Ready, Set ... Prepare

Finally. The newly created Department of Homeland Security rolled out its "Ready" campaign this week to help Americans prepare for a possible terrorist attack.

The timing was off. The campaign was launched nearly two weeks after the terrorist threat index was raised to orange, and more than a year after 9/11.

And yet, after all the duct-tape-like government efforts to help citizens thus far, at least this campaign is more complete and specific. The department should be commended for streamlining its preparedness suggestions, clearing up the question, for instance, of when to use that duct tape and plastic sheeting. The recommendations are presented in ways that educate, and discourage the clear-the-store-shelves panic evident in recent days.

A brief, 11-page brochure, "Preparing Makes Sense. Get Ready Now," calmly offers details on how to handle specific terrorist actions, be they chemical, biological, or nuclear. The campaign also rationally calls for families to develop a communication plan, and to assemble home and "away" supply kits.

In committing to a long-term effort, the Homeland Security Department also is trying to mentally prepare Americans for a behavior shift not seen since the "duck and cover" days of the cold war. Billboards will be popping up across the country featuring the government's informational website (including a giant one in Times Square). So will frequent public service announcements, urging Americans to prepare for potential threats seriously, but without panic. "We can be afraid, or we can be ready," as Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge aptly said at the campaign's unveiling.

Rolling "Ready" out in Cincinnati had an advantage, too, because it reminded the country that terrorists could strike anywhere, not just Washington, D.C., or New York.

One problem with "Ready" is that it assumes most of the nation has Internet access - the campaign's central feature is a website:www.ready.gov. Those who don't have an on-ramp to the Web, can call 1-800-BE-READY to order the brochure. But people should not have to ask for potentially life-saving information, and the department should find the wherewithal to mail the brochure and other relevant information to every American household.

The high-profile campaign will be a big test for the new department. It will have to work hard to keep a stream of public service announcements from fading into a background media din, or from appearing as yet another glitzy, PR-driven effort.

The test for citizens will be to heed the advice, and make sure they don't over- or underreact, nor grow complacent in a protracted war against terrorism.

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