Citizens want to help fight terrorism

"We the People: Homeland Security from the Citizens' Perspective"

Justice Department and FBI officials urged the public last week to be vigilant as credible intelligence revealed al Qaeda is planning strikes in the United States this summer. But asking the public to help is not as easy as it sounds.

A recent Council for Excellence in Government report, "We the People: Homeland Security from the Citizens' Perspective," said U.S. citizens are willing to help but are unprepared to react to an attack.

The report, coincidentally released the day before federal officials issued the latest warnings, said citizens are most concerned about tighter border security, better use of tax dollars and better information sharing among first responders and government officials. Patricia McGinnis, the council's president and chief executive officer, said the important finding was the communications gap between government officials and citizens.

Neighborhood watches are one way to engage citizens. Among the report's nearly 50 recommendations, one suggested creating a telephone service, similar to 311 or 911, through which citizens can report security threats or emergency information.

David McClure, the council's vice president of e-government, said a telecommunications system provides an "electronic avenue that's immediate and something law enforcement can react and respond to in a unified way."

Lisa Mascolo, managing partner of Accenture's federal government client group, said New York City's nonemergency 311 service, launched in March 2003, has proven to be an effective two-way communication system. It worked during last summer's blackout and when a Staten Island ferry smashed into a pier last October. Residents could report information and tips but city officials also could provide information on the system if radios and televisions did not work.

She said a similar system might be a good answer to the problem of

engaging citizens in homeland security, but added, "I think the question is whether the citizens would use it."

Accenture officials, who helped build New York City's 311 system, are also developing one for Columbus, Ohio, and are upgrading Los Angeles' rudimentary one. But there's little other development of these systems nationwide, Mascolo said.

There are other technologies through which government officials can send information, whether by e-mail, landline phone, mobile phone or personal digital assistant. "Most people are not parked in front of their televisions during the day," McClure said. "If we want to provide them with real-time information, most people today have their cell phones parked on their hip or in their purse."

However, he warned about information overload. McClure said the poll indicated that people prefer to receive information pertinent to their location but not to hear everything nationwide.

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