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10 years after 9/11: Americans feel less safe than ten years ago

Rural residents are most fearful, but public safety agencies at every level can take a lesson from this study

Federal Signal has released the 2011 edition of its annual survey of public safety concerns among Americans. Despite the increased security measures implemented in the ten years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the elimination of much of the leadership of al-Qaeda, most Americans feel less safe than they did ten years ago.

Young adults ages 18-24 are the most fearful for their personal safety. When asked “Ten years after the 9/11 tragedy, do you feel that public safety and emergency preparedness has improved to the point where you feel safer in your day-to-day life?” 64 percent of this group responded in the negative. Americans in other age groups were more evenly divided on the question, with slightly more people in the 25-34, 35-54 and 70+ groups feeling safer, and 54 percent of the 55-69 age group feeling less safe. Almost 60 percent of the people answering “no” to this question lived in suburbs or in rural communities. Slightly more than half of those in small (fewer than 100,000 people) and large cities said they did feel safer.

Almost 90 percent of Americans believe there is a need for improvement in public emergency awareness or communication. People living in small cities were the most satisfied with public emergency awareness, while those in rural areas saw the most need for improvement. Given the expansion of public safety presence in nontraditional communications media such as the internet, Facebook, Twitter and text messages, it’s interesting that people still don’t believe they are getting enough information. Moreover, 34 percent said they felt that public safety was not a priority in their community.

The perception that recent natural disasters have not increased attention to preparedness for these incidents is very high for young adults 18-24, with 90 percent saying that their communities were not heeding the warnings of such events. The other age groups surveyed were more at ease with emergency preparedness, with between 46 percent and 60 percent approving of their community’s efforts. As before, people living in cities felt better about preparedness than people living in rural areas. 77 percent of Americans believe that additional community resources or communications will have a positive impact on public safety awareness.

Federal Signal’s interest in this topic is closely associated with their alerting and notification products that help public safety and emergency management agencies communicate with the public. One of these, called Codespear, integrates with voice and text-based communications to permit sending alerts simultaneously via landline and cell telephones, pagers, PDAs, computers, external email and short message service (SMS) clients.

More than four in ten Americans believe their employers are not making safety response and planning a priority. Rural respondents were least satisfied with their employers’ preparations, while those in small cities were most satisfied. Only 4.2 percent of Americans feel safest at their workplace. Young people 18-24 feel the most safe at work, while people 55 and up feel the least safe.

Communications infrastructure is more important than ever before, as 57 percent of Americans would fall back on multiple communications methods if they were denied cell phone or landline voice calls. It’s unclear from the survey whether the respondents realized that, without cell or landline networks, most other communications channels would be cut off as well. People cited text messaging, social media and email as alternate ways of staying in touch during an emergency.

“It’s a significant challenge, because you don’t know which of these means are going to be available,” according to John Von Thaden, vice president and general manager of Federal Signal’s Alerting & Notification Systems. “Even when you have power, cell phone towers get clogged and your means of communicating are diminished. After Katrina, when cell phone service was restored, texting capacity came back much faster than voice communications.”

Text messages require only a tiny fraction of the bandwidth of a phone call, so a single cell tower can handle thousands of text messages while voice call capacity is still overwhelmed.

“An integrated solution means I can send warnings via radio or via outdoor warning notifications [such as sirens or horns mounted on towers]. Some areas around nuclear facilities still use public address systems on vehicles as one of their means,” said Von Thaden.

What, if anything, does this survey mean for public safety agencies? First, it’s clear that emergency service organizations need to blow their own horns about their preparedness for emergencies. It may be that communities are better prepared than their citizens know, and that knowledge will not only make them feel safer, it will also make it easier for them to protect themselves and work with public safety when a disaster strikes.

Finally, this underscores the importance of having a contingency plan for the loss of cell and landline communications, and making that plan known to your community. If people are expecting to be able to send and receive email and text messages in an emergency, they are more likely to panic when those channels are denied to them. People need to understand the realities of weathering a disaster, so they can better prepare for it.

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