What is America’s Current Civil Defense Policy?

What is America’s Current Civil Defense Policy?

by Aden Tate

Men have a duty to protect their loved ones and the weak, and it was this understanding that partly led to civil defense being such a common household term after World War 2. But as time passed, the concept seems to have been virtually deleted from the American mindset.

What happened here? Indeed, America still has some type of civil defense plan in place, right? And if so, what is it? Do we still just duck and cover and hope for the best of it, or is there more that we can do now, thanks to improvements in modern technology?

We'll answer these questions and more below. Let's dive right in.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    What is Civil Defense?

  • 02

    Does Civil Defense Work?

  • 03

    What Works with Civil Defense and What Doesn’t?

  • 04

    What About Biochemical Attacks?

  • 05

    Civil Defense Falls to the Individual Level

  • 06

    Frequently Asked Questions

What is Civil Defense?

What exactly does civil defense even mean? If you ask around in the modern day, you're likely to hear people think you're talking about lawyers and the legal system or something like that. But what we mean here is protecting a populace – wherever they may be – against an attacking force.

Specifically, we're talking about how civilians protect and organize themselves against some type of attack, whether nuclear, chemical, biological, or conventional military forces.

Civil defense does not involve natural disasters (that's 'disaster preparedness) but instead only direct hostile attacks against a nation on that nation's soil.

Regardless of which of these situations were to occur, the military would be directly involved in the conflict in ways that civilians could not (e.g., launching nukes from submarines). However, one still holds inherent responsibilities even if they are not in the military, and protecting one's family is one of them. This is where civil defense comes into play.

Suppose that America was hit by a nuclear MIRV that rendered ten cities across the US radioactive wastelands. It was a hypersonic missile, so there was little to no warning, but the survivors were now in a heightened state of alert for future attacks. The civil defense would come into play here.

MIRV from an ICBM reentering the atmosphere.

Or, what if the main cities of Alaska were subject to a series of strategic bombing runs by Russia? Civil defense policies would be involved in the early alert of incoming bombers/missiles, proper evacuation plans, building bomb shelters, and more.

Civil defense has a broad reach as a result, but without it, lots of people die who never would have otherwise.

Civil Defense is Dead

Right off the bat, you need to know that there really aren't any civil defense plans for Americans whatsoever. None. Sure, there will always be a military response to some type of attack against American soil, but when it comes to an organized civilian response? Well, now you're on your own.

While we once had a department devoted explicitly to civil defense – building public fallout shelters and stowing away necessary survival supplies – all of that is largely gone.

The Office of Civilian Defense was abolished, the shelters we built (or "commandeered") were allowed to fall into disarray, and the supplies we stocked were rusted and rotten.

A water container repurposed as a pretty cool trashcan. (Image courtesy of RimgailaNB at Wikimedia Commons.)

In short, little has been done in the name of civil defense for over 50 years within the United States. There are different times and reasons for this that have been given. Some say Director Landis' mysterious recommendation right before he resigned that the Office of Civilian Defense be abolished was the final wound. This soon led to its abolishment, and many local and state civil defense organizations disbanded. Some say 1958 was the death blow when the Federal Civil Defense Administration was abolished. Others point to James Lee Wit's elimination of the 1950 Federal Civil Defense Act.

Whatever the case, the result is that civil defense in America is dead.

So then we're left with the question: is there a reason for this? And perhaps that reason is that civil defense was never a workable response in the first place? Let's delve into that next.


What's ominous here is that other nations do not view civil defense the same as does the United States. In 2004, Vladimir Putin created 250,000 new fallout shelters in Moscow alone. Then, in 2015, they spent even more, updating some of their older shelters. By 2016, Russia again built more fallout shelters and ran a civil defense drill that involved 40,000,000 people.

Yet, in the United States, we pretend that war on our soil is unthinkable.

Does Civil Defense Work?

If you throw time and money at something, you want to know that it will be worthwhile. The same should hold true for policy creation. If you're going to stand behind a particular set of responses, you want to know that they're responses that work. The same principle holds true for civil defense.

Let's look at the humble bomb shelter first. Do these save lives?

According to the US government, they sure do.

After analyzing the extent of the damage on both Japan and Germany after World War 2, the 1946 Strategic Bombing Survey found that civil defense measures (such as bomb shelters) did save lives. It specifically noted that early evacuation was vital to this as well. Think about that early evacuation for a moment.

(Image courtesy of Tokyo from the Strategic Bombing Survey. )

How do you evacuate a city before a bombing run? You must have an early warning system and communication system well beforehand. Both of these are civil defense measures. Getting appropriate information to people as quickly as possible so that they could move away from Ground Zero worked. That's civil defense.

But not only the US has found this to be the case. England actually experienced it.

After witnessing what the Luftwaffe had done to Spain during their civil war, England predicted they would have serious civilian casualty problems unless they took some simple protective measures. One of these measures was the migration of London's children towards upper Great Britain – Operation Pied Piper (featured at the beginning of The Chronicles of Narnia).

(Image courtesy of Poster used by the British government to spread the word about Operation Pied Piper. )

This would keep the children out of the reach of the Luftwaffe and took place right in time. The Battle of Britain started not long afterward. Had it not been for this simple measure, the 43,000 British civilians killed during this time could have been significantly higher because there would have been more people for the bombs to hit.

England also found success in floating massive balloons tethered to cables to keep bombers from being able to fly close to the ground, had extensive early defense warnings, and even instituted several public shelters.

Why? Because these measures saved lives.

What about the modern day, however? Do we still find this to be the case? Or are there other measures that we need to be aware of?

Let's take a closer look.

What Works with Civil Defense and What Doesn’t?

This author believes that the only hope that Americans can have of a functioning civil defense system is going to be through one of two routes: A) small, local governments that recognize potential threats and then take steps, or B) local, formal groups of Americans who take the task upon themselves.

Let's explain the second route in more detail.

Individual Civil Defense

The ham radio community is known for being incredibly tight-knit and well-organized. Throughout the United States, these people organize themselves into separate ham radio clubs and organizations, hold weekly on-air discussion forums called "nets," and disperse helpful information.

Examples of this would include SKYWARN and WARN. Both are organized groups of ham radio users who monitor the weather in their communities and then hold daily or weekly nets where they share their findings. Anybody with a suitable radio or scanner can listen in on these nets to hear the temperature, if there are any incoming storms, where a tornado has been located, etc.

SKYWARN guys watch for these types of events like you wouldn’t believe.

This author believes this model would work effectively for civil defense where local governments either cannot or refuse to act.

Let's say that your county government needs more funds to pump into civil defense programs or believes civil defense is not worth pursuing. In this case, a small, local, formal group of individuals could quickly form a civil defense network that would still save lives.

Consider that Physicians for Civil Defense has repeatedly stated that one of the chief things America can do to boost its civil defense preparedness is to have ready access to quality radiation monitors. As they noted in one of their 2005 newsletters, "We can think of no other project with a greater potential to save our communities and our nation in the event of a nuclear detonation or use of a "dirty bomb."

Why is this?

Because ionizing radiation cannot be seen, heard, smelled, or felt. Yet, despite the victim's unawareness of radiation, that doesn't mean it can't kill you. As we've previously noted here at MIRA Safety, these types of injuries are nightmares. And the chief means to protect people against radiation injuries is knowing exactly where radiation is and where it is not in the first place.


The U.S. government actually has a nuclear attack as “Scenario #1” in their national planning against attacks on American soil.

Now imagine you have five men who want to better prepare their communities for civil defense. They've gone to the local city council meetings, shared why they believe civil defense is essential, and have repeatedly failed to garner a response. This lack of a response doesn't make civil defense any less lifesaving; it just means that many of their friends, family, and neighbors will die in the event of a national attack that they didn't have to. And so, these men take it upon themselves to start their own local, formal civil defense chapter.

Each of these men purchases a MIRA Safety Geiger-2, allowing them to monitor radiation levels in their region. These men also get their ham radio licenses and buy a few paper maps of their county. They also all purchase non-electrical weather monitoring equipment. Barometers, thermometers, rain gauges, wind direction, and wind speed equipment are all incorporated into these men's homes.

They now create a formal, civil defense ham radio net to communicate their findings regarding radiation, precipitation, and wind direction and speed to each other daily or weekly.

This net is sent out using analog signals on a standard two-meter, amateur frequency so that anybody with a scanner or ham radio can listen in. These men then need to get the message out about their actions. They use fliers they place at local businesses, social media, and other ham radio nets to tell the public about what they're doing. This raises public awareness of the "Civil Defense Net." The Civil Defense Net advocates that as many people in their community purchase a $25 UV-5R radio, a Faraday cage to stow it away in when it's not in use, and two weeks of food and water.

MREs are an easy means of always keeping two weeks of food ready.

This radio would allow members of their community to listen into the net, the Faraday cage would protect it against an electromagnetic pulse (such as would result after a nuclear explosion), and the food and water would allow these people to shelter in place until the bulk of the radiation decayed.

Should there be a nuclear attack or radiation emergency anywhere in the United States, these five men would have taken steps to protect their loved ones for only a few hundred dollars each.

Other steps these men could take with this type of group would be to use their net to disseminate civil defense information. They could discuss where they believe to be good fallout shelters in their community and potentially work with local business owners who own thick concrete buildings on agreements to open these facilities up as emergency fallout shelters.

Not the decrepit fallout shelter sign indicating that this underground bunker where the public could go to shelter in place. While this picture is in Guam, the state of whatever bomb shelter used to be in your area likely isn't much better. (Image courtesy of Lance Vanlewen at Wikimedia Commons. )

Given the weather instruments, this Civil Defense Net would also be able to map out and estimate how long they think it would take until fallout from a nearby nuclear blast or radiation emergency would take to reach their area.

Potentially millions of lives could be saved with the information these men gather, all for only a few hundred dollars.

Community Civil Defense

But what if the local government is interested in building a civil defense program? What then?

In this case, this author still believes the above methods could be incorporated here with similar results and costs. As of this writing, five Geiger-2 units would cost the county less than two thousand dollars. But a government would have resources that a small group of individuals likely would not.

These four resources are buildings, money, first responders, and (often) publicly accepted leadership.


City hall buildings and other government structures are often substantially built of solid materials. It's not uncommon for these buildings to be mammoth stone, brick, and concrete structures with extensive basements and plenty of interior rooms well away from windows.

These structures could easily be retrofitted into ad hoc public fallout shelters. If this is communicated to the public, this would at least be a way to potentially save some lives.

A fallout shelter from the 1950s.

Without a doubt, not everybody in the county would be able to fit into these fallout shelters (and at some point, the doors would have to be locked), but this is a means by which at least some people would be able to board a "radiation life raft." (It would probably be an excellent idea for the government to warn people ahead of time that once 500 people – or whatever the occupancy number is – is reached, that the doors will be locked. This, of course, could easily lead to an incident akin to The Twilight Zone episode "The Shelter," but if no plan is made, then it's guaranteed that people will die.)

A perfect policy? No, but it's at least a plan.


Governments have a lot more money to throw at problems than individuals. Leaving aside discussions on taxes, that's just the way it is. Your local government has a larger budget for monthly expenses than you do.

Because of this, they can more readily invest in monitoring equipment, fallout shelters, food, water, medical, radios, faraday cages, and the other gear necessary for a civil defense event.

Water is one of the significant issues this author believes the local government would be instrumental in providing. Some level of bottled water would most certainly want to be stored away already for community use, but the ability to create more clean water would be essential as well.

The National Guard handing out water in Mississippi. (Image courtesy of Staff Sgt. Connie Jones of the US Army National Guard at Wikimedia Commons. )

There are two methods this author believes would work here: hand pumps to bring well water up to the surface and gravity-fed water purifiers. If there were many hand pumps scattered throughout the community, these would be able to bring radiation-free water up to the surface for people to drink. Not all civil defense emergencies involve radiation, however; because of this, other methods could also be considered here.

Though an electromagnetic pulse, cyberattack, or sabotage could destroy a county's water purification plant, if there were also a small collection of Berkey units that were positioned at three or more stations throughout the county (such as near springs or rivers), these could be used to provide "meeting points" where people could go to get more water. (It should be said that both water sources need to be heavily guarded so they are not stolen by scared individuals or gangs.)


“I personally plan to stock 200 cans of pork to be ready for a potential war crisis, and I advise everybody to do the same.” – Sergei Markov, former advisor to Vladimir Putin.

First Responders

EMS, firemen, and policemen all fall under the umbrella of first responders. These people would all be working under the direct orders of your local government in the event of a civil defense emergency. They would have the gear, training, vehicles, and manpower that individuals would not.

If they were equipped with hazmat suits, radiation-capable gas masks and filters, potassium iodide, radiation medications, and training in civil defense emergencies, they could help many people out after an attack on American soil.

These people would also be able to provide the security that some of these civil defense efforts would need. Of course, after every huge emergency, some work under the umbrella of first responders who flee and take care of their family first (and who can blame them?), but there would be some who would stay at their posts in a civil defense event, and they could be utilized.

Publicly Accepted Leadership

When an individual says something, people often take it with a grain of salt (as may be the case with the individual-run civil defense net). But when a government says something, there's an air of authority there that many people automatically subscribe to.

Proof of this could easily be found just by looking at Hurricane Katrina. The government told people to evacuate, and many people evacuated. The government told people to go to the Superdome, and many people did. Why? Because they publicly accepted that leadership.

Like it or not, this is a tool that governments have that individuals often do not. A small group of individuals telling people effective civil defense measures – even if 100% true – could still be publicly viewed as a fringe element of society that was a collection of Chicken Littles. But if the local government says, "This is what you need to do to survive a civil defense emergency," it automatically garners much attention.

This is where the humble civil defense siren could come into play. People are already familiar with tornado sirens, but if separate civil defense sirens were dispersed throughout a community, these could immediately alert people to the threat of incoming aircraft, missiles, or terrorist attacks.

Not only is this a potentially EMP-hardened means of getting some level of information out to the public, but it would also have the government stamp of approval on it, meaning that people wouldn't likely play around with the information. During The Cold War, England used a series of loud blasts to alert people about incoming nuclear fallout. It was a specific civil defense siren that gave people, on the spot, accurate information. Why not bring it back?

What About Biochemical Attacks?

One of the longstanding issues with biochemical, civil defense attacks is that they're difficult to detect until well after the damage has been done. If a nuke goes off, everybody knows about it instantaneously. If a bioagent is released, nobody knows about it until signs and symptoms develop. A chemical attack gives you more notice, but it's often difficult for people to diagnose precisely what's happening since these are so rare.

While this author believes that many things can be done to protect against these, here are a few to consider.

Have local first responders stock rapid chemical warfare treatment measures.

If EMS had a gas mask, full hazmat suit, and MDG-1 Personal CBRN Decontamination Gloves easily accessible for every staff member, many people could be saved after a chemical attack that would die otherwise.

Consider the Tokyo subway sarin attacks. It took time to recognize what was happening, find the appropriate CBRN gear, and then send the appropriate people to the scene. Then, there was an attempt to find treatments for the victims. How many people died because of this excess time? This isn't to knock the men and women who did respond, but the fact remains that lives could be saved with a well-prepared EMS unit.

(Image courtesy of The 1995 Tokyo subway attack.)

Rapid Chemical Detection Abilities

It's not just being able to rapidly decontaminate people after a chemical attack, but the ability to know what you need to decontaminate them from as well. This is where MIRA Safety DETEHIT CWD-3 CBRN Detection Strips and our CBRN Detection Paper come into play.

(Image courtesy of MIRA Safety CBRN Detection Paper)

If the first responders in an area were each equipped with these items, they could rapidly identify what they were dealing with should there be a suspected chemical attack, notify local hospitals what to get ready for, and then begin to treat victims. This would eliminate the guesswork from the medical treatment protocol, giving victims quicker access to adequate medical care.

(Image courtesy of MIRA Safety CWD-3 CBRN Detection Strips)

Reportable Disease Monitoring

With bio agents, statistics is one of the best tools you would have at your disposal. Let's say you're dealing with tularemia, a common bio-threat specifically designed to incapacitate for weeks to months.

This is a reportable disease, meaning that anytime a doctor diagnoses a patient with it, he is required by law to report it to the proper public health authorities. Just one case of the inhalational form would be a cause for alarm here, but what if you had something else, such as salmonella? This has been used in terrorist attacks in the past as well. In either case, using statistics to John Snow the source would be vital in determining the threat, where it originated, and (potentially) who it came from. With this information, a community would then be able to respond appropriately.

(To this author's knowledge, this type of system is already in place throughout the US for significant biothreats, so it is something other than what your community would necessarily need to incorporate, but we include the knowledge here for information purposes.)

(Image courtesy of NIAID at Wikimedia Commons. )

Civil Defense Falls to the Individual Level

For decades, politicians argued about the proper domain of civil defense, how much money it should be given, and what projects actually mattered.

One of the main consensuses on the matter drawn in the 1950s was that, ultimately, civil defense fell down to the individual level. In part, this was one of the reasons that civil defense eventually died as an American policy.

We'll unlikely see a resurgence in national civil defense interest until after an overt attack on American soil. Because of this, it's up to individuals to do what they can to better prepare themselves and their families.

Interestingly, this is one of the points Ted Koppel discussed in his book Lights Out (a book you should read). When speaking regarding the threat of deliberately caused long-term power outages, he noted, "At some point, this is on the individual member of the public to do a little bit for that contingency."

The 1947 Bull Report stated the same, saying that civil defense was up to civilians to incorporate and that it was only when individuals took charge of the situation that things ran well here.

The point that you will want to draw from this is that nobody will do the work for you. There will undoubtedly be a military response to an attack on American soil. Still, if we're talking about incoming hypersonic missiles, that's apparently on you.

We saw this same principle play out with London's civil defense measures during the Battle of Britain. The government itself couldn't build enough shelters to protect, but a portion of the population and only 9% of Londoners used them. So what was the recourse? People had to take charge of their own safety. Twenty-seven percent used private shelters, while 64% sheltered at home.

An Anderson shelter, a commercially available bomb shelter common throughout World War 2 England. It was part of a kit customers could buy. (Image courtesy of Martinvl at Wikimedia Commons.)

This is why you need to take some time to study some basic civil defense principles and think about how you could incorporate them into your life so that they're "at the ready." Do you know what it would take to survive a fallout or an incoming missile? Many people in Hawaii didn't know when they saw the ICBM civil emergency message on their phones, which caused them a lot of grief. How did this ever come to happen in the first place?

Because the notion of civil defense has largely been forgotten by our nation. We let it die with The Cold War, thinking that it was something that nobody ever had to think about again, but the fact is that the threat of war never went away. If anything, it's only grown more prominent than we've ever seen. And when you consider how technology always creates advanced weaponry, the next war will be a doozy, making for all the more reason why knowing something about civil defense is vital.

But those are just my thoughts. What are yours? Are there other effective civil defense measures you think people should know about? What do you think about the idea of a privately led (but publicly available) civil defense net using amateur radio? Are there other valuable things to add there that you can think of? Let us know in the comment section below.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to survive nuclear fallout?
How long does nuclear fallout last?
Want to know how to prepare for nuclear war?
What are chemical weapons?
What would happen if World War 3 started?
Is civil defense a military?
Why was civil defense created?
What is the highest rank in civil defense?
Does duck and cover actually work?
Could ‘Red Dawn’ happen?