The Scientific Activist

With a name like, the Department of Homeland Security’s emergency preparedness website isn’t particularly modest about its objectives. However, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) claims that the site isn’t living up to its mission. Instead of just complaining about it, though, FAS has put its money where its mouth is: it made its own site,

Here’s the best part. Instead of spending millions of dollars and involving who knows how many people, was created by one FAS intern, Emily Hesaltine, as a summer project. Whoa.

Now, before I go on, I’ll have to note that I generally view these “emergency preparedness” campaigns as the epitome of Orwellian state control, more geared toward pacifying the public with fear than actually saving lives. However, I don’t think anybody would argue that being prepared for an attack or natural disaster is a bad thing, and if you’re going to put up a big scary website, it might as well be useful.

That’s more than can be said for the original site, though, which was probably better known for graphics ripe for parody than helpful information. For example:

“I know it isn’t good to laugh about such a serious topic, but when I saw the graphic on suggesting that when a nuclear bomb goes off a hundred feet away you might want to protect yourself by walking around the corner, I just couldn’t help myself,” said Ivan Oelrich, Vice President of Strategic Security at FAS. “After three years and millions of dollars, taxpayers should expect a better website from the Department of Homeland Security.”

The appropriate reaction to a nuclear attack is to hide from the light and heat of the blast, then walk perpendicular to the wind away from the dust cloud. Accurate information like this, not available on, can be found on Modifications were also made to repetitive, lengthy, and generic material to make it easier to use and remember.

Despite a major update in July 2006, FAS claims that the Department of Homeland Security site still contains inaccurate information, is full of needlessly wordy and confusing text, and lacks detailed information for disabled people. A full assessment of these issues can be found here. The new site aims to fix all of these issues, and it even features a major section regarding people with disabilities–something that the original site did not have (to be fair, though, the Homeland Security site, unlike the new FAS site is available in Spanish).

Michael Stebbins of FAS notes that now that this information is out in the open, the onus is on the Department of Homeland Security to make these changes to its site:

We hope the information will serve as a model for the essential changes that need to be made to We recommend that DHS request the assistance of scientific, military, and emergency response experts to make these alterations. The Department of Homeland Security has declared September National Preparedness Month. Before then, FAS hopes to see updated so that it is more useful to the public that has paid for it, especially since a 20 year-old college student was able to single-handedly complete the same task in only two months.

So, is the new site really better? The best way to find out is to check and for yourself. Although you’ll probably find that most of FAS’s claims bear out in reality, I still have one major complaint about There’s no color-coded threat level indicator. Come on, FAS. Without the colors, how am I supposed to know whether I’m fucked, really fucked, or truly and properly fucked?



  1. #1 Stefan Jones
    August 4, 2006

    Something else we need:

    A localized emergency guide.

    Counties and cities can* put them out; if these same can publish big think Voter Information pamphlets every few years, they can handle a how-to guide.

    In addition to a succinct emergency information, it would have locations of fire houses, hospitals, shelters, and the like.

    Also a checklist of what to have on hand in case of an emergency.

    The guide could also act as a kind of contract and report card. It should honestly state what the locality can and cannot due. If it is a big rural county, it should state that you’re on your own. If it is a impoverished city without a budget to provide much help (or a wealthy one with spending limits), the guide should state that flat out too.


    * Can, as in MUST, if the county or city wants emergency preparedness funding.

  2. #2 beard5
    August 5, 2006

    Thank you for posting the link to, it has *much* better information for those of us with disabilities, than any government site.

    I found this blog through Dr Doug Hoffman, at his Balls and Walnuts blog.

    Once again, great post, and thank you for the links.

  3. #3 Nick Anthis
    August 5, 2006


    Do you know if many cities or counties have published goood emergency guides that would serve as a model for others?

  4. #4 Stefan Jones
    August 5, 2006

    I don’t know of any, Nick.

    I’ve lived in suburban Long Island, Pittsburgh, the Pennisula below San Francisco, and suburban Portland, and the closest I’ve seen to a community preparedness / emergency guide is a short section presented in some phone books.

    If FEMA got off its ass, it could provide boilerplate copy, in a dozen languages, that communities could use to put these guides together. It would ultimately make its job easier; an ounce of prevention, yadda-yadda. The most minimal guide might reprint FEMA’s version, with a few pages of maps and phone numbers. A city with a lot of resources and civic spirit might include applications for volunteer organizations.

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