An informed public capable of acting on its own can save more lives following a nuclear blast than can a limited number of emergency professionals.
Due to the scale and severity of the incident, there will likely be long delays in assistance from emergency professionals.
Rather than wait for assistance or guidance from authorities, members of the public must be poised to act promptly on their own following a nuclear detonation. Specifically, they should be ready to get themselves and others into an adequate shelter, potentially staying there for a period of several days. Given both the scale of destruction by a nuclear device and the amount of resources needed, it will also take time for authorities to characterize the situation and mobilize a response. Prior to executing the response, emergency professionals will also need to seek adequate shelter for at least an hour, if not more, postdetonation, just like the public.6 As discussed below, the infrastructure for transmitting and receiving fallout warning messages may be inoperable for several days in the most vulnerable areas, requiring survivors to act independently. Sheltering for an extended period of time is the principal protective action against fallout exposure. Therefore, being personally prepared, being able to identify shelter, having a family disaster plan, and keeping essential supplies (eg, food, water, a battery/crank powered radio, flashlight, first aid kit, medications, extra clothes) matters a great deal. Having a family reunification plan will also be important once evacuations begin.
The closer to ground zero, the more likely officials cannot communicate quickly with survivors; thus, people will need to know how to protect themselves in advance.
Following a nuclear detonation, it will be difficult or impossible to issue fallout warning messages in the areas that most need them, because communications may be severely impaired. Within the damage zones, there will be little, if any, ability to send or receive information.5 Telephone poles, utility lines, fiber-optic cables, cell towers, and other equipment will be knocked out; restoration of communication capabilities could take days. Moreover, the detonation’s electromagnetic pulse (EMP)—a transient electromagnetic field that produces a rapid high-voltage surge—may destroy or severely disrupt surviving electronics around ground zero.* Experts generally anticipate the worst EMP effects of a 10-kiloton groundburst to be confined within a 2- to 5-mile radius of the detonation site.5 However, cascading effects along transmission lines could lead to outages of electricity, phone, and internet extending up to hundreds of miles.5 Enormous demand for telephone and internet services will further complicate communication on surviving equipment. Overall, the operability of communications systems following a nuclear detonation is unpredictable: Which systems will be affected over what distances and for how long? As a general rule of thumb, planners might assume that the ability to communicate with survivors will increase the farther the distance from ground zero and the longer the time frame from the explosion.
Pre-incident education that uses average citizens as spokespersons may help promote greater personal preparedness and understanding of fallout protective behaviors.
The potential lack of an intact infrastructure for delivering public warnings in the time and places that protective guidance is most needed following a detonation makes it necessary to convey the value of personal preparedness to the public. Social and behavioral science experts suggest that the strongest motivator of public preparedness for disasters, including terrorism, is when average people share what they have done to prepare with others who have done much less.26 Coworkers, neighbors, friends, and family who talk about and/or demonstrate what they have done to prepare may be the most powerful preparedness spokespersons of all. A second top motivator is knowledge of what preparedness actions to take, how to take them, and why these actions are beneficial26—in this case, preparation for extended sheltering can prevent illness and death due to radiation. Preparedness education that focuses on abstract science lessons and disaster consequences is less likely to motivate the desired behavior. The third key motivator to preparedness is receiving repetitive and consistent information over multiple channels (eg, social media, newspaper, flyers, TV), so that people can hear the message above everyday background noise.
*Not all equipment within the EMP-affected area will fail, however. Electronics are more likely to fail the closer they are to ground zero, the larger their effective receptor antenna, and the more sensitive they are to EMP effects.27 Cell phones and handheld radios have relatively small antennas and will probably still function if they are not plugged in at the time of the EMP. If equipment does not work initially, turning it off and then back on, removing and then replacing the battery, or rebooting may restore function. In general, protective actions used to protect equipment from lightning strikes, such as shielding, may “harden” electronics.