How Bioterrorism Works

What Can You Do?

A victim of smallpox
A victim of smallpox
Terrence Spencer/Getty Images

A biological or chemical terror attack can cripple cities with fear and panic, so the most important thing to do is to stay calm. In the event of an attack, the first thing you should do is sit tight and turn on a radio or television to get information. There will be police, emergency coordinators and local government officials available to give information on whether or not you need to evacuate. Every potential terror threat is different, and the emergency coordinator in your area will have specific instructions for evacuation. These directions need to be followed exactly. For instance, if your children are being sheltered at school, you shouldn't try to go get them. If you do evacuate, bring any medications you'll need, and if you can, call a friend or relative and let him or her know where you're headed. The same emergency coordinators who gave evacuation orders will also let you know when it's safe to return home.

Aside from evacuation, there are two things you should be well-acquainted with in the case of a chemical attack: decontamination and sheltering in place procedures. Your emergency coordinator or local police force will let you know if you need to decontaminate yourself. There are three important steps to decontamination:

  • Quickly remove your clothes: Cut off anything that needs to be pulled over your face.
  • Wash yourself thoroughly: Use large amounts of soap and water. If your eyes are burning, rinse with cool water for 10 to 15 minutes. If you wear contact lenses, take them out and don't put them back in.
  • Dispose of your clothes: Put them in a plastic bag and avoid touching the contaminated areas by using rubber gloves or tongs. Seal the bag, and then put it inside another bag. Leave the bag alone to be disposed of by a professional.

Sometimes, if the air outside your home is laced with a chemical or biological agent, evacuation can be more dangerous than staying put. This is when your local police will advise you to shelter in place. Sheltering should happen in a home or building whenever possible -- your car isn't airtight enough. Follow these steps to shelter in place:

  • Turn off your HVAC system and any other fans
  • Close and lock all windows and doors in the house as well as the fireplace damper
  • Choose a room with a water supply and as few windows and doors as possible for your shelter (A master bedroom with a bath is an ideal choice.)
  • Go as high in your home or building as possible
  • Turn on a radio or TV and keep a telephone close by
  • Do not drink tap water
  • Tape plastic over the windows, doors and vents
  • Only come out when the police or emergency personnel says it's safe

In the next section, we'll look at what programs are in place to help prevent a bioterrorism attack.