Who we believe
- By Allan Holmes, Judi Hasson
- Sep 01, 2003
If terrorists attack the United States again, Americans say they trust the government to provide them with reliable information about the attacks and what to do. But they say they will tune in to conventional news media, not government sources or high-tech communications, to get that information.
Americans said they would treat the news media as a first responder to gather needed information in case of a terrorist attack as they did during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the rash of anthrax letters that same year and last month's blackout that cascaded through the Northeast and Canada. Television and radio would be the primary sources for information, according to a national poll released this week by Federal Computer Week and the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a Washington, D.C., research group.
Seventy-one percent of Americans say they are confident that the government would quickly provide accurate and useful information in case of a terrorist attack.
Although reports suggest the federal government may have withheld information about potential terrorist threats before Sept. 11, Rachel Trumphour said she's confident the government will quickly relay information to the public. "I do feel much more confident than I did before," said Trumphour, a 33-year-old mother of five in Nashua, N.H. "The government is taking everything much more seriously."
But Americans also sent a clear message to government homeland security agencies working on networks that would share information and warn the public of possible or real attacks. They said they would not seek information from government sources. In fact, few Americans — only about 12 percent — have gone to a federal, state or local government Web site for guidelines about protecting against a terrorist attack.
In all, the poll sampled 1,001 adults between Aug. 5 and Aug. 11, before the Blaster worm infected millions of computers and before the blackout shut down some of the largest cities in the Northeast and Canada. The poll indicates that Americans have a sophisticated understanding of the possibility of terrorist attacks. They especially worry about the possibility that terrorists will launch cyberattacks against critical computers that run banks, utilities, and transportation and water systems.
The poll also sends the message to the federal government, specifically the Homeland Security Department, that it must develop a better system to quickly and reliably get information to the public, said Ivo Daalder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, who analyzed the poll results for FCW and Pew.
For example, Daalder said, the first word that the blackout was not the product of a terrorist attack came from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a telephone interview with CNN, not from DHS. "The most important thing DHS can do is to get as much accurate information out to as many people as quickly as possible," Daalder said. "This means that the department needs to put into place a stellar information management capacity to gather information, process the known from the unknown/unsubstantiated and then get what it knows out to the public."
DHS spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the department first responded to the blackout within about 20 minutes with a statement that the government was looking into the situation. About 45 minutes to an hour after the power outage began, Johndroe said DHS released its first report stating it was not caused by terrorism.
"I think this was a partial test of the system because it was not an attack," he said. "I think that whatever the next situation we have to deal with, we will be able to do things maybe a little bit better because there's always room for improvement. All in all, the system worked fairly well."
In general, those surveyed were wary of high-tech solutions that could inform them about possible terrorist attacks, with 36 percent saying the current color-coded alert system is not good enough. Only 3 percent said they would choose to first visit a government Web site for information on possible attacks.
Two-thirds of Americans believe the government should not send messages via wireless phones, which were rendered useless after the Sept. 11 attacks and during the Northeast blackout, and 76 percent of respondents said the government should not use e-mail blasts to inform people.
Still, a large portion of Americans want warnings of terrorist attacks from multiple sources. Janice Bonnet, 54, of Silver Spring, Md., who was contacted for the poll, said she thinks wireless phones are a good way to transmit information. She also would like to see electronic highway signs flash warnings, much like the Amber Alert system that has been set up for missing or kidnapped children.
"I travel a lot in the car, and I have my cell phone with me wherever I go," she said. "When I travel or go on the highways, it would be a good way for me to get information like, 'Get to a shelter,' or whatever. A short message would be fine and then I can get more extensive information from other sources like television."
Bonnet's response is similar to other research findings, said Lee Rainie, Pew's director. "Everything we've seen in our research suggests that Americans want every channel of communication fired up when there are emergencies," he said. "They want horns sounding, radios blaring, TV screens alight with the latest information, pagers buzzing, e-mails sent and Web pages updated on the fly."
Among the poll's findings:
* Nearly one in four Americans — mostly between the ages of 18 and 29 — want a warning system created for wireless phones and pagers.
* Nearly one-fifth of those polled — 18 percent — said they would also like to get alerts via e-mail.
* In the event of another terrorist attack, 57 percent of Americans said they would turn to television first to get information and 15 percent said they would turn to radio first. Even Internet users would turn to television first and radio second, with 6 percent saying they would go to a news Web site first.
* Government Web sites are near the bottom of the list of places Americans would turn to get information.
* The majority, 56 percent, believe the government should be able to get information from the private sector about its vulnerability to cyber- attacks. Some companies have resisted providing such information for fear it might fall into competitors' hands or affect stock prices.
* One in six of those polled has gone to government Web sites to get information about how to protect themselves and their families in case of another terrorist attack. Of those who have visited such sites, the majority — 57 percent — said they found a modest amount of helpful information.
Although one size does not fit all, DHS is working on ways to use technology to broadcast information if an attack occurs. Vendors are developing and marketing new high-tech alerts targeted the federal government, but with little luck so far.
Department officials are not concerned that few Internet users have visited DHS' or other agencies' Web sites to learn about how to prepare for a terrorist attack, Johndroe said.
"We're pleased with the responses that we have seen so far on people who are taking the time to get preparedness information," he said, "and we think over the months and years ahead more and more people will either come to our Web sites and get our procedures or come to other Web sites like the American Red Cross to get better prepared."
But if Denver resident Mike McFadden, 44, is typical — and he is, according to the poll — Americans won't be visiting government sites for information anytime soon.
"It's not my main source of information," he said. "In the event of an attack, I would probably start out with local media Web sites if I were to go online.... If I were to use a government Web site, I would probably go on a search engine first and try to be directed to a site such as the DHS. I don't think I would try to guess which one had the best information."
Americans' reliance on traditional technology has some DHS agencies improving their methods to better distribute information. Rose Parkes, the acting chief information officer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which now is part of the department, said FEMA is looking at a variety of ways to enhance the alert system that relies primarily on radio to spread the word about an emergency.
In October, DHS will host an industry fair for vendors to showcase their newest high-tech alert systems. "We are not going to select a single solution for public warnings and alerts," she said. "And we're not dictating to a community what to do."
Instead, Parkes said DHS would provide a standardized guide to help communities get the right messages out. "If the message is, 'Don't drink the water,' we need to make sure that the message gets across in plain English and understood by everybody, such as a glass of water in a red circle with a line through it," she said.
Until now, FEMA has relied on the Emergency Alert System, the radio alert developed during the Cold War to give the president a way to address the public in a national emergency. State and local officials use the system to alert their communities about weather emergencies, chemical spills or nuclear accidents. But it was not activated Sept. 11, following the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history.
"The Emergency Alert System is currently designed to cover 85 [percent to] 90 percent of our population," Parkes said. "Does it need improving? Absolutely. That's why we're working to ensure we have other ways beyond radio and television. Let's open other communication lines and increase communication lines."
But there are plenty of problems with the existing system, said Ken Allen, executive director of the Partnership for Public Warning, an organization dedicated to creating national standards and promoting better alert systems.
The most popular warning system is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's weather radio network, which could be used for terrorist alerts, but less than 13 percent of Americans have access to it, he said.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress installed an emergency alert system for its members, but much more needs to be done, he said. "We need to have a better system," Allen said. "The flaw right now is that people think they have a good system."
The poll found that people have significant concerns about terrorists striking their communities, especially women and residents of the East Coast, where the Sept. 11 attacks occurred and where the epicenters of government, finance and communication are situated.
Bobbie Weber, 51, of Westchester, Ohio, another respondent to the poll, has a solar-powered wind-up radio she could use to get information during a power outage. But she cautions that the government should not necessarily release all the information it has. "On [Sept. 11], we saw the disaster unfold in front of our eyes, and I don't think we could have done much else," she said. "I don't think we need to know everything that officials know. We need to be generally informed for safety reasons, but if we say too much, we will be tipping some people off."
Many communities and private companies already are testing alert systems from fire sirens and church bells to a reverse 911 by which officials could deliver warnings over phone lines.
The New Brunswick provincial government in Canada is testing a telephone network that would alert residents living near a nuclear reactor to an emergency. In an accident or attack, the government would activate a blinking red light similar to a phone's voice message light. "There are only a few things we want people to do: Take shelter, evacuate, don't drink the water," said Doug Allport, president of the Ontario-based Allport Group Inc., which is developing the public warning system.
Ray Chadwick, president of ClassCo Inc., a Concord, N.H., company that is partnering with Allport Group, has set up a system for New Hampshire to alert ham radio operators in the Concord area during an emergency.
"It is blazingly obvious to everyone that many of the warning capabilities that exist out there — deliveries to computer, cell phone, desktop or TV, all of those have one common feature: They need to be actively supplied by AC power," Chadwick said.
Meanwhile, the state of Washington deploys multiple systems to warn the population, said Don Miller, telecommunications and warning systems manager for Washington's emergency management division.
The state has siren systems, weather radio, a reverse 911 system and a statewide radio network that backs up the Emergency Alert System, not to mention warning systems for dams, hydroelectric plants and nuclear facilities.
"We need multiple systems, multiple paths and lots of diverse power that will work," he said. "But whatever we do with future warnings has to be compatible with the technologies already in place."
Sarah Bailey contributed to this report.