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Michael Miller


By Michael Miller
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What Was Civil Defense?

In the 1950s and 1960s, Nassau County local governments built a formidable Civil Defense (CD) complex designed to keep residents safe and alive in case of catastrophe. That CD system is gone, although bits and pieces are still with us today. Our auxiliary police units are vestiges of CD. First set up during the Second World War and revived during the Korean War, the “auxies” weren’t formally folded into the Nassau County Police Department until three decades ago. In 1965, the Levittown Public Schools contracted with the local unit to keep order during special events, and slowly the auxiliaries came to be thought of as “anti-crime” units.

The WWII civil defense system had been almost completely dismantled when the Soviet Union’s acquisition of atomic technology in 1949 jump-started the creation of CD systems at all levels of government. In less than a year, Nassau County had a working emergency headquarters, a series of air raid warning stations, a Civilian Air Patrol of volunteer pilots and detailed plans for police, fire, health, public works, transportation and other services for every village and unincorporated area.

The structure and strategy of the CD operation changed several times over the years, through constant experimentation and readjustment when tests didn’t go right. The siren alert system—a solid blast for alert and a warble for all-clear— was adopted in 1952 after tests using giant firecrackers fired off in what is now Eisenhower Park couldn’t be heard well enough.

In 1954, Hurricane Hazel (Category 4) was threatening to be the first October storm in 55 years to land west of New York City, at high tide, and there was potential for massive damage and flooding on Long Island. Nassau County had worked out a partnership with the Nassau Red Cross in case of natural disaster and the emergency network was placed on alert. Before the storm hit, 18 emergency shelters in schools and large churches were all ready to handle evacuees from any flooded coastal areas. Residents could call an emergency phone bank for details on planning and evacuation. In comparison, the federal government didn’t fold natural disaster response into its civil defense programs until 1970.

The thinking was that in case of an actual attack, all federal resources would be dedicated to fighting the enemy, so state and local governments had to step up and assume responsibility for the civilian population.

Nassau County’s CD system had as many as 49 full-time employees and coordinated 62 separate town, city and village CD programs. Each town had a Civil Defense Director who in turn coordinated zone commanders, wardens and “Block Mothers.” Volunteers were given written tests and special training. Over 50,000 residents were issued CD classifications and assigned specific destinations in case of catastrophe, including physicians, plumbers, electricians, carpenters and all kinds of administrators. Teachers were classified and were to report to their school districts for relief work if the code went out.

Nassau was the first county in the country to formally test, classify and assign CD volunteers for simulated nuclear attack drills (“Operation Alert”). During these drills, residents were encouraged to go to shelters for practice, state police closed the parkways, county police closed county roads and even the LIRR lowered its gates to stop traffic.

In 1961, the Kennedy Administration shifted CD focus from survival of a direct nuclear blast to survival of resulting fallout. As late as 1974, Nassau maintained 690 fallout shelters in the basements of public buildings, schools and shopping centers that had toilets and were fully stocked with water, medical supplies and a two-week food supply. Unfortunately, that was only enough space for one-third of the county population. Six hundred eighty-five other designated shelters were just empty rooms. The promise and the reality weren’t matching up. With a recession, property tax crises and retrenchment of many state and local programs, Civil Defense was increasingly seen as a boondoggle.

The federal government consolidated emergency programs under FEMA during the Carter and Reagan Administrations, and our local governments replaced CD with significantly scaled down “emergency management” plans.

Nassau County never got CD completely right, but parts of that system can be rethought and reapplied using today’s technologies and efficiencies. And we should.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: