Homeland security ideas go to school Kids enlisted to help prepare for disasters
(Washington Post) WASHINGTON — In the 1950s, children practiced ducking under desks in case of a nuclear blast. Now, schools are introducing a post-Sept. 11 equivalent: disaster lessons.
“Boys and girls, what time is it?” bellowed Art Lawson, an Amtrak police officer in a starched white shirt, as he stood before fifth-graders in a northwest Washington school one recent afternoon.
“It’s Commander Ready time!” they yelled.
The weekly class, launched this year in D.C. schools, brings homeland security to the lunchbox set. It is part of a national effort to get families to prepare emergency kits and otherwise plan for disasters — a message spread through cartoons, Disney shows and even first-responder camp.
Whiny kids as a homeland security tool? Exactly. After all, officials point out, kids were the ones who bugged their parents to recycle, wear seat belts and stop smoking in past campaigns.
“We’re hoping the kids will go home and talk about what’s happening in their classrooms,” said Dyonicia Brown of Serve DC, the agency that runs the city’s program. “That will give us one more advantage to make sure the District of Columbia is prepared.”
Disaster lessons for kids go back a long way. In the 1950s, Bert the Turtle prepared students for a nuclear strike in the infamous “Duck and Cover” film. Later, the Federal Emergency Management Agency distributed “Sesame Street” earthquake kits, with Muppets rocking to “Beatin’ the Quake.”
Laugh if you will. But the campaigns address a serious problem, officials said. Even in the Washington area, a target of the al-Qaida attacks, only 43 percent of residents are prepared for disaster, according to a study in 2005.
“We’re talking about a major behavioral shift we’re trying to bring about here,” said Jo’Ellen Countee of the city’s emergency management agency.
Homeland Security first considered creating a children’s program after parents requested kid-friendly material. At the same time, the agency was consulting with advertising experts on how to get more people to stockpile emergency supplies and make family plans for disaster. It gradually saw the potential in the underage crowd.
“There was kind of unanimous agreement that … if you hook the children, you hook the parents,” said George Foresman, a former Homeland Security official.
The programs has skeptics, who note there has been little formal evaluation of the results.
James Carafano, a homeland security specialist at the Heritage Foundation, said some are downright “stupid.”
“Mathematically, the odds of any child being killed by a terrorist in the United States are infinitesimally small,” he said.
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