1967, the production year for this film, was a hectic period for American civil defense programs, which faced several budget cuts and the the departure of its second federal director in three years. With some cities eliminating their civil defense funds all together, the technique of linking nuclear preparedness with preparations for natural disasters was utilized to present a more conventional image and save money in the process. While this tactic would not be fully realized until the In Time of Emergency campaign of 1968, it gained a foothold one year earlier. The opening shots of Emergency Operations Centers: The Basic Concepts reflect this theme by portraying the fury of Mother Nature at her worst. Fires, blizzards, and hurricanes assault the screen while men in snowsuits and fire gear fight for control over their respective emergencies. Each of these natural disaster scenarios pale, however, when compared to that most comprehensive threat of all, the nuclear blast. This is quickly accentuated when a mushroom cloud ignites the horizon and dwarfs the screen.
Emergency Operating Centers: The Basic Concepts was created by the Department of Defense to serve as an introduction for a series of instructional films designed to train radiological monitors in the process of fallout detection. The film's host, a young Conrad Bain just years before his breakout role as Mr. Drummond on Diff'rent Strokes, creates an extensive back story for his command center, which provides exposition for the subsequent films in the series. Set in "Central City" he theorizes that the emergency now threatening the population is a nuclear attack. This will become the focal point of the next film in the series Introduction to a Radiological Defense Exercise.
Throughout the film Bain spars with a sarcastic and thickly accented janitorial assistant. Played by comedian Arnold Stang, he is gifted with the ability to make office equipment appear with a snap of his fingers and subsequently provides Bain's EOC with all the supplies needed to maintain a functioning government, though he louses about every task. His presence offers a unique comic relief to an otherwise grievous situation, and was likely designed to help keep audience attention focused on Bain's procedural descriptions. To help the EOC personnel allocate already strained resources in such a way as to be effective, Bain and Stang turn to the Emergency Log, a massive chalkboard occupying an entire wall in the EOC which tracks, in painstaking detail, the location of every ambulance, police cruiser, fire engine, rescue crew, and whatever other elements the city has on hand to help including mobile public address systems. The second section of the board, Bain explains, is a comprehensive overview of the Central City shelter system, documenting the shelter occupancy, and other issues such as overcrowding and contamination. Is Stang able to accurately trace emergency actions on the log? "Why dats the unkindest cut of all!" he appeals, proceeding to turn the board markers upside down, much to the disapproval of Bain.