Healthful Living in Emergencies

(Medical Self Help)

Department of Health, Education and Welfare

Office of Civil Defense


Healthful Living in Emergencies opens with an eerie scene.  Quiet shots of a deserted city are shattered by a cut to streams of well-dressed people hurriedly descending into the darkened industrial basement of a building conspicuously marked with a black and yellow fallout shelter sign.  A stay in such a shelter would be necessary, warns a calm voice-over narrator, should the United States ever be subject to a enemy nuclear attack.  In 1962, anticipating a prolonged interruption of medical services following a large-scale nuclear exchange, the Office of Civil Defense and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare developed the concept of Medical Self-Help to train Americans to handle basic ailments with no expectation of aid from physicians or nurses. (1)  The two agencies published an extensive booklet with each chapter addressing a different injury or illness likely to occur while occupying a fallout shelter. (2)  In 1965, eleven supplementary films were released, each corresponding to a chapter in the Medical Self-Help booklet. (3)  The introductory film in the series, Radioactive Fallout and Shelter, explains how to keep fallout particles out of the shelter area and how to treat those who have fallen victim to radiation sickness.  As the second film in the series, Healthful Living in Emergencies examines, in a gritty way not typical of other civil defense productions, the conventional problems of living in a crowded public fallout shelter and a private shelter in a suburban home.  The problem of ensuring adequate food and water supplies is discussed, as well as proper sanitation practices and stopping the spread of diseases which flourish in cramped and unhygienic spaces.

Because any water drawn from outside sources runs the risk of contamination, occupants of a public fallout shelter instead rely on water stored in metal drums, filled prior to the arrival of any radioactive fallout.  Each person would be allotted just over one quart of water per day for drinking.  The men and women from the opening scenes are shown in their basement shelter sipping from small plastic cups.  In the private home shelter, a soft-spoken housewife reveals how she stored several glass jugs of water, knowing her family would need to be entirely self-sufficient.  In the public shelter, official meals consist of high-protein crackers and carbohydrate-infused hard candy, though this may be supplemented by food brought by individuals.  Diets in the home shelter would of course be dictated by what is stocked ahead of time.  The housewife explains how she prepared elaborate and familiar meals for the first few days in the shelter to keep up morale, before gradually switching to meals which required very little cooking.  Sanitation presents another problem.  In the shelter, the narrator bluntly states, "human waste can't be flushed away by pressure on a handle."  For public shelters, the solution is found in the metal water drums which, once drained, are fitted with a polyethylene liner and seat (found in prepackaged Sanitation Kits which also contain toilet paper, sanitary napkins and other hygiene essentials).  This allows the drums to function as a commode.  In the home shelter, the housewife displays the facilities her husband created using a covered pail and plastic bags.

In both public and private shelters, the use of chemical disinfectants and insecticides is encouraged.  The astute public shelter manager demonstrates how to apply these chemicals, particularly around toilets, to stop the spread of dysentery, typhoid fever and other illnesses.  Similarly, corpses must be immediately removed from the shelter area, grimly shown when an elderly public shelter occupant is discovered to have passed away.  She is quickly wrapped in blankets and moved outside until a proper burial can be conducted.  No matter how prepared a shelter is, emergency supply shortages may still arise.  The final moments of the film discuss how to find food and water when stocks run low.  Safe water can be drawn from heaters, boilers and other indoor tanks and pipes.  Food may be recovered from outside the shelter, but first must be cleansed of fallout particles.  Upon receiving word that radiation levels have dropped, the housewife ventures into her kitchen and demonstrates how to decontaminate bread, fruit, canned goods and any meats which haven't spoiled.  Healthful Living in Emergencies, along with the other ten installments in the series, was primarily developed by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and was not declared obsolete in the years following its release like many other contemporary civil defense productions.  Conversely, the film was reformatted to videocassette and could still be rented or purchased from federal government catalogs well into the 1980's. (4)

Healthful Living in Emergencies may be viewed HERE.

1. Office of Civil Defense.  1962 Annual Report.  United States Government Printing Office, 1963.  62.
2. Office of Civil Defense, U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare.  Family Guide Emergency Health Care.  G.P.O., 1963.
3. Office of Civil Defense.  1964 Annual Report.  United States Government Printing Office, 1965.  57.
4. General Services Administration.  A List of Audiovisual Materials Produced by the U.S. Government for Emergency Medical Services.  National Archives and Record Service.  1982.