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Beyond duct tape

HOMELAND SECURITY chief Tom Ridge's initial foray last year into advising Americans how to prepare for terrorist attacks took an immediate and unfortunate turn into late-night comedy via duct tape.

More recently, the rainbow of national alerts - let's see now, it's yellow, then orange, then red, right? - has often seemed not so much to heighten awareness of the need for sensible, concrete preparations, but instead to inure many people.

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Though hard to calibrate, the threats are real - and there's a real need for American communities and families to take steps to protect themselves. In Howard County, a year-old nonprofit group, the Community Emergency Response Network, is showing what can be beyond duct tape and national alerts.

A coalition of 25 county, police, fire, education, health and social service agencies, CERN has provided Howard parents with admirably clear materials on creating "family emergency communications" plans, is leading a newly formed volunteer corps that will receive federal disaster training, and has brought together local groups to participate in a table-top disaster simulation involving a theoretical nuclear bomb exploding at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

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Given that Howard sits between Washington and Baltimore and right by the National Security Agency complex, the county has reason to gear up for emergencies - particularly ones that could send thousands fleeing into Howard. Lately, CERN has been working on a unique "invacuation" - not evacuation - plan to cope with that scenario.

Two things stand out here.

One, thanks to backing from the Horizon Foundation - the local charity funded by the 1998 sale of Howard County General Hospital to Johns Hopkins - CERN's efforts are perhaps a half-year ahead of similar work in other Maryland counties.

The other is CERN's model of reaching out to Howard residents - not just through such emergency response agencies as police and fire departments but via a variety of community groups, so they also can play roles in a well-coordinated county response to emergencies.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced this week a new state office to coordinate Maryland's antiterrorism efforts. That should underscore, not moot, the need for local communities to prepare for emergencies.

CERN's work has been highlighted as a particularly "smart practice" by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The challenges faced by other Maryland jurisdictions may differ greatly from those in Howard, but CERN seems a local model worth wide study and emulation.


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