Agencies Use Cartoons, Games and Even Rap in Twist on Disaster Lessons.
In the 1950s, children practiced ducking under desks in case of a nuclear blast. Now, schools are introducing a post-9/11 equivalent: emergency-preparedness 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.
The lessons aren't just aimed at kids, though. Consider Ready Eddie, a grinning, spiky-haired flashlight character created by Howard County. He tells children to pester Mom and Dad to store batteries, a radio and water.
Whiny kids as a homeland security tool? Exactly. After all, officials point out, children 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 the tune "Beatin' the Quake."
But the current level of activity would impress even Oscar the Grouch. The Department of Homeland Security has sent its "Ready Kids" program to nearly 400,000 teachers. It handed out coloring sheets at Disney shows at 42 shopping malls this summer.
New York City is distributing more than a million children's emergency-preparedness guides this fall, offering nursery rhymes on evacuation and such puzzles as "Readydoku." Alabama offered sleepover "Be Ready Camp" for sixth-graders in September. Forget archery; they learned "terrorism awareness," according to a news release. The highlight was a mock disaster exercise.
"Taking the patients to triage was fun," one girl told the Mobile Press-Register.
Laugh if you will. (YouTube already has a send-up of Big Bird getting avian flu.) But the campaigns address a serious problem, officials said. Even in the Washington area, a target of the al-Qaeda attacks, only 43 percent of residents are prepared for disaster, according to a study carried out by the region in 2005.
"We're talking about a major behavioral shift we're trying to bring about here," said Jo'Ellen Countee, spokeswoman for 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 who oversaw the launch of Ready Kids last year.
"At the end of the day, McDonald's sells more hamburgers because they come up with a successful way to target it to children. You sell more cereal because you target it to children."
Tony the Tiger isn't assembling a disaster kit -- yet. But a variety of other cartoon characters are teaching kids how to prepare for emergencies.
The District uses the Commander Ready team: Reggie, Rachel and their dog, Rodney. Homeland Security's kits feature Rex and his mountain lion family. Discount chain Target distributed 45,000 leaflets in September with disaster advice from mice, turtles and bunnies.
Then there's FEMA for Kids, a Web site starring the Disaster Twins, Robbie and Julia, a sort of Dick and Jane of the emergency age.
"Let's shelter in place!" their teacher says brightly, grabbing her duct tape and plastic sheeting.
The programs have not met with universal admiration. Skeptics 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. "You might as well give them classes on how to avoid being hit by asteroids."
But, he said, many folks are woefully unprepared to protect themselves even in the most common emergencies. "Changing that culture does begin with children, teaching them the right lessons," he said.
The District's program, developed with $200,000 in Homeland Security grant funds, consists of a six-week series of lessons being taught in eight schools, supplemented by such supplies as "go-kits," with flashlights and Commander Ready water bottles. The program will expand to twice as many schools next year, officials said.
Although some other local jurisdictions offer occasional lessons on fires or floods, the D.C. course appears to be the most extensive.
It ranges from the mundane (flu) to the apocalyptic (dirty bombs). Among the "fun things" promised by the Commander Ready workbook is a word game on biological attack. Children are invited to design a flag for their evacuation shelter.
But this isn't just terrorism for tots, D.C. officials insist.
"Terrorism is very minor in regards to the curriculum," said Brown, of Serve DC. "We definitely mention it, because it's something that needs to be mentioned. But it's a holistic approach."
Indeed, Lawson, the Amtrak officer, was struggling on a recent Friday to get students at Tubman Elementary in Columbia Heights to understand the need to plan in case of a fire at home. What if they couldn't escape through the front door?
"I would break my neighbor's wall," announced one boy.
"What if your neighbor's wall is made of brick, like this?" the officer responded, punching the cinderblock.
"Use a chainsaw," reasoned the student.
"Couldn't you use a parachute and go out the window?" another wondered.
Gradually, the children seemed to catch on.
Angelica Cruz, 10, said she enjoyed the class. "It's a nice thing for people to know what to do when they're on fire," she said, smiling.
Lawson repeatedly urged the students to discuss fire safety with their parents. Like most of the children's programs, Commander Ready tries to get parents to stockpile emergency supplies including food, flashlights and a radio, and to make plans on where to go in case of disaster.
But Cruz's mother, Leida, a Salvadoran-born housecleaner, said a few days later that the family had no emergency plan.
"She talked to me about it, but I didn't understand a lot," the mother admitted.
Kathleen J. Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, said the best programs for kids integrate catastrophes into subjects such as science or social studies, giving children a broader understanding of the world. The Red Cross tries to do that with a program called Masters of Disaster, which is used in some area schools.
And the worst programs? Let's just say bureaucrats and youth culture can be a fearsome mix.
Consider the FEMA for Kids rap:
Disaster . . . it can happen anywhere,
But we've got a few tips, so you can be prepared
For floods, tornadoes, or even a 'quake,
You've got to be ready -- so your heart don't break.
Disaster prep is your responsibility
And mitigation is important to our agency . . .
Class dismissed, kids. Go forth and mitigate.