Boys and Girls, Can You Say Anthrax?

Art Lawson, an Amtrak police officer, uses a coloring book to discuss emergency tips with students at Tubman Elementary School in Northwest.
Art Lawson, an Amtrak police officer, uses a coloring book to discuss emergency tips with students at Tubman Elementary School in Northwest. (Photos By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

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.

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