A new federal guide is a must-read

Steve Hammer

As generations of philosophers and grunge rockers can tell you, there's nothing more enjoyable than sitting back and contemplating your own doom, especially if it comes as part of a national or worldwide catastrophe.

And since our federal government is so well-prepared for natural disasters and terrorist attacks, it only made sense that we at NUVO received four copies last week of Terrorism and Other Public Health Emergencies: A Reference Guide For Media, which was published last September.

Easily the most entertaining federal publication since the Starr Report on Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky's sex lives, this book satisfies on almost every emotional level.

If you liked the nuclear-bomb scares of the 1960s, you'll love this book. Its stated purpose is to help news media plan coverage of horrific disasters, and it does it well, but it's so much more than that.

It contains advice for ambitious young reporters: "Reporting on a public health emergency can make your career, but only if you take precautions to make sure that you do not become a victim of the emergency that you are covering."

You mean to tell me that if bin Laden launches a bubonic plague attack on Marion County, thereby destroying the epicenter of the nation's commerce, my press badge won't keep me safe? Thanks, Uncle Sam!

There's also a list of 11 steps reporters can take to make sure they keep safe. No. 6 is one already familiar to reporters covering the Ron Artest-era Pacers: "If the situation at a hazardous site suddenly turns explosive, make sure you have figured out an escape route and how to flee as soon as possible. It is a good idea to park a car with nothing blocking its escape."

And No. 7 is for the fashion-conscious: "If you have a biohazard suit, it is important for you to know that it takes a minimum of 10 minutes to unpack the suit from its vacuum-sealed container. If you think that you may be in danger of sudden exposure, it may make sense to repack your suit into a sealed plastic bag."

And one rule seemed to be directed at me, personally: "People should be cautious of changes in their alcohol and drug use, because use of these substances may impair their ability to work, as well as their judgment, in potentially hazardous environments."

If I'd had that guide before I went to my first Punk Rock Night at the Melody Inn, I'd be a millionaire today.

While the sections for journalists are interesting, the heart of the book is its lovingly rendered descriptions of horrific terrorist and biological attacks, complete with fun drawings of people coughing up blood and developing open sores after such an attack.

This book is fun for the entire family. It has useful, detailed information, such as the following: "Those who have been contaminated with radioactive materials should decontaminate themselves by removing the outer layer of clothing, placing the clothing in a bag and sealing it, and taking a shower without harsh scrubbing, and wash hair."

The guide is silent on whether conditioner should be applied after shampooing, however.

While the book gives out specific guidelines on some topics, on others it's as cryptic as Nostradamus: "Scientists are not sure how much ricin is needed in an aerosol release to cause mass casualties."

And its "Self-Monitoring Checklist" is useless, because most reporters I know would already check "Yes" to most of the statements anyway. But parts of it read just like a Nirvana song when compiled into paragraph form:

"I have been on a natural high/an adrenaline rush for days. I often feel anxious or fearful. I cannot keep my mind on my work. I have been having disturbing dreams. I feel guilty about what the survivors are going through. I feel overwhelmed, helpless or hopeless. I feel isolated, lost or alone. No one seems to understand or appreciate me."

More fun than a driver's manual and more useful than a tax form, the guide is a treasure trove of information you're not sure you wanted to know. "Terrorists would have to be moderately skilled to produce the smallpox virus in aerosol form if they could acquire the virus."

As great as this book is, one wonders what would have happened if its preparers had been working on hurricane response instead of drawing pictures of people puking blood. The book came out right around the time of Katrina.

At any rate, Terrorism and Other Public Health Emergencies is a fun and engaging romp through the world of disaster preparedness. And while we high-powered media types got the actual book, it's available for everyone to read at hhs.gov/emergency.

Tell 'em Hammer sent you.


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