EP 51 How to Make Civil Defense Work Again Challenge

EM Weekly Episode 51 Michael Mabee Civil Defense

EP 51 How to Make Civil Defense Work Again Challenge

[MICHAEL MABEE] Well actually Brock Long last week, said, “CERT on steroids.” You know, on how can we get a civil defense system back like we had in the 50’s, and get people involved, and get citizens trained in the skills they would need. This is exactly what you would be doing in setting up a town-level civil defense organization as a non-profit.

[TODD DEVOE] Hi, welcome to EM Weekly, and this is your host, Todd DeVoe. And this week, we’re talking to Michael Mabee. He’s a new contributor to EM Weekly as well. About his book and program to bring back the idea of civil defense program, like the one we had in the 1950’s. This interview comes on the heels of the interview with Brock Long and his vision of revamping the citizen core.

So, let’s get into the interview with Michael Mabee.

[TODD DEVOE] I’m happy to have Michael Mabee here, and we’re going to be discussing civil defense, kind of the old-fashioned way, the way EM started. And it’s kind of cool because we’re coming on the heels of a couple of conversations that we’ve been having on this topic. One was the Brock Long conversation that we had. And then, also, with Garett, from Raven Rock Mountain. The (inaudible) came into play, all about nuclear preparedness. And in today’s age, especially with what happened in Hawaii and what’s going on in North Korea, we’re going to have a conversation about civil defense and how we can help prepare our communities in an old-fashioned way. So, Michael Mabee, welcome to EM Weekly.

[MICHAEL MABEE] Thank you very much for having me, Todd, it’s a great honor.

[TODD DEVOE] So, Michael, tell me. How did you get involved in this field of emergency management, and especially your passion for the civil defense-type of community preparedness?

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[MICHAEL MABEE] My background is mostly kind of on the response side. I was an EMT, paramedic, and police officer, full-time. I’ve also, with the military, been through two combat appointments to Iraq, as well as two humanitarian missions in Guatemala after Hurricane Mitch. And a lot of people don’t remember Hurricane Mitch, but you know, it affected Central America, and not so much the United States. But you know, Hurricane Mitch hit Guatemala a couple of years they had just gotten out of a decades-long civil war, and it visited destruction and suffering upon this country to a scale that you just can’t possibly imagine, unless you’ve seen it.

As that’s unfolding, here’s the Great Northeast Blackout in 2003, and then an ice storm in 2011 that knocked out the power to millions of people, up here in the Northeast. And I started thinking a lot about the vulnerability of the US power grid and started doing a lot of research on that. And what I came to find out is that, for decades, Congress has been talking about the vulnerability of the power grid, and that’s what really started me thinking about civil defense, was the possibility of a national-scale disaster in the United States, and you know, kind of how willfully unprepared we are for a national-scale disaster.

[TODD DEVOE] My experience with a region power outage happened a few years ago, when there was a power outage that started in Arizona, and it trickled down, and it domino’d into California. And that’s when I really learned how fragile our power system really is, talking to– at the time, the Southern California Edison guys, regarding what it is to be shutting down power on purpose to try to put firewalls up, and if that firewall didn’t hold, we could have possibly lost the Western seaboard, like the Eastern seaboard went down a couple of years prior to that.

[MICHAEL MABEE] And in fact, not just that, but at all levels we are unprepared. We are unprepared on the federal level, state level, and local level, for a nationwide grid outage. And you know, as we’ve seen from some of the past ones, you know, like I was just talking about the Great Northeast Blackout of 2003, that one is kind of interesting, because it started out so innocuously, literally from some untrimmed foliage in Ohio, that caused basically this cascading series of events on mechanical failure, human failure, computer failure, whatever it was.

[TODD DEVOE] Garrett Graff, in his book, Raven Rock, talks about how, by accident, realistically, the United States figured out that there is an EMP that could occur from nuclear blasts. Then, they started preparing for the potential for that being a real possibility. And I know sometimes you hear people talking heads on TV, kind of poopoo, the fact that North Korea could do this. But I think that we should always be prepared for that. What do you think about the possibility of that EMP attack strike, whether than just a typical traditional nuclear strike on the United States?

[MICHAEL MABEE] Yeah, what you are talking about the Raven Rock book, we first kind of became aware of the phenomenon of EMP in the early 60’s when we did some high-altitude nuclear tests in the Pacific. And particularly, what we do is one called Starfish Prime, where approximately 900 miles from Hawaii, we detonated a nuclear bomb in the air, and you know, it was– effects of this were absorbed in Hawaii, over 900 miles away.

just reams and reams, thousands and thousands of pages of federal reports, congressional hearings talking about threats to the grid, including EMP.

Now, the thing about North Korea, or terrorists, for that matter, is an EMP weapon is not particularly difficult. So, I’ve heard a lot of the talking heads talk about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, and one of the comments is, well, they don’t have a good reentry vehicle for a nuclear bomb. You don’t need one. For EMP, you’re exploding it in space. So, all you gotta do is get something up into space with a nuclear bomb, and that’s, technologically, where you need to be. You don’t need it to re-enter into the atmosphere, with the conventional ground-burst nuclear weapon that you would need to.

The other thing is we also have to worry about terrorists. I mean, we were completely surprised by 9/11. Nobody had idea that something like that could happen. We also don’t know at what point it’s possible that a terrorist could get a hold of a small nuclear weapon. If you fire a nuclear weapon from a scud missile, you know, in the Gulf of Mexico, or off the coast of California from a container ship, you could also create an EMP, which could have a devastating effect on the US power grid.

[TODD DEVOE] Yeah, that’s been proven a few times here, specifically with some of our storms, right? I mean, if you think about Katrina, there’s a book that I just bought, “Five Days at Memorial,” talking about Katrina. So yeah, I mean, we know that power outage can lead to death, and not only that, but disease can occur. I mean, it just screws up the ability for us to move water and for sewage out of the areas. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that happens when the power goes down.

So, it’s funny that people, even in our industry, will dismiss the idea of a large-scale power outage. I think it’s the whole normalcy bias sitting on top of that, that we go, “Every day we can turn the switch, and it goes on.” But if you’ve ever served overseas, and you’ve been into countries that are fairly modern, even like, Kuwait, there are areas of Kuwait that do not have regular power coming in, because they just don’t have the distribution system set up. So, it could happen here, regarding just an EMP, or like you said, a solar flare, or just a cyber-attack. We are vulnerable in those areas right there.

How do you think we can get more professionals to be concerned about this cause? I know that William Forstchen, in his book, “One Second After,” and his series that he has on the air. I spoke to him; I had an interview with him a few months ago. And that was one of the things that he was trying to get out, it’s to (inaudible) the professionals, to Congress, to planners about how weak our power system is. But it seems like this is one of those areas that gets dismissed. What do you think we can do, as a profession, to get people to get behind planning and hardening our power system here in the United States?

[MICHAEL MABEE] Great question. And actually, there are kind of two aspects to this. And General Ken Chrosniak, you know, who is part of the security grid coalition, likes to refer to it as kind of the strategic, and then the tactical. So, for those in the military, you know, you’ll understand these terms. For the strategic are the big picture. Is getting Congress to enact legislation to harden the electric grid, to you know, prevent something like this from happening, holding federal agencies accountable for enforcing any existing rules and laws, to make sure that the power grid is protected.

Then, at the tactical level, and this is what we’re talking about at the towns, the emergency manager in charge of a particular town, and the citizens, and the government of a local town. And Brock Long has talked a lot about this, recently, in his Testimony to Congress on November 30th, as well as in your interview with him. He talked about the need to bring pre-disaster mitigation back down to the local level.

So, let’s take a look at, for example, Katrina and Maria. And these are both horrible disasters, by all accounts, and I don’t think anybody will argue that. But now, I’ll say something controversial.

EM Weekly Episode 51 Michael Mabee Civil Defense[MICHAEL MABEE] Here is the problem, and where we have to think outside of the box. There are 35,000 towns and cities in the United States. And if the disaster area is in, substantially, all of them, you know, with the loss of the electric grid, let’s say, cyber-attacks, solar flare, EMP, whatever it is. Cascading failure for any number of reasons. If, substantially, the entire United States is the disaster area, then where are you going to bring in outside resources? There’s no way that FEMA can helicopter in MREs and water to 35,000 towns and cities in the United States.

So, survival will be a local issue; you’ll be on your own, just your local government, whatever you have in your town at that time, that’s what you’re going to have to work with. Now, that’s a huge problem if you don’t think about it ahead of time, but there’s a lot you can do if you do think about it ahead of time, to mitigate the loss of life and to be prepared, you know, for your town and your citizens, you know, to survive a worst-case scenario.

So, you know, if you think about, kind of, where you are, your jurisdiction, and what problems you would have if the power went out for a long period, weeks, or months, what power your citizens would have. I’m up here, in the great state of New Hampshire, and we just recently had some of the coldest weather I can remember in a long time. You know, we had sub-zero weather with wind. If the power had been out during the winter up here, in New England, you’re just seconds away from a humanitarian crisis, because people’s houses, nowadays, are depending upon power for heat.

So, if your generator is still working, you quickly run out of fuel. Now, you’ve got people without food, without water, without fuel, people start dying of starvation, they start dying of water-borne diseases. You get a breakdown of law and order. You know, just look at the 1977 blackout in New York City, of look at hurricane Andrew, for example, or Katrina, for that matter, for examples to kind of what happens to law and order during a disaster. And now, you know, look at this as a national scale disaster.

And you know, in many small towns, you may have only a few police officers in the town. And you know, those few police officers, you know, might, during normal times, be sufficient to cover the town, and you can always call for mutual aid. But in a national scale disaster, you know, quickly, you find that you can’t control looting; you can’t control people who, once they’re starving, may do the wrong things and break into their neighbors’ houses.

So, all of these things, we can predict what the effects would be. I think one of the problems is we don’t always think about it. We don’t have tabletop exercises, where this is the scenario. You know, your town is on its own, and there are no outside resources available. So, you know, one of the things I talked quite a bit about in the book is, you know, what are the effects, what things would we need to plan for, and you know, what are some things that we could do ahead of time to mitigate starvation, to mitigate diseases, to help stand up a good medical system in a town, where you might not even have a hospital in your town right now, but you’re certainly going to need one, you know, if there’s a long-term disaster.

So, you know, this is kind of what my book talks about, is how, at the town level, you can build a civil defense system. And you know, I guess, let me say right ahead of time, one of the most common kinds of objections, if you will, that I hear from emergency managers is, “We don’t have a budget for that.” You know, “If FEMA wants us to do pre-disaster mitigation at a local level, then there’s got to be funding, etc., etc.” You know, I’m not arguing that point, but what I am saying is, a civil defense organization set up in a town as a non-profit is not coming out of the town’s emergency management or emergency preparedness budget. This concept of having a non-profit civil defense organization, such as mini fire departments, and ambulances are set up in the structure; this would be an organization.

And I believe civil defense and– you know, CERT has done that, you know, in places where, you know, CERT is believed in, and ERT is used. You know, you’ve got a lot of people, regular citizens who volunteer their time, and now they’re very interested, and hopefully, they’re talking to their neighbors about emergency preparedness. A civil defense organization accomplishes the same thing. It helps you, as the town government, to find and channel these resources into your town’s emergency preparedness. And if you’re a citizen, it gives you a way to be involved.

So, in the meantime, what can citizens do, down on this kind of town-scale (audio cuts off)? We can help prepare our towns. We can help prepare our neighbors and our communities to be prepared for a worst-case scenario.

[TODD DEVOE] My philosophy here is that, if you’re preparing for the worst-case scenario, the other than worst-case scenario becomes easy. And the example of that is, in my training here, being brought up in Orange County, California, where we had a nuclear powerplant down the street from us, are we trained for that event, or the nuclear powerplant had a major incident. And we would train for that every year– every two years, realistically, and then every four years, I think there was a graded exercise from FEMA. But we trained for that.

We can do that nuclear powerplant, we had evacuation plans for the entire county if we needed to. And we knew how to exercise that. And that made fires, and tsunami warnings, and everyday large-scale earthquake– you now, (inaudible) everyday large-scale earthquake, but you know, the idea of an earthquake. It made all these other ones easy to do. Does that make sense?

[MICHAEL MABEE]who said, essentially, the same thing. That we kind of prepare for what we’re capable of responding to, we prepare for things we’ve seen before. I mean, we’ve seen hurricanes, we’ve seen earthquakes. The problem is, these are all regional disasters. You know, when have we tried to prepare for a national-scale disaster?

So, I think that we are not preparing for worst-case scenario, but you’re right, if we do, it makes everything else easier, because it’s much easier to scale down than to scale up.

[TODD DEVOE] Right. You know, it’s funny because– I mean, Dr. Kelly Victory, who I interviewed regarding the active shooter, you know, our new sponsor, the Blue Cell, with Todd Manns, and his interview that I had with him. And you know, other interviews I’ve done, with Craig Fugate, Dr. Kelly Victory, for instance, on active shooters. She talks about training for that large-scale incident for businesses and cities. And that has proven to be useful in other aspects of it.

Todd Manns, from the Blue Cell Group, he’s our new sponsor, but his group talks about training for outside that comfort zone. You know, pushing you to the edge. Because we don’t want to do exercise and training that we’re comfortable with, because we don’t learn anything from that, we’re not tested. And we’re talking about here again. This is the fourth or fifth time, during this podcast, that we’ve talked about pushing your envelope where your abilities are.

[MICHAEL MABEE] Yeah, I agree. And actually, I would even say– you know, I hope that we will do this on a national level at some time. I mean, there is an exercise called “gridEx,” and I wrote about that on my blog. But most people have never even heard of it, so, you know, it didn’t necessarily do people much good down at the town level. But you know, what I could say is, you know, for every emergency manager who is in a town, a city, a county, kind of the local level, you want to kind of have your own tabletop exercise right now, and just focus on what resources you have available right now, and what would happen.

It’s very easy to anticipate what the problems would be, and you know, spoiler alert: the first time you do this, lots of people are going to die, and you’re going to “fail” the exercise, but that’s ok. Because that’s where we do learn, we have to learn by failure, not by success and patting ourselves on the back. But we need to see where do things go wrong. You know, we have lots of people die from waterborne diseases. Well, what can we do to mitigate that? You know, how can we get potable water out to everybody?

So we encourage everybody, you know, take a look– and I’ve got some real good examples, I think, in the book, of some of the things that could go wrong, some of the things to consider. And it would be best to look at it now and start to work on pre-disaster mitigation than be stuck after the (inaudible) with a bad case of wishing I had thought about this ahead of time.

[TODD DEVOE] Right. So, we’re getting here close to the end, and there are a couple more questions I have for you. One is if somebody wanted to get a hold of you, or you know, and your book and your blog, how would they find you?

[MICHAEL MABEE] Ok. You can find me, most easily, at civildefensebook.com. So, it’s all one word, civildefensebook.com. That’s my website. I have a blog up there; you can subscribe to my blog, there’s also a contact page with my email and everything like that so that you can get in touch with me. If you don’t remember the website, just Google my name, Michael Mabee, and civil defense, and you’ll find me. I’m up there; I do a lot of blogging about pre-disaster mitigation and civil defense, I’m on most of the social media; Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter.

[TODD DEVOE] I think one of the things I like about your book as well, it’s not just a textbook if you will. It also has workbook abilities there, there’s some fill-in-the-blank-areas, where it makes you think about things, and you can start your planning process using your book. So, well done on that book, by the way.

The toughest question of the day, and I know we talked about a couple. What book, or books, or publication, do you recommend for somebody who is more interested in learning about civil defense, and you know, power outages, and those type of things?

[MICHAEL MABEE] There are a lot of great books on this. But one thing that if you’re interested in doing tabletop exercises, there’s a book by Charles Manto, from the InfraGard EMP Special Interest Group, that has a whole group of tabletop exercises that you can do. And you can get this on Amazon, if you go to Amazon and just look under Charles Manto, he’s got an entire volume of tabletop exercises you can use.

And there’s also a great book, called “Apocalypse Unknown,” by Peter Vincent Pry, which talks a lot about the EMP threat. Much more technical than mine, I’m not a tech guy, I’m a– you know, a technical “how can we make our town safer, what can we think of this.” And Dr. Pry is a scientist, and he talks a great length about what the threats are, and what can happen in cascading failures in the infrastructures. That’s a good background book as well that people might be interested in.

[TODD DEVOE] Thank you, those are good solutions. I normally leave it at this part of the interview, and I go from here, but I want to ask one more question for you. How do you think that we can, again, as professionals, or people that are passionate about this, kind of push this idea of town civil defense, as we had back in the day? What can we do to make this happen?

[MICHAEL MABEE] We have to change our culture. And I’ve been writing about this for a while. We have this in-the-box thinking right now, about resources, about– you know, we consider resources to be a line item in a budget, we consider that they fall like (inaudible) from above. We have to think outside of the box about the resources in our town, and we gotta be open to new ideas about how to make our town safer.

Emergency managers and the town government cannot do it alone. We have to get our citizens involved in this. You know, there’s no other way to do it. If you don’t get your citizens involved, you’re not going to be able to effectively have a civil defense system in your town.

[TODD DEVOE] Michael, thank you so much for your time today. Before I let you go, is there anything else you’d like to say to the emergency managers out there, that are listening to the podcast?

[MICHAEL MABEE] No, but I would like– big shout out to Brock Long. You know, if you didn’t listen to Todd’s podcast from two weeks ago, it’s number 44, please, listen to what the director of FEMA is saying because I think it’s a very, very relevant message to us.

[TODD DEVOE] Great. And again, everybody, find us– you know, if you’re listening to this from other sources, it’s EMWeekly.com, and we’re on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, we’re out there. So, go ahead and find us, and we’d love to have you. Michael, again, thank you so much for being on here.

[MICHAEL MABEE] Ok, great. Thank you for having me.

Michael is also a Contributing Author on EM Weekly. Take a look at his work


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About Todd De Voe 72 Articles
Involved in Emergency Response, Emergency Management, Education and Volunteer Management for over 25 years.Served as a Corpsman assigned to the Fleet Marine Force of the United States Navy. I now teach Emergency Management at Coastline Community College, I am also the Host of EM Weekly.

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