Over-precautionary measures

I’ve just read a wonderfully revealing article from the Journal of Risk Research that compares the assumptions behind planning for modern-day terrorist attacks and the actual reactions of civilians from the intense bombing raids during World War II.

It notes, contrary to popular belief, that both bombing raids and contemporary terrorist attacks rarely cause panic and most situations are dealt with calm amid the chaos. Furthermore, populations generally hold up well even with sustained attacks.

In one section, the article discusses the risks and benefits of how danger is communicated to the people, and how precautionary measures don’t always work as well as they are intended – with this cautionary tale from the Gulf War:

An inherent problem of the precautionary approach is the difficulty of matching the protective measure with the threat. During the 1991 Gulf War, Israeli households were ordered to prepare a room that could be sealed and serve as protection against chemical or biological weapons. Many used these rooms when Tel Aviv and Haifa were targeted by Iraqi Scud missiles.

The dire message that this policy conveyed discouraged some health professionals from leaving their homes during alerts, while some families suffered from burns and carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of poorly designed heat sources.

Of the eight deaths associated with rocket attacks, six resulted from misuse of gas masks. By failing to remove the plug from the filter, individuals were asphyxiated, misattributing anoxia to the effects of poisonous gas. Thus, precautionary measures inadvertently led to greater mortality than Iraqi missiles.

Rather ironically, the journal has locked the article, but some kind soul has made it available online as a pdf if you want to read it in full.

Link to DOI entry and summary.
pdf of article.

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