Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Comprehensive Review of Soft Targets may Make them Harder to Attack

Recently, according to certain media sources, allegedly leaked government reports indicated that Iraqi terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may be contemplating attacks on soft targets within the U.S. This, allegedly at the behest of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. According to media reports schools, malls, stadiums and restaurants have been mentioned as potential soft targets.

Soft targets are targets that are relatively unprotected compared to infrastructure, utility, military, or landmark targets. Soft targets hold yet another benefit for terrorists besides the ease of accessibility. That is, they bring the horror of a terror attack home to the average neighborhood and the average citizen. This has been the terrorists approach in Israel where schools, restaurants and malls have been standard fare for decades.

Shortly after 9/11 I was asked to develop a “curriculum” to address the threat of terrorism in Texas public schools. This resulted in the development of the “Proactive Guide to the Threat of Terrorism in Schools” which was distributed throughout the state by the Texas School Safety Center, a legislated branch of the Texas Governor’s Office.

Soft targets may be soft for another reason. That reason relates to the diminished vigilance which has occurred with the passing of time and the false sense of security which prevails with the lack of additional terror attacks on U.S. soil. Of the soft targets mentioned I believe that our schools are the most likely because of the intense emotional impact inherent in the loss of even a single child’s life. Take note of how the story of even a single missing or injured child, anywhere in the country, resonates throughout national media channels. As I’ve stated many times before” there would be no more effective way to crush the heart of America than to strike children where they should be safest – in our schools”.

The thought behind the “Proactive Guide” was that even though a terror attack might not be preventable altogether, an attack on a specific target might be deterred in favor of a “softer” target as the result of increased vigilance. I looked at all aspects of a school district’s operation, including the hiring process. Awareness and vigilance were key issues since they are intimately bound-up. In the Guide I also addressed the need to coordinate crises plans with first responders as well as with other key support elements within the community. The full text of the Proactive Guide was distributed to all school districts on CD-Rom in 2002. Following are some key sections of the Guide that help define the special vigilance that contributes to making a soft target harder to hit. Use these sections to undertake a thorough and proactive review of just how “soft” your particular school district may be. I encourage all school boards to review the checklist and to use it to develop appropriate questions regarding the status of the school district’s overall crises plan. Ultimately, this is where responsibility will be placed.

A Note on Disaster Planning

Disaster planning differs from most other types of planning in that a significant part of the planning process must consider the utter chaos that frequently accompanies such situations. Good plans are as much about how the plan will be carried out as they are about what steps need to be taken.

Too often, plans reside solely in binders and on shelves, rather than fresh in the minds of those who are destined to react once a tragedy occurs. Following are some brief recommendations from a veteran federal agent who was often one of the first on the scene of a disaster, and in a position to observe organized chaos at its worse:

  • Plans are life saving devices and should be treated as such. Un-shelf them periodically, make sure they are in proper order, and that the intended users know how they work.
  • Have a well-defined chain of command. Plans should specifically address who will take over if the first person in charge of each critical plan component is incapacitated during an attack.
  • Key individuals should know their specific roles. Additionally, roles common to particular levels or types of employees (such as all classroom teachers) should be clearly defined and documented.
  • Wallet cards or similar types of portable documentation have worked well in the past to assist people in executing their roles.
  • Remember that when a disaster occurs, there may be any number of visitors present in your facility who are not aware of your plan. Your plan should include a provision to assist these individuals as well.
  • Include volunteers and substitute teachers in your planning and training process. They may have to fulfill specific roles should an incident occur.
  • Devise a way to identify key employees to law enforcement and emergency responders at the scene. Simple arm bands with various colors signifying different positions would be an effective way of accomplishing this. The arm bands could be incorporated into the Campus and Classroom emergency kits.

    Practice, practice, practice!

    Again, you can obtain a complete version of the original “Guide” by calling the Texas School Safety Center. As I mentioned, it is also contained in the CD-Rom that the Safety Center provided to all school districts.

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