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What is Civil Defense and why don’t we have it?

Civil defense gradually morphed into emergency management.

There are several good documents that give us the history of civil defense in the United States. Here is one from FEMA and here is an interesting manual (FEMA 107) from 1986. (Thank you to the Civil Defense Museum for making this available to us!)

Civil Defense: Why We Need a Congressional ResolutionIt can be hard to parse out the many reasons and policy shifts that gradually moved us from “civil defense” to “emergency management” but today the term “civil defense” has fallen into disuse. Is there a difference? Strictly speaking, perhaps not as the definition and principles of emergency management cover many of the elements of making a community resilient (e.g., civil defense). According to FEMA, the vision is that “emergency management seeks to promote safer, less vulnerable communities with the capacity to cope with hazards and disasters.” The mission is that “Emergency Management protects communities by coordinating and integrating all activities necessary to build, sustain, and improve the capability to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from threatened or actual natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters.”

Civil defense is defined variously as the organization and training of civilians for the protection of lives and property during and after an attack, sabotage or natural disaster. (See Merriam-Webster, and Collins English Dictionary.)

Arguably, everything in the definition of civil defense can be extrapolated deep within in the mission and vision of emergency management – but are we doing it? Specifically, are we organizing and training civilians to play key roles in a community’s survival?

The fatal flaw of our emergency management system.

The strength of our emergency management system is its ability to call in outside resources. When an incident – be it a structure fire, accident or tornado – overwhelms the local resources, we call in surrounding towns. For a larger regional disaster, like a hurricane or earthquake, we can call in state and federal resources.

We can argue the efficiency of the state or federal responses in particular historical disasters, but generally the system works as advertised in local and regional disasters. This makes incidents like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria actually “best case scenarios” – best case meaning that outside resources were immediately available to deploy into the disaster area.

However, our emergency management system has one fatal flaw: it always assumes that outside resources will soon be available.

What if the “disaster area” was the United States?

But what happens in a national scale disaster where outside resources are not available and may not be available for a long period of time (like weeks or months)? In this scenario – let’s say a nationwide blackout from a GMD or cyberattack – your town is on its own. All you have is what you have now, and you face immediate life-threatening problems. After one week, there you sit in the EOC, powered by a generator that will soon run out of gas.

  • The power is completely out for the foreseeable future.
  • Your local ham radio operator reports that the entire country is in turmoil.
  • People are panicking – the stores and pharmacies have been looted.
  • The police don’t have the resources to maintain order.
  • Water and sewer service is out. Well pumps don’t work without electricity.
  • People will soon run out of whatever food they have.
  • There are reports of numerous fires – the fire department can’t respond.
  • The medical facilities are overwhelmed, have no power and limited supplies.
  • People are at risk of exposure to the elements and disease.
  • There is no help coming – your town is on its own.

This worst nightmare has become even worse – everybody is looking to you, the emergency manager, for answers. Whether you like it or not, you own this mess.

This worst case scenario could happen. The federal government over the last two decades has studied this issue and held multiple hearings on the existential threat to the U.S. that the loss of the power grid poses. However, no action has been taken to harden the grid from these threats. The only meaningful legislation that has passed, the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (section 1913 of the NDAA, December 23, 2016) only requires more federal studies and that the Department of Homeland Security “include in national planning frameworks the threat of an EMP or GMD event.” While this is a positive step, it will take years to have an impact.

Q: What are we missing? A: Civil Defense

Take the emergency management vision and mission statements and eliminate any outside resources – just focus on your town or jurisdiction and its inherent capabilities and assets. Your vision becomes the need to promote [a] safer, less vulnerable community with the [internal] capacity to cope with hazards and disasters. Your mission becomes to protect [your] community by coordinating and integrating all [internal] activities necessary to build, sustain, and improve the capability to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from threatened or actual natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters.

Civil Defense LogoWhat we are missing is the “civil defense” component of organizing and training civilians to play key roles in a community’s survival. This is not a new concept. In August of 2012, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced House Resolution 762. The resolution never saw a vote and died with the 112th Congress.

The proposed resolution:

(1) encourages every community to develop its own “civil defense program” working with citizens, leaders, and institutions, ranging from local fire halls, schools, and faith-based organizations, to create sustainable local infrastructure and planning capacity, so that it might mitigate high-impact scenarios and be better prepared to survive and recover from these worst-case disaster scenarios and be better able to affordably and sustainably meet the needs of the community in times of peace and tranquility;

(2) encourages every citizen to develop an individual emergency plan to prepare for the absence of government assistance for extended periods;

(3) encourages each local community to foster the capability of providing at least 20 percent of its own critical needs, such as local power generation, food, and water, while protecting local infrastructure whenever possible from the threats that threaten centralized infrastructure; and to do so with the urgency and importance inherent in an all-of-nation civil defense program developed by citizens and their local communities; and

(4) encourages state governments and federal agencies to support the ability of local communities to become stronger, self-reliant, and better able to assist neighboring communities in times of great need.

I think this resolution speaks for itself, and it is unfortunate that it didn’t pass. However, a good idea does not need to pass Congress to be a good idea.

Your community needs a civil defense plan now

There is an existential threat to your community. We can no longer sit passively while Congress sits passively. If you don’t want to own the worst case scenario, you need to take action. Your community needs a civil defense plan. You can build it from scratch or start with these recommendations.

The basic concept is simple:

  • A civil defense organization in your town can be organized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
  • Focus the organization on planning and education for the basics of survival:
    • Food
    • Water
    • Shelter
    • Security
  • Integrate the civil defense organization into all aspects of your emergency management efforts.

The problems that would threaten your community’s survival have solutions, but only if you act ahead of time. After the power goes out, an army of emergency managers in logo embossed golf shirts and cargo pants can’t help you.

It takes a village. Your village.