Until the twentieth century, there was no formal government response system for emergency situations. The fear of an attack on U.S. soil, for example was almost nonexistent; the last foreign troops in the United States had been the British during the War of 1812. By the twentieth century, attitudes had changed, but it was not until the 1940s that the federal government felt compelled to take action. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the first Office of Civilian Defense in 1941, in anticipation of possible attacks on U.S. soil by the Axis forces in Germany and Japan. By 1950,when President Harry S. Truman created the Federal Civil Defense Administration, the main focus of emergency management was guarding against a possible invasion from Communist forces.
During the Cold War years following World War II, civil defense administrators worked with citizens to help them prepare against possible enemy attacks. A major fear was nuclear attack. The devastation of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan were still fresh in people’s minds. During the 1950s, many families installed bomb shelters underground or in their basements to guard not only against bombs but also against nuclear fallout. Municipal buildings, schools, and large private office buildings and apartment houses often displayed placards with the Civil Defense logo and the words “Fallout Shelter” (many older buildings still sport these placards). Up until the 1960s, students were led through air-raid drills in which they were instructed to “duck and cover” by ducking under their desks and covering their heads with their arms.
By the 1970s there were more than 100 federal agencies handling various aspects of disaster relief and emergency management. These included the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the Federal Insurance Administration, the Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration, and the U.S. Defense Department’s Civil Preparedness Agency. In addition, each state and many municipalities had individual disaster relief and emergency management programs. There was concern that in the event of an emergency situation, there would be so many organizations scrambling to take charge that no one would be able to get anything done in the ensuing disorder. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order that merged the numerous disaster relief agencies into one central agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA’s role is “responding to, planning for, recovering from, and mitigating against disasters.” One of FEMA’s first innovations was the creation of an Integrated Emergency Management System to provide warning systems in the event of disasters. FEMA can provide information and guidance for messages broadcast through the Emergency Alert System (which is actually maintained by the Federal Communications Commission).