Amanda Ripley

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Smallpox Imagined

9th Sep 2008 posted in Disaster Behavior

OK, so a smallpox epidemic is not something you want to visualize. How about a dirty bomb? Not so much.

But humor me for just a second. I want to share with you a report that a wise man sent to me earlier today. It came out a while ago, but for some reason I had never heard of it. It’s a really powerful study of the huge disconnect between emergency plans—and people’s real plans. A case study of what happens when emergency plans are not written with the public in mind.

The study found that plans to respond to these emergencies won’t work because people will not react the way planners want them to. In a smallpox outbreak, only 43% of the population said they would follow instructions to go to a public site to be vaccinated. In a dirty bomb explosion, only 59% of the population said they would stay inside the building they were in for as long as officials told them.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Redefining Readiness study found that the public’s reluctance to follow instructions is not due to ignorance, recalcitrance, or panic. Quite the contrary, most people have solid, common-sense reasons for their behavior. Because current plans have been developed without the direct involvement of the public, they don’t account for all of the risks people would face. As a result, the plans make it unnecessarily difficult for many people to decide on the best course of action to protect themselves and their family. Even worse, the plans inadvertently create serious and unnecessary risks for millions of people.

You always have to be cautious when you are looking at polls that ask people what they intend to do…at some distant, unimaginable point in the future. People don’t know for sure until they get there. But I still found the report valuable, and I wish every emergency planner had a copy on his nightstand.