Seeking Civil Defense Wardens

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - September 21, 2005
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During World War II my dad was in heavy construction, working on defense-related projects in the San Francisco Bay Area, so from 1943 to 1945 we lived in Oakland. During the war years, the entire Bay Area was militarized with defense installations and plants, ship construction and essential port facilities - all under strict security.

After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had released huge bomb-carrying balloons to be swept by the prevailing winds across the Pacific and over the western states. Of the few that made it, none caused any damage, and some were recovered in the Northwest. These balloon-borne bombs indicated the Japanese were still determined to attack our homeland, so security against air attack was paramount.

I can still remember our weekly “air raid” drills as a fifth-grader, traipsing single file down the stairs to the school’s basement and sitting back against the wall beneath the high skylight windows so any flying glass would go across the top of us to the far side of the room. Or, if there was no warning, quickly scurrying beneath desks to take shelter from falling debris.

Every home had “blackout” curtains on the windows. When the air raid sirens sounded at night, “blackout” was stringently enforced. Blackout curtains were drawn tightly, street and utility lights were doused, cars had the top half of their headlights painted out. The idea was to deny any advantage to enemy bomber pilots or bombardiers by giving them light patterns on the ground by which to navigate or aim.

The central figure in all this was the air raid warden, a volunteer from each city block to enforce blackout. Armed with a military-style helmet and a flashlight, he’d roam the streets during drills to ensure no light was emanating from any house. If there was, he would warn the occupants, and make sure the errant beam was stifled. He could also cite habitual offenders.

The point of all this is that in light of lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, it may be time to resurrect the concept of warden: civil defense warden. The state legislator from each House district would be responsible to solicit a volunteer to be district warden, who would identify a secure district command center, and then organize the district with precinct wardens.

The precinct warden would be the key “grass-roots” person to know the needs of the precinct through a demographic inventory identifying elderly or disabled people, or nursing and group-living homes - any who would need assistance evacuating to shelters. The warden would identify families with infants or small children, individuals with special medical or emergency skills, small businesses with special needs, homes or businesses with excess storage space for neighborhood caches of extra water, food and supplies.

Precinct wardens would make “face-to-face certain” that every household knew where their designated shelter was located, how they were going to get there, and what to take with them. Able volunteers could be designated responsible for their disabled neighbors.

In a civil defense emergency, the precinct wardens would maintain communications with the district warden, and he/she would maintain contact with the state command center. Special needs or unanticipated situations could be brought to the attention of the central authorities, and responses communicated to the precinct in short order.

Each district and precinct warden would identify a co-warden with whom to work in partnership to ensure continuity in cases of absence or illness of one or the other. Communities served by effective neighborhood boards or neighborhood watches might have an organizational head start. All wardens would require professional training by state civil defense experts in all aspects of their responsibilities. And, by the way, if the term “warden” is to authoritarian for contemporary sensibilities, it could be “director” or “manager.”

Every local journalist and pundit has harped on this for the past two weeks, but it really can’t be said enough. Katrina showed us the folly of relying on immediate help from the outside, especially here in Hawaii. The more responsibility we take for ourselves and our neighbors, the better the chances of survival for all.

Any would-be civil defense wardens out there?

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