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In the name of civil defense


NEXT MONDAY, at precisely 1 p.m., if you are outdoors and paying attention, you will hear warning sirens blare from the tops of certain strategically located buildings scattered throughout the Baltimore area. Those sirens are sounding (as they have since 1964) the good news: the Russians aren't coming.

That has been the news since the sirens first assumed their peacetime role, beginning on the early afternoon of Monday, July 6, 1964, when they became an official part of the city's (and the state's) civil-defense system. Since then, the system has been tested each Monday. The system actually dates back to the 1950s, when it was occasionally tested -- only after the public was notified.

It was designed to give two warnings:

1. The alert signal, which was a three- to five-minute blast, meaning: "Enemy attack on Baltimore probable; turn on your radio for emergency instructions."

2. The take-cover signal, which was a three-minute siren, meaning: "Enemy attack on Baltimore is imminent, take shelter."

Now those warnings may sound bizarre, but during the Cold War they were taken very seriously.

In 1962, the city was preparing itself for air raids planned and carried out by the Russians; it was the beginning of a nightmare time that we remember as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States and Russia were in a standoff over the planned location of Russian nuclear missile sites in Cuba. The talk among Baltimoreans (and many other U.S. residents, particularly those on the East Coast) in those tense days was about nuclear fallout, air-raid shelters and preparing against the big hit.

It was being reported that many more Baltimoreans were suddenly praying. Priests and ministers reported increases in church attendance. Many people raided grocery-store shelves to stock their bomb shelters or cellars. In the schools, children regularly practiced air-raid drills.

Baltimore's civil-defense officials were deluged with phone calls (as many as 900 a day) from citizens questioning how the air-raid warning system worked.

Today, those sirens still sound at 1 p.m. every Monday. But according to Richard McKoy, director of the Office of Disaster Control and Civil Defense for Baltimore City, for all practical purposes the sirens function today as warnings of such emergencies as chemical explosions or natural disasters. (As a matter of record, the emergency alert sirens in Baltimore have never sounded a true emergency.)

So when you hear those sirens blaring on Monday, don't think war is at hand. Instead think warm thoughts about how the civil-defense system is still working to protect us from explosions, hurricanes, etc.

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