State and local emergency preparedness authorities yesterday derided a federal proposal calling for building fallout shelters to protect officials during a nuclear attack while stressing "self-help" techniques for the rest of the population.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency proposal, being considered by other agencies in the Reagan administration, advocates spending $1.5 billion between 1988 and 1992 to equip 600 nuclear war shelters for local officials and property records. Some of the money would be used to enlist volunteers as "block wardens" and "auxiliary police," distribute instructional materials to families and churches, and buy millions of radiation detectors.
Donald DeVito, director of the New York state emergency office and president of the National Emergency Management Association, said that he and most of his colleagues would prefer to spend funds preparing for hurricanes, blizzards and similar hazards. NEMA is the association of state emergency directors.
"A major nuclear attack on this nation is of such unimaginable proportion, the catastrophe would be so great, the very survival of the nation would be in question," he said. "Better we do everything we can to prevent such an event from occurring."
DeVito also said he believes that the government will have difficulty enlisting millions of volunteers while building shelters for officials only.
"You can't have it both ways," he said. "How can you tell people you're going to spend this billion on shelters for government officials, and that the volunteers are going to be out there on their own, and expect the volunteers are going to be with you?"
Ellis Stanley, director of emergency services in Durham and Durham County, N.C., also questioned a policy of sheltering only officials during a war. Stanley, who cautioned that he has not read the details of the FEMA plan, is president of the National Coordinating Council on Emergency Management, an association of city and county emergency directors.
"Who are we going to provide leadership to?" he asked. "What would the county board do afterward?"
The most recent FEMA proposal, dated April 16, says that the shelters are "not designed to single out 'elite' groups for special protection," but to ensure the survival of authorities to help manage "a viable democratic society after a nuclear attack."
FEMA officials took issue with an account of their proposal in Saturday editions of The Washington Post, which used the phrase "bomb shelters."
"There's no such thing as a bomb shelter," FEMA spokesman Russell Clanahan said. "There are blast shelters or fallout shelters, and what we're talking about are fallout-protected, emergency operating centers that in some cases may have some blast protection incidental to them."
Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), described the plan yesterday as "one of those just incredibly stupid things that send all the wrong signals."
"It sends the wrong signal to the people that, somehow, we're more valuable, that we're better than they are," he said. "And it perhaps sends the wrong signal to foolish leadership that maybe somehow you can launch something and still be protected . . . . The reality is, nobody is going to survive an all-out nuclear war, and all we're doing is wasting $1.5 billion."
DeVito and Stanley said that most civil defense officials want to give priority to hazards they believe are more likely, including floods, chemical plant explosions or hazardous waste spills. They said that plans for such crises, including evacuation routes and contingency care facilities, are more likely to be useful in nuclear war than plans specifically designed for nuclear attack.