The following essay was presented to the Chicago Literary Club on February 14th, 2022. It has been lightly edited, but please note that it was written to be read out loud to a group.
On the evening of March 11, 2020, I was sitting here at the Cliff Dwellers with friends, listening to a panel discussion on the Pilsen’s murals. During the presentation, I received an urgent communication summoning me to Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications the very next evening. The message was from the head of the city’s Community Emergency Response Team, also known as CERT, a federally commissioned civilian auxiliary I joined in 2018.
The email did not offer much detail but noted that the city was requesting the presence of every team member at department headquarters the very next evening. What the email did make clear was that this urgent deployment was connected to the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus. While I had certainly been aware of the growing threat, up until that day, my life had remained relatively normal, but it was clear that this was all about to change.
Our team responded magnificently. Despite only receiving 24 hours notice, 73 team members showed up to the meeting. Our leaders explained that the city’s health department had, with minimal technological or human resources, set up a COVID-19 hotline to assist city residents with testing, information, and assistance with resources. The health department was overwhelmed and needed the help of CERT to answer calls.
Within a matter of days, team members began answering phones at Chicago’s 311 center, the location of which is technically a secret. I quickly found myself making the trip from my far north side home to this undisclosed location where I and my fellow team members spent our days answering phones, applying liberal amounts of hand sanitizer, and watching the mayor and governor’s daily press conferences projected onto the wall of our makeshift call center.
My efforts and those of my colleagues did not take place in a vacuum. We were, and are, part of a long history of civilian volunteers who have worked with military and nonmilitary organizations to meet the needs of our neighbors during times of disaster and peril.
Throughout much of the 20th century, many of these efforts were organized under the banner of “civil defense,” the principle of organizing civilians and non-military first responders to respond to both natural and man-made disasters, including acts of war. Civil defense movements rose up worldwide in response to the increasing threat of aerial bombardment in warfare. While the rhetoric of civil defense, particularly in recruiting and training materials, had taken on a jingoistic tone, particularly during the Cold War, the skills taught to participants, such as firefighting, first aid, and home preparedness, had applications beyond responding to an air raid.
Still, by the end of World War II, many countries, including the United States, began dismantling their civil defense organizations. All of this began to change, however, in 1949 when the Soviet Union performed its first successful nuclear weapon test, an event that Western powers certainly anticipated but had not expected to happen quite so soon. At this point, government officials recognized the need to rebuild emergency management plans and civil defense organizations that could provide an effective response to the threat of nuclear attack, which presented unique challenges, not the least of which would be the threat of nuclear fallout and radiation poisoning.
As a major city and, ironically, the site of the first self-sustaining, controlled nuclear chain reaction, Chicago would surely be a target of Soviet attack. The military quickly began to purchase land that would be used for the Nike missile sites that would, hopefully, offer a deterrent against such an occurrence. In addition, the city began to construct civil defense plans that included coordinating existing agencies and institutions. One such plan was Special Order, X X X.
Special Order X X X was the operational procedure for the notification, dispersal, and response of the Chicago Fire Department upon learning that the city was about to undergo an aerial nuclear attack. Should enemy aircraft be detected with enough time to effectively respond, designated vehicles, apparatus, and department companies would be dispersed to the suburbs, including Winnetka, Itasca, Glen Ellyn, Downers Grove, Orland Park, and Homewood. Fireboats and their crews would deploy to Lake Michigan, six miles from shore. All this was to occur quietly: No sirens, only using bells when necessary.
Other plans for civil defense and emergency response included the installation of the H.O.R SuperSirex civil defense sirens, participation in Operation Alert (a series of nationwide drills that took place between in which residents of major cities would “take cover” for fifteen minutes), the construction of public fallout shelters, and, of course, educating the public on civil defense procedures. Children were treated to films narrated by “Bert the Turtle,” instructing them to follow the instructions of civil defense officers and to duck-and-cover should their community come under attack.
Educational efforts also extended to adults. On New Year’s Day, 1951, the Education and Training Committee of the Chicago Civil Defense Corps, in cooperation with The Chicago Public Schools, released a 16-page pamphlet entitled “Should an A-Bomb Fall.” Selling for five cents a copy, the pamphlet took pains to describe the dangers of the A-Bomb, which included the “hurricane winds” of the initial blast, “burns and fire,” and radiation, curiously described as “. . .a sort of high-speed sunburn and super x-ray.” Checklists of emergency supplies are also included, as well as steps to take in case of air, underwater, and poison gas attacks.
Despite the efforts and undoubtedly good intentions of civil defense proponents and coordinators, these best-laid plans soon got into trouble. Civil defense, at home and abroad, did not enjoy full public support even during World War II. There were numerous reports from the United Kingdom of civil defense wardens being verbally and even physically attacked by exasperated householders. In the United States, far away from the conflict, many people felt that civil defense was, well, silly: In her book “Stages of Emergency” Northwestern professor Tracy C. Davis, notes that a 1950 survey by the University of Michigan indicated that many Americans spoke of wartime civil defense efforts with derision. Davis used terms like “foolish” and “looked upon with amusement” when describing views held by ordinary citizens. While the reality of nuclear weapons and the advancing Cold War might have spurred some to reconsider the utility of civil defense, an event took place on November 1st, 1952, that would eventually call the entire program into question.
The event on this date was the detonation of Ivy Mike, the first thermonuclear weapon, also known as a “H-bomb.” Its fireball had a roughly two-mile radius and a mushroom cloud reaching 135,000 feet into the air. This radioactive cloud had a cap spread of 100 miles, and its stem was 20 miles wide, heavily contaminating the area with radioactive debris. As this new development in the arms race continued, both superpowers were determined to create weapons capable of even more destruction. Garrett M. Graff, in his book “Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die,” describes Castle Bravo, a thermonuclear device more powerful than even its creators realized. Its detonation resulted in a fireball four miles wide, retinal burns in small animals as far as 345 miles away from the blast, and radioactivity that covered an area the size of New Jersey, resulting in the poisoning of the crew of a Japanese fishing vessel, leading to the death of one man, whose dying words were a plea that he might be the last person to ever die from the bomb.
In much of her work, including her superb podcast, Atomic Hobo, nuclear journalist Julie McDowall often notes that the development of thermonuclear weapons marked a distinct era in the Cold War and nuclear history: If A-bombs fell, the results would indeed be catastrophic, but there would be some hope of recovery. Civil defense efforts might well be of assistance in such situations. Thermonuclear war, however, was a different story. The damage to infrastructure, the short, medium, and long-term effects of radiation, mental anguish, and trauma, and the prospect of climate changes due to the amount of soot released into the atmosphere would result in what author Pat Frank described in his classic cold war novel, “Alas, Babylon,” as a “thousand-year night,” a dark age that would take humanity at least a millennium to recover from. Could people survive such a scenario? Many likely would, but most would not be happy about it.
Armed with the knowledge of the effects of thermonuclear weapons and the likely outcome of a full-scale nuclear exchange, many peace activists, including Dorothy Day and members of her Catholic Worker movement, began to protest civil defense efforts, including the Operation Alert drills, noting the utter futility and wastefulness of these efforts, along with the psychological impact of a constant state of war-readiness, which, ironically, may well have contributed to cold-war weariness among the public.
In 1956, the freshman mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, submitted a letter to Civil Defense for National Survival, a series of congressional hearings on civil defense programs in the United States. Mayor Daley expressed this weariness of Cold War saber rattling, as well as suspicion of the efficacy of local Civil Defense programs, in this letter, where he states, “As you well know, the ebb and flow of the so-called cold war over the last several years and the highly publicized conflict of opinion on the efficacy of civil defense, have been conducive to public apathy in this regard. It is therefore well-nigh impossible to arouse the public to the point of volunteer participation in civil defense training and activities.”
Indeed, cause for the mayor’s cynicism and the public’s relative indifference would be on full display a few years later when the White Sox won the pennant in 1959. Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn, who also served as acting director of the Chicago Civil Defense Corps, decided to blast the city’s air raid sirens in celebration. According to “Joy in Mudville,” a 1960 working paper on the incident prepared by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago for the Disaster Research Group at the National Academy of Science–National Research Council, Commissioner Quinn was unable to contact the mayor before ordering the alarms to blare, though he did give the police, local fire battalions, the media, and utility companies a few minutes warning.
The report states that while there were half a million households that could have heard the sirens, most responded by looking out windows and turning on the TV or radio. However, only 2% took any protective action, such as seeking shelter in a basement. While a majority of Chicago residents surveyed indicated that they thought Civil Defense efforts would be of some use in case of an attack, 40% of respondents did not know about the existence of Conelrad, the civil defense radio service, and most of those who were aware of Conelrad either did not understand how the service worked or how to tune in should an attack occur.
Another example of the disconnect between Civil Defense efforts and the willingness of civilians to take action is evidenced by the response to Cook County’s distribution of 260,000 copies of the booklet “Family Fallout Shelter” to households in Chicago and its suburbs. As Tracy C. Davis notes, only 19 applications for fallout shelters in the area were filed, and Chicago building codes actually prohibited their construction.
Throughout the next few decades, concerns about nuclear war waxed and waned: The Cuban Missile Crisis revived some interest, but the anti-war and other social movements of the mid-to-late 1960s would create even deeper cynicism regarding civil defense. The governments of both the United States and the United Kingdom quietly abandoned plans to try to save their citizens and instead put their efforts into ensuring the continuity of government. The 1980s brought increased anxiety about the hopelessness of nuclear war: Movies such as “Countdown to Looking Glass,” “Special Bulletin,” “The Day After,” and “Threads” contributed to a sense of hopelessness regarding nuclear war, as did the emerging concept of nuclear winter. In 1986, Mayor Harold Washington and a strangely agreeable city council declared Chicago to be a “nuclear-free zone,” a move that then-governor Jim Thompson decried as “stupid” and “un-American.” As the Cold War began to thaw, fear of nuclear annihilation began to dissipate and largely ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The federal civil defense program was eventually dismantled and completely closed in 1993.
Of course, all this was too good to last. The Roaring ‘90s ended with the first dot.com crash, a contested presidential election, and, on September 11th, 2001, a devastating terrorist attack. We’d had some warm-ups in the recent past, of course: The bioterror attack by cult members in Oregon, the first World Trade Center bombing, and the Oklahoma City bombing, but September 11th wrought great changes in the American psyche and culture. The War on Terror had replaced the Cold War, and the Citizen Corps was formed in January 2002. This organization incorporated several existing civilian auxiliary groups, including the Fire Corps, Neighborhood Watch, the Medical Reserve Corps, Volunteers in Police Service, and Community Emergency Response Teams.
The last group, Community Emergency Response Teams or “CERT,” was formed in 1985 by firefighters in Los Angeles who understood the importance of civilian preparation and response in the face of disasters and emergencies of all kinds, including weather disasters, public utility disruptions, active shooter situations, terrorism, and acts of war. Eventually, the program went national in 1993.
The rationale behind the development of CERT is straightforward: By definition, disasters tax available resources and make it difficult for governments to initially respond to meet the needs of people affected by the situation. The governing principle of emergency and disaster management decisions is doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This may mean the contraction or withdrawal of normal government services and processes so as to help preserve the lives of trained responders and healthcare workers, as well as the equipment and supplies needed to manage the incident.
We can see this principle in the original Civil Defense Corps and Chicago’s own Special Order X X X. In the face of a nuclear attack, trained first responders would need to withdraw from the city, preserving their own lives, as well as vehicles and equipment, so that they would eventually be able to re-enter the area to fight fires and provide aid. Civilian civil defense workers would work within their neighborhoods to provide assistance and care for their neighbors.
Community Emergency Response Team members are offered an “all-hazards” curriculum, in which we learn about the fundamentals of disaster and emergency management and incident command systems, as well as personal and organizational preparation for disasters. We are trained to respond to a full range of emergencies, including fires, chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological disasters, active shooter events, mass casualty incidents, and weather disasters. Further training includes basic first aid, light search and rescue, and going from house to house after disasters to assess disaster victims and provide aid if necessary.
I discovered and joined CERT in 2018 after what my clergy friends might describe as a “dark night of the soul,” the non-religious might describe as a “mid-life crisis,” and mental health professionals might diagnose as “mixed anxiety and depression.” There is some truth in all three explanations, particularly the last two. I was rapidly approaching my 50th birthday, and experiencing Cold War déjà vu, where the Russians were once again our enemy, had not been on my bingo card. Struggles with both depression and anxiety have been a feature, not a bug, in my life since childhood. Sometimes, they get the better of me; sometimes, I get the better of them.
In July 2018, I was on the losing side of that particular battle. The aforementioned revival of Cold War rhetoric and the attendant accusations of Russian collaboration and Nazism were wearing on me.
All this led to a fascination with nuclear history and Cold War civil defense. I spent hours poring over documents, videos, and books. While many of my discoveries were interesting, and you’ve heard some of this in this essay, this research only fed my anxieties, and I began to feel exceedingly sorry for myself. The wake-up call to my folly came after purchasing a package of potassium iodide tablets “just in case.” After all, my research had taught me that the principle of mutually assured destruction, while not the ideal nuclear deterrent, is nonetheless quite effective. The “big one” was not going to drop, and my obsession with it doing so was a symptom of a much deeper and unhealthy issue.
I realized that I had to get out of my own head and re-engage with others. A friend mentioned that he was joining the CERT team in his area and suggested that I investigate the program. As it turned out, a new training was scheduled within a week, and I was promptly enrolled in a month-series of classes along with 21 other volunteers.
My spirits lifted almost immediately after my first class. In our classroom were men and women ranging in age from early 20s to mid-60s. We were white, black, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Pakistani, and Mexican. Our occupations included IT, 911 dispatching, journalism, nursing, factory work, and corrections. All of us expressed similar concerns about the current mood in the country, community mental health, terrorism, and climate disasters. All expressed a willingness to care for our neighbors despite differences in politics, religion, race, or social opinions.
Our instructors affirmed our concerns while also pointing out that we didn’t have to be passive and helpless in the face of them: We received training from first responders, police officers, experienced CERT volunteers, and emergency management professionals. We learned that modern emergency management has limitations and that it can take hours and even days to help reach victims, which is why trained civilians, working with and educating others within our own communities, is so essential. Over my month of training, I emerged from my funk with a renewed energy and purpose that would be tested in the next year.
In late 2019 a “big one” did drop, not with a bang, but with whispers of a virus that could become a pandemic. Like many people, I was not concerned: We’d been through these panics before with SARS, MERS, and Ebola. As the reports became more extreme, I dismissed them as Sinophobia and refused to give credence to propaganda.
By mid-March, however, nobody could deny what was coming, and I received that auspicious email notifying our CERT team of a deployment. As one of our leaders wrote in a follow-up email:
“We are in unprecedented times with this virus outbreak. This is a very serious situation. This is the real deal, folks. The authorities are taking this seriously, and so should we. In Wednesday’s presentation, this was described as a slow-motion disaster. Think of it as a tornado; the difference is that we can alter, reduce, or increase the size and scope of this tornado in what we do.”
My first day on the Chicago COVID-19 phone lines was surreal. It didn’t help that the March skies were gray, creating a sense of foreboding twilight, not unlike what you often see in horror films. After being trained in how to sanitize my workstation, I started answering calls on a corded phone the likes of which I hadn’t seen in over a decade, entering information into a workstation keyboard while awkwardly balancing the phone receiver between ear and shoulder: No headsets were available.
The workstations were mercifully modern in one respect: They offered full access to the Internet. This became critically important. One aspect of disasters that I had heard about, but had no experience with, is that the stress placed on existing systems, even emergency systems, can lead to their collapse. In pandemics, human contact must be restricted to prevent spread, making the internet a critical tool in disaster management. The problem is that many people still do not have internet access, do not know how to use the internet, or do not have a device that would allow them to use the online resources being hurriedly constructed. I quickly learned to ask callers, “Do you have access to the internet?” before assessing their situation.
As the virus spread and the lockdowns intensified, this lack of internet connectivity became more of an issue. I took one call from a man trying to get testing for himself and his partner: He was calling from the library, which was his only internet source. All libraries were scheduled to close the next day. The same was true for those whose internet access was through work or school: These individuals were about to be cut off from one of the primary tools for managing the pandemic, leaving our hotline as one of their few remaining options.
Eventually, it was determined that it was no longer safe for us to be working at the 311 center. In an act that echoed Special Operation X X X, we were dispersed to our own homes, and our deployment was paused while the city’s systems were updated so that we could work remotely. Thus, the CERT “Fuzzy Slipper Crew” was born. Calls to the hotline were routed to our mobile phones during shifts, and between March and November of 2020, our volunteer team logged over 2000 hours on the phone lines.
Throughout the pandemic, we have continued to respond to other needs, such as staffing a cooling center during a heat emergency, helping at testing sites, assisting with vaccination efforts, and staffing an airport resettlement center for Afghan refugees. A recent urgent callout with less than six hours notice saw the assembly of 22 volunteers in cold, wet weather to launch a search and rescue operation for a young man who had gone missing.
Last year, a Bosnian friend who lived in Sarajevo during her country’s brutal civil war made an interesting observation. She noted that during the siege, those who survived did so not because of good relationships with friends or even family members. It was your neighbors, she said, who kept you alive.
The principles of Civil Defense and civilian auxiliaries demonstrate this principle: For all the absurdities of the Cold War and the futility of thermonuclear war survival plans, the fact remains that the willingness of neighbors to keep each other alive and well is foundational to community well-being and human survival.
After my second numbing day of answering the phones, I left the 311 center in a state of fear. I feared that the numbness I felt in my heart might never thaw and that I would exit the pandemic as a much different, much colder person. This didn’t happen. As I sat at my desk in sweats and fuzzy slipper socks, a cat on my lap or at my side, I took calls from people around the city. I directed callers to testing centers, medical treatment, domestic violence shelters, and housing. I took reports of health code violations, reassured people that they were not over-reacting by taking basic precautions, worked with callers on forming inquiries to other area agencies so that they could get the help they needed, and helped people work through their fear of eating food that had been prepared by others or touching a McDonald’s Monopoly game piece. In return, I was treated with amazing kindness and love by almost all callers. I was blessed, thanked, and added to prayer lists.
Contrary to my predictions, my heart did not grow cold, instead, it broke wide open, allowing me to love and appreciate my many neighbors in our wonderful city. Even as I, and so many others, worked to keep our neighbors alive and healthy during the past two years, these neighbors, in turn, provided us with an opportunity to keep going. For this opportunity, I remain profoundly grateful.
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