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Reacting to an 'orange alert'

02/12/03 12:00AM By Bill Seamans
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(Host) Commentator Bill Seamans believes that the average American is still very poorly prepared for the possibility a terrorist attack.

(Seamans) When the national terrorism color code Orange, the "high risk" warning, was flashed across the nation by all the news media there was a collective public reaction asking, "What can we do? What should we do?" The answer from Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge was "Be alert! Be aware!" Our next question was, "Be alert for what? Be aware of what?" Again we were told to "carry on as usual."

Then the next day, Ridge said we should go out and buy some duck tape and plastic sheeting to seal off a room in the house as an air-tight refuge against a chemical or biological attack by al Qaeda. We should also stock it with a several-day supply of food and water. But, again, there was no advice on how best to set up this hopefully safe haven - something the Israelis have been doing routinely for years. When are we getting our gas masks?

This very limited and poignant dialogue told the story in a few words of how really uninformed and unprepared the government has left us - this despite all the warnings from President Bush about how critical our homeland security situation really is. So serious, Bush said, that he created a new cabinet post for Tom Ridge to give him stature and power as the head of the new Homeland Security Agency, intended to coordinate a quick response to the domestic terrorism threat.

However, this color code Orange weekend has dramatized how unprepared we the people have been left to face a national emergency. Our first responders - the fire fighters, police, the emergency medical people - all those who will be called out first to handle a chemical or biological attack - have been complaining for months that they haven't received the federal funds promised to meet an emergency. Local community budgets cannot support the extra training, expensive equipment and additional staff needed to serve the public adequately.

Also, Ridge must involve the public directly and could well use Israel's experience as a model. Involvement and training of the people is the best antidote for fear. Ridge should organize a national volunteer Civil Defense Corps to back up our first responders. There are tens of thousands of combat war veterans and retired medical people, communications experts and others who are physically able and certainly willing to help relieve our first responders of routine chores during a major terrorism emergency.

The defense against domestic terrorism must be pro-active to do as much as possible through training and public information to prevent an attack. We the people need action and a credible and informed civil defense effort - ot just more words from President Bush and Tom Ridge.

This is Bill Seamans.

Award-winning journalist Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East.

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