Fallout Shelter in American Architecture, Part I

For Part II, click here.

This content is taken and summarised from Fallout Shelter: Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War by architectural historian David Monteyne. First published in 2011, the book is over 340 pages long.

Era of kilotonnage:

Image credit: David Monteyne

In 1943, after the USSR learned of the Manhattan Project, the country initiated its own atomic bomb program.

From 1945 to 1947, the USSR reverse engineered the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, three of which had made emergency landings in the USSR during the US war with Japan.

Subsequently, the aircraft entered service as the “Tupolev Tu-4”, becoming the USSR’s first nuclear delivery vehicle.

In 1949, the USSR tested its first atomic bomb. As such, if nuclear war were to break out in the early 1950s, US citizens had the luxury of several hours forewarning before the arrival of lumbering Soviet bombers like the Tu-4.

Image credit: David Monteyne

After the USSR became an atomic power, the United States responded by constructing “continuity-of-government” bunkers from 1950-onwards.

These top-secret installations were designed to protect members of the government and military, as well as important documents and communication systems, so that the United States would continue to exist as a viable political entity following a nuclear exchange.

Images credit: David Monteyne

Civil defence in 1950s America:

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The purpose of civil defence was to ensure social, economic, and political continuity after nuclear war. In that sense, “civil defence” was based entirely on the home front, in preparation for the aftermath of nuclear war.

In the early 1950s, the Federal Civil Defense Administration, or “FCDA”, attempted to secure funding for a national blast shelter construction program. In contrast to government bunkers, these shelters would serve as refuge for the general public in the event of nuclear war.

However, Congress repeatedly rejected funds for public blast shelters due to their cost, and for fear of promoting a welfare state and communistic living. As it was, no funding for public blast shelters would ever be allocated.

Hence, during the 1950s, all the FCDA could do was tell Americans to “duck and cover” and issue specifications for the construction of do-it-yourself blast shelters.

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In FCDA publications, home shelter building was promoted as an opportunity for father-son bonding, while women of the household would keep the finished shelter clean and well stocked. According to census data, few Americans built such shelters.

In this regard, and not wanting to be seen as promoting a welfare state, the FCDA promoted survivalism as the American way.

Image credit: David Monteyne

Era of megatonnage:

In 1952, the advent of multimegaton hydrogen bombs meant there was virtually no defence against a nuclear blast, but only from its radioactive fallout. Fallout could be carried by weather patterns thousands of kilometres from ground zero. Radioactivity could remain lethal for weeks or months.

Image credit: David Monteyne

Yet despite this, the FCDA continued to promote infrastructure dispersal, large-scale evacuations, and DIY bunkers into the late 1950s. In 1957, the USSR developed the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile.

Hence, with the advent of ICBMs and ballistic missile submarines, the warning time for a nuclear attack dropped to around 15 minutes.

Fallout-protected buildings? – changes to civil defence during the Kennedy Administration:

In 1961, after the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, the President announced plans for a “national survey” to assess the potential of existing buildings and infrastructure in providing fallout protection.

This was because virtually any structure provided at least some protection from radiation.

Hence, the “National Fallout Shelter Survey” formed the backbone of US civil defence planning during the 1960s, and marked an increase in government funding for civil defence.

Under the guise of the survey, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) worked closely with the newly formed Office of Civil Defense, or “OCD”.

Unlike its predecessor, the OCD was established within the Department of Defense (DOD). This gave the OCD access to DOD experts, resources, classified information, and test sites.

Fallout shelter, as distinct from blast shelter:

Image credit: David Monteyne

Fallout shelter was intended only for those lucky enough to survive the initial blast, firestorms, and radiation burst of a multimegaton nuclear device. As previously mentioned, fallout is the residual radiation in the days and weeks following a nuclear exchange.

Blasts could knock down buildings, but radiation could not.

In contrast to the FCDA of the 1950s, the OCD regarded blast shelters as too costly and impractical for the general public. Hence, such installations were reserved only for the government and military.

National Fallout Shelter Survey:

Image credit: David Monteyne

The survey was divided into three phases:

– Phase I: contractors survey existing buildings, gathering data for calculating their Fallout Protection Factor (FPF) and refuge capacity

– Phase II: licencing, marking, and stocking of prospective fallout shelters

– Phase III: annual updates to the database

Running concurrently with the survey, was the training of architects, engineers, and student interns as “fallout shelter analysts”. By 1969, there were some 17,500 fallout shelter analysts in the United States.

Fallout Protection Factor (FPF) was calculated on the basis of an existing structure’s:

– age

– allowable loads

– connections

– facade

– general habitability

– materials

– methods of construction

– refuge capacity for at least 50 persons

– square footage

– wall and floor massing

Initially, the minimum allowable standard – for public buildings – was FPF 100, although this was reduced to FPF 40. The minimum standard for government buildings remained FPF 100.

A glass skyscraper could, in fact, attain an adequate FPF level. The upper floors of a glass skyscraper could offer good fallout protection depending on the building’s distance from adjacent structures and the thickness of the roof slab. In addition, the interior core of a glass skyscraper could offer good fallout protection if certain conditions were met.

Image credit: David Monteyne

In practice, it was basements that were most commonly marked as fallout shelters. This was due to the mass of the foundations and backfill, as well as the distance from above-ground fallout.

Processing data from the survey:

For statistical and mapping purposes, each structure was assigned a location code. These codes were then used to create Film Optical Sensing Devices for Input to Computers, or “FOSDICs”.

The FOSDICs were then processed though microfilm machines and converted to magnetic tape. The magnetic tape was then processed through IBM supercomputers. Finally, long printouts of the FPF calculations were returned to the contractors.

Based on the data obtained during Phase I, contractors re-visited each prospective fallout shelter and evaluated the following:

– auxiliary power

– condition of entrances and exits

– drainage

– orientation of door and window openings

– ventilation

Co-opting property owners for the survey:

Image credit: David Monteyne

For the most part, during Phase I, private property owners were amenable to the fallout shelter analysts. Note that no legislation mandating the construction of public fallout shelters existed.

During Phase II however, property owners proved less amenable, although refusal rates remained low. This was because Phase II involved licensing, marking, and stocking. Naturally, licencing meant property owners would have no control over public access to their building in an emergency.

By 1969, of the 130,000 property owners approached as part of the survey, 88% signed licences. The OCD had a number of techniques for persuading reluctant owners. This included:

– how a licence would improve labour relations due to the perceived concern for employee welfare

– how a licence would ensure the survival of employees for continued business operations post-nuclear war(!)

– how a licence would enhance public relations

– if all else failed, appeals could be made to the owner’s patriotism or desire for self-preservation

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After licencing was dealt with, fallout shelter signage had to be posted, and space provided for the storage of civil defence supplies. Supplies consisted of:

– water

– high energy crackers

– high energy supplements

– sanitation kits

– first aid kits

– radiological monitoring equipment, such as dosimeters and Geiger counters

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Marking and stocking was often accompanied by a ceremony and media attention, highlighting the public relations aspect of the survey. The program allowed the federal government to signal to the public that something was being done. Historian Alice George notes that it provided “the illusion of safety”.

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The National Fallout Shelter Survey in numbers:

By 1966, some 670,000 fallout shelter signs had been posted in and outside buildings across the United States. By 1969, some 100,000 buildings were marked, equating to a refuge capacity for some 104 million people. The survey was updated into the late 1970s.

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In Boston, some 350 buildings were marked as fallout shelters, this equating to a refuge capacity for 119,000 people.

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How buildings marked as fallout shelter would work during nuclear war:

The OCD mailed map booklets showing the location of a person’s nearest fallout shelter. Maps were also included in telephone directories.

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Each shelter would be under the direction of an OCD manager, who would receive and register citizens, oversee the rationing of supplies, and maintain communication with the government regarding the safety of the outside environment.

Based on the registration forms filled out by shelterees, the OCD manager would determine those most suitable for the following roles:

– communications

– first aid

– food rationing

– recreation

– security

Of course, nuclear war would result in the declaration of martial law. In addition, the duration of stay for shelterees was only intended as fourteen days.

Decline of civil defence in the United States:

In 1969, the stocking of fallout shelters by the federal government was abandoned. From then on, stocking was carried out by local governments only. In 1975, it was found that many stocks of high-energy crackers had perished.

Over subsequent years, millions of pounds of civil defence supplies were removed and either destroyed, distributed as livestock feed, or sent to Bangladesh as food aid.

Images credit: David Monteyne

By the 1970s, and with the onset of the era of detente, the threat of natural disasters and civil unrest became a greater concern for civil defence agencies. At the end of the 1970s, civil defence was separated from the Department of Defense, becoming the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or “FEMA”.

Following the September 11 Attacks in 2001, FEMA was incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security. The influence of civil defence on architecture still exists, albeit in the form of limiting the damage of Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) attacks or vehicle-ramming attacks.

For Part II, click here.

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