Throughout the Cold War,
American civil defense planners looked to the experiences of British rescue
squads during the Second World War to see what types of tools and knowledge
would be needed for emergency services to function properly during an enemy attack.
Beginning in 1950, officials traveled to England to see what sort of
improvements could be made to civil defense instruction in the United
States. These liaison visits resulted in the construction of elaborate
training centers, primarily on the East Coast, to teach volunteers how to fight
fires, extract wounded, and stabilize collapsed buildings. Funded by the
Federal Civil Defense Administration, the premier rescue training center was
located in Olney, Maryland and was designed to be a model for state and local
governments to follow. To highlight this new resource, as well as stress
the importance of rescue service personnel, the F.C.D.A. produced School for
Survival, a film shot entirely on the grounds of the Olney training center in
1952. In addition to displaying a number of survival techniques, the film
urges viewers to petition their cities for a similar facility.
Men and women came from across the United States to train at Olney. Successful completion of the training curriculum marked participants as certified rescue personnel, authorized to instruct future volunteers in their respective hometowns. Part of what made the Olney center unique was the number of scenarios it was designed to simulate. School for Survival shows trainees fighting incendiary bombs in enclosed spaces, working through poison gas attacks in a sealed chamber, tunneling through crumbled brick walls, and passing casualties from window to window in smoke filled buildings. The grounds surrounding the training structures were meant to resemble the aftermath of an atomic attack, decorated with large piles of rubble and the shattered remnants of an urban infrastructure. Perhaps the defining feature of center, however, was the ability of instructors to plant "casualties" deep within simulated debris. As the film details, this was made possible through the use of special corridors which ran through the structures. Descending through trapdoors, a volunteer could wait beneath the ruins while crews worked to excavate him.
School for Survival wraps up by featuring a few of the trainees who were attending Olney during the film's production. New England school teachers, California policemen, and West Virginia coal miners are among the diverse recruits seeking certification. One man, identified as a civil defense official from Nebraska, theorizes what his town can do to replicate the experience he has just gained. Thinking aloud, he mulls over certain abandoned locations which could be modified into training centers. The sites which he considers, warehouses and empty lots, are familiar to every city and the film ends by suggesting the viewer begin their own search for a suitable training ground. Though School for Survival repeatedly stresses the need for trained rescue personnel in conventional situations, like fire and floods, its message would be lost in the coming years. Like most early civil defense productions, the film ignores entirely the threat of radioactivity. This omission ensured it would be deemed obsolete by the end of the decade, when the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization made stressing the need for fallout protection their top priority. Indeed, in 1957, all government copies of the film were ordered returned and private owners were encouraged to cease showings.