How Can Individuals Be Better Prepared for Catastrophic Terrorist Attacks?


Jun 7, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in The Connection on June 7, 2004.

When Jordanian officials recently foiled what they claim were plans for a massive al Qaeda chemical attack, it brought home the reality that such catastrophic terrorist attacks could happen. According to a Jordanian government scientist, such an attack would have produced a toxic cloud of poisonous chemicals, possibly spreading for a mile, or even more. Estimates of the death toll from such an attack ranged from 20,000 to 80,000, and many of those would be individuals caught in the aftermath as the cloud spread.

How can we, as individuals, prepare ourselves for, and respond to, such an attack? What should emergency responders tell individuals to do to prepare? The Department of Homeland Security does have a citizen preparedness campaign. Launched about a year ago, provides a good foundation for what we, as individuals, should do. But much of that guidance is fairly general, and, in the case of an outdoor chemical attack, it leaves it up to individuals to decide for themselves whether to go inside or leave the area.

We at RAND built on this valuable foundation, taking for the first time an approach that begins with the terrorist attacks themselves, in particular, those involving chemical, radiological, nuclear, and biological weapons. We used some representative scenarios to help us to determine what “needs” individuals would have for their survival and what steps individuals should take in response to such attacks. We derived response actions in relation to those needs—drawing from existing emergency response guidelines, including those for industrial accidents, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks (including materials from other countries)—and evaluated how effective each potential action was against a number of different criteria chosen to determine how well the action would contribute to preventing or minimizing injury.

Starting with the needs individuals would have was very revealing. While we examined a full spectrum of needs—ranging from clean environment, to medical care, to emergency response services, to infrastructure and utilities—what we found, surprisingly, was that what individuals really needed in responding to such catastrophic terrorist attacks was getting a clean environment and seeking medical care.

What drives this finding is that in three of the four types of attack—chemical, radiological, and nuclear—the safety and health dangers will arise so fast that individuals will be on their own during the critical early moments. In other words, they will need to take actions to save themselves even before government officials or emergency responders would be able to help or guide them.

For example, in the scenario we used for an indoor chemical attack, terrorists posing as maintenance workers mix potassium cyanide with sulfuric acid on the roof of a building, producing hydrogen cyanide gas that is drawn into the building's air intake. The gas could spread through the building in a matter of minutes, forcing individuals to take immediate actions to survive (see figure [published in RAND Review]).

As for what types of actions individuals should take, we focused on being as directive as possible, given how little time individuals will likely have to respond and what information they are likely to have. We wanted to produce the same kind of clear and simple guidance individuals now have for natural disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes.

Interestingly, we found that the guidance is actually counterintuitive in some cases. Just as earthquake guidance urges individuals inside to take cover under a table or door jam and not follow their instincts to run outside, guidance during an outdoor chemical attack urges people to move indoors as quickly as possible and not simply run away from it. Running outside during an earthquake actually exposes individuals to more dangers, while running away from an outdoor chemical attack can do the same, since individuals will not know which direction the toxic cloud is moving and how fast. While it is counterintuitive, research shows that moving inside a nearby building can actually reduce chemical exposure by 75 percent or more compared to simply remaining outside.

In the same way, we defined actions that individuals would take to respond to the immediate dangers of nuclear and radiological (dirty-bomb) attacks and then what to expect from public officials if a biological attack is identified.

We also recommend preparatory steps individuals should take to enable them to accomplish the response actions. These steps center around educating themselves about the potential attacks and what to expect (and not expect) authorities to do, making plans and gathering information to help in accomplishing the response actions, preparing appropriate emergency supplies, and implementing permanent “passive” actions to help protect against biological attacks (such as weatherizing their homes).

While a terrorist attack is a horrific and chaotic event, we find that individuals will face only a few essential needs and they can take some simple actions to meet those needs. Following the recommended strategy can save lives, even in catastrophic terrorist attacks.

To make our recommended individual's strategy readily available to citizens, the strategy is available in A Quick Guide along with a fold-out reference card, which you can download from the RAND website (, order from RAND at (877) 584-8642, or find in your bookstores.

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