How Stevens Is Helping Us Rethink Civil Defense, Preparedness
The threat of a nuclear or terrorist attack on U.S. soil remains active, particularly on the small, local scale. Yet the American public remains largely unprepared.
Now Stevens is working to inform the public about nuclear risks and planning by supporting and encouraging some rather inventive means of communication.
Throughout much of the Cold War, the United States ran government public information campaigns to educate the public about civil defense. As the Cold War waned, those programs died off.
But interest in risk communications has revived of late, as improvised nuclear devices achieve higher threat profiles. Supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Stevens professors Kristyn Karl, Alex Wellerstein and Ashley Lytle are leading the way to studying how to notify and prepare the public of the very real dangers nuclear weapons pose.
Their “Reinventing Civil Defense Project” program received $500,000 to broadly assess and refine U.S. civil defense communications. Tasked with seeding sub-projects for public education campaigns, the trio taps experts in defense, academia, technology and the humanities to explore new ways of disseminating information about nuclear and threat preparedness.
“We will evaluate the effectiveness of different messengers and the new media tools explicitly,” notes Karl, who studies political psychology and decision-making. Karl and Lytle will devise tools to measure how viewers react to various communications, useful in determining which types have the most potential.
“Who is trustworthy and credible? What resonates most?” she asks . “Will you remember it, and for how long? That’s also part of what we are going to address.”
According to the best simulations at hand, sheltering in place for several hours to several days in an interior room is the best strategy for surviving a nuclear attack as fallout dissipates. Yet human instinct urges us to flee, rush to schools to rescue children or congregate in shelters.
“Early civil defense plans were created in earnest, and some of them were sound, but some of them were unworkable,” explains Wellerstein, a leading expert in nuclear history who has created world-renowned tools allowing users to simulate detonations worldwide and visualize resulting casualties. “Imagine suddenly trying to evacuate New York because of an imminent nuclear threat? It’s not realistic. People struggle to get out in a timely fashion just during rush hour.”
A public exposition and workshop, “The Bomb and You,” gave an early glance at how the nuclear communications of the future might be crafted. Using media from video games to live performance, funded mini-projects explored the topic in striking fashion. Christopher Manzione, a Stevens professor of visual arts and technology, grabbed national headlines for his work on NUKEMAP VR, a virtual reality experience created with Wellerstein.
In the simulation, users strap on VR headsets before pressing a virtual red button. A mushroom cloud forms over Manhattan, fallout begins — and difficult choices must be made. The experience is visceral, even haunting, and it makes starkly clear why we all must be more prepared.