Yes, Unlikely Catastrophes Do Happen

Published: March 14, 2011

Editor’s Note: This article was written just before last week’s 8.9 earthquake and resulting tsunami and radiation disasters in Japan.

Recently, I have had heard several campus and public safety officials from three different regions of the country make similar statements about planning for unlikely yet potentially catastrophic events. In the one instance, a campus official from the Southeast stated that her top brass had decided they could skip any planning for chemical, radiological or biological incidents because they felt the risks of such an event were beyond remote. They were locked into the idea that these three types of events would all require a terrorist plot.

In the another instance, a public safety official recommended that local school districts not plan for radiological events because the chances of such an event impacting their community were remote.

The first example indicates a lack of understanding that incidents involving chemicals frequently impact schools, universities and hospitals and in some cases can cause mass casualty injuries and death. Of course, biological incidents can occur in any region without any terrorist action as well. 

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These types of misunderstandings are relatively common.  In addition, many campus emergency preparedness plans lump these three very different types of incidents into one category with no differentiation between the action steps between them. 

The decision to omit proper radiological incident planning also causes concern.  With clear expressions of intent by Osama Bin Laden to acquire and employ one or more nuclear weapons against U.S. targets, it is important to keep this type of threat in mind as a possibility, particularly for any campus organization near an urban center or any other intrinsic targeting potential. With apparent indications that Bin Laden has attempted to purchase nuclear weapons in the past only to be duped out of millions of dollars, it might be imprudent to skip radiological incident planning regardless of where in the nation an institution of higher learning is located.  Of course, some regions have the potential for accidental radiological incidents. 

When one considers that non-hardened computers, telephones, many motor vehicle ignition systems and other technologies can be rendered inoperable or severely damaged by some types of nuclear events, planning for this type of incident requires a different approach. If an incident occurred near or upwind of a campus and staff cannot contact the outside world for guidance, preplanning could be crucial to the health and even survival of students, patients, staff and visitors. While most experts agree that carrying out this type of attack is extremely difficult, few feel confident that we can reliably prevent them. Though our government does have a variety of countermeasures in place, we do not have foolproof protective strategies. 

In Center of the Storm – My Years at the CIA, former intelligence boss George Tenet makes it clear that his experiences at the CIA cause him deep concern about the possibility of such an attack on U.S. soil.  Tenet feels the apparent determination of Osama Bin Laden to carry out such a devastating attack is worthy of our attention.  He cites intelligence that Bin Laden had apparently been willing to commit vast fiscal resources to acquire a nuclear weapon to strike a severe blow to the United States.

State level government homeland security work experience, training and research have taught me to be very careful about making specific predictions of terrorism absent reliable and recent intelligence.  At the same time, I do recognize the possibility of radiological events ranging from contamination  to use of traditional explosives to scatter radiological contaminants to the use of a nuclear weapon. Understanding that an attack of this type anywhere in the world would cause a high level of anxiety in the United States makes it even more important to include planning for these types of events in campus emergency management plans. 

While plans should focus on likely areas of risk based on the local hazard and vulnerability assessment process, it could be quite dangerous not to develop specific protocols for each of these three areas. Separating them in plans is extremely important as the appropriate responses are different for each of them.  Part of the all hazards planning process involves recognition of the hazards that must be addressed for your organization’s geographic location. 

Unfortunately, no community is immune to these three distinct types of threats. Though the risk to most specific communities from radiological incidents is not extremely high, the consequences of these types of incidents are too great to be ignored.   

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