Note: This updated article was first published in 2015.

With the world on high alert after the terror attacks in Paris, city and county administrators should be aware that small and medium-sized towns and cities, once thought to be at less risk for terrorism, could be increasingly exposed to terrorist attacks.

In Minot, a North Dakota city of less than 50,000, dealing with terrorist threats became a reality in the wake of the Paris attacks as the names of six people stationed at the Minot Air Force Base appeared on an Islamic State hit list.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a city of approximately 173,000 people, a homegrown violent extremist opened fire, killing five service members this past July.

There is a challenge of keeping U.S. cities and towns safe from terror attacks. And while local jurisdictions need to reaffirm their capabilities of emergency management (including warning, evacuation, search and rescue, public information, debris management, and disaster assistance), every manager needs to take other steps that are specific to the threat of terrorism.

Managing the Threat of Terrorism recommends that managers take the following steps to manage terrorism threats and ensure the safety of response personnel, decontaminate all who are involved in hazardous materials incidents, maintain site security, and protect the scene in preparation for a criminal investigation.

1. Protect human infrastructure. First responders and medical personnel must be protected in the event of terrorism. Secondary devices must not be forgotten because they can further injure the already wounded and also kill first responders and medical personnel.

Following the Boston marathon attacks in 2013, Dr. Brian A. Jackson, director of the RAND Safety and Justice Program, reiterated the importance of protecting first responders, stating that Congress "has a significant role to play in national preparedness," particularly in improving upon capabilities and programs that protect emergency responders’ health and safety at large-scale incidents.

2. Identify potential targets. The U.S. Department of State declares that government buildings (both at home and abroad) are becoming increasingly protected against acts of terrorism; therefore, terrorists could shift focus to business and public facilities.

3. Prepare for terrorism.

  • First, systematically evaluate current capabilities and deficiencies in responding to an incident involving weapons and mass destruction. Then make sound administrative adjustments to address deficiencies.
  • Second, perform a risk assessment and vulnerability analysis of the community. The information gained will be helpful in reducing the risk of a terrorist event.
    • Los Angeles, while it is a large city, has a list of so-called "soft targets" that they watch, and are constantly reassessing at-risk locations like stadiums, shopping malls, and bus and rail stations.
  • Finally, ensure that local hospitals are prepared to treat victims of a terrorist attack. This begins with each hospital having the capacity to treat at least one patient exposed to an explosive, chemical, or radioactive substance. Nuclear and chemical weapons have complex hazardous materials that need to be washed off contaminated victims before they enter the hospital.
    • In Paris, the hospital authority triggered its "Plan Blanc" just about an hour after the attacks began, which meant getting medical personnel to work, ambulances on the road, and beds readied ahead of the flow of the hundreds of wounded into hospitals across the city.

4. Undertake other measures.

  • Perform capability assessments of the fire department’s response to hazardous materials incidents.
  • Determine the need for additional training.
  • Obtain protective equipment and antidotes.
  • Transport contaminated persons and bodies in consultation with emergency medical service personnel.
  • Train health care personnel to assist in diagnosing trends in biological attacks.
  • Establish mutual aid agreements among communities to make better use of resources.
  • Incorporate the private sector because industry can assist in raising overall community preparedness and may be able to provide financial assistance.

Here are other resources you may find useful. 


Source: Adapted from “What Every Manager Needs to Know,” Managing the Threat of Terrorism, no. 12 (December 2001): 15.