Keeping Your Family Safe During a Terrorist Attack

While 72% of Americans anticipate future terror attacks, fewer than 50% of us have a family emergency plan in place.

series of studies conducted by researchers at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness show that while 72% of Americans anticipate future terror attacks, fewer than 50% of us have a family emergency plan in place.  

After attacks and incidents such as these, people often wonder how to keep their families safe and ask, “What would I do?”  So, if nearly 75% of Americans believe terrorist attacks are inevitable, why are so few American families prepared? The answer may lie in the term “terrorist attack” itself.

While people may consider the shootings at Sandy Hook and Aurora to be terrorist attacks, by definition, they were not.  In fact, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), “there is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism. Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as ‘the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.’”  It is difficult to be fully prepared for something when it’s not clear exactly what it is that you’re preparing for.

Along with the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also has provided some general terrorism information:

Acts of Terrorism

  • threats of terrorism
  • assassinations
  • kidnappings
  • hijackings
  • bomb scares and bombings
  • cyber attacks (computer-based)
  • the use of chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological weapons

High-Risk Targets for Acts of Terrorism

  • military and civilian government facilities
  • international airports
  • large cities
  • high-profile landmarks
  • large public gatherings
  • water and food supplies
  • utilities
  • corporate centers
  • mailings (explosives or chemical/biological agents may be sent through the mail)

The Seven Signs of Terrorism

Fearing future terrorist attacks does not mean that people have to live in fear every day.  There are several steps people may take to help prepare and protect their families.  One such action is to become familiar with the Seven Signs of Terrorism, developed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York, that have been adopted by State Police across the country as an educational tool.

  1. Surveillance: Be on the lookout for someone recording or monitoring activities.  The type of recording does not have to be as obvious as a camera or a video camera; the person may be taking notes, drawing diagrams, annotating maps, or using binoculars, etc.
  2. Elicitation: Be wary of people or groups who attempt to learn information about military operations, capabilities, or people.  The attempts do not have to be face-to-face.  They may be made by mail, telephone, etc.
  3. Tests of Security: If someone is attempting to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of security measures, or if he is attempting to record and analyze reaction times to security breaches, contact your local authorities.
  4. Acquiring Supplies: Be vigilant about people who purchase or steal explosives, weapons, ammunition, etc.  Other supplies that may be needed for a terrorist attack are military uniforms, flight manuals, badges or the equipment to make them, and any other controlled items.  And, as we learned in the Boston bombing, materials such as pressure cookers and fireworks also may be supplies that terrorists purchase in large quantitie.

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  1. Suspicious persons out of place: Of course, we are wary of people who don’t seem to belong in our neighborhoods.  But, people also may arouse suspicion at work, businesses, or anywhere, for that matter.  Also be alert for people who suspiciously cross the border, stow away on board a ship, or jump ship in port if you are traveling.
  2. Dry run/Trial run: Terrorists may practice their attack prior to carrying it out, so watch for people who move around but don’t seem to have a true purpose.  A terrorist also may map out routes or time traffic lights, so be on the lookout for these types of activities.
  3. Deploying Assets: Terrorists have to get people and supplies positioned prior to committing the terrorist act.  If you suspect these activities are occurring, immediately contact the authorities because this may be the last chance you have to do so before the terrorist act takes place.

Virtually all state and federal agencies encourage families to take the time to prepare for terrorist attacks.  There are three steps to help you get started on protecting your loved ones from acts of terrorism:

  1. Know your work, school, and community disaster plans.  If you do not know the plans, contact your supervisor, school administrators, or local fire department for information.
  2. Identify an alternative hospital.  Hospitals closest to the event always are the busiest.
  3. Use online resources to create disaster plans and review steps for protecting yourself and your loved ones.  FEMA provides a downloadable Family Emergency Plan.

Terrorist Attack: In a Public Place

Terrorists typically attack public places with large crowds because they want to cause the most damage and get the most attention for their cause.  One of the best ways to keep your family safe from terrorist attacks in public places is to share and discuss the Seven Signs of Terrorism with age-appropriate children.

A simpler way to discuss the signs of terrorism with children is to focus on “Look and Listen.”  This approach narrows the Seven Signs of Terrorism to a more kid-friendly version that includes looking for:

  • bags left unattended in public places.
  • people checking areas or buildings.
  • people trying to enter secure areas.
  • people at events wearing too much clothing.

Terrorist Attack: Explosive Devices


Terrorists use explosive devices as one of their most common weapons.  According to a report by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, bombings/explosions account for 51.53% of the tactics used in terrorist attacks in the United States from 1970-2011.

Unfortunately, information for making explosive devices is readily available online and in other information sources, and the materials necessary for making the explosives easily are found in many places.  Because of the portable nature of explosive devices and the ease with which they may be detonated from remote locations, terrorists rely on this type of weapon frequently.

One way to keep your family safe from these explosive devices is to know which types of parcels are suspect.  

  • are unexpected or from someone unknown to you
  • have no return address, or have one that can’t be verified
  • are marked with restrictions such as “Personal,” “Confidential,” or “Do not X-ray”
  • have protruding wires or aluminum foil, strange odors, or stains
  • show a city or state in the postmark that doesn’t match the return address
  • are an unusual weight for their size or are lopsided or oddly shaped
  • are marked with threatening language
  • have inappropriate or unusual labeling
  • have excessive postage or packaging material such as masking tape or string
  • have misspellings of common words
  • are addressed to someone not at the address listed or are otherwise outdated
  • have incorrect titles or titles without a name
  • are not addressed to a specific person
  • have hand-written or poorly typed addresses

Be proactive about checking packages and share the information with your age-appropriate children.  They may be responsible for getting your mail after school, or they may love to pick up the boxes left on your stoop during the day, so it is important that they know which types of packages may be unsafe.  Of course, if you or your loved ones suspect a parcel for any reason, do not touch it, leave the area, and immediately contact local authorities.  It is always best to alert authorities, even if you are unsure whether there is a true danger.

Protective Measures for an Explosion

Because most bombings occur in public places, your family should know what to do in the event of an explosion.  As with any emergency drill, parents should practice the following tips with age-appropriate children and discuss what to do in the event of being trapped in or being near the scene of a bombing.  Remember, the goal is to empower your children with knowledge, not to frighten them.

If your family is trapped in debris, you should:

  • use a flashlight to signal your location to rescuers, if possible.
  • avoid unnecessary movement so you don’t stir the dust.
  • cover your nose and mouth with some sort of material that is nearby, to breathe through.  Dense-weave cotton material acts as a good filter, or you may wet the material before breathing through it to help filter the dust.
  • tap on a pipe or wall so rescuers can hear where you are.
  • use a whistle to signal rescuers, if possible.
  • shout as a last resort, only.  Shouting can cause you to inhale dangerous amount of dust.

If your family is near the scene of an explosion, you should:

  • get under a sturdy table or desk if things are falling around you.  When the items stop falling, leave quickly.  Watch for obviously weakened floors and stairways, and be especially vigilant about falling debris.  Do not use elevators.
  • follow your family, job, or school emergency disaster plan for leaving and staying away from the explosion.  Do not stop to retrieve personal possessions or make any calls or texts.  Do not return to the scene because you will increase the risk of danger for rescue workers and your family.
  • avoid crowds.  Crowds of people may be the target of a second attack.
  • avoid unattended cars and trucks, as these may contain explosives.
  • do not stand in front of windows, glass doors, or other potentially dangerous areas, including damaged buildings.  Move at least 10 blocks or 200 yards away from damaged buildings.  Also remember to move away from sidewalks or streets that will be used by emergency officials or other people still exiting the building.
  • follow directions from people in authority, including police, fire, EMS, military personnel, school supervisors, or workplace supervisors.
  • call 911 once you are in a safe place, but only if police, fire, or EMS has not arrived to help injured people.
  • help others who are hurt or need assistance to leave the area if you are able to do so.  If you see someone who is seriously injured, seek help.  Do not attempt to manage the situation alone.
  • listen to your radio or television for news and instructions.

Terrorist Attack: Biological, Chemical, or Nuclear Attacks

Keeping your family safe from a biological, chemical, or nuclear attack requires more specific preparations, as you may need to remain in your home in the event of one of these attacks.  It may be too late to obtain the materials necessary to keep your family safe after one of these types of attacks occurs, so FEMA has created checklists for families to do before these threats arise:

Protecting Yourself, Your Family, and Your Property

  • Build an Emergency Supply Kit.  Include nonperishable food, water, a battery-powered radio, extra flashlights, and batteries.
    • For a chemical threat, also have a roll of duct tape and scissors in your Emergency Supply Kit, as well as plastic for doors, windows, and vents for the room in which you will be sheltered.  Premeasure and cut the plastic sheeting for each opening.
    • For a nuclear threat, increase your disaster supplies to be adequate for up to two weeks, during periods of heightened threat.
    • Make a Family Emergency Plan.  Your family should know how to contact one another because it is possible that you will not all be together at the time of an attack.  You should know how to get back together and what to do in the case of an emergency.
    • Plan meeting places, both within and outside of your neighborhood.
      • Designate an out-of-town contact number because local numbers may be unavailable.
      • Be familiar with emergency plans at work, daycare centers, and schools where your family spends time.  If no plans are in place, volunteer to help create one.
      • Know your community’s warning systems and disaster plans.
        • For a nuclear threat, know your community’s evacuation routes.  Ask local officials if any public buildings have been designated as fallout shelters.  If none has been designated, make your own list of potential shelters near your home, workplace, and school.  These would include basements or the windowless center area of middle floors in high-rise buildings, as well as subways and tunnels.  If you live in an apartment building or high-rise, talk to the manager about the safest place in the building for shelter and about providing for building occupants until it is safe to go out.
        • Notify caregivers and babysitters about your plan.
        • Make plans for your pets.
          • For a chemical threat, choose an internal room for shelter.  One without windows and on the highest level of your home is best.
          • Check with your doctor to be sure all immunizations are up to date.  Children and older adults are especially vulnerable to biological agents.
          • Consider installing a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter in your furnace return duct.  These filters remove particles in the air and will filter out most biological agents that may enter your house.  If you do not have a central heating or cooling system, a portable HEPA filter can be used.

Overall, communication between parents and children is vital to a successful family plan and a positive outcome after a terrorist attack.  Families are better equipped to handle a terrorist attack if they discuss scenarios and plans before, during, and after an event so that everyone can ease their worries and fears.

Also, keep in mind that children can be involved in the process of creating a plan and making emergency kits.  One suggestion is to design a scavenger hunt to make creating a family emergency kit more fun.  Each child can be responsible for one item so that children understand they can be proactive about handling emergencies.

Most importantly, keep in mind that children are sensitive to parents’ emotions and reactions.  If parents set a proactive tone for emergency preparedness, children are sure to follow.  And, if you are feeling completely overwhelmed by preparing for all of the different types of terrorist attacks, follow the General Guidelines to get started.

General Guidelines for Terrorist Attack Response Plans

  • Be aware of your surroundings.
  • Move or leave if you feel uncomfortable or if your instincts tell you something is not right.
  • Take precautions when traveling.
    • Be aware of conspicuous or unusual behavior.
    • Do not accept packages from strangers.
    • Do not leave your luggage unattended.
    • Immediately report unusual behavior, suspicious or unattended packages, and strange devices to police or security.
    • Know where emergency exits are located in buildings that you frequently visit.  Plan how to get out if an emergency arises.
    • Be prepared to function without services you typically rely on, including electricity, telephone, cell phone service, natural gas, gasoline pumps, cash registers, ATMs, and Internet transactions.
    • If you work or live in a large building, work with building owners or managers to be sure the following items are located on each floor of the building:
      • Portable, battery-operated radio with extra batteries
      • Several flashlights and extra batteries
      • First aid kits and manual
      • Hard hats and dust masks
      • Fluorescent tape to rope off dangerous areas

The unfortunate reality is that there have already been numerous terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. And there will be more. With counter-terrorism measures advancing every day, the hope is that our technology is capable of predicting attacks and even halting terrorists in their tracks. Preparing for a terrorist attack, and devising a response plan for various scenarios, is the best way to keep your family safe.


Some have seen this problem coming for a long time and changed their entire way of life by going off-grid. They have found alternative sources such as solar, wind and diesel to power their homes and machinery. A majority of us, who have not gone off-grid, are making a concerted effort to avoid dependence on this ailing infrastructure and preparing for life without it.





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