Homeland Security Releases Kids' Preparedness Plan

The Department of Homeland Security launched a disaster preparedness program for children. Critics of the new program say it is duplicating the information distributed by FEMA's already existing children's preparedness program.

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This morning in Chicago, the Department of Homeland Security rolls out a new emergency program for children. The agency is using a cartoon mountain lion to teach kids and their families how to prepare for hurricanes, fires and a possible terrorist attack. Critics say the program duplicates other government websites and doesn't offer any new advice.

Eric Niiler reports.

ERIC NIILER, reporting: Three years ago, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge launched the government's Ready Program to encourage Americans to prepare for the worst; whether a fire, flood or terrorist attack. Today at a Chicago middle school, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff launches a new website called Ready Kids. Program Director Kristin Gosell(ph) says the message remains the same.

Ms. KRISTIN GOSELL (Program director, Ready Kids, Chicago): It's generic preparedness. The steps that we encourage through the Ready campaign are: get a kit, make a plan, be informed.

NIILER: Gosell says DHS will be sending teaching materials to 135,000 middle schools in the country's 25 biggest cities. The course work and website are promoted by Rex, a flashlight-toting mountain lion who leads his family through the somewhat mundane task of preparing for an emergency. Gosell says Rex will connect with kids just like Smokey the Bear.

Ms. GOSELL: He's a great character. He's a strong, confident family man. He works closely with his wife and he has a young daughter. And they work together to make plans for their family for an emergency.

NIILER: Rex joins Herman the hermit crab who inhabits a similar website run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The FEMA site even includes a rap song touting the agency.

Unidentified Man (rapping): Disaster print is your responsibility and litigation is important to our agency. People helping people is what we do. And FEMA is there to help see you through when disaster...

NIILER: FEMA Kids includes a section on terrorism. The DHS site refers these questions to parents. But one expert says that rapping cartoon characters and colorful websites aren't good enough. Michael Greenberger is director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security. Despite three years and ten million dollars in taxpayer money, he says that ready.gov has remained just a website.

Mr. MICHAEL GREENBERGER (Director, University of Maryland Center for Health & Homeland Security): Ready.gov has really not embedded itself within our culture.

NIILER: Greenberger says the new DHS Ready Kids Program duplicates information already posted by FEMA.

Mr. GREENBERGER: Having two different kids' websites with different characters and different ways of selling preparedness is very confusing. And I think is emblematic that this is an effort that has not been thought through very well.

NIILER: In response, Ready Kids' Director Gosell says the two sites reflect the different focus of their respective agencies.

Ms. GOSELL: FEMA is about response after a disaster. And our Department Homeland Security new preparedness director is about preparing before an emergency happens.

NIILER: Greenberger says the public won't take preparedness seriously until the president himself explains what he would do.

Mr. GREENBERGER: You never hear President Bush talk about readiness or what he's personally done to ready himself or the White House. Winston Churchill himself carried a gas mask; and everybody new, as part of its culture, that it would need to respond to the bombing attacks by Nazis.

NIILER: Some educators say the new DHS effort is not a bad thing as long as it's a starting point for discussions among parents, teachers and children. Ted Feinberg is deputy director of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Dr. TED FEINBERG (Director, National Association of School Psychologists): The overall purpose, I believe, is not to frighten children, but to help them understand that we need to prepare, we need to be ready. And we need, to the extent possible, to reduce the fearfulness of these events.

NIILER: Feinberg and others note, however, that the federal government is pushing schools hard to raise test scores and cut electives. That may leave little time in the school day to fill out coloring books with Rex the Mountain Lion.

For NPR News, I'm Eric Niiler.

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