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In Time of Emergency

Office of Civil Defense

One way to view American civil defense is as a series of informational campaigns, each lasting a few years and each having the same overall goal of preparedness.  The 1950's, for example, saw Alert America in the early part of the decade and Operation Alert in the latter years.  Both were nationwide efforts to enlist volunteers and were supported by films, posters, air raid drills, and traveling displays.  This pattern would continue into the 1970's with the Your Chance to Live program, which used everyday disasters to remind viewers of the importance of emergency planning.  Nestled in between was the In Time of Emergency campaign, principally embodied through lengthy pamphlets of the same name released in March of 1968.  From the outset, government officials sought to connect civil defense planning with preparation for natural disasters.  While 95% of the publication is devoted to fallout protection and planning for an atomic attack, the final pages explain how the same procedures will help in case of blizzard, conventional fire, earthquake, and hurricanes.  To supplement the pamphlet, an LP was released which highlighted the atomic aspect but neglected the conventional disasters.  Similarly, a film was created in 1969 which featured a prologue by the Office of Civil Defense director John E. Davis who briefly mentions natural disasters, though the rest of film focuses on home fallout protection and the responsibilities of living in the nuclear age.
John Davis opens the film by stating its true purpose.  "Many thousands of disasters hit the United States each year, that's more than fifty disasters per day!  But even the greatest natural disaster we could imagine would be dwarfed in loss of life and property in the event of a nuclear attack.  Our purpose in civil defense is to protect you, so you can protect yourself in time of emergency."  The protection Davis speaks of is symbolized by the fallout shelter signs dotting America cities.  The National Fallout Shelter Program began with great fanfare during the Kennedy administration, though by the late 1960's its publicity had declined significantly.  Still, shelter spaces which had been surveyed and deemed appropriately secure, received federally funded supplies in 1969 and beyond.  Fallout protection was being encouraged in new buildings as well.  This is important, the narrator explains, because while only 5% of the United States would likely fall victim to the blast and heat of a bomb, the entire landmass could be covered with fallout.  Is fallout protection a priority for most people?  "There are of course those that give up, that feel there is no hope for surviving a nuclear attack, that speak of it as an absolute end.  As the Cuban crisis showed us, however, this kind of talk is . . . just talk.  Most people will seek some sort of protection." 

"Well, this protection is here now."  Ample shelter space developed across the nation in apartment buildings, businesses, office spaces, and shopping centers, however, civil defense planners were ever weary of a shelter shortage in the suburbs, where much of the population retired each night. The solution to this problem began with a homeowners' survey.  Delivered in the mail, the survey provided a questionnaire, asking Americans to consider home construction details believed to benefit the occupants in time of nuclear emergency.  If the homes themselves were found to offer suitable fallout protection, then further reading was recommended to instruct families on how to turn sturdy corners of their basements into personal shelter spaces.  If caught unprepared, the average family could improvise a shelter out of bookshelves, heavy furniture and even dirt from the garden if necessary.  While these improvised measures of home protection would reduce the danger of fallout, In Time of Emergency emphasizes they should only be utilized as last moment solutions.  As the film explains, an average family's best chance for survival lay in finding the nearest public shelter, marked and stocked by the government across the country.  Supplied with vital water, medical, and food supplies, the shelters were also to have trained management staffs. "Even so, shelter life would be spartan.  None of the comforts of home!"