BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC OneDirty War
BBC News
Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK
Keeping alive under terrorist attack
By Dr Sally Leivesley
Managing director of Newrisk Limited

Information and preparation are the key to surviving any terrorist attack. Dr Sally Leivesley, a former scientific adviser on UK emergency contingency planning looks at how we can increase awareness of what to do in an emergency.

Crowds gather in a scene from the drama Dirty War

People are now on the front line of terrorist attacks and need to have basic information on how to survive without waiting to be told what to do when an attack is imminent.

Governments have organised many services to respond after a terrorist attack but people need more information on how to recognise what is happening and what immediate action can be taken to keep alive.

Moving out of the area (and waiting for decontamination) or taking shelter from a possible bomb or release of some contaminating material can help people to survive.

Some individuals have shown incredible capability to survive because they have understood the cues or signs of some danger in their environment - a British survivor of the vehicle borne bomb on the British Consulate in Turkey knew enough to drop to the ground immediately before the bomb detonated.

Some children in the Beslan school siege ran away quickly before the terrorists could take control and one adult jumped from a window quickly before others were shot.

The best outcome is to stop terrorists making attacks through intelligence led operations where every piece of information is put together by police and action is taken to disrupt any terrorist plans.

Keep vigilant

The public can contribute to this by reporting unusual behaviour in their neighbourhood, workplace or when travelling.

Terrorists may rent space for cash, make unusual purchases of chemicals or have an interest in filming or finding out information about buildings or important sites such as power stations, airports or chemical storage facilities.

If we have a small amount of fear we are alert and more ready to act when some cue lets us know about the danger
Should we be afraid of being fearful?

It is a bit like worrying about falling down the stairs or an escalator.

We know it is a hazard but being a little fearful about a fall means we go slowly, hang onto the safety rail and we are careful.

If we have a small amount of fear we are alert and more ready to act when some cue lets us know about the danger.

We then will do what seems to match the cues we are seeing, hearing, smelling or being told about. Sometimes it is not clear what the danger is.

If there is a bomb, people may not know whether it is an explosion from terrorists or an accident with some hazardous materials.


In any release of radiological or other contaminating materials people will not know the best form of self-protection unless they have some information on how to suspect that there is contamination and wash away the contamination or wipe it off very quickly.

Decontamination sign
The decontamination zone: A scene from the drama Dirty War
Governments can provide a small percentage of the information that will help individuals decide what to do in an extreme terrorist attack.

The rest of the information will come from people's own experience.

This includes exercises or drills, their interpretation of the risks in their environment, what other people tell them, news stories and guidance from team leaders in the workplace, police and family members or friends.

The most significant protective action in the workplace or at school will be the recent experience an adult or child has with walking to an 'inwards shelter,' which is a strong part of a building without any windows, or evacuating out of the building or an area.

'Walking this walk' will imprint in the adult or the child's mind a self-protective action that may automatically be followed in the stress of a real attack. This action will be more successful if it has been practiced reasonably frequently, for example every three months.


Before any global terrorist attacks, local authorities need to be prepared with a mass of information to help people with disruptions to work, transportation and shops, how to manage sick people in the community or fears about travelling to work or going back to school.

Voluntary agencies can help to extend local services and volunteers can help if they are suitably protected and make risk assessments, protect their own health and safety when giving services to the public.

To be safe and effective, volunteers need to have protective equipment, self-protection training and a good means of communication with their local authority.

Why worry when no attacks?

Terrorism is a game of cat and mouse by the terrorists who play on terror and their power to make an attack at any time.

Sometimes there are no attacks because governments, police, security and defence forces are able to stop the terrorist planners from recruitment, planning, training and gaining access to weapons.

Sometimes at the last minute, terrorists who are moving in to attack a target can be caught or deterred from making an attack.

People can be aware that the terrorist attacks in other parts of the world are just like credit cards that can be used in their own country, city, town or village
The best sign of the risk in Britain comes from the types of attacks that are happening in other countries, some as far away as Indonesia, Russia, and Spain.

This information is 'open source' and available to everyone through the media. Such stories are talked about afterwards and people can learn about what types of weapons may be used, how their local environment might have similar targets and how the terrorists are successful or unsuccessful in causing casualties.

People in any city, town or village can make a judgement about whether they are vulnerable to a similar attack and how they can protect themselves.


At present, after the Beslan school siege, governments will be considering schools and safety.

The Japanese government has increased the security of its schools abroad following the Beslan school siege and the US government has announced it is looking at protection plans against school sieges. The lessons are there to be learned from these incidents.

People can be aware that the terrorist attacks in other parts of the world are just like credit cards that can be used in their own country, city, town or village.

If they can work out some simple plans then there can be a successful survival of adults and children if terrorists decide to attack in the local area.

Leadership in making plans can be taken by any individual, a member of the family, people in a neighbourhood, local authorities, and headteachers in schools, team leaders in the workplace, emergency service chiefs, and news editors and by governments.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific