Commentary

Remember the Past, While Imagining the Future

by Catherine L. Feinman

The imaginations of television and filmmakers are often used to create futuristic worlds, with technologies that can be used as tools or as threats. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are one such technology that is now off the screen and often seen in the sky. Like “The Jetsons” of the early 1960s, the airways offer many opportunities to transport people and objects from one place to another. With increased travel and transport, though, emergency preparedness, response, and resilience professionals must address the potential benefits of this technology as well as regulations and enforcement issues that could hinder daily and disaster operations. In a worst-case scenario, terrorists could conduct attacks using UAS equipped with explosives, weapons, or dispersal devices for chemical, biological, or radiological materials.

When determining potential threats and vulnerabilities within a particular community, critical infrastructure must be considered. By collaborating within and between jurisdictions, communities can better prioritize assets according to their impact on public safety and quality of life. Freight rail systems that run through multiple jurisdictions are one such critical infrastructure that requires collaborative planning. Similar to television and filmmakers, emergency preparedness and resilience professionals must imagine futuristic scenarios that could affect the health and lives of the communities these rail lines connect. Whether an accidental oil spill or a deliberate chemical attack on public transport, safeguards and plans are needed to address a broad range of potential threat scenarios.

Radiation and biological threats are other scenarios that require careful planning and preparedness efforts to be in place before an incident occurs. Investing in training, education, and equipment for low-probability, high-consequence incidents can improve an understanding of these threats and make uncommon threats less intimidating to address when needed. Once efforts are in place, though, continuity is needed as administrations and personnel change. Otherwise legacy knowledge and investments can be lost. Imagining what could be is an important step in community preparedness, but it cannot and should not supplant what has already been learned from previous incidents and research.