updated 8/25/2004 1:00:58 PM ET 2004-08-25T17:00:58

Most Americans are not confident in the health care system’s ability to respond to a biological, chemical or nuclear attack, according to a survey released Tuesday.

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The Columbia University poll found that 39 percent of Americans trust the public health system in the event of a major terrorist attack. The number is down from 46 percent in 2003 and 53 percent in 2002.

“The health care system is decidedly not ready to cope with a major crisis of the type that might include these very aggressive weapons,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the university’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

Calls to the federal Department of Health and Human Services were not immediately returned.

The survey, co-sponsored by the Children’s Health Fund, was conducted July 19 through July 26 — before this month’s terror warnings. It consisted of 1,234 interviews and had a sampling margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Trust in police, firefighters
The poll found that the public has slightly more faith in the federal government than the health care system. Just over half those surveyed, or 53 percent, felt confident in the government’s ability to protect against and respond to a terror attack. That’s down from 62 percent in 2003.

“The stage we’re in now would have been OK six months after 9/11,” Redlener said. “It’s very much not OK at this point.”

Despite sinking confidence in authorities, the poll found that 63 percent of families do not have a basic emergency plan in case of disaster.

Police officers and firefighters scored highest on the poll’s questions of trust. Roughly 77 percent of people said they were confident in their local fire department’s ability to respond to a terror attack; 66 percent were confident in police.

In New York, the numbers were similar, with 76 percent confident in the FDNY and 67 percent confident in the NYPD.

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