A Local Guide to Preparing for an Emergency — Nuclear or Otherwise

By Renee Baruch

What would happen if the now infamous error in communication in Hawaii had occurred in New York? And what would happen in a real emergency?

Eliot Calhoune and Omar Bourne of New York City Emergency Management say that false alarms are very unlikely to occur in New York City since there is significant redundancy built into the Alert procedure. Before any alert would be issued via a wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) as it did in Hawaii, the alert would be reviewed by a supervisor and then approved by Commissioner Joseph Esposito.

Different scenarios would result in different responses by the city. But were ICBMs headed in the direction of New York City, the message to New Yorkers would be different. Said Eliot Calhoune, CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives) Planner. The message issued by WEA would be “get inside, stay inside and stay tuned.” Calhoune stated that the safest places would be the center core of a large building or the underground basement of a structure in order to place as much brick, masonry or concrete between people and the threat.

Calhoune stated that were ICBM’s reportedly en route to the New York area, they would be “assumed” to be armed with nuclear warheads.

People of a certain age will remember Cold War era designations of basement fallout shelters, which were supposed to be equipped with food and water to last for weeks. Of course, those shelters have faded away along with the signs that used to be on many buildings. Which means that each person’s “go-bag” becomes even more essential and something every person should have at the ready to enable survival without assistance for at least 72 hours. And what should be in a “go-bag”?

If there are any pets, of course you would have to have food and water for the pet, a photo of the owner and pet (in case of separation) as well as plastic bags for the pet’s waste.

It is also critical to have a plan for various types of emergencies; where to reunite with family when it is safe to move about or when evacuation is necessary, who to contact, and where to shelter when called upon to shelter in place. Children should know what to do when their schools permit them to go home and where to go in the event home is not safe.

Our community is fortunate in that our Wireless Emergency Alert (unlike in Hawaii) would provide specific direction and would advise all citizens to shelter in place in the event of an attack. And since our WEA is limited to a 90-character word count, and cannot include either hyperlinks or images, the limited initial WEA might not include very much more information, said Calhoune. Thus the part of the message that says “stay tuned” is critical; further information will be communicated as known and possible.

In essence, the preparation for all emergencies remains the same; a go-bag and a plan. The plan becomes even more important in the event of an attack since infrastructure may be knocked out and information and communication might not be available.

And what about an “all clear”? How would citizens know when it is safe to emerge?

Will a siren sound? No. Those all-clear sirens are also a thing of the past. Once again the WEA would announce when it is safe to leave shelter. One of the benefits of the Wireless system is that it can be geo-targeted to a limited area. Most recently, when the Chelsea bombing occurred, the entire city was not alerted nor advised when the area was declared safe, only the immediate area received an alert. And in fact, on January 30, the FCC will vote on whether to enable even more targeted alerts; to within .10 of a mile of the area in danger.

Much has changed since September 11, 2001, when the mayor of the City was forced to flee the emergency management office, on foot, covering his nose and mouth with a handkerchief. The Emergency Management department is now located in larger quarters in Brooklyn and has greatly increased the number of employees in the department. There is now a Citywide Incident Management System which integrates all agencies and departments of City Government to enable a Public Health Assessment, Fire Suppression, Law Enforcement, fatality and debris management, and many other aspects of public protection.

Since September 11, 2001, New York City has recovered from several emergencies, ranging from a bombing to major coastal storms. Reassuringly, New York has learned from each experience and implemented changes in its processes and planning. The watchword from all corners is the same as always. Be prepared! Have a go bag to ready yourself at a moment’s notice, have a plan, and know your options.

Photo by Bryan Jones.

NEWS | 16 comments | permalink
    1. Steen says:

      This is very helpful and shows me that my current go bag should definitely be expanded.

      Thank you for posting it.

    2. Amy says:

      Necessary but it gave me a stomach ache. Thanks for the info that isn’t pleasant to read, but important.

    3. WEAJack says:

      Having a “Go Bag” assumes there will be a place to “go“ to, or, more importantly, a way to get there from Manhattan Fat chance. It would seem more sensible to have a “stay“ bag with all the necessaries for sheltering in place.

    4. Kenneth says:

      If there are nuclear-armed ICBMs headed to Manhattan, the go bag is a nice thought – but you and it are going to be turned into a carbon smudge in short order.

    5. Smithe says:

      Sorry, but if there is an ICBM armed with a nuclear warhead headed towards NYC, the blast radius will eliminate any need for a “go bag”. Get Real!

    6. wombatNYC says:

      Who has time for this ?? I can barely keep my end of year tax forms in a safe place

    7. Jim Cash says:

      Good thing we got that womens march out of the way.

    8. BJK says:

      The authorities actually say that my go-bag is supposed to contain “plastic bags for the pet’s waste?” Will they really be enforcing the pooper-scooper laws after a nuclear bomb strike? Is that really a go-bag item?

      • jezbel says:

        The inference was that if there are many people having to share a small shelter space, and those people have pets, that we at least be able to clean up the pet waste so that the area doesn’t stink and people don’t walk into it. As a curtesy. Sure we’ll all die from the bomb blast, but we should still be nice to each other till the end. Why the hell not?

      • robert says:

        Its to avoid the possible transmission of any
        dieses the fecal matter may have

    9. Diana M. says:

      Where is cellphone?

    10. jezbel says:

      I think it’s time that the City issue advisories to all building owners of building with basement space, that they should clear parts of the space to make it available to tenants of the building as a temporary shelter. This is a vertical city. But many old buildings still contain space which was once designated as Civil Defense areas. Some news buildings have children’s playrooms, pool or health club areas in the basement. In areas where laundry room once were (or may still be) the City needs to send out new guild lines to supers, owners and management companies to be prepared to keep open space below ground as an emergency shelter for tenants only. Just a suggestion

    11. Mary the Librarian says:

      Sirens should not be a thing of the past. WEA assumes people have cellphones or computers with them with charged batteries–they have to have a working receiver for the messages to be communicated. Old tech is often more dependable
      and offers redundancy.

    12. As a former upper west sider (106th street) we designed this go bag for exactly how we live. It contains everything listed above and is completely reimagined. Have a look. https://vlesdesigns.com/

    13. robert says:

      PLEASE NOTE:
      May of the buildings in the Tri State are still have these “Fallout Shelter” signs left over from the Cold War. Even though the signs are still up, the vast majority of these buildings have NO shelter. Most buildings long ago made them over into storage rooms, bike racks etc. I hope its never needed but would recommend that you check for one that is open now, rather than on the day of an event

      • BillyNYC says:

        I would not want any building in New York City to protect me in the basement, you got to be kidding back then those people thought that they were going to be protected… What a government cover-up bullshit story that was.