Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f(d) defines terrorism as the premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. Acts of terrorism range from threats of terrorism, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, bomb scares and bombings, computer based cyber attacks, to the use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. High-risk targets include military and civilian government facilities, international airports, large cities and high-profile landmarks. Terrorists might also target large public gatherings, water and food supplies, utilities, and corporate centers.
In the immediate area of a terrorist event, you would need to rely on police, fire and other officials for instructions. However, you can prepare in much the same way you would prepare for other crisis events.
Preparing for Terrorism
Wherever you are, be aware of your surroundings. The very nature of terrorism suggests there may be little or no warning.
- Take precautions when traveling. Be aware of conspicuous or unusual behavior. Do not accept packages from strangers. Do not leave luggage unattended. Unusual behavior, suspicious packages and strange devices should be promptly reported to the police or security personnel.
- Do not be afraid to move or leave if you feel uncomfortable or if something does not seem right.
- Learn where emergency exits are located in buildings you frequent. Notice where exits are when you enter unfamiliar buildings. Plan how to get out of a building, subway or congested public area or traffic. Note where staircases are located. Notice heavy or breakable objects that could move, fall or break in an explosion.
- Assemble a disaster supply kit at home and learn first aid. Separate the supplies you would take if you had to evacuate quickly, and put them in a backpack or container, ready to go.
- Be familiar with different types of fire extinguishers and how to locate them.
Chemical warfare agents are poisonous vapors, aerosols, liquids or solids that have toxic effects. They can be released by bombs, sprayed from airplanes, boats, or vehicles, or used as a liquid to create a hazard to people and the environment. Some chemical agents may be odorless and tasteless. They can have an immediate effect (a few seconds to a few minutes) or a delayed effect (several hours to several days). General indicators of possible chemical agent usage include:
- Unusual number of dead or dying animals (lack of insects).
- Unexplained casualties (multiple victims, serious illness, nausea, disorientation, difficulty breathing, convulsions, etc.).
- Unusual liquid, spray or vapor (droplets, oily film, unexplained odors, low clouds/fog that is not weather related).
- Suspicious devices/packages (unusual metal debris, abandoned spray devices, unexplained munitions).
Biological warfare agents are organisms or toxins that can kill or incapacitate people. The three basic groups of biological agents that would likely be used as weapons are bacteria, viruses, and toxins. Most biological agents are difficult to grow and maintain. Many break down quickly when exposed to sunlight and other environmental factors, while others such as anthrax are very long lived. Some biological agents, such as anthrax, do not cause contagious diseases. Others, like the smallpox virus, can result in diseases you can catch from other people. They can be dispersed by spraying them in the air, or infecting animals that carry the disease to humans as well as through food and water contamination. General indicators of possible biological agent usage include:
- Unusual number of dead or dying animals/fish.
- Unusual illness for the region/area.
- Unusual liquids, sprays or vapors.
What to Do In Case of Chemical or Biological Attack
Protection of breathing airways is the single most important thing a person can do in the event of a chemical or biological incident or attack. In most cases, absent a handy gas mask, the only sure way to protect an airway is to put distance between you and the source of the agent. While evacuating the area, cover your mouth and nose with a handkerchief, coat sleeve or any piece of cloth to provide some moderate means of protection. Other basic steps one can take to avoid or mitigate exposure to chemical or biological agents include:
- Stay alert for attack warning signs. Early detection enhances survival.
- Move upwind from the source of the attack.
- If evacuation from the immediate area is impossible, move indoors (if outside) and upward to an interior room on a higher floor. Many agents are heavier than air and will tend to stay close to the ground.
- Once indoors, close all windows and exterior doors and shut down air conditioning or heating systems to prevent circulation of air.
- Cover your mouth and nose. If gas masks are not available, use a surgical mask or a handkerchief. An improvised mask can be made by soaking a clean cloth in a solution of 1 tablespoon of baking soda in a cup of water. While this is not highly effective, it may provide some protection.
- Cover bare arms and legs and make sure any cuts or abrasions are covered or bandaged.
- If splashed with an agent, immediately wash it off using copious amounts of warm soapy water.
- If in a car, shut off outside air intake vents and roll up windows if no gas has entered the vehicle. Late model cars may provide some protection from toxic agents.
- In any case of suspected exposure to chemical or biological agents, no matter what the origin, medical assistance should be sought as soon as possible, even if no symptoms are immediately evident.
A radiation threat or "Dirty Bomb" is the use of common explosives to spread radioactive materials over a targeted area. It is not a nuclear blast. The force of the explosion and the radioactive contamination will be more localized. While the blast will be immediately obvious, the presence of radiation will not be clearly defined until trained personnel with specialized equipment are on the scene. As with any radiation, you want to try to limit exposure. To limit the amount of radiation you are exposed to, think about shielding, distance and time:
- Shielding: If you have a thick shield between yourself and the radioactive material more of the radiation will be absorbed, and you will be exposed to less.
- Distance: The farther away you are from the blast and the fallout the lower your exposure.
- Time: Minimizing time spent exposed will also reduce your risk.
- As with any emergency, local authorities may not be able to immediately provide information on what is happening and what you should do. However, you should watch TV, listen to the radio, or check the Internet often for official news and information as it becomes available.