The Magazine

The Secret to Homeland Security

Put the civilians back into civil defense.

Dec 8, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 13 • By ELI LEHRER
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LESS THAN AN HOUR after hijacked jetliners hit the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, the Coast Guard called "all available boats" to the New York City waterfront. Fishing trawlers, ferries, cargo ships, and luxury yachts came in droves. By day's end, over 300,000 people had left the island of Manhattan by boat. As the South Street Seaport Museum's history of the evacuation, "All Available Boats," makes clear, without this maritime evacuation, many more uninjured survivors would have spent a difficult night in the dark, scary, and desolate city. The civilian-led evacuation of lower Manhattan thus stands as a shining example of how ordinary citizens can help out when things get bad.

Civilian involvement in disaster response, called civil defense, could play a major role in making America safer. To date, however, homeland security efforts have neglected this potential asset.

Civil defense is eminently possible. During a disaster--from a terrorist attack to a major storm--stores and offices close and, as a result, a massive surplus labor pool becomes available. And people want to help. In the wake of 9/11, for example, blood donations soared all across the country even though local reserves in New York and Washington, D.C., were more than adequate to treat survivors. New York City and Arlington, Virginia, got so many free supplies that local governments asked citizens to stop sending gifts after just a few days.

Yet, since 9/11, government agencies and emergency workers have expressed little interest in anything other than a professional-only response to future disasters. The Centers for Disease Control's strategy for responding to smallpox outbreaks, for example, assumes that only "public health and health care professionals" will administer vaccines. The nation's corps of police volunteers has shrunk slightly since 9/11 as more extensive background checks have weeded out potential "security risks" who want to take simple crime reports, direct traffic, and file papers.

It doesn't need to be this way. An hour's training can teach nearly anyone how to board up a window or run a water purifier. Giving vaccinations, administering first aid, directing traffic, and taking simple crime reports require only a bit more training. Indeed, lots of the help needed in a disaster--from working in a soup kitchen to stacking sandbags--requires no special skills at all. America also has a deep well of excess talent. Retired military and law enforcement personnel would likely jump at the chance to work as disaster-response reservists, but existing police reserve programs typically require candidates to complete full-time, six-month training courses. If medical resources were stretched, likewise, dentists, chiropractors, and even athletic trainers could all make themselves very useful in providing emergency medical care. With some investment, local governments could even revive the World War II-era system of civil defense wardens: people on each block assigned to help organize evacuations, dispense supplies, and direct emergency workers to those who need extra assistance. Given a role and a little training, in other words, nearly everyone who wanted to help out in a disaster could contribute.

The United States once had a very good civil defense network. Before the mid-1970s, official federal policies mandated that Civil Defense Councils, mostly made up of community leaders from outside the government, take the lead in responding to disasters. In 1960, the United States had over 3,500 such councils. Civilians did a fine job working in emergency shelters, providing first aid, writing disaster management plans, and directing evacuations. In 1955, a civilian-led Operation Alert air raid drill successfully evacuated Times Square during the lunch hour. More prosaic evacuation efforts saved thousands of lives when storms and hurricanes battered American cities and towns. But federal, state, and local agencies coordinated their disaster-response efforts so poorly that local civil defense leaders often received contradictory information.

However, civil defense officials, particularly at the federal level, acted foolishly at times: A 1961 effort to establish a national fallout shelter network stocked storage rooms and workplace supply closets with two-weeks' worth of food, water, and even cosmetics, so citizens would have somewhere to stay in the event of a nuclear war. The effort never received full funding and eventually died of its own stupidity. As détente and America's eventual Cold War victory calmed notions of massive nuclear attacks, the dwindling few who remained involved in civil defense earned a not-wholly-undeserved reputation as paranoid survivalists.