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Preparing the homefront: Recruiting citizens

By PoliceOne staff

NEW YORK, N.Y. — Just moments after United Airlines Flight 175 hit the north tower of the Word Trade Center on September 11, Charles F. McClafferty, the chief financial officer of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, dashed out of his office with a flashlight and a thick binder containing his agency's emergency plan.

New York's seaways and airports continued working because of the plan in the binder; and McClafferty, a 67-year old with thick glasses, survived the perilous trip down a crowded, smoke-filled staircase thanks to his flashlight.

While the horrific sight of fleeing crowds and jumping office workers gave the appearance of chaos when the towers collapsed, preparations like McClafferty's helped to evacuate the buildings with minimal loss of life. Each passing week has lowered September 11's death toll. The New York Times reported this week that about 2,900 workers from the Twin Towers — only about 6 percent of the buildings' total labor force — died in the attack. Indeed, the World Trade Center was better prepared for terrorist attack than any other large civilian complex in the world.

In the wake of the 1993 bombing, nearly all the towers' tenants developed emergency plans, and most gave their workers emergency kits containing flashlights, facemasks, and evacuation instructions. Workers practiced evacuations. While the valor, courage, and professional competence of New York City's police and fire departments cannot be underestimated, the Trade Center's workers survived the attack so well in part because the complex had, in effect, a civil-defense plan.

Civil defense is a preparedness strategy that asks ordinary civilians to play a major role in responding to an attack or disaster. In her study Civil Defense Begins at Home, Whittier College professor Laura McEnany shows how efforts during the 1950s asked families to assume a quasi-military role in the event of an attack. While civil defense reached its apex during World War II -- when nearly every block had its own civil-defense warden -- civil defense's political prominence increased during the Cold War's early years. In the 1950s, for example, Operation Alert air-raid drills successfully evacuated Times Square during the lunch hour on a weekday, and debates over civil-defense policy played a role in both 1950s presidential elections.

Civil defense withered in the mid 1960s, however, amid the Vietnam era's breakdown of social consensus and the realization that few could survive an all-out nuclear war. Civilians did a fine job working in emergency shelters, providing first aid, and directing evacuations -- but federal, state, and local agencies coordinated their disaster-response efforts so poorly that citizens often received contradictory information. In response to a plea from the National Governor's Association, the Carter administration created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979 by merging the Department of Defense's Civil Defense Preparedness Agency with over 100 disaster-response programs elsewhere in the federal government.

By the mid 1980s, states, counties, and cities had copied this approach, and emergency management emerged as a new public-safety profession. FEMA's technocratic, professional approach saved lives: In 1969, for example, over 250 people perished when Hurricane Camille made landfall along the Gulf Coast but only 36 people died when 1992's equally powerful Hurricane Andrew hit dense suburbs in Florida and Louisiana. With enough resources and advance preparation, government agencies proved highly successful at responding to predictable, non-malicious disasters. Civilians, it seemed by the mid-1990s, needed to do little more than follow instructions, and even the worst disasters would pass with minimal loss of life.

Another terrorist attack on the scale of September 11's, however, will likely require more resources than many governments can muster in a snap. Unlike natural disasters, terrorist attacks involve human malice and can happen nearly anywhere: Terrorists might, for instance, set off a car bomb in the office district of a mid-sized city, then open fire in a nearby shopping mall as all of the city's police and firefighters rush to the first disaster scene. There's no way to predict what resources the country will need, so involving more citizens will help even the smallest communities to prepare for the worst.

Police-community partnerships have flourished during the same period that civilians have seen their formal role in disaster response vanish, and some police departments have begun examining how their existing corps of civilian volunteers might assist emergency workers in the event of a terrorist attack. Volunteers already do everything from helping with traffic-speed enforcement near schools to providing tips for catching burglars.

They can certainly return to their civil-defense role of running shelters and supervising evacuations. At least one urban police department, in Lowell, Mass., has already begun the formal process of reviving civil defense. Professional disaster management has proven its worth in responding to most natural disasters, but the exigencies of the fight against terror will require competent, disciplined, and valorous corps of civilians ready to respond to whatever calamities might strike their cities.

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