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Checklist Action 2: Educate
Conduct an ongoing public education program to inform the public about the effects of a nuclear detonation and how people can protect themselves.
Because a nuclear detonation may be a “no notice” incident and will severely disrupt communications, educating people before an incident on how to protect themselves from fallout is essential. The best strategy to maximize lives saved following a nuclear detonation is for cities and their neighboring communities to implement a coordinated and sustained public education program on fallout preparedness. Pre-incident public education will play a critical role in priming the public to seek shelter rapidly after a nuclear detonation. At its best, a well-executed campaign will also motivate people to take actions beforehand, such as purchasing a hand-crank radio and scouting out familiar buildings that afford the highest protection factors. The following steps rely on empirically based “best principles” for designing a pre-incident public education. Suggested Topics for a Fallout Preparedness Education Campaign outlines key topics that a region may wish to incorporate into its own public education efforts. Resource-constrained jurisdictions may wish to weave fallout preparedness information into an already-existing, credible mass education program for disasters.
To maximize lifesaving, adjacent jurisdictional plans for pre-incident public education should be coordinated. Science has demonstrated that to be effective, messages should be consistent and delivered by multiple information sources or organizations.26,32,33 The process works best if a single agency is designated as the lead and if stakeholder organizations and jurisdictions commit to a coordinated, long-term strategy. An important task will be to work together to craft key fallout protection messages for use by all members, rather than each group producing a unique message. An example of an inconsistent message would be one group advising residents to stay inside a building for a minimum of 4 hours following a nuclear detonation, while a different organization recommends a threshold of 8 hours. Coordinated messaging is vital in the case of a large city: a person who works in an urban center but who lives in the suburbs needs to hear the same message and to have it reinforced. At best, conflicting information is confusing and, at worst, can undermine the public’s confidence in the efficacy of sheltering and the competence of the organizations issuing messages.
While often used in public education campaigns, scare tactics and probability estimates are not effective motivators of preparedness. Instead, people respond to knowledge about what to do, how to do it, and why it will help them.26,32,33 Rather than focus on the likelihood of nuclear terrorism and the horror of radiation injuries, fallout preparedness messages should inform people how to minimize radiation exposure (take shelter), how to do it (know which buildings are best and set aside enough supplies), and why it is important (you can save your life). Educational messages about minimizing fallout exposure can also be linked to other “all-hazard” messages—namely, those about sheltering—and to “teachable moments” where interest in radiation is piqued, such as the March 2011 nuclear power plant emergency in Japan. Familiar, all-hazard preparedness recommendations—have a family disaster plan including ideas for postdisaster reunification; store a supply of food, water, and essential medications; and have a crank or battery-powered radio—all support the goal of extended sheltering in the context of a nuclear detonation and a potentially degraded communication infrastructure. For disaster preparedness in general, emergency professionals recommend that if individuals have not yet set aside any emergency supplies, they should begin with a 3-days’ supply and work up to 1 week and then 2 weeks, once they have adopted a preparedness lifestyle. Larger stockpiles will provide people with more flexibility for unpredictable events and conditions. While people may not need to shelter for more than 1 day to avoid exposure to high radiation levels following a nuclear detonation, damage to critical infrastructure could interrupt access to food and water for several days, maybe more.*
Sustained repetition of public education messages is necessary to break through the background noise of everyday life.26,32-34 Also, people vary in what information sources they trust and in how they receive their information. Materials should be translated into multiple languages and the technological needs of those with visual and hearing disabilities addressed. Planning should include the development of resources such as websites for people who may seek more information and the identification of technical experts who are good communicators. Recent evidence indicates that most people trust the local weatherman over other spokespersons. Interweaving informational, social, and physical cues can help reinforce messages about fallout preparedness. For instance, fallout shelter signage serves as a visible reminder of the most important way to protect oneself from fallout. School safety officers could have a parent-teacher association (PTA) group learn about fallout protection, enlist them in the posting of signs at schools, and then work together to identify what is needed to shelter their children safely from fallout.
The most effective spokespersons for preparedness are people who have already taken action.26,32,33 Thus, the primary targets of a public education campaign on fallout should be those people in the community who typically prepare for other hazards. These individuals can then lead by example, talking about and demonstrating ways to protect oneself from fallout. Drawing on their own in-depth knowledge of the community and its subgroups, these preparedness champions can develop innovative ways to teach others about what they have done to prepare for fallout and why. Training curricula for existing volunteer networks (eg, MRC, Community Emergency Response Teams [CERTs], and Neighborhood Watch Program [NWP]) should be updated with radiation basics and fallout protection guidance. In addition, these volunteers can be trained to deliver a vetted localized nuclear readiness presentation to groups and organizations throughout the community. After an incident, MRC, CERTs, NWP, and other volunteers can also perform key support roles such as reading pre-scripted messages as part of “rumor control” hotlines (Task 4.4) or greeting people who arrive for monitoring and decontamination at community reception centers (Task 6.8).35
As with any education initiative, progress toward the goal of preparedness should be assessed and the public education program restructured as needed.34,36 Jurisdictions are encouraged to perform a baseline assessment of the public’s knowledge about the effects of a nuclear detonation, the public’s awareness of protective measures, and individuals’ level of preparedness. This inquiry can also help officials to identify factors that could impede people from taking protective actions and to collect information on trusted spokespersons and preferred means of receiving messages for various population segments (eg, Spanish radio station, internet, TDD for the hearing impaired). Later, survey questions can be repeated to test the effectiveness of the education program. Assessments may also rely on focus groups or organization/community exercises. Program effectiveness should be based on actual preparedness outcomes, such as an increase in knowledge of which types of buildings offer the greatest protection, rather than measurement of the number of times a particular training was given or the number of flyers distributed.
*For more detailed instructions on gathering supplies to support sheltering-in-place, individuals and families are encouraged to consult the Ready.gov and American Red Cross websites on basic emergency provisions. Businesses, schools, and organizations are similarly encouraged to adopt the Red Cross Ready Rating Program (http://readyrating.org) to evaluate and improve institutional preparedness, which includes acquiring and maintaining adequate emergency supplies.