Surviving the sealed room

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(Host) Commentator Bill Seamans reflects on the “sealed room” homeland defense strategy and recalls what it was like to take cover in similar shelters during scud middile attacks on Israel.

(Seamans) Our Homeland Security Chief, Tom Ridge has told us to pack away our duck tape and plastic sheeting and that we don’t have to take it out again until there’s a terrorist gas attack. But if we wait until there is an attack won’t that be too late to seal up that “safe room” we were planning as a shelter?

Ridge didn’t tell us what life would be like cooped up in an airtight room with all the family and with food and water for up to three days. Well, I’ve been there, done that during Saddam’s scud missile attack on Israel. While roving around Tel Aviv fulfilling my ABC News duties I took shelter in several different duck tape and plastic havens when the sirens went off.

Tom Ridge didn’t prepare you to expect a very difficult experience, especially for families with children, cooped up in an airtight shelter. The air, of course, gets progressively stale and the psychological situation progressively tense. In Israel the aroma in a crowded room deprived of fresh air got so bad that some joked that they had found a new use for their gas masks.

The only source of information about what was going on outside came from portable radios. In Israel the head of the government press office was the only voice allowed to broadcast civil defense information—-which avoided the confusion of several government officials giving out contradictory information. Mr. Ridge, how about using retired but still vigorous Walter Cronkite, said to be “the man everyone trusted,” as our national radio terrorism emergency voice?

Surprisingly, telephones really were not helpful. Circuits were so jammed by talk with relatives that emergency calls couldn’t get through and the public was asked to stop using their phones as family support hotlines. Also, phone calls were a source of unfounded rumors that caused even more tension when some of the more fragile personalities were already on the verge of hysteria.

Heating or air conditioning appliances that brought in outside air could not be used so the sealed rooms became either too hot or too cold. Pets brought into the shelters were an extremely useful calming influence for the children—an extra heavy burden fell on mothers with infants. And Tom Ridge failed to mention a very important item —the chemical toilet over in the corner behind the blanket or bed sheet hung up as a privacy curtain. It was a new experience in “togetherness.”

So what have we learned from our Color Code Orange experience? We learned that President Bush and Tom Ridge must involve the public directly in our homeland war against terrorism. It is time to stop telling us to “live normally.” An involved and informed public is the best antidote for fear and confusion.

This is Bill Seamans.

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