Governments and experts seeking to mitigate the social and psychological effects of radiological terrorism are working at a distinct disadvantage. While the public is the object of their concern, governmental strategies and plans are being developed without directly involving the public. Lacking that voice, do we really know what matters to people in this type of situation and what can be done to address the problems they would face? Do we fully appreciate the role that the public can play in contributing to response and recovery?
Recent efforts enabling the American people to speak for themselves reveal that we don't. This paper presents findings from the Redefining Readiness Study, which gave the American people their first opportunity to describe what they would face in trying to protect themselves in a dirty bomb explosion. It also presents the experiences of four American communities that are actively engaging their residents in developing and implementing strategies to respond to emergencies like a dirty bomb explosion. Both the study and the demonstrations uncover important differences in the way planners and the public think about radiological emergencies. Equally importantly, they document that community residents have valuable and practical insights which may hold the key to protecting as many people as possible should a radiological event occur.
Building on new community engagement methods developed by the Redefining Readiness demonstration sites, the paper describes how governments and communities can give the public a more active and meaningful role in emergency preparedness efforts. By giving the public an opportunity to think about emergencies in advance – and to put their own problem-solving abilities to use – this engagement process can help community residents build the resilience they need to cope with radiological terrorism and other emergencies. By enabling the general public, experts, and people from public and private organizations to combine what they know and can do, the process can help communities create conditions that minimize psychological damage and social disruption in emergencies. By enabling communities to identify and address the full range of risks that people face trying to protect themselves in emergencies, the process can lead to the development of preparedness plans that justify the public's trust and confidence.