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Technological and Man-Made Hazards

      Hazardous Materials Incidents
           Household chemical

      Nuclear Power Plants

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           Chemical and biological weapons
           Nuclear and radiological attack
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Hazardous Materials Incidents

From industrial chemicals and toxic waste to household detergents and air fresheners, hazardous materials are part of our everyday lives. Affecting urban, suburban and rural areas, hazardous materials incidents can range from a chemical spill on a highway to groundwater contamination by naturally occurring methane gas.

Hazardous materials are substances that, because of their chemical nature, pose a potential risk to life, health or property if they are released. Hazards can exist during production, storage, transportation, use or disposal.

Chemical plants are one source of hazardous materials, but there are many others. Your local service station stores gasoline and diesel fuel, hospitals store a range of radioactive and flammable materials, and there are about 30,000 hazardous materials waste sites in the country.

Many communities have Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) that identify industrial hazardous materials and keep the community informed of the potential risk. All companies that have hazardous chemicals must report annually to the LEPC. The public is encouraged to participate in the process. Contact your local emergency management office to find out if your community has an LEPC and how you can participate.

What to do before a hazardous materials incident

  1. Ask your fire or police department about warning procedures. These could include:

    • Outdoor warning sirens or horns.

    • Emergency Alert System (EAS) - Information provided via radio and television.

    • "All-Call" telephoning - An automated system for sending recorded messages.

    • News media - Radio, television and cable.

    • Residential route alerting - Messages announced to neighborhoods from vehicles equipped with public address systems.
  2. Ask your LEPC or emergency management office about community plans for responding to a hazardous materials accident at a plant or other facility, or a transportation accident involving hazardous materials.
  3. Ask your LEPC about storage and usage of hazardous chemicals in your local area.
  4. Use the information gathered from LEPC and local emergency management offices to evaluate risks to your household. Determine how close you are to factories, freeways, or railroads that may produce or transport toxic waste.
  5. Be prepared to evacuate. An evacuation could last for a few hours or several days. See the "Evacuation" and "Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies" chapters for important information.
  6. Be prepared to shelter-in-place; that is, to seek safety in your home or any other building you might be in at the time of a chemical release. At home you should select a room to be used as a shelter. The shelter room for use in case of a hazardous material incident should be above ground, large enough to accommodate all household members and pets, and should have the fewest possible exterior doors and windows. You should also assemble a shelter kit to be used to seal the shelter room during a chemical release. The kit should include plastic sheeting, duct tape, scissors, a towel, and modeling clay or other material to stuff into cracks.

What to do during a hazardous materials incident

  1. If you witness (or smell) a hazardous materials accident, call 911, your local emergency notification number or the fire department as soon as safely possible.
  2. If you hear a warning signal, listen to local radio or television stations for further information. Follow instructions carefully.
  3. Stay away from the incident site to minimize the risk of contamination.
  4. If you are caught outside during an incident, remember that gases and mists are generally heavier than air. Try to stay upstream, uphill and upwind - hazardous materials can quickly be transported by water and wind. In general, try to go at least one-half mile (10 city blocks) from the danger area; for many incidents you will need to go much further.
  5. If you are in a motor vehicle, stop and seek shelter in a permanent building if possible. If you must remain in your car, keep car windows and vents closed and shut off the air conditioner and heater.
  6. If asked to evacuate your home, do so immediately.

    • If authorities indicate there is enough time,close all windows, shut vents and turn off attic, heating and air conditioning fans to minimize contamination.

    • See the "Evacuation" chapter for more information.
  7. If you are requested to stay indoors (shelter-in-place) rather than evacuate:

    • Follow all instructions given by emergency authorities.

    • Get household members and pets inside as quickly as possible.

    • Close and lock all exterior doors and windows. Close vents, fireplace dampers and as many interior doors as possible.

    • Turn off air conditioners and ventilation systems. In large buildings, building superintendents should set all ventilation systems to 100 percent recirculation so that no outside air is drawn into the building. If this is not possible, ventilation systems should be turned off.

    • Go into the pre-selected shelter room (the above-ground room with the fewest openings to the outside). Take a battery-powered radio, water, sanitary supplies, a flashlight, and the shelter kit containing plastic sheeting, duct tape, scissors, a towel, and modeling clay or other materials to stuff into cracks.

    • Close doors and windows in the room. Stuff a towel tightly under each door and tape around the sides and top of the door. Cover each window and vent in the room with a single piece of plastic sheeting, taping all around the edges of the sheeting to provide a continuous seal. If there are any cracks or holes in the room, such as those around pipes entering a bathroom, fill them with modeling clay or other similar material.

    • Remain in the room, listening to emergency broadcasts on the radio, until authorities advise you to leave your shelter.

    • If authorities warn of the possibility of an outdoor explosion, close all drapes, curtains, and shades in the room. Stay away from windows to prevent injury from breaking glass.

    • When authorities advise people in your area to leave their shelters, open all doors and windows and turn on air conditioning and ventilation systems. These measures will flush out any chemicals that infiltrated into the building.

    • See the "Shelter" chapter for more information.
  8. Schools and other public buildings may institute procedures to shelter in place. If there is a hazardous materials incident and your children are at school, you will probably not be permitted to drive to the school to pick up your children. Even if you go to the school, the doors will probably be locked to keep your children safe. Follow the directions of your local emergency officials.
  9. Avoid contact with spilled liquids, airborne mists or condensed solid chemical deposits. Keep your body fully covered to provide some protection. Wear gloves, socks, shoes, pants and long sleeved shirts.
  10. Do not eat or drink food or water that may have been contaminated.
  11. If indoors, fill the bathtub (first sterilize it with a diluted bleach solution - one part bleach to ten parts water) and large containers with water for drinking, cooking, and dishwashing. Be prepared to turn off the main water intake valve in case authorities advise you to do so.

What to do after an incident

  1. Do not return home until local authorities say it is safe.
  2. Upon returning home, open windows, vents and turn on fans to provide ventilation.
  3. A person or item that has been exposed to a hazardous chemical may be contaminated and could contaminate other people or items. If you have come in contact with or have been exposed to hazardous chemicals, you should:

    • Follow decontamination instructions from local authorities. (Depending on the chemical, you may be advised to take a thorough shower, or you may be advised to stay away from water and follow another procedure.)

    • Seek medical treatment for unusual symptoms as soon as possible.

    • If medical help is not immediately available and you think you might be contaminated, remove all of your clothing and shower thoroughly (unless local authorities say the chemical is water reactive and advise you to do otherwise). Change into fresh, loose clothing and seek medical help as soon as possible.

    • Place exposed clothing and shoes in tightly sealed containers. Do not allow them to contact other materials. Call local authorities to find out about proper disposal.

    • Advise everyone who comes in contact with you that you may have been exposed to a toxic substance.
  4. Find out from local authorities how to clean up your land and property.
  5. Report any lingering vapors or other hazards to your local emergency services office.
  6. See the "Recovering from Disaster" and "Shelter" chapters for more information.

Household Chemical Emergencies

Nearly every household uses products containing hazardous materials. Although the risk of a chemical accident is slight, knowing how to handle these products and how to react during an emergency can reduce the risk of injury.

How to prepare for household chemical emergencies

  1. Contact agencies with expertise on hazardous household materials, such as your local public health department or the Environmental Protection Agency, for information about potentially dangerous household products and their antidotes. Ask about the advisability of maintaining antidotes in your home for: cleaners and germicides, deodorizers, detergents, drain and bowl cleaners, gases, home medications, laundry bleaches, liquid fuels, paint removers and thinners.
  2. Follow instructions on the product label for proper disposal of chemicals. Proper disposal will ensure environmental and public health as well as household well being. If you have additional questions on chemical disposal, call your local environmental or recycling agency.

    • Small amounts of the following products can be safely poured down the drain with plenty of water: bathroom and glass cleaner, bleach, drain cleaner, household disinfectant, laundry and dishwashing detergent, rubbing alcohol, rug and upholstery cleaner, and toilet bowl cleaner.

    • Small amounts of the following products should be disposed by wrapping the container in newspaper and plastic and placing it in the trash: brake fluid, car wax or polish, dish and laundry soap, fertilizer, furniture and floor polish, insect repellent, nail polish, oven cleaner, paint thinners and strippers, pesticides, powder cleansers, water-based paint, wood preservatives.

    • Dispose of the following products at a recycling center or a collection site: kerosene, motor or fuel oil, car battery or battery acid, diesel fuel, transmission fluid, large amounts of paint, thinner or stripper, power steering fluid, turpentine, gun cleaning solvents, and tires.

    • Empty spray cans completely before placing in the trash. Do not place spray cans into a burning barrel, incinerator, or trash compactor because they may explode.

    • Flush outdated and unused medicines down the toilet and place the empty container in the trash. Out-dated medicines can cause ill effects. Flushing them will eliminate the risk of people or animals picking them out of the trash.
  3. Read directions before using a new chemical product and be sure to store household chemicals according to the instructions on the label.
  4. Store chemicals in a safe, secure location, preferably up high and always out of the reach of children.
  5. Avoid mixing household chemical products. Deadly toxic fumes can result from the mixture of chemicals such as chlorine bleach and ammonia.
  6. Never smoke while using household chemicals. Avoid using hair spray, cleaning solutions, paint products, or pesticides near an open flame, pilot light, lighted candle, fireplace, wood burning stove, etc. Although you may not be able to see or smell them, vapor particles in the air could catch fire or explode.
  7. If you spill a chemical, clean it up immediately with rags. Be careful to protect your eyes and skin (wear gloves and eye protection). Allow the fumes in the rags to evaporate outdoors, then dispose of the rags by wrapping them in a newspaper and placing them in a sealed plastic bag in your trash can.
  8. Buy only as much of a chemical as you think you will use. If you have product left over, try to give it to someone who will use it. Storing hazardous chemicals increases risk of chemical emergencies.
  9. Keep an A-B-C-rated fire extinguisher in the home and car, and get training from your local fire department on how to use it.
  10. Post the number of the nearest poison control center by all telephones. In an emergency situation you may not have time to look up critical phone numbers.
  11. Learn to detect hazardous materials. Many hazardous materials do not have a taste or an odor, and some can be detected because they cause physical reactions such as watering eyes or nausea. Other hazardous materials exist beneath the ground and can be recognized by an oil or foam-like appearance.
  12. Learn to recognize the symptoms of toxic poisoning:

    • Difficulty breathing

    • Irritation of the eyes, skin, throat or respiratory tract

    • Changes in skin color

    • Headache or blurred vision

    • Dizziness

    • Clumsiness or lack of coordination

    • Cramps or diarrhea

What to do during a household chemical emergency

  1. If your child should eat or drink a non-food substance, find any containers immediately and take them to the phone. Medical professionals may need specific information from the container to give you the best emergency advice.
  2. Call the poison control center, emergency medical services (EMS), 911, hospital emergency room, county health department, fire department or your local pharmacy. They will give you emergency advice while you wait for professional help. You should have such numbers on hand for easy access and use.
  3. Follow the emergency operator or dispatcher's instructions carefully. The first aid advice found on containers may not be appropriate. Do not give anything by mouth until medical professionals have advised you.
  4. Take immediate action if the chemical gets into the eyes. Delaying first aid can greatly increase the likelihood of injury. Flush the eye with clear, water for a minimum of 15 minutes, unless authorities instruct you not to use water on the particular chemical involved. Continue the cleansing process even if the victim indicates he or she is no longer feeling any pain, and then seek medical attention.
  5. Get out of the residence immediately if there is danger of a fire or explosion. Do not waste time collecting items or calling the fire department when you are in danger.
  6. If there is a fire or explosion, call the fire department from outside (a cellular phone or a neighbor's phone) once you are safely away from danger.
  7. Stay upwind and away from the residence to avoid breathing toxic fumes.
  8. Wash hands, arms, or other exposed body parts that may have been exposed to the chemical. Chemicals may continue to irritate the skin until they are washed off.
  9. Discard clothing that may have been contaminated. Some chemicals may not wash out completely. Discarding clothes will prevent potential future exposure.
  10. Administer first aid treatment to victims of chemical burns.

    • Call 911 for emergency help.

    • Remove clothing and jewelry from around the injury.

    • Pour clean, cool water over the burn for 15 to 30 minutes.

    • Loosely cover the burn with a sterile or clean dressing. Be sure that the dressing will not stick to the burn.

    • Refer victim to a medical professional for further treatment.

Nuclear Power Plants

Nuclear power plants operate in most states in the country and produce about 20 percent of the nation’s power. Nearly three million Americans live within 10 miles of an operating nuclear power plant.

Although the construction and operation of these facilities are closely monitored and regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), accidents at these plants are possible. An accident could result in dangerous levels of radiation that could affect the health and safety of the public living near the nuclear power plant.

Local and state governments, federal agencies and the electric utilities have emergency response plans in the event of a nuclear power plant incident. The plans define two "emergency planning zones." One covers an area within a ten-mile radius of the plant where it is possible that people could be harmed by direct radiation exposure. The second zone covers a broader area, usually up to a 50-mile radius from the plant, where radioactive materials could contaminate water supplies, food crops and livestock.

Understanding radiation

Radioactive materials are composed of atoms that are unstable. An unstable atom gives off its excess energy until it becomes stable. The energy emitted is radiation.

Each of us is exposed to radiation daily from natural sources, including the sun and earth. Small traces of radiation are present in food and water. Radiation also is released from man-made sources such as x-ray machines, television sets and microwave ovens. Nuclear power plants use the heat generated from nuclear fission in a contained environment to convert water to steam, which powers generators to produce electricity.

Radiation has a cumulative effect. The longer a person is exposed to radiation, the greater the risk. A high exposure to radiation can cause serious illness or death. The potential danger from an accident at a nuclear power plant is exposure to radiation. This exposure could come from the release of radioactive material from the plant into the environment, usually characterized by a plume (cloud-like) formation of radioactive gases and particles. The area the radioactive release may affect is determined by the amount released from the plant, wind direction and speed, and weather conditions. The major hazards to people in the vicinity of the plume are radiation exposure to the body from the cloud and particles deposited on the ground, inhalation of radioactive materials, and ingestion of radioactive materials.

If an accident at a nuclear power plant were to release radiation in your area, local authorities would activate warning sirens or another approved alerting method. They would also instruct you through the Emergency Alert System (EAS) on local television and radio stations on how to protect yourself.

The three ways to minimize radiation exposure are: distance, shielding and time:

  • Distance. The more distance between you and the source of the radiation the better. In a serious nuclear power plant accident, local authorities will call for an evacuation to increase the distance between you and the radiation.

  • Shielding. Like distance, the more heavy, dense material between you and the source of the radiation the better. This is why local authorities could advise you to remain indoors if an accident occurs at a nearby nuclear power plant. In some cases, the walls in your home would be sufficient shielding to protect you.

  • Time. Most radioactivity loses its strength fairly quickly. In a nuclear power plant accident, local authorities will monitor any release of radiation and determine when the threat has passed.

What to do before a nuclear power plant emergency

  1. Know the terms used to describe a nuclear emergency:

    • Notification of Unusual Event - A small problem has occurred at the plant. No radiation leak is expected. Federal, state and county officials will be told right away. No action on your part will be necessary.

    • Alert - A small problem has occurred, and small amounts of radiation could leak inside the plant. This will not affect you. You should not have to do anything.

    • Site Area Emergency - A more serious problem. Small amounts of radiation could leak from the plant. If necessary, state and county officials will act to assure public safety. Area sirens may be sounded. Listen to your radio or television for safety information.

    • General Emergency - The most serious problem. Radiation could leak outside the plant and off the plant site. The sirens will sound. Tune to your local radio or television station for reports. State and county officials will act to protect the public. Be prepared to follow instructions promptly.
  2. Learn your community's warning system. Nuclear power plants are required to install sirens and other warning systems (flash warning lights) to cover a ten-mile area around the plant.

    • Find out when the warning systems will be tested next.

    • When tested in your area, determine whether you can hear and/or see sirens and flash warning lights from your home.
  3. Obtain public emergency information materials from the power company that operates your local nuclear power plant or your local emergency services office. If you live within 10 miles of the power plant, you should receive these materials yearly from the power company or your state or local government.
  4. Learn the emergency plans for schools, day care centers, nursing homes and other places where members of your household frequent. Learn where people would go in case of evacuation. Stay tuned to your local radio and television stations.
  5. Be prepared to evacuate.

    • Prepare an emergency evacuation supply kit (see the "Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies" chapter).

    • Consider your transportation options. If you do not own or drive a car, ask your local emergency manager about plans for people without private vehicles. (See the "Evacuation" chapter for important details.)

What to do during a nuclear power plant emergency

  1. Listen to the warning. Not all incidents result in the release of radiation. The incident could be contained inside the plant and pose no danger to the public.
  2. Stay tuned to local radio or television. Local authorities will provide specific information and instructions.

    • The advice given will depend on the nature of the emergency, how quickly it is evolving and how much radiation, if any, is likely to be released.

    • Local instructions should take precedence over any advice given in this handbook.

    • Review the public information materials you received from the power company or government officials.
  3. Evacuate if you are advised to do so.

    • Close and lock doors and windows.

    • Keep car windows and vents closed; use re-circulating air.

    • Listen to radio for evacuation routes and other instructions.

    • See the "Evacuation" chapter for important details.
  4. If you are not advised to evacuate, remain indoors.

    • Close doors and windows.

    • Turn off the air conditioner, ventilation fans, furnace and other air intakes.

    • Go to a basement or other underground area if possible.

    • Keep a battery-powered radio with you at all times.
  5. Shelter livestock and give them stored feed, if time permits.
  6. Do not use the telephone unless absolutely necessary. Lines will be needed for emergency calls.
  7. If you suspect exposure, take a thorough shower.

    • Change clothes and shoes.

    • Put exposed clothing in a plastic bag.

    • Seal the bag and place it out of the way.
  8. Put food in covered containers or in the refrigerator. Food not previously covered should be washed before being put in containers.

What to do after a nuclear power plant emergency

  1. If told to evacuate, do not return home until local authorities say it is safe.
  2. If you were advised to stay in your home, do not go outside until local authorities indicate it is safe.
  3. Seek medical treatment for any unusual symptoms, like nausea, that may be related to radiation exposure.
  4. See the "Shelter" and "Recovering from Disaster" chapters for more information.

National Security Emergencies

In addition to the natural and technological hazards described in this publication, Americans face threats posed by hostile governments or extremist groups. These threats to national security include acts of terrorism and acts of war.

The following is general information about national security emergencies. For more information about how to prepare for them, including volunteering in a Citizen Corps program, see the "For More Information" chapter at the end of this guide.


Terrorism is the use of force or violence against persons or property in violation of the criminal laws of the United States for purposes of intimidation, coercion or ransom. Terrorists often use threats to create fear among the public, to try to convince citizens that their government is powerless to prevent terrorism, and to get immediate publicity for their causes.

Acts of terrorism range from threats of terrorism, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, bomb scares and bombings, cyber attacks (computer-based), to the use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

High-risk targets include military and civilian government facilities, international airports, large cities and high-profile landmarks. Terrorists might also target large public gatherings, water and food supplies, utilities, and corporate centers. Further, they are capable of spreading fear by sending explosives or chemical and biological agents through the mail.

In the immediate area of a terrorist event, you would need to rely on police, fire and other officials for instructions. However, you can prepare in much the same way you would prepare for other crisis events.

Preparing for terrorism

  1. Wherever you are, be aware of your surroundings. The very nature of terrorism suggests there may be little or no warning.
  2. Take precautions when traveling. Be aware of conspicuous or unusual behavior. Do not accept packages from strangers. Do not leave luggage unattended. Unusual behavior, suspicious packages and strange devices should be promptly reported to the police or security personnel.
  3. Do not be afraid to move or leave if you feel uncomfortable or if something does not seem right.
  4. Learn where emergency exits are located in buildings you frequent. Notice where exits are when you enter unfamiliar buildings. Plan how to get out of a building, subway or congested public area or traffic. Note where staircases are located. Notice heavy or breakable objects that could move, fall or break in an explosion.
  5. Assemble a disaster supply kit at home and learn first aid. Separate the supplies you would take if you had to evacuate quickly, and put them in a backpack or container, ready to go.
  6. Be familiar with different types of fire extinguishers and how to locate them. Know the location and availability of hard hats in buildings in which you spend a lot of time.

Protection against cyber attacks

Cyber attacks target computer or telecommunication networks of critical infrastructures such as power systems, traffic control systems, or financial systems. Cyber attacks target information technologies (IT) in three different ways. First, is a direct attack against an information system "through the wires" alone (hacking). Second, the attack can be a physical assault against a critical IT element. Third, the attack can be from the inside as a result of compromising a trusted party with access to the system.

  1. Be prepared to do without services you normally depend on that could be disrupted - electricity, telephone, natural gas, gasoline pumps, cash registers, ATM machines, and internet transactions.
  2. Be prepared to respond to official instructions if a cyber attack triggers other hazards, for example, general evacuation, evacuation to shelter, or shelter-in-place, because of hazardous materials releases, nuclear power plant incident, dam or flood control system failures.

Preparing for a building explosion

Explosions can collapse buildings and cause fires. People who live or work in a multi-level building can do the following:

  1. Review emergency evacuation procedures. Know where emergency exits are located.
  2. Keep fire extinguishers in working order. Know where they are located, and learn how to use them.
  3. Learn first aid. Contact the local chapter of the American Red Cross for information and training.
  4. Building owners should keep the following items in a designated place on each floor of the building.

    • Portable, battery-operated radio and extra batteries

    • Several flashlights and extra batteries

    • First aid kit and manual

    • Several hard hats

    • Fluorescent tape to rope off dangerous areas

Bomb threats

If you receive a bomb threat, get as much information from the caller as possible. Keep the caller on the line and record everything that is said. Then notify the police and the building management.

If you are notified of a bomb threat, do not touch any suspicious packages. Clear the area around suspicious packages and notify the police immediately. In evacuating a building, don't stand in front of windows, glass doors or other potentially hazardous areas. Do not block sidewalk or streets to be used by emergency officials or others still exiting the building.

Suspicious parcels and letters

Be wary of suspicious packages and letters. They can contain explosives, chemical or biological agents. Be particularly cautious at your place of employment.

Some typical characteristics postal inspectors have detected over the years, which ought to trigger suspicion, include parcels that -

  • Are unexpected or from someone unfamiliar to you.
  • Have no return address, or have one that can’t be verified as legitimate.
  • Are marked with restrictive endorsements, such as "Personal," "Confidential" or "Do not x-ray."
  • Have protruding wires or aluminum foil, strange odors or stains.
  • Show a city or state in the postmark that doesn’t match the return address.
  • Are of unusual weight, given their size, or are lopsided or oddly shaped.
  • Are marked with any threatening language.
  • Have inappropriate or unusual labeling.
  • Have excessive postage or excessive packaging material such as masking tape and string.
  • Have misspellings of common words.
  • Are addressed to someone no longer with your organization or are otherwise outdated.
  • Have incorrect titles or title without a name.
  • Are not addressed to a specific person.
  • Have handwritten or poorly typed addresses.

With suspicious envelopes and packages other than those that might contain explosives, take these additional steps against possible biological and chemical agents.

  • Refrain from eating or drinking in a designated mail handling area.
  • Place suspicious envelopes or packages in a plastic bag or some other type of container to prevent leakage of contents. Never sniff or smell suspect mail.
  • If you do not have a container, then cover the envelope or package with anything available (e.g., clothing, paper, trash can, etc.) and do not remove the cover.
  • Leave the room and close the door, or section off the area to prevent others from entering.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water to prevent spreading any powder to your face.
  • If you are at work, report the incident to your building security official or an available supervisor, who should notify police and other authorities without delay.
  • List all people who were in the room or area when this suspicious letter or package was recognized. Give a copy of this list to both the local public health authorities and law enforcement officials for follow-up investigations and advice.
  • If you are at home, report the incident to local police.

What to do if there is an explosion

Leave the building as quickly as possible. Do not stop to retrieve personal possessions or make phone calls. If things are falling around you, get under a sturdy table or desk until they stop falling. Then leave quickly, watching for weakened floors and stairs and falling debris as you exit.

  1. If there is a fire:

    • Stay low to the floor and exit the building as quickly as possible.

    • Cover your nose and mouth with a wet cloth.

    • When approaching a closed door, use the back of your hand to feel the lower, middle and upper parts of the door. Never use the palm of your hand or fingers to test for heat: burning those areas could impair your ability to escape a fire (i.e., ladders and crawling).
      - If the door is NOT hot, open slowly and ensure fire and/or smoke is not blocking your escape route. If your escape route is blocked, shut the door immediately and use an alternate escape route, such as a window. If clear, leave immediately through the door. Be prepared to crawl. Smoke and heat rise. The air is clearer and cooler near the floor.
      - If the door is hot, do not open it. Escape through a window. If you cannot escape, hang a white or light-colored sheet outside the window, alerting fire fighters to your presence.

    • Heavy smoke and poisonous gases collect first along the ceiling. Stay below the smoke at all times.
  2. If you are trapped in debris:

    • Do not light a match.

    • Do not move about or kick up dust. Cover your mouth with a handkerchief or clothing.

    • Rhythmically tap on a pipe or wall so that rescuers can hear where you are. Use a whistle if one is available. Shout only as a last resort when you hear sounds and think someone will hear you - shouting can cause a person to inhale dangerous amounts of dust.

Chemical and Biological Weapons

In case of a chemical or biological weapon attack near you, authorities will instruct you on the best course of action. This may be to evacuate the area immediately, to seek shelter at a designated location, or to take immediate shelter where you are and seal the premises. The best way to protect yourself is to take emergency preparedness measures ahead of time and to get medical attention as soon as possible, if needed.


Chemical warfare agents are poisonous vapors, aerosols, liquids or solids that have toxic effects on people, animals or plants. They can be released by bombs, sprayed from aircraft, boats, or vehicles, or used as a liquid to create a hazard to people and the environment. Some chemical agents may be odorless and tasteless. They can have an immediate effect (a few seconds to a few minutes) or a delayed effect (several hours to several days). While potentially lethal, chemical agents are difficult to deliver in lethal concentrations. Outdoors, the agents often dissipate rapidly. Chemical agents are also difficult to produce.

There are six types of agents:

  • Lung-damaging (pulmonary) agents such as phosgene,
  • Cyanide,
  • Vesicants or blister agents such as mustard,
  • Nerve agents such as GA (tabun), GB (sarin), GD (soman), GF, and VX,
  • Incapacitating agents such as BZ, and
  • Riot-control agents (similar to MACE).


Biological agents are organisms or toxins that can kill or incapacitate people, livestock and crops. The three basic groups of biological agents which would likely be used as weapons are bacteria, viruses, and toxins.

  1. Bacteria. Bacteria are small free-living organisms that reproduce by simple division and are easy to grow. The diseases they produce often respond to treatment with antibiotics.
  2. Viruses. Viruses are organisms which require living cells in which to reproduce and are intimately dependent upon the body they infect. Viruses produce diseases which generally do not respond to antibiotics. However, antiviral drugs are sometimes effective.
  3. Toxins. Toxins are poisonous substances found in, and extracted from, living plants, animals, or microorganisms; some toxins can be produced or altered by chemical means. Some toxins can be treated with specific antitoxins and selected drugs.

Most biological agents are difficult to grow and maintain. Many break down quickly when exposed to sunlight and other environmental factors, while others such as anthrax spores are very long lived. They can be dispersed by spraying them in the air, or infecting animals which carry the disease to humans as well through food and water contamination.

  • Aerosols - Biological agents are dispersed into the air, forming a fine mist that may drift for miles. Inhaling the agent may cause disease in people or animals.
  • Animals - Some diseases are spread by insects and animals, such as fleas, mice, flies, and mosquitoes. Deliberately spreading diseases through livestock is also referred to as agroterrorism.
  • Food and water contamination - Some pathogenic organisms and toxins may persist in food and water supplies. Most microbes can be killed, and toxins deactivated, by cooking food and boiling water.

Anthrax spores formulated as a white powder were mailed to individuals in the government and media in the fall of 2001. Postal sorting machines and the opening of letters dispersed the spores as aerosols. Several deaths resulted. The effect was to disrupt mail service and to cause a widespread fear of handling delivered mail among the public.

Person-to-person spread of a few infectious agents is also possible. Humans have been the source of infection for smallpox, plague, and the Lassa viruses.

What to do to prepare for a chemical or biological attack

  • Assemble a disaster supply kit (see the "Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies" chapter for more information) and be sure to include:
  • Battery-powered commercial radio with extra batteries.
  • Non-perishable food and drinking water.
  • Roll of duct tape and scissors.
  • Plastic for doors, windows and vents for the room in which you will shelter in place - this should be an internal room where you can block out air that may contain hazardous chemical or biological agents. To save critical time during an emergency, sheeting should be pre-measured and cut for each opening.
  • First aid kit.
  • Sanitation supplies including soap, water and bleach.

What to do during a chemical or biological attack

  1. Listen to your radio for instructions from authorities such as whether to remain inside or to evacuate.
  2. If you are instructed to remain in your home, the building where you are, or other shelter during a chemical or biological attack:

    • Turn off all ventilation, including furnaces, air conditioners, vents and fans.

    • Seek shelter in an internal room, preferably one without windows. Seal the room with duct tape and plastic sheeting. Ten square feet of floor space per person will provide sufficient air to prevent carbon dioxide build-up for up to five hours. (See "Shelter" chapter.)

    • Remain in protected areas where toxic vapors are reduced or eliminated, and be sure to take your battery-operated radio with you.
  3. If you are caught in an unprotected area, you should:

    • Attempt to get up-wind of the contaminated area.

    • Attempt to find shelter as quickly as possible.

    • Listen to your radio for official instructions.

What to do after a chemical attack

Immediate symptoms of exposure to chemical agents may include blurred vision, eye irritation, difficulty breathing and nausea. A person affected by a chemical or biological agent requires immediate attention by professional medical personnel. If medical help is not immediately available, decontaminate yourself and assist in decontaminating others. Decontamination is needed within minutes of exposure to minimize health consequences. (However, you should not leave the safety of a shelter to go outdoors to help others until authorities announce it is safe to do so.)

  1. Use extreme caution when helping others who have been exposed to chemical agents:

    • Remove all clothing and other items in contact with the body. Contaminated clothing normally removed over the head should be cut off to avoid contact with the eyes, nose, and mouth. Put into a plastic bag if possible. Decontaminate hands using soap and water. Remove eyeglasses or contact lenses. Put glasses in a pan of household bleach to decontaminate.
  2. Remove all items in contact with the body.
  3. Flush eyes with lots of water.
  4. Gently wash face and hair with soap and water; then thoroughly rinse with water.
  5. Decontaminate other body areas likely to have been contaminated. Blot (do not swab or scrape) with a cloth soaked in soapy water and rinse with clear water.
  6. Change into uncontaminated clothes. Clothing stored in drawers or closets is likely to be uncontaminated.
  7. If possible, proceed to a medical facility for screening.

What to do after a biological attack

In many biological attacks, people will not know they have been exposed to an agent. In such situations, the first evidence of an attack may be when you notice symptoms of the disease caused by an agent exposure, and you should seek immediate medical attention for treatment.

In some situations, like the anthrax letters sent in 2001, people may be alerted to a potential exposure. If this is the case, pay close attention to all official warnings and instructions on how to proceed. The delivery of medical services for a biological event may be handled differently to respond to increased demand. Again, it will be important for you to pay attention to official instructions via radio, television, and emergency alert systems.

If your skin or clothing comes in contact with a visible, potentially infectious substance, you should remove and bag your clothes and personal items and wash yourself with warm soapy water immediately. Put on clean clothes and seek medical assistance.

For more information, visit the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

Nuclear and Radiological Attack

Nuclear explosions can cause deadly effects—blinding light, intense heat (thermal radiation), initial nuclear radiation, blast, fires started by the heat pulse, and secondary fires caused by the destruction. They also produce radioactive particles called fallout that can be carried by wind for hundreds of miles.

Terrorist use of a radiological dispersion device (RDD) - often called "dirty nuke" or "dirty bomb" - is considered far more likely than use of a nuclear device. These radiological weapons are a combination of conventional explosives and radioactive material designed to scatter dangerous and sub-lethal amounts of radioactive material over a general area. Such radiological weapons appeal to terrorists because they require very little technical knowledge to build and deploy compared to that of a nuclear device. Also, these radioactive materials, used widely in medicine, agriculture, industry and research, are much more readily available and easy to obtain compared to weapons grade uranium or plutonium.

Terrorist use of a nuclear device would probably be limited to a single smaller "suitcase" weapon. The strength of such a weapon would be in the range of the bombs used during World War II. The nature of the effects would be the same as a weapon delivered by an inter-continental missile, but the area and severity of the effects would be significantly more limited.

There is no way of knowing how much warning time there would be before an attack by a terrorist using a nuclear or radiological weapon. A surprise attack remains a possibility.

The danger of a massive strategic nuclear attack on the United States involving many weapons receded with the end of the Cold War. However, some terrorists have been supported by nations that have nuclear weapons programs.

If there were threat of an attack from a hostile nation, people living near potential targets could be advised to evacuate or they could decide on their own to evacuate to an area not considered a likely target. Protection from radioactive fallout would require taking shelter in an underground area, or in the middle of a large building.

In general, potential targets include:

  • Strategic missile sites and military bases.
  • Centers of government such as Washington, D.C., and state capitals.
  • Important transportation and communication centers.
  • Manufacturing, industrial, technology and financial centers.
  • Petroleum refineries, electrical power plants and chemical plants.
  • Major ports and airfields.

Taking shelter during a nuclear attack is absolutely necessary. There are two kinds of shelters - blast and fallout.

Blast shelters offer some protection against blast pressure, initial radiation, heat and fire, but even a blast shelter could not withstand a direct hit from a nuclear detonation.

Fallout shelters do not need to be specially constructed for that purpose. They can be any protected space, provided that the walls and roof are thick and dense enough to absorb the radiation given off by fallout particles. The three protective factors of a fallout shelter are shielding, distance, and time.

  • Shielding. The more heavy, dense materials - thick walls, concrete, bricks, books and earth - between you and the fallout particles, the better.
  • Distance. The more distance between you and the fallout particles, the better. An underground area, such as a home or office building basement, offers more protection than the first floor of a building. A floor near the middle of a high-rise may be better, depending on what is nearby at that level on which significant fallout particles would collect. Flat roofs collect fallout particles so the top floor is not a good choice, nor is a floor adjacent to a neighboring flat roof.
  • Time. Fallout radiation loses its intensity fairly rapidly. In time, you will be able to leave the fallout shelter. Radioactive fallout poses the greatest threat to people during the first two weeks, by which time it has declined to about 1% of its initial radiation level.

Remember that any protection, however temporary, is better than none at all, and the more shielding, distance and time you can take advantage of, the better.

Electromagnetic pulse

In addition to other effects, a nuclear weapon detonated in or above the earth's atmosphere can create an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a high-density electrical field. EMP acts like a stroke of lightning but is stronger, faster and briefer. EMP can seriously damage electronic devices connected to power sources or antennas. This include communication systems, computers, electrical appliances, and automobile or aircraft ignition systems. The damage could range from a minor interruption to actual burnout of components. Most electronic equipment within 1,000 miles of a high-altitude nuclear detonation could be affected. Battery powered radios with short antennas generally would not be affected.

Although EMP is unlikely to harm most people, it could harm those with pacemakers or other implanted electronic devices.

What to do before a nuclear or radiological attack

  1. Learn the warning signals and all sources of warning used in your community. Make sure you know what the signals are, what they mean, how they will be used, and what you should do if you hear them.
  2. Assemble and maintain a disaster supply kit with food, water, medications, fuel and personal items adequate for up to 2 weeks - the more the better. (See the "Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies" chapter for more information).
  3. Find out what public buildings in your community may have been designated as fallout shelters. It may have been years ago, but start there, and learn which buildings are still in use and could be designated as shelters again.

    • Call your local emergency management office.

    • Look for yellow and black fallout shelter signs on public buildings. Note: With the end of the Cold War, many of the signs have been removed from the buildings previously designated.

    • If no noticeable or official designations have been made, make your own list of potential shelters near your home, workplace and school: basements, or the windowless center area of middle floors in high-rise buildings, as well as subways and tunnels.

    • Give your household clear instructions about where fallout shelters are located and what actions to take in case of attack.
  4. If you live in an apartment building or high-rise, talk to the manager about the safest place in the building for sheltering, and about providing for building occupants until it is safe to go out.
  5. There are few public shelters in many suburban and rural areas. If you are considering building a fallout shelter at home, keep the following in mind.

    • A basement, or any underground area, is the best place to shelter from fallout. Often, few major changes are needed, especially if the structure has two or more stories and its basement - or one corner of it - is below ground.

    • Fallout shelters can be used for storage during non-emergency periods, but only store things there that can be very quickly removed. (When they are removed, dense, heavy items may be used to add to the shielding.)

    • See the "Tornadoes" section in the "Thunderstorms" chapter for information on the "Wind Safe Room," which could be used as shelter in the event of a nuclear detonation or for fallout protection, especially in a home without a basement.

    • All the items you will need for your stay need not be stocked inside the shelter itself but can be stored elsewhere, as long as you can move them quickly to the shelter.
  6. Learn about your community's evacuation plans. Such plans may include evacuation routes, relocation sites, how the public will be notified and transportation options for people who do not own cars and those who have special needs. See the "Evacuation" chapter for more information.
  7. Acquire other emergency preparedness booklets that you may need. See the "For More Information" chapter at the end of this guide.

What to do during a nuclear or radiological attack

  1. Do not look at the flash or fireball - it can blind you.
  2. If you hear an attack warning:

    • Take cover as quickly as you can, BELOW GROUND IF POSSIBLE, and stay there unless instructed to do otherwise.

    • If you are caught outside, unable to get inside immediately, take cover behind anything that might offer protection. Lie flat on the ground and cover your head.

    • If the explosion is some distance away, it could take 30 seconds or more for the blast wave to hit.
  3. Protect yourself from radioactive fallout. If you are close enough to see the brilliant flash of a nuclear explosion, the fallout will arrive in about 20 minutes. Take shelter, even if you are many miles from ground zero - radioactive fallout can be carried by the winds for hundreds of miles. Remember the three protective factors: shielding, distance and time.
  4. Keep a battery-powered radio with you, and listen for official information. Follow the instructions given. Local instructions should always take precedence: officials on the ground know the local situation best.

What to do after a nuclear or radiological attack

In a public or home shelter:

  1. Do not leave the shelter until officials say it is safe. Follow their instructions when leaving.
  2. If in a fallout shelter, stay in your shelter until local authorities tell you it is permissible or advisable to leave. The length of your stay can range from a day or two to four weeks.

    • Contamination from a radiological dispersion device could affect a wide area, depending on the amount of conventional explosives used, the quantity of radioactive material and atmospheric conditions.

    • A "suitcase" terrorist nuclear device detonated at or near ground level would produce heavy fallout from the dirt and debris sucked up into the mushroom cloud.

    • A missile-delivered nuclear weapon from a hostile nation would probably cause an explosion many times more powerful than a suitcase bomb, and provide a greater cloud of radioactive fallout.

    • The decay rate of the radioactive fallout would be the same, making it necessary for those in the areas with highest radiation levels to remain in shelter for up to a month.

    • The heaviest fallout would be limited to the area at or downwind from the explosion, and 80% of the fallout would occur during the first 24 hours.

    • Because of these facts and the very limited number of weapons terrorists could detonate, most of the country would not be affected by fallout.

    • People in most of the areas that would be affected could be allowed to come out of shelter and, if necessary, evacuate to unaffected areas within a few days.
  3. Although it may be difficult, make every effort to maintain sanitary conditions in your shelter space.
  4. Water and food may be scarce. Use them prudently but do not impose severe rationing, especially for children, the ill or elderly.
  5. Cooperate with shelter managers. Living with many people in confined space can be difficult and unpleasant.

Returning to your home

  1. Keep listening to the radio for news about what to do, where to go, and places to avoid.
  2. If your home was within the range of a bomb's shock wave, or you live in a high-rise or other apartment building that experienced a non-nuclear explosion, check first for any sign of collapse or damage, such as:

    1. toppling chimneys, falling bricks, collapsing walls, plaster falling from ceilings.

    2. fallen light fixtures, pictures and mirrors.

    3. broken glass from windows.

    4. overturned bookcases, wall units or other fixtures.

    5. fires from broken chimneys.

    6. ruptured gas and electric lines.
    7. Immediately clean up spilled medicines, drugs, flammable liquids, and other potentially hazardous materials.
    8. Listen to your battery-powered radio for instructions and information about community services.
    9. Monitor the radio and your television for information on assistance that may be provided. Local, state and federal governments and other organizations will help meet emergency needs and help you recover from damage and losses.
    10. The danger may be aggravated by broken water mains and fallen power lines.
    11. If you turned gas, water and electricity off at the main valves and switch before you went to shelter:

      • Do not turn the gas back on. The gas company will turn it back on for you or you will receive other instructions.

      • Turn the water back on at the main valve only after you know the water system is working and water is not contaminated.

      • Turn electricity back on at the main switch only after you know the wiring is undamaged in your home and the community electrical system is functioning.

      • Check to see that sewage lines are intact before using sanitary facilities.
    12. Stay away from damaged areas.
    13. Stay away from areas marked "radiation hazard" or "HAZMAT."

    For more information relevant to terrorism consult the following chapters:

    • The "Earthquakes" chapter for information about protecting yourself when a building is shaking or unsafe and the Fire chapter for tips on fire safety.
    • The "Hazardous Materials Incidents" chapter for information about sealing a home.
    • The "Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies" chapter for information about preparing a disaster supply kit.
    • The "Shelter" chapter for measures regarding water purification.
    • The "Evacuation" chapter for information about evacuation procedures.
    • The "Recovering from Disaster" chapter for information about crisis counseling.

    Homeland Security Advisory System

    The Homeland Security Advisory System was designed to provide a comprehensive means to disseminate information regarding the risk of terrorist acts to federal, state, and local authorities and to the American people. This system provides warnings in the form of a set of graduated "Threat Conditions" that increase as the risk of the threat increases. At each threat condition, federal departments and agencies would implement a corresponding set of "Protective Measures" to further reduce vulnerability or increase response capability during a period of heightened alert.

    Although the Homeland Security Advisory System is binding on the executive branch, it is voluntary to other levels of government and the private sector. There are five threat conditions, each identified by a description and corresponding color.

    The greater the risk of a terrorist attack, the higher the threat condition. Risk includes both the probability of an attack occurring and its potential gravity.

    Threat conditions are assigned by the Attorney General in consultation with the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security. Threat conditions may be assigned for the entire nation, or they may be set for a particular geographic area or industrial sector. Assigned threat conditions will be reviewed at regular intervals to determine whether adjustments are warranted.

    Threat Conditions and Associated Protective Measures

    There is always a risk of a terrorist threat. Each threat condition assigns a level of alert appropriate to the increasing risk of terrorist attacks. Beneath each threat condition are some suggested protective measures that the government and the public can take, recognizing that the heads of federal departments and agencies are responsible for developing and implementing appropriate agency-specific Protective Measures:

    Low Condition (Green). This condition is declared when there is a low risk of terrorist attacks. Federal departments and agencies will consider the following protective measures.

    • Refine and exercise prearranged protective measures;
    • Ensure personnel receive proper training on the Homeland Security Advisory System and specific prearranged department or agency protective measures; and
    • Institute a process to assure that all facilities and regulated sectors are regularly assessed for vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks, and all reasonable measures are taken to mitigate these vulnerabilities.

    Members of the public can:

    • Develop a household disaster plan and assemble a disaster supply kit. (see "Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies" chapter).

    Guarded Condition (Blue). This condition is declared when there is a general risk of terrorist attacks. In addition to the measures taken in the previous threat condition, federal departments and agencies will consider the following protective measures:

    • Check communications with designated emergency response or command locations;
    • Review and update emergency response procedures; and
    • Provide the public with any information that would strengthen its ability to act appropriately.

    Members of the public, in addition to the actions taken for the previous threat condition, can:

    • Update their disaster supply kit;
    • Review their household disaster plan;
    • Hold a household meeting to discuss what members would do and how they would communicate in the event of an incident;
    • Develop a more detailed household communication plan;
    • Apartment residents should discuss with building managers steps to be taken during an emergency; and
    • People with special needs should discuss their emergency plans with friends, family or employers.

    Elevated Condition (Yellow). An Elevated Condition is declared when there is a significant risk of terrorist attacks. In addition to the measures taken in the previous threat conditions, federal departments and agencies will consider the following protective measures:

    • Increase surveillance of critical locations;
    • Coordinate emergency plans with nearby jurisdictions as appropriate;
    • Assess whether the precise characteristics of the threat require the further refinement of prearranged protective measures; and
    • Implement, as appropriate, contingency and emergency response plans.

    Members of the public, in addition to the actions taken for the previous threat condition, can:

    • Be observant of any suspicious activity and report it to authorities;
    • Contact neighbors to discuss their plans and needs;
    • Check with school officials to determine their plans for an emergency and procedures to reunite children with parents and caregivers; and
    • Update the household communication plan.

    High Condition (Orange). A High Condition is declared when there is a high risk of terrorist attacks. In addition to the measures taken in the previous threat conditions, federal departments and agencies will consider the following protective measures:

    • Coordinate necessary security efforts with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, National Guard or other security and armed forces;
    • Take additional precautions at public events, possibly considering alternative venues or even cancellation;
    • Prepare to execute contingency procedures, such as moving to an alternate site or dispersing the workforce; and
    • Restrict access to a threatened facility to essential personnel only.

    Members of the public, in addition to the actions taken for the previous threat conditions, can:

    • Review preparedness measures (including evacuation and sheltering) for potential terrorist actions including chemical, biological, and radiological attacks;
    • Avoid high profile or symbolic locations; and
    • Exercise caution when traveling.

    Severe Condition (Red). A Severe Condition reflects a severe risk of terrorist attacks. Under most circumstances, the protective measures for a Severe Condition are not intended to be sustained for substantial periods of time. In addition to the protective measures in the previous threat conditions, federal departments and agencies also will consider the following general measures:

    • Increase or redirect personnel to address critical emergency needs;
    • Assign emergency response personnel and pre-position and mobilize specially trained teams or resources;
    • Monitor, redirect, or constrain transportation systems; and
    • Close public and government facilities not critical for continuity of essential operations, especially pubic safety.

    Members of the public, in addition to the actions taken for the previous threat conditions, can:

    • Avoid public gathering places such as sports arenas, holiday gatherings, or other high risk locations;
    • Follow official instructions about restrictions to normal activities;
    • Contact employer to determine status of work;
    • Listen to the radio and TV for possible advisories or warnings; and
    • Prepare to take protective actions such as sheltering-in-place or evacuation if instructed to do so by public officials.

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