GREENCASTLE MAYOR'S REPORT: From Civil Defense to Emergency Management

Ben Thomas Jr./Greenastle mayor

So, do you remember those yellow signs with black lettering on the inside and outside of buildings back in the late 1950s and 1960s indicating “Fallout Shelters"? It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m in the family room sipping on a cup of hot tea. Get a cup of tea or coffee and join me as we discuss emergency preparedness during this winter season.

So, do you remember Hurricane/Tropical Storm Agnes in June of 1972? The “Civil Defense” system was activated as heavy flooding occurred on the East Coast and inland in south-central Pennsylvania. Franklin County had appointed Civil Defense Director Tom Hawthorne. Antrim Township resident Floyd "Spurdy" Starliper was the local CD director.

Fallout shelter signs and emergency preparedness drills were common in the 1950s and 1960s.

Back then, Civil Defense, prepared for a nuclear (radiation) attack as we would crawl under our school desks during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fallout shelters were typically in basements of public buildings and churches in urban areas. Were there any in Greencastle? Some homes in Greencastle actually had basement rooms that served as fallout shelters for the dwellers. After all, these were folks who lived through the Great Depression and World War II when volunteer spotters watched for enemy planes over Greencastle 24 hours a day while air raid wardens walked the streets at night examining homes for any lights during planned “black outs.”

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OK ... let’s go back to Hurricane Agnes and 1972. Governments realized that we must prepare for natural disasters more than nuclear. Other concerns included our transportation systems (trains and trucks) carrying hazardous materials right through our communities. Therefore, “Civil Defense” converted to “Emergency Management” and Emergency Management Agencies (EMA) were activated. WKSL radio played a part in setting up emergency management agencies back then. Why? Radio stations were and still are required by the Federal Communications Commission to be involved with the “Emergency Broadcast System” to alert citizens by AM and FM radio. Everyone listened to the radio and many still do. Today, we rely on our smart phones, however, if they go down, you’ll still rely on local radio stations to provide the latest emergency broadcast system information. The last resort for emergency communication is by our volunteer ham radio operators who are still able to communicate with battery/generator operated systems.

After Hurricane Agnes, I traveled to Harrisburg along with WKSL Chief Engineer Harold Kuhns to meet at Civil Defense Headquarters and brainstorm improvements to the radio emergency broadcast system and networking with other radio stations. Radio had an obligation back then to serve the public and this was one way to do so. That was the transition time from Civil Defense to Emergency Management. Today, radio stations still have their own networking if the emergency broadcast system requires activation to alert listeners. After all, not everyone has a smart phone to receive emergency messages.

Greencastle Mayor Ben Thomas Jr.

For many years I served the community as a regional Emergency Management coordinator and regularly attended training for natural and human disaster preparation. With railroad, interstate highway, Three Mile Island and military base locations in proximity to Greencastle preparation included training, community resources inventory and table-top exercises. The community’s resource inventory included from the number of public facilities and food supplies to the number of available snowmobiles and their operators in G-A.  

Emergency preparedness starts at home and what you carry in your vehicle, especially when traveling on an interstate highway. The I-95 incident three weeks ago was a prime example of packing what I refer to as a “go bag.” Bottled water, protein snacks, heavy blanket (one per occupant), flashlight, batteries, extra socks and head warming clothing, gloves, TP (toilet paper), and cell phone charger is a good start. When traveling an interstate highway, I always stop for fuel when the gauge reaches half a tank.

At home, preparedness starts in the kitchen by keeping several days' supply of drinking water and non-perishable food. If your electricity goes out do not use a generator inside your home. Rely on plenty of blankets and create a warm room if you do not have an alternate heat source. If a sustained power outage occurs and you do not have an alternate heat source, your local emergency management agency will establish warming centers. These are buildings with generators where the heat source is working.

Meanwhile, it just started snowing and the hot tea has been devoured. I had to activate the road system’s snow emergency plan at my work. Greencastle’s public works personnel pre-treated our streets earlier this afternoon. We’ll just hunker down; enjoy the snow; and watch some sports as mother nature provides the beauty of winter. March 20th is the first day of spring! We are certainly blessed.