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Study: Public Misunderstands Security Lingo


A recently published study from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that most Americans do not know how to respond to the recommendations made by the Department of Homeland Security on what to do in case of terrorist attacks.

The study, a survey of 1,007 adults over the age of 18, is part of a series of studies by the HSPH on the quality of Americans’ preparedness for the threat of biological attacks and warfare.

“The survey points out the low level of understanding the average citizen has about what to do,” says Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the HSPH who directed the research. “The results suggest we have to have a serious conversation with the public, not about duct tape, but the usefulness of finding a safe room, to make sure somebody at school or at a workplace would know where to go if you couldn’t stay where you are.”

The survey finds that most Americans are confused when the Department recommends finding a “sheltering in place” or making “evacuation plans” when there is a high, so-called “orange,” level of alert for attacks. Seventy-three percent of Americans surveyed were aware of such an alert.

But only a small percentage of the public surveyed—24 percent—had heard the term “sheltering in place” in recommendations by the Department of Homeland Security and knew what it meant.

Only 37 percent of Americans actually have a windowless room in their home necessary to make a so-called shelter in place—or a safe place in the home—according to the survey.

The study also showed that while 55 percent believed they understood what was meant by the Department’s recommendation of an “evacuation plan,” 42 percent thought it meant getting to a community shelter, and 35 percent believed it entailed getting out of the community.

Both are recommended by the Department of Homeland Security.

Of those who said they did not know what an “evacuation plan” entailed, 28 percent said they had considered making an evacuation plan for themselves and their family. But only 12 percent actually made such plans, while a smaller four percent executed their plans.

While the Department of Homeland Security has dedicated a website to the dissemination of their recommendations, researchers suggest that the confusion of the American public could be helped by the distribution of other types of media, such as tapes of respected figures explaining what the public needs to do.

The surveys the HSPH has previously conducted addressed the anthrax attacks related to Sept. 11, vaccinations against smallpox, and the recent concerns about the West Nile virus.

Researchers are now working on a survey about what people know and how they are responding to the current SARS epidemic.

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