Terrorism is the use of force or violence against persons or property in violation of the criminal laws of the United States for the purposes of intimidation, coercion or ransom. Terrorists often use threats to create fear among the public, to try to convince citizens that their government is powerless to prevent terrorism and to get immediate publicity for their cause.

In the United States, most terrorist incidents have involved small extremist groups that use terrorism to achieve a designated objective local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies monitor suspected terrorist groups to try to prevent attacks. The U.S. Government also works with other countries to limit international support of terrorism. 

A terrorist attack can take many forms, depending on available technology, the motivating political issue and the target’s weaknesses. Bombings are the most frequent form of terrorism waged upon the United States. Other forms of terrorism may include attacks on transportation facilities, attacks against utilities or other public services, and the use of chemical or biological agents.

Protecting Yourself

Learn about the nature of terrorism. Terrorists often look for visible targets with easy access, such as international airports, large cities, major international events, resorts and high-profile landmarks. They are often not concerned with their own safety, and sometimes want to escape detection. Their tactics may include detonating explosives, kidnapping, hijacking, arson or the use of firearms.

You can prepare for terrorism in many of the same way that you prepare for other disasters. Keep your 72-hour emergency kit up to date. In addition:

  • Be alert and aware of your surroundings.
  • The nature of terrorism is that you may have little or no warning.
  • Take precautions when traveling.
  • Beware of suspicious or unusual behavior.
  • Don’t accept packages from strangers.
  • Don’t leave luggage unattended.
  • Learn where emergency exits are located.
  • Think ahead about how to evacuate any place you frequent – the subway, a building, the shopping mall or your workplace.
  • Know where staircases are located.


Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Attacks

If you are exposed to chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) materials, you have a good chance of surviving if you receive immediate medical treatment. Some agents are contagious, so you may need to be quarantined. 

If you suspect a CBRN attack, notify the proper authori- ties immediately. Early notification can save our life and the lives of others. Be prepared to tell authorities the location of the incident, the number of victims, symptoms of the victims, whether there was an explosion, whether there is a fire, the type of vehicle or container involved, the time of the incident, the weather conditions and where you can meet first responders.

While you wait, check for physical, medical or environmental signs of attack. Follow your home or work emergency plan. Other actions to take to protect yourself:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a cloth.
  • Take frequent shallow breaths.
  • Stay calm.
  • Don’t TEST: Taste, eat, smell, Touch.


Chemical Agents

Chemical agents are poisonous gases, liquids or solids that have a toxic effect on living organisms. They can be released by bombs, sprayed from aircraft, boats or vehicles, or be used a liquid to create a hazardous environment. Some chemical agents are odorless and tasteless, and they may have an immediate effect (a few seconds to a few minutes) or a delayed effect (several hours to several days). Chemical agents are categorized into six types:

  1. Lung-damaging (pulmonary) agents such as phosgene.
  2. Cyanide.
  3. Vesicants, or blister agents, like mustard gas.
  4. Nerve agents, such as GB, also known as sarin.
  5. Incapacitating agents such as BZ.
  6. Riot-control agents (similar to MACE). 

Should a widespread chemical attack occur, you would be instructed to seek shelter where you are and seal the premises, or to evacuate immediately. If you are instructed to shelter-in-place, do not leave to rescue others.


Biological Agents

Biological agents are organisms or toxins that produce illnesses in people, livestock and crops. Since biological agents can be hard to detect, and may take time to grow, it is difficult to know when a biological attack has occurred. If government agencies have inside information on a widespread biological attack, they may instruct you to stay put or evacuate. 

In many biological attacks, people will not know they have been exposed to an agent. In such situations, the first evidence of an attack may be when you notice symptoms of a disease caused by a biological agent exposure, and you should see immediate medical attention. If you know you have been exposed to a biological agent, you should also seek medical attention immediately.

In some situations, like the anthrax letters sent in 2001, people may be alerted to potential exposure. If this is the case, pay close attention to all official warning and instructions on how to proceed.

Biological agents are categorized into three groups:

  • Bacteria are small free-living organisms that reproduce by simple division and are easy to grow. The diseases they produce often respond to treatment with antibiotics.
  • Viruses are organisms that require living cells in which to reproduce, and are intimately dependent upon the body they infect. Viruses produce diseases that generally do not respond to antibiotics. However, antiviral medications are sometimes effective.
  • Toxins are poisonous substances found in and extracted from living plants, animals or microorganisms. Some toxins can be produced or altered by chemical means and some can be treated with specific anti-toxins and selected drugs.

Biological agents can be dispersed in several different ways: 

  • Aerosols. Biological agents are dispersed into the air, forming a fine mist that may drift for miles. Inhaling the agent may cause disease in people or animals.
  • Animals. Insects and animals, such as fleas, mice, flies and mosquitoes, spread some diseases. Deliberately spreading diseases through livestock is also referred to as agro-terrorism.
  • Food and water contamination. Some pathogenic organisms and toxins may persist in food and water supplies. Most microbes can be killed and toxins deactivated, by cooking food and boiling water.
  • Person to person spread of a few infectious agents is also possible. Humans have been the source of infection for the smallpox, plague and Lassa viruses.


Before a Chemical or Biological Attack

Assemble a disaster supply kit. Be sure to include:

  • Battery-powered radio and extra batteries.
  • Non-perishable food and drinking water.
  • Roll of duct tape, scissors and plastic sheeting for doors, window and vents.
  • First aid kit.
  • Sanitation supplies, including soap, water and bleach.


During a Chemical or Biological Attack

  • Listen to your radio for instructions from authorities such as whether to remain inside or evacuate.
  • If instructed to shelter-in-place, follow instructions for sheltering-in-place for a hazardous materials incident.
  • If you caught in an unprotected area:
    • Attempt to get upwind of the contaminated area.
    • Find shelter as quickly as possible.
    • Listen to radio for official instructions.

After a Chemical or Biological Attack

Immediate symptoms of exposure to chemical agents may include:

  • Blurred vision.
  • Eye irritation.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Nausea.

 A person affected by a chemical or biological agent requires immediate attention by professional medical personnel. If medical help is not immediately available, decontaminate yourself and assist in decontaminating others. Decontamination within minutes of exposure is essential to minimize health consequences.

Decontamination Steps:

1. Remove all clothing and other items from contact with the body. Include hearing aids, artificial limbs, jewelry, watches, toupees, wigs, etc. Place into labeled plastic bags and seal.
       a. Contaminated clothing normally removed over the head should be cut off.
       b. Decon hands using a liquid soap and water solution.
       c. Remove eyeglasses or replace contact lenses.
       d. Eyeglasses may be expediently decontaminated by soaking them in a liquid soap and water solution for three minutes and rinsing thoroughly with plain water.
       e. If an artificial limb is required to evacuate, remove it, wash it thoroughly with liquid soap and water solution, rinse with clean water, and reattach it.

2. Flush eyes with copious amounts of warm water, tilting head backwards.

3. Gently wash face and hair with a solution of liquid soap and warm water. Shampoo may also be used on hair.

4. Decontaminate other body surfaces by washing with a liquid soap and water applied with a one-time use pad or cloth, followed by a clear-water rinse.

5. If mustard exposure is suspected, body crevices and warm, moist areas such as underarms should be thoroughly washed and rinsed.

6. Change into uncontaminated clothing. Clothing stored in drawers or closets is likely to be uncontaminated. Place contaminated items in plastic bags.

7. Proceed to the nearest technical decontamination station or medical facility for screening.


Nuclear and Radiological Attack

Nuclear explosions can cause deadly effects – blinding light, intense heat (thermal radiation), instant nuclear radiation, blasts, fires started by heat pulses, and secondary fires caused by destruction. They also produce fallout, or radioactive particles that may be carried by the wind for hundreds of miles.

The challenges of acquiring and using nuclear weapons make the use of a nuclear device by terrorists unlikely. However, radiological dispersion devices (RDDs) or “dirty bombs,” are much simpler and are thus considered far more likely to be used in a terrorist attack. These radiological weapons are a combination of conventional explosives and radioactive material, which is designed to scatter dangerous and lethal amounts of radioactive fallout.

Protection from fallout requires taking shelter. Fallout shelters do not need to be specifically constructed for that purpose. They can be any protected space, provided that the walls and roof are thick and dense enough to absorb the radiation given off by fallout particles. The three protective facets of a fallout shelter are:

  • Shielding. Heavier, denser materials – thick walls, con- crete, bricks, books and earth – are best to put between you and the fallout particles.
  • Distance. The more distance between you and the fall-out particles, the better. An underground area, such as a home or office building basement, offers more protection than the first floor of a building.
  • Time. Fallout radiation loses its intensity fairly rapidly. In time, you will be able to leave the fallout shelter. Radioactive fallout poses the greatest threat to people during the first two weeks. At the two-week point, the fallout declines to about 1% of its initial radiation level.

Remember that any protection, however, temporary, is better than none. The more shielding, distance and time you can take advantage of, the better off you will be.

Bomb Threats

If you receive a bomb threat, get as much information from the caller as possible. Try to record the call if you can. Call 911 and notify the building manager. You should also:

  • Do not touch any suspicious packages, even if they look ‘fake’ or ‘unrealistic.’
  • Clear the area.
  • When evacuating the building, avoid standing in front of windows or other open areas.
  • Keep sidewalks and streets clear for emergency workers.  

If you are in a large building with many people, you may want to plan to have people evacuate to several different areas to avoid having everyone outside in a single group that could easily become a target.

Before an explosion

Do these things before an explosion, particularly if you live in a multi-level building.

  • Review emergency evacuation procedures. Know where fire exits are located.
  • Keep fire extinguishers in working order. Know where they are located and how to use them.
  • Keep emergency items in a designated place on each floor of the building:
    • Portable battery-operated radio and extra batteries.
    • Flashlights and extra batteries.
    • First aid kit and manual.
    • Hard hats and fluorescent tape to rope off dangerous areas.


When an explosion occurs  

  • Get out of the building as quickly and calmly as possible.
  • If items are falling off bookshelves or from the ceiling, get under a sturdy table or desk.
  • If there is a fire, stay low to the floor – crawl under the smoke.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a wet cloth.
  • Feel closed doors with the back of your hand to determine if there is fire on the other side. If a door is hot, use an alternate escape route. 


After an explosion

  • If you are trapped in debris and can’t get out of the building, try to stay calm and avoid kicking up toxic dust.
  • Cover your mouth with a handkerchief or clothing.
  • Tap on a pipe or wall so rescuers can hear where you are. Use a whistle if available, but shout only as a last resort or if you can hear rescuers nearby. Shouting can cause you to inhale dangerous amounts of dust.

Bomb call checklist


  • When will it go off?
  • Where is it?
  • What type of a bomb is it?
  • What type of explosive is it?
  • Why are you doing this?
  • Who are you?


  • Tone of voice.
  • Male or female voice characteristics.
  • Young or old voice characteristics.
  • Accent or other distinctive voice characteristics.
  • Background noises that might indicate location of the caller.