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.
Sick of a confused and often irrelevant message from above, local governments began demanding change at the federal level. In response to a 1979 petition from the National Governors' Association, Jimmy Carter merged the Department of Defense's Civil Preparedness Agency with over 100 disaster-response programs elsewhere in the federal government to create the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). By the mid-1980s, states, counties, and cities had copied this approach. In fits and starts, emergency management became a profession in its own right. By the numbers, professionalized disaster management proved an enormous success. In 1969, for example, over 250 people died when Hurricane Camille made landfall along the Gulf Coast. When Hurricane Isabel blasted the much more heavily populated Washington, D.C., area earlier this year, only 9 perished.
As professionals took over disaster response, civil defense withered away. The Citizen Corps Councils, successor to the Civil Defense Councils, are supposed to train ordinary citizens in emergency response. But the program, remodeled after 9/11, appears almost stillborn. Total funding for Citizen Corps, $35 million, stands at less than one tenth the real-dollar amount spent on Civil Defense Councils in 1960. The new councils have not even spread to major cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and San Diego. Arlington, Virginia, which has received over $20 million in homeland security money (the most per capita in the country), has a Citizen Corps Council made up of community leaders who meet regularly and provide substantive guidance to professional emergency planners. Even in Arlington, however, the council's only public program so far has been a first aid training class that served 100 of the 300 people who signed up.
America responds best to disasters when police, firefighters, paramedics, nurses, doctors, and emergency managers take the lead. America's quest to professionalize disaster response, however, has come at the cost of leaving ordinary citizens out of the loop when they want to help. An already good system would become better if it made room for them.
Eli Lehrer is an associate editor of the American Enterprise and a homeland security consultant for a Fortune 500 company.