as part of their continuing education. Most of the courses are available on-line through the FEMA Emergency Management Institute (EMI) or local community colleges. Many county emergency management agencies conduct ICS and NIMS training for first responders. They may be another resource for hospitals to insure their staff has the necessary training to respond to major disasters.

Proposed National Emergency Responder Credentialing System

National Preparedness Guidelines:

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Civil Defense

While today most people associate the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with disaster relief, one of the agencies that formed FEMA was the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency. The DCPA Coordinated and directed federal, state, and local civil defense program activities, including fallout shelters; chemical, biological, and radiological warfare defense; emergency communications and warning systems; post-attack assistance and damage assessment; preparedness planning; and government continuity. Under President Carter, FEMA shed its civil defense role for a more aggressive role in disaster response. Almost 25 years later, FEMA became part of the Department of Homeland Security which is challenged with some of the same responsibilities as the former DCPA.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, civil defense was an effort to prepare citizens to survive a military attack. In many countries, civil defense is usually based around a fire brigade. Citizens became concerned about another sneak attack on U.S. soil after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In 1942 President Roosevelt created the Office of Civilian Defense (which in 1972 would become DCPA). Civil defense in the U.S. during WWII was conducted by volunteers who, for example, made sure their neighbors had their lights off during mock air raids. Thousands of chapters across the country were formed due to the exceptionally high sense of volunteerism that was focused on winning the war. After the WWII, it would have seemed that the reasons for civil defense would have been eliminated but this wasn’t the case.

The Soviet Union did not waste any time catching up the U.S. in detonating its first nuclear weapon. The Korean War was seen by many as a prelude to all out war with the Soviet Union. Civil defense evolved into preparing citizens for surviving and the aftermath of a nuclear attack. The Eisenhower administration distributed survival information and created a Federal Civil Defense Administration (later the Office of Civil Defense) to educate the public about protection. Survival literature was written primarily for a suburban audience since it was assumed that cities would be targets and most urban dwellers would not survive. Because Cincinnati was an industrial giant (General Electric jet engine manufacturing, Cincinnati Milacron machine tool, etc) and was located near Wright Patterson AFB, southwestern Ohio would be a likely bomb target. In addition to these targets, many Ohioans have only recently learned of the large part National Cash Register (NCR) of Dayton played in a super-secret project to build the machines that were used to break the German “Enigma” machine.

Civil defense is mostly associated with “duck and cover” movies used to train school children. Survival manuals stated citizens could emerge from fallout shelters after two weeks. Civil Defense suggested plans for these structures in basements, converted cisterns, or other below ground surfaces. Suggested equipment included air filtering systems, generators, chemical toilets, waste disposal bags, water storage drums, cots or beds, Geiger counters, portable radios, first aid kits, auxiliary escape hatches, and a variety of foodstuffs - including "survival biscuits". More elaborate family foxholes had heat and air conditioning units. Some owners of fallout shelters kept guns inside--to stop unwanted intruders or looters. In Cincinnati, private bunkers existed within the Village on Kugler Mill, Given, Redbirdhollow, Councilrock, and Indian Hill Roads. Some were architect-designed, but many residents simply kept a basement corner supplied. These were based in part on designs from the Federal Civil Defense Administration (as the Office of Civilian Defense was known during the 1950’s.

Cincinnati had plans during the 1920’s to build an underground subway system and hired a Chicago transit planner to design the system. Issues in obtaining the necessary right-of-way from adjacent cities (Cincinnati proper is surrounding by much smaller cities including St Bernard, Norwood, Elmwood Place) Two miles were finally constructed but no track was ever laid. Those familiar with Cincinnati can imagine the route that follows Central Parkway along the I-75 corridor up to what is now the Norwood Later. The line would have come back down to what is now I-71 and ending at Fourth Street. The tunnels came back into prominence as part of a civil defense plan to shelter citizens. It thought the unused subway tunnels in Cincinnati would make a perfect underground fallout shelter. In the early 60's the federal government saw fit to renovate a particular station and install various items of equipment - toilet facilities, water facilities, heating facilities, etc. -so that it could be utilized by federal personnel in the event the need was necessary, and also, for both the county government and city government in the event of a disaster situation involving fallout. Government officials would assemble in the shelter facility and direct activities.

By 1958, it was widely believed that the Soviet Union had a nuclear arsenal equal to that of the United States which caused civil defense to become even more of a priority. The Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization under President John F. Kennedy, who believed in and advocated civil defense. The Cuban Missile Crisis, in October of 1962, resulted in a rapid, three-month program to improve civil defense. In autumn 1961, President Kennedy urged Americans to build the protective structures at the height of the Berlin Wall Crisis. Indian Hill's Village Council, noting "the wisdom of providing protection from radioactive fallout", considered establishing community shelters in both existing and proposed structures. The Miami Rd. Water Tower and Drake Rd. Elementary School were considered adaptable to house 600 persons each. The proposed I.H. High School and CCDS auditorium might be expanded (at $200,000 cost) to include basements to accommodate 2600 people. A Citizen's Committee reviewed the proposals; but, when it became clear that funding was not available, Council deferred action.

By the mid-1960's American's fears about the bomb lessened. As arms controls talks and a limited nuclear test ban eased tensions, plans for building additional public shelters were postponed, and builders received fewer inquiries for private ones. Shelters were converted to wine cellars, mushroom gardens, recreation rooms, or storage areas. The underground quarters that remain in the Village are relics of the Cold War era. Today civil defense is more commonly referred to as homeland security with more of an emphasis on surviving terrorist attacks versus nuclear attacks. While fallout shelters may no longer be relevant, the basic tenet of civil defense in preparing citizens to survive an attack is perhaps more relevant than ever.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Safety and Security Mindset

The last few weeks have seen an alarming increase in shootings. First a lone gunman at a mall in Omaha opened fire killing eight people. Then a week later, another gunman opens fire at a church killing two before being killed himself by a guard at the church. Here in Ohio we had a gunman in Columbus shoot someone at a mall in Columbus. What can we learn from these incidents other than man’s seemingly unlimited capacity to commit violence? The one lesson we can take away from all of these incidents (as well as other incidents occurring throughout the country) is the need to be prepared. Despite the coverage of these incidents on the national media, there are many still going about their daily routines as though this could never happen to them. People will leave their park their cars and begin walking to the store without any awareness about the potential threats surrounding them. The other week a man was robbed at the local Wal-Mart in the parking lot. The robbery was in broad daylight which can only mean the victim wasn’t paying attention or had dismissed the parking lot as a dangerous area.

People don’t want to think about the how dangerous an ordinary trip to the mall can become. These people may have worked out an extensive plan for surviving a disaster at their home but fail to apply the same security mindset when it comes to the mundane act of shopping. Every part of the trip needs to be considered from a safety and security perspective. Anything from breaking down in your vehicle to being faced with a shooter or bomb in the mall needs to be planned for. It is still rare to actually be faced with as being shot at by a rogue gunman or being trapped in a building where a bomb has just exploded. Yet these scenarios are becoming situations that can face you or one of your family members regardless of the locale. We assume that the owners of the mall or building will provide the necessary security and safety measures to prevent such things from happening. However, in both the mall shooting in Omaha and church in Colorado “gun free zones” had been established which in theory meant these should have been the last places to experience shootings. In addition to being gun-free zones, both the church and mall had security personnel on station and certainly the mall had surveillance cameras monitoring the common areas and parking lots. Despite all of these precautions, the owners were ultimately unable to prevent violence from occurring.

Both the Colorado and Nebraska shootings should serve as a reminder of how quickly you may be confronted with a life and death situation. There is no time to develop a plan once a gunman starts shooting into a crowd. You have to have a mindset which assumes danger could happen at a moments notice. You need to be aware of your surroundings to both determine potential threats as well as to locate areas that may provide protection in the event of an attack. Some may feel this is being paranoid but it is actually no different then assuming a defensive mindset while driving. Each vehicle presents a potential danger and you are constantly updating options for dealing with each new circumstance. The same can be done as you walk around a store, mall or other public gathering place. Take note of any unusual or suspicious activity. Don’t be quick to dismiss as someone else’s responsibility to deal with an unattended package. We live in a time when making generalizations about people and there behavior is off-limits as we may offend. Regardless, this doesn’t mean that you should ignore feelings about some character you’ve encountered, if they make you feel uneasy there is a reason. You may be subconsciously detecting their anxiety or hostility. Such feelings may be the only warning you get before the individual begins shooting or decides to detonate an explosive device. You need to think about how you will deal with a potentially unstable individual should you happen upon them before they have a chance to commit their act of violence. If there is time, notify security or the police. If there isn’t start yelling or throw something at the person, anything at all to disrupt their plans and to get others to notice them.

You need to be ready to assist in the event of an attack providing and aid or comfort that you can. First aid and CPR training may be the only thing keeping someone alive until rescue personnel are able to get to the wounded. Children and elderly may become separated from their family and become confused and disoriented. Try to calm and assure them until authorities are able to restore order and neutralize the threat. In the event of an explosion or some other disaster resulting in structural failure, people may become trapped or pinned under rubble. Simply providing comfort and assurance to those under such circumstances can be incredibly important. Structural failures can also mean being trapped without food or water for an extended period of time. There may be little to no light. You and other victims (who may or may not be wounded) will have to survive until rescue personnel can reach you with only those provisions within reach (which may be hardly anything at all).

Recent events occurred at malls and churches but of course an attack can occur any time and anywhere. We are experiencing our first wintry mix of weather this weekend in Cincinnati but before we know it the temperatures will be warming and people will be going out to festivals and amusement parks. Any public gathering should be considered as a place where violence can strike. We here so much in the news about terrorist organizations that we forget a single sociopath bent on causing harm is just as dangerous and much more common. Our ability to live our lives as we choose should never be compromised by such threats however it is only prudent to plan for the potential of having to deal with the next random shooting or bomb attack.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Winter Storm Preparations

As the Tri-State area prepares for the first snow storm of the year, it seems like a good time to review basics precautions you should take at your home, office and car. Snow storms can strand the unprepared individual without emergency food, water and necessary medications. An emergency stock of food and water at your home or vehicle can provide the necessary energy to survive being stranded in a snow storm. We don’t always think about water during the winter but with the lower humidity and heavier clothing, our hydration needs are even higher than normal.

Foods that don’t require refrigeration, water, special preparation or cooking are the best. Family members with special dietary needs or who have food allergies need are especially vulnerable to being stranded without sufficient food supplies. Canned dietetic foods (such as soup) can be a simple way of insuring sufficient nutrition for elderly or special needs family members. If you lose electricity during a storm, use your perishable foods first. Next use foods from the freezer. If power is lost for an extended period of time, food could be stored outside temporarily if temperatures are cold enough. Only after your perishables and frozen foods have been used up do you begin to use your non-perishable foods.

Loss of power or gas does not necessarily a loss of ways to cook food. Fireplaces weren’t always a decorative item, food used to be cooked in the fireplace. Camping gear or heavy cast iron cook ware can be used in the fire place to cook a meal. Another option is using a camp stove, however use such devices with caution in a properly ventilated area. Candles can be used to warm canned food. Another option is to stock up on the new military rations that use a chemical heater to warm up the food. Be aware though that while convenient, military rations have extremely high sugar and salt contents. The sugar is needed for energy required during combat operations and the salt is to insure a long shelf life. Despite these shortfalls, they are convenient and easy to store.

If you find yourself stranded, remember to eat at least one balanced meal a day. Drink enough liquid to insure proper bodily functions (approximately ½ gallon of water per day). Water is more versatile that stockpiling other liquids and is more easily used by the body during stress. Water and caloric intake may need to be increased in proportion to the amount of work you need to do to survive. It may also be prudent to supplement your diet with vitamins and minerals. The longer you are stranded, the harder it becomes to keep fresh fruits and vegetables on hand. Without fresh produce, your diet rapidly becomes deficient in vital nutrients. A multi-vitamin can keep you functioning until fresh produce becomes available.

In addition to ample food, you need to also stockpile water for you and your family. Most experts recommend having a two week supply on hand for each family member. This may not be practical so try to stockpile as much as you can. Purchasing bottled water may be the easiest way of meeting this requirement. If you decide to store tap water, be sure to use only clean soda bottles as jugs that held milk or juice will be teeming with proteins and enzymes that can cause bacteria to grow. In the event of your water supply is cut off, water heaters do offer an emergency source of water. If you are forced to get water from outside, there are several products available for purifying water. Having some water purification tablets or other products on hand could mean extending your ability to wait out the storm or other disaster.

You should also insure a proper supply of prescription medications are on hand. Snow storms can strand trucks supplies on the Interstate or cargo planes at airports for several days. A rush on the pharmacies could lead to a shortage of medications. Take the time to make sure you have a battery or crank radio on hand for getting news updates. If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to replace the batteries in your flashlights. Keeping candles or some hurricane lamps on hand can provide necessary light and some relief to cold in the event you lose heat.

For your automobile, make sure it has been properly winterized. You will want to make sure at a minimum that you have a working flashlight, blanket, shovel, a first aid kit, some protein or energy bars, and of course water. Road flares or chemical lights are a good way to call attention to you location or that of another stranded motorist. You can add other items but these basics will get you through being stuck on the side of the road during a major snow storm.

The predictions are for 2-4 inches of snow by tomorrow afternoon. Regardless of the amount of snowfall, the storm should serve as a reminder to review your disaster preparedness procedures both at home and at work. While some of what was discussed is cold-weather related, much is applicable to any disaster with the addition of only a few more items.