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Civil Defense Reincarnated

Have we lost focus on protecting the general public from nuclear weapons?

If history repeats itself, we may be about to turn the corner and head back to having at least some focus on civil defense. Emergency management is, after all, a product of the civil defense era. What I think is perhaps pushing us in that direction is the threat from North Korea.

First, let’s review how we got to where we are now. Civil defense came out of World War II and into the Cold War era. Once the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons and a delivery system for those weapons, there was an immediate focus on how to protect major metropolitan areas from the impacts of thermonuclear war.

Large cities had anti-missile defenses installed in and around these cities in the hope that they might be able to shoot down an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile launched from somewhere in the Caucasus region of Russia.

State and local officials had three primary responsibilities:

  1. Prepare citywide evacuation plans for what the estimated blast zone was determined to be based on the kiloton size of the bomb blast, the idea being to get everyone out of the city before, or potentially after, a nuclear attack.
  2. Establish civil defense shelters in the basements of downtown brick or concrete office buildings that were estimated to be the best locations for potentially surviving a nuclear attack. These shelters were then stocked with civil defense supplies furnished by the federal government.
  3. Last, distribute different types of radiation detectors to public agencies like fire and police departments. Some were personal radiacmeters that showed the total dose an individual had received, and others looked more like geiger counters that were used to monitor people and their clothing, vehicles and the like to avoid contaminating other areas with radiation.

The question now is, when and if we are going to resurrect these or modified versions of these plans, how do we do something that looks or at least feels like we are working to protect the general public?

Today, North Korea is not a direct threat to the continental U.S. However, there are scenarios where they could, in a few short years, have nuclear weapons and delivery systems that could reach the West Coast.

 Certainly any new efforts in this direction would include the following elements:

  • Warning systems from a variety of sources, logically in the 21st century using digital messaging to mobile devices.
  • Evacuation planning that includes monitoring for radiation contamination and elements that include where people will be sent following the evacuation order.
  • Civil-military planning that includes government, the National Guard and active duty forces.
  • The fielding of a new generation of radiation detection and monitoring instruments, which might even include a smartphone app that allows everyone to have that personal capability.
  • A public education program that provides plans and guidance on how to build your own civil defense shelter or use what materials you have available to provide for household protection from nuclear fallout.
  • Finally, our “drop, cover and hold on” earthquake drills will be an element that has a retro feel for anyone who grew up doing these classroom nuke exercises in the 1950s and ’60s.

Some may think that we’ll never go back to these types of programs. However, I’m guessing that if the feds provide the funding to implement these program areas, we will all have a collective déjà vu feel to what we focus our work on.


Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.