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Handbook for Survival

Office of Civil Defense
Georgia Center for Continuing Education
University of Georgia

"The severest assumption, of course, is that the civilian population will be totally unprepared and suddenly thrust into the community fallout shelter situation.Researchers with the Office of Civil Defense made this declaration in 1964 while summarizing two years of extensive tests designed to reveal how life in a fallout shelter would affect the occupants.(1)  These "habitability" studies, conducted primarily in Athens, Georgia, saw large groups of men, women, and children agree to live in a downtown warehouse for up to a week while scientists from various academic backgrounds compiled data on their behavior.  Participants in these early studies were aided by federally trained leaders who directed all aspects of the shelter stay.  Observers were quick to note, however, how unlikely the presence of such qualified personnel would be in an actual nuclear war, as there were far too few civil defense volunteers to staff every public fallout shelter.  While tactfully admitting that sufficient numbers of Americans would not seek certification as government approved shelter managers, officials instead recommended the creation of a handbook to guide otherwise untrained shelter occupants through an emergency period.(2)  In 1965, the OCD decided to test the effectiveness of their newly published guide by having 300 people stay in a simulated fallout shelter for seven days without the benefit of an organized leadership structure.  A production team from the University of Georgia captured the results on film and released their footage under the apt title Handbook for Survival.(3)

Almost immediately the film reveals the cramped conditions of the shelter.  Unlike the re-enactments found in many OCD productions, where shelterees are usually depicted utilizing evenly spaced cots, here, most families sit elbow-to-elbow on bare concrete, eking out floor space between scattered food and water rations.  The first adult male to arrive in the shelter is designated the temporary manager.  Using information cards filled out by all participants upon entry, the temporary manager looks for men with leadership and administrative experience to assume the role of permanent shelter manager.  A thirty-two year old financial planner is eventually selected and he is provided a copy of the OCD's experimental handbook.  The camera crew follows the impromptu leader as he recruits assistants to take charge of special functions such as food distribution and sanitation.   Four men are also selected to serve as "section leaders" for different areas of the warehouse.  Attempting to follow the procedures for mass feeding set out in the handbook delays the first meal, which consists of water, crackers, and carbohydrate-infused hard candy, by four hours.  In personal interviews with the camera, individuals express concern with unhygienic methods of food service.  This becomes the main topic of discussion during the first meeting of the shelter staff.  Section leaders complain of severe overcrowding, with each wanting to relocate their excess people into other areas.  Restroom sanitation also becomes an issue, particularly among females, most of whom would later report a marked dissatisfaction with the facilities provided.  The filmmakers capture a young woman complain of this and the shelter's "hard floors" to a psychologist shortly before defecting from the test.


Special rooms, built within the walls of the simulated shelter, allowed OCD researchers to observe and film every event and occurrence.  Fourteen graduate students were also planted among volunteers to study reactions to the permanent staff's decisions.  All  participants engaged in an extensive screening process both before and after their shelter stay.  As Handbook for Survival wraps up, it features a group of men who reflect on their time in the shelter.  The main points of contention raised are the shelter manager's lack of leadership experience (with one man questioning whether the manager and his assistants even bothered to read the handbook) and the sleeping arrangements, which were not segregated by gender.  At this point, the narrator remarks that a number of OCD recommendations, such as forming an advisory council to aid in decision making, went unheeded and likely contributed to the seemingly chaotic atmosphere.  A written report on the study would also conclude that those in leadership positions were unsettled and startled to be placed in front of a camera crew.(4) The film's final scenes show the occupants, weary and disheveled, boarding buses for home.  Closing narration explains the test has proven that even untrained civilians, when provided with proper guidance in the form of OCD publications, can survive in a community fallout shelter.  The Office of Civil Defense would continue conducting habitability studies for another two years.  In August of 1967, the twelfth and final test was held using 1,000 volunteers.  Newspapers across the United States reported it as a success, noting that very few people opted to leave early.(5)  

Handbook for Survival my be viewed, in its entirety [HERE](

To watch an interview with a participant in this test, complete with clips from this film, please click HERE.

1. Hammes, John A.  A Summary of The Final Report Shelter Occupancy Studies at The University of Georgia.  Office of Civil Defense, 1963. 8.
2. Hammes, John A.  Shelter Occupancy Studies at the University of Georgia 1965.  Office of Civil Defense, July 22, 1965. 1.  

3. Hammes, John A.  Shelter Occupancy Studies at the University of Georgia 1965.  Office of Civil Defense, July 22, 1965. Acknowledgements.
4. Hammes, John A.  Shelter Occupancy Studies at the University of Georgia 1965.  Office of Civil Defense, July 22, 1965. 40.
5.  UPI. Fallout Shelter Test Conducted.  The Daily Banner, August, 28, 1967. 4.