Communications Planning for Potential Radiological Terrorist Events


M. L. Vanderford, R. C. Whitcomb, Jr.


A radiological emergency in the United States would generate a communication crisis as well as a public health crisis. Failure to plan for public communication in advance of such a crisis can result in unnecessary fear and hamper crisis response activities. The purpose of emergency communication is to instill and maintain public confidence by providing accurate, timely information that demonstrates the public health system is working and that the responding authorities are effectively managing the crisis. Communications planning should include strategies for responding to information needs of multiple audiences: policy makers, public health partners, first responders, health care providers and hospitals, and the public. This paper focuses primarily on strategies for communicating effectively with the public during a radiological emergency. During a radiological emergency health physicists and other technical experts may serve as public spokespersons. They may be asked to describe state or local response efforts. Health physicists may be called during an emergency incident involving nuclear facilities to explain health risks and recommend protective actions. Technical experts may serve as consultants for non-expert policy makers, making recommendations for evacuation or sheltering-in-place. Health physicists may be asked to provide justification of recommended decisions for use by policy makers in statements to the public. Because technical experts and lay audiences perceive risks related to radiological emergencies in fundamentally different ways, public communication about radiological emergencies presents significant challenges for health physicists and other scientists. Below are foundational communication strategies that can help technical experts communicate more effectively with lay audiences during a radiological emergency.


This abstract was presented at the 36th Annual Midyear Meeting, "Radiation Safety Aspects of Homeland Security and Emergency Response", Consequence Management and Community Needs Session, 1/26/2003 - 1/29/2003, held in San Antonio, TX.

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