Specific Terrorist Threats

It is important to remember, there are significant differences among potential terrorist threats that will influence the decisions you make and the actions you take. By beginning a process of learning about these specific threats, you are preparing yourself to react in an emergency.

Biological Threat

A biological attack is the deliberate release of germs or other biological substances that can make you sick. Many agents must be inhaled, enter through a cut in the skin or be eaten to make you sick. Some biological agents, such as anthrax, do not cause contagious diseases. Others, like the smallpox virus, can result in diseases you can catch from people.

Unlike an explosion, a biological attack may or may not be immediately obvious. While it is possible that you will see signs of a biological attack, as was sometimes the case with the anthrax mailings, it is perhaps more likely that local health care workers will report a pattern of unusual illness or there will be a wave of sick people seeking emergency medical attention. You will probably learn of the danger through an emergency radio or television broadcast or some other signal used for mass communication. In some cases, you may receive a telephone message or an emergency response worker, such as a police officer or firefighter, may go door-to-door. 


If you become aware of an unusual or suspicious release of an unknown substance nearby, it doesn’t hurt to protect yourself. Quickly get away. Cover your mouth and nose with layers of fabric that can filter the air but still allow breathing. Examples include two to three layers of cotton such as a T-shirt, handkerchief or towel. Otherwise, several layers of tissue or paper towels may help. Wash with soap and water and call 911.


In the event of a biological attack, public health officials will provide information on what you should do as quickly as they can. However, it can take time for them to determine exactly what the illness is, how it should be treated and who is in danger. What you can do is watch television, listen to the radio or check the Internet for official news including the following: Are you in the group or area authorities consider in danger? What are the signs and symptoms of the disease? Are medications or vaccines being distributed? Where? Who should get them? Where should you seek emergency medical care if you become sick?

At the time of a declared biological emergency, if a family member becomes sick, it is important to be suspicious. However, do not automatically assume you should go to a hospital emergency room or that any illness is the result of the biological attack. Symptoms of many common illnesses may overlap. Use common sense. Practice good hygiene and cleanliness to avoid spreading germs and seek medical advice.

Chemical Threat

A chemical attack is the deliberate release of a toxic gas, liquid or solid that can poison people and the environment. Watch for signs of a chemical attack such as many people suffering from watery eyes, twitching, choking, having trouble breathing or losing coordination. Many sick or dead birds, fish or small animals are also cause for suspicion. If you see signs of a chemical attack, quickly try to define the impacted areas or where the chemical is coming from, if possible. Take immediate action to get away from the affected areas.

If the chemical is inside a building where you are, try to get out of the building without passing through the contaminated area. Otherwise, it may be better to move as far away from where you suspect the chemical release is and seal the room. If you are outside when you see signs of a chemical attack, you must quickly decide what is the fastest way to get away from the chemical threat. Consider if you can get out of the area or if it would be better to go inside a building and follow your shelter-in-place plan.

What to Do

If your eyes are watering, your skin is stinging, you are having trouble breathing or you simply think you may have been exposed to a chemical, immediately strip and wash. Look for a hose, fountain or any source of water. Wash with soap, if possible, but do not scrub the chemical into your skin. Seek emergency medical attention.

Nuclear Blast

A nuclear blast is an explosion with intense light and heat, a damaging pressure wave and widespread radioactive material that can contaminate the air, water and ground surfaces for miles around. While experts may predict at this time that a nuclear attack is less likely than others, terrorism by its nature is unpredictable. If there is a flash or fireball, take cover immediately, below ground if possible, though any shield or shelter will help protect you from the immediate effects of the blast and the pressure wave. In order to limit the amount of radiation you are exposed to, think about shielding, distance and time. 

If you have a thick shield between yourself and radioactive materials, it will absorb more of the radiation and you will be exposed to less. Similarly, the farther away you are from the blast and the fallout, the lower your exposure. Finally, minimizing time spent exposed will also reduce your risk.

Radiation Threat or “Dirty Bomb”

A radiation threat of “Dirty Bomb” is the use of common explosives to spread radioactive materials over a targeted area. It is not a nuclear blast. The force of the explosion and radioactive contamination will be more localized. While the blast will be immediately obvious, the presence of radiation may not be clearly defined until trained personnel with specialized equipment are on the scene. As with any radiation, you want to try to limit your exposure. Think about shielding, distance and time.