Public and police unfazed this time

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The Independent Online
The police and public are becoming increasingly adept at dealing with the recent IRA bomb threats and the mass disruption they cause.

The spate of coded warnings has helped improve and speed up emergency procedures, police said yesterday, while psychologists added that the public's reaction had become "100 parts irritation to one part fear".

"Although terrorist campaigns kill people, they disrupt people more than they kill them," said Dr James Thompson, director of the Traumatic Stress Clinic in London. "People are much more likely to have experienced a bomb scare or hoax than be injured. If you look at people's behaviour, it is irritation. There is very little experience of people being frightened."

Terrorist attacks do register highly on a "dread risk scale", said Dr Nick Pidgeon, a senior lecturer in psychology at Bangor University, specialising in risk perception. The events people become most scared of, according to American studies, are those which present a new risk [such as nuclear power], or those risks over which we have no control, or have no choice whether to take such a risk.

In major accidents, such as the King's Cross underground fire of 1987 or the crashing of a DC-10 in the US in 1989, there can be what is known as the "social amplification effect" where people avoid modes of transport, although this soon returns to normal.

"My gut feeling is that the evidence shows people become less sensitised to the threat over time," said Dr Pidgeon.

There was also the added aspect of "moral outrage" that people felt at terrorist attacks: "There is the attitude that some people feel I am not going to allow [the terrorists] to get away with this. I'm going to get to work."

Dr Thompson said that the main behavioural change was that people were now far more vigilant about things they could deal with, such as unattended bags. He also called for the police to consider involving the public more: "I personally would prefer to be told there had been a bomb scare and what the police evaluation of the risk was and be allowed to make up my own mind whether to continue my journey ... the public could be trained to look for bombs rather than be told in a non-specific way to be vigilant."

Yesterday, roadways and Birmingham's New Street station were evacuated and later reopened at a fast rate by West Midlands police. South Yorkshire and the Metropolitan Police are also becoming more skilful at coping with the IRA "chaos" strategy.

However, because of the random nature of the warnings and as they often affect several police forces across a large area, significant delays and disruption are inevitable.

The British Transport Police became very proficient in dealing with evacuations during a spate of coded calls and bombs in stations during the early 1990s. Similarly, in Belfast during the 1990s, the RUC and army bomb disposal experts became quite proficient in dealing with regular bomb threats. On occasion, up to 30 simultaneous alerts were used to keep the security forces at full stretch.

On the question of strategy, the IRA have continued their tactic of using coded warnings to cause maximum disruption with minimum risk to loss of life. True to form, they have also included one or two bombs among the hoaxes to ensure the police take all calls seriously and to get maximum coverage in the media.