Expedient Civil Defense

Interview with Steve Jones, Apr 30, 2006

by Jane M. Orient, M.D.

Mr. Jones, what did Conrad Chester, one of our nationís foremost civil defense experts at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, believe were the most important things for people to know about civil defense?

Well, the most important thing he emphasized to me was ďduck and cover,Ē and in fact, that was probably the only thing. We also discussed the Kearny fallout meter. He was Cresson Kearnyís boss on the Nuclear War Survival Skills project.

Like everyone else, I was taught to ridicule ďduck and cover.Ē But Chester pointed out how serious it really is, and how it could save millions of lives. I looked it up for myself. If you examine the blast area of a nuclear device, there is a zone half a mile wide or a mile wide, depending on the size of the blast, where anyone standing would be killed, but persons who were lying down were almost guaranteed to live. Since lying down makes a difference between living and dying or receiving a serious injury, it is a very powerful lifesaving maneuver. It takes eight times the force to move a person if he is lying down rather than standing up. Of course the military taught this for years in combat situations. World War II vets came back and if they heard an explosion or saw a flash they hit the dirt. They were embarrassed because they would be walking down a city street and suddenly hit the ground.

This conversation with Chester occurred at a Doctors for Disaster Preparedness meeting, where Sam Cohen was talking about the development of the neutron bomb and Ed York about the original atomic testing, and it really stuck with me. There was the head of the National Self-Help Civil Defense Project, Nuclear War Survival Skills, talking to me personally and emphasizing ďduck and cover.Ē

There was an example of a ship that blew up in the harbor and the applicability of the ďduck and coverĒ in that situation. Would you like to tell us about that?

Thatís available on the internet right now. Anybody can find it on Google. Search for ďParade magazineĒ and then search www.Parade.com on ďblind, ammunition.Ē The 2005 article is entitled ďIsn't It Time to Right the Wrong?Ē During World War II, the Navy blamed the explosion of the ship on the incompetence of the black sailors who were in charge of loading the ammunition, but in fact the sailors had been poorly trained. Two black sailors were not on duty at the time, but were in their bunks on shore. One talked about how he saw the whole harbor light up; it was the last thing he ever saw. He watched the explosion from his window, which shattered, blinding him for life. He wouldn't be blind if he had just had that little bit of training about the common sense notion that if there is a flash, you duck.

Wasnít he with someone who did duck?

Iím not sure. His companion was not blinded. I think they were both injured seriously. I wrote the organization, just pointing out the negligence on the part of the military in not having trained these guys on such a basic thing.

Of course, ďduck and coverĒ is an object of ridicule. But on the internet archives, the Duck and Cover film, the original film with Bert the Turtle, can be downloaded and watched by anyone with the right software and internet connection. More than a quarter of a million people have watched that video. Maybe 10,000 people have watched the other civil defense films that are available on the internet archives from that era, but there have been more than a million attempts to download Duck and Cover, some 268,000 of them successful. But I donít think that those people went there for ridicule. I think the concept of duck and cover is alive and well.

If you were in charge of an emergency program at a school, how would you train the school children on duck and cover?

I would just have a bright light. I think this was Cresson Kearny's advice. I have done this with my children. You shine a bright light into the room, and when that happens everybody ducks and gets down.

In watching the old civil defense film, I realized that I had forgotten what the cover part meant. I thought that you just cover your head like we did during the air raid drills in the fifties when we were in school, to protect from flying debris. Actually, the covering part was to prevent flash burns. Covering yourself with just anything, even a newspaper, could prevent a serious burn.

So you would just lie down on the floor and pull something over you if you could or get underneath something if possible?

Yes. The first thing you did was to get down but if any part of your skin was exposed, try to cover it with newspaper, a piece of cloth, anything. Make sure part of your body is not exposed in the direction of the flash.

There were those pictures of Hiroshima of women who wearing kimonos with a pattern, and their skin was burned underneath the dark parts but spared underneath the lighter parts.

Right. And itís interesting that on the internet archives it showed the difference between having a cluttered yard and a clean yard. Things are much more liable to catch fire if there's clutter. Also curtains on the window may catch fire. People have miniblinds now, and those are ideal for preventing fires from getting set inside your house, if the blinds are turned in a way so that they are reflecting light out. Closing the blinds is excellent fire prevention.

Blast tests showed how a normal home was knocked down by the blast, but how that same home, at a cost of ten percent more in construction, stood through the blast. So a relatively minor amount of reinforcing in the structure would have protected it from blasts. Of course our construction codes have not taken that into account. If there is ever a disaster, it will be awful to realize how cheaply damage could have been prevented, as just by reinforcing homes so they would withstand blasts. Of course, this would also work for hurricanes and tornados.

Just supporting your joists with an extra post, say a 4 by 4 under the main beam in the middle of the basement, can increase the carrying capacity of the floor three-fold. You can then load the floor with sand if you like. You can put plywood underneath your joists and load it with sand to create a shelter out of part of your basement.

Thatís an important thing to remember: one thing you might do is to use your basement as a shelter and to put additional density on the floor of the first story. But if you do that thereís the risk that your floor will collapse if you have not properly reinforced it.

Yes, you would want to consult with a building contractor.

So we should emphasize that if you were expediently trying to increase the protection factor of your basement by piling sandbags up, you risk collapsing the floor if it is not properly reinforced.

Yes. By the way, If you fill the spaces between your joists with sand it will soundproof the floor. In other words, you will not hear people walking upstairs. Itís amazing. I have helped people do this, with a good effect on the acoustics.

The average protection factor of a basement is between 10 and 50. This means that many basements would be adequate shelter for people. It's a tragedy that we donít have a civil defense program, and that people have so little knowledge. Just some simple knowledge alone will increase peopleís chances of survival say to 50%, instead of a 90% chance of not surviving. And this is in a serious nuclear attack, not just a terrorist incident.

Letís talk a little bit about the Kearny fallout meter. Youíre probably the person who has made more KFMs than anyone else alive, and perhaps you could tell us some of the practical things that you have learned in making the device. Maybe you should start with things in the old instructions that have changed with the availability of materials.

The original 1979 instructions were updated in 1986. If you attempt to build a fallout meter with original 1979 instructions, it wonít work because the threads are all treated with anti-statics now. In 1986, Kearny gave alternates, including plastic bag strips and Trilene. These work, but the dental floss he also recommends is no longer manufactured. Of course clean human hair, washed with normal shampoo, works very well. It is just very difficult to work with because it is very fine and hard to see. If you drop the meter the hair will break, but if you are careful with your meter and you donít have anything else, hair works very well. Plastic bag strips also work very well.

How do you make the plastic bag strips?

The plastic bag strips are just cut with a razor blade. They are two millimeters wide. They just look ugly, but they work very well.

It's important to remember that the KFM was designed to be made by uneducated people. Educated people have a harder time because they make it too complex. Itís designed to be poorly built and to work well. You have an amazing amount of room for error in there. Itís just a very ingenious device. Itís designed to be built by children, twelve-year-olds. I find that most people, with college educations especially, read too many things into the instructions.

How do they know that it works if it is so simple?

The main test that you run on the meter when you are done is to see whether it will hold a charge. You know your meter will work well if it does not go down more than a millimeter in three hours. Now a very well-built Kearny meter will hold its charge for a couple of weeks. But even a poorly built meter, which does not pass that test, say the leaves drop a millimeter in a hour, will still work, just not as well, as long as you know the rate at which it goes down in an hour.

Just how good is the accuracy that you can achieve with the Kearny fallout meter?

A well-built meterís accuracy is approximately 10%. That is actually more accurate than most instruments you could buy. A normally built KFM, and this is assuming there is a lot of error in it, has an accuracy of Ī25%, which is better than the original civil defense meters that were used in the sixties. The surplus meters now are on the market have an accuracy of Ī30%. And this is good for measuring radiation.

The KFM is actually a more reliable instrument than an electronic meter. I asked Dr. Gary Sandquist, who at the time was the head of nuclear engineering program at the University of Utah: ďIf you have a choice between using the Kearny fallout meter and the best electronic meter available, and your life depended on it, which would you choose?Ē And he chose the KFM because of the simple fact that it is more reliable. It canít give a falsely low reading.

But now if your leaves are coming together too rapidly, and Iíve had that problem with mine, I think itís important for people to remember that the ionization chamber has to be dry. How do you keep it dry?

You use a homemade desiccantódrying agentófrom sheetrock. It has to be made just the way the instructions say. You have to heat it to a minimum of 300 degrees in your oven (400 degrees is preferable, as oven temperatures vary) for about 20 minutes. That forces the water out of the gypsum. You donít just heat the gypsum; it has to be baked. They you need to put it immediately into in a jar where it will stay dry or into your meter. Prepare some for your meter and some to put in the jar for when the gypsum in your meter gets damp.

What about other types of desiccant, such as silica gel or Drierite?

Color-indicating silica gel is the best. It is easiest to use. It is a very deep blue when it is working, and when it is damp it turns purple or a light pink. When it starts turning purple itís not working. It needs to be reheated in a microwave or with a candle until it turns blue.

Can you put it out in the sun?

Yes, here in Arizona you can dry it out that way. Or in a greenhouse or a hot room in a dry climate. It does not take a lot of heat to dry out the silica gel. Drierite (gypsum or calcium sulfate) works very well too. There is a color-indicating Drierite. The Drierite when it is working will be blue, and when it turns pink or white, it needs to be reheated. But Drierite is rather messy; itís powdery. If you are going to go through the trouble of buying a desiccant, then color-indicating silica gel is much better. If itís not color-indicating (like the kind that may come with medicines), it will still work, but you don't have the advantage of seeing when it's gotten damp. You have to test the meter. If it holds a charge, then you know your dessicant is working.

Well you have to know youíre in an environment that is not saturated with radiation when youíre testing it. You want to test your KFM before you need it to measure the harm from radiation.

Yes. By the way, you can always put some silica gel in with the drywall; you only need a couple of little pieces of color-indicating silica gel to tell you whether your drywall is working or not. When the silica gel goes pink you know it is time to reheat your drywall. A teaspoon of silica gel would be enough theoretically for dozens of meters.

Tell me about Trilene; you use that for the threads in the kits that you make. What is it?

Itís a fishing line. It is commonly available at Wal-Mart or K-Mart or anywhere they sell fishing supplies. Cresson Kearny points out (it's in the instructions) that it takes four or five hours once the meter is made for the Trilene to dry out. There is a substance on the Trilene when it comes off the roll that will prevent it from insulating against static electricity.

Where do you get the silica gel?

Science supply stores have it, or you could order it on the internet. It is fairly easy to get. Maybe if you know a pharmacist he will order some for you.

It sometimes comes in little envelopes in bottles of pills.

It is not color-indicating, but it will work.

What about the ionization chamber? What kinds of cans have you found work best?

The easiest thing is an aluminum soda pop can because you can cut it like paper with scissors. The volume makes a difference. Because of the rounded bottom, you want the pop can to be about an eighth of an inch higher than the hard can, if you want to be really accurate. Even if itís not it will still work. At the time the KFM instructions were written, beer cans and pop cans didn't have the rounded bottoms. They were made from tin, not aluminum, and you had to cut them with tin snips. With the aluminum cans, it is much easier to make the meters, but theyíre even uglier than the flat can. The junky look does not give people confidence in the meter although it is highly accurate.

I made mine a long time ago out of a tomato sauce can. That was very nice.

Yes. You cut your can down.

You didnít have to cut the can down, you just had to use the can opener and remove the top.

You can buy an eight-ounce tomato sauce can, but I find that such cans are relatively rare compared to pop cans. Everybody has access to pop cans. You know, if you memorize the dimensions of a KFM, which are quite easy to memorize, you could make a KFM at a McDonaldís, probably from stuff that's in the trash.

What are some common mistakes?

The one common mistake that people make on the foil leaves, the most common mistake, is they donít snip the corners off. If you donít snip the corners off, it wonít hold a charge. Or if thereís a hair on the corners of the leaves, it won't hold a charge. Itís in the instructions, but itís easy to skip over. If you donít read the instructions aloud, as you are told to do, youíll miss it and youíll spend hours trying to figure out why your meter wonít charge. Now coincidentally, the weight of the sides of a pop can in the middle, not towards the bottom, but the middle, is almost the same weight as the eight-ply foil leaves. So you can actually make your leaves for a KFM out of the sides of a pop can if you donít have aluminum foil. You still have to clip the corners at the bottom of the leaves.

The leaves are 1 1/2 inches wide, and 1 5/8 inches high, with 3/8 inch folded over the thread. You can trace them from the pattern in the instructions. I used to carry the dimensions on a card in my wallet.

People need to know that if you have a photocopy or one of those old books that were of diminished size, the scale is not accurate for making the readings.

Yes, you need a millimeter scale, which you can make from most rulers.

So if you have got a photocopy and you are not sure whether itís distorted a little bit you need know to measure the scale and make sure itís the right length.

Yes. But even if itís a little off, the KFM is still useful. It is designed to work despite a lot of error.

Well, you'd be able to tell the difference between small and immediately lethal doses.

The KFM goes from 30 millirads to about 50 rads per hour. Fifty is as high as you need to go.

If itís higher than that, you are in deep trouble. A lethal dose is something around 500-600 rads.

At 500 rads youíd be very close to the fireball. Or you could get an area that hot from a rainout. In other words, the fallout cloud goes up into the air and if it comes down in one spot because it rains, you could have a very high dose in one area, but 50 is the highest you really need to go because even if itís 500 outside, then your basement will probably be about 50. Youíre not really going to be in a situation in which you can get exposed to 500 rads and live. They did have brand-new meters in the California Emergency Management Department that went up to 10,000 rads, but they were a joke. You'd have to be in the fireball to get that dose.

The other problem with some of emergency managers' meters is they can measure a few microrems and may have a very low maximum reading.

The horror of it is the simplicity of it all. Thatís what someday people are going to find out. And if they have to find out the hard way, theyíll wake up to the reality that theyíve been taught to die, and that life-saving information was intentionally withheld from them.

Are there any other little details about making the Kearny fallout meter that you find people sometimes miss or have problems with?

Yes, charging plastic and charging paper. In other words, some plastics will not make static electricity, and some papers wonít make static electricity. And the paper and the plastic have to match up. Some plastics and paper will charge up negative, some will charge positive. That doesnít matter. Most peoplesí hair you can charge, and a lot of combs will work, if the hair is clean and dry and not oily. Some plastic combs wonít work. Plexiglass is very good. Itís one of the best charging plastics there is. That's what comes with the ready-made KFMs.

So if youíre in McDonaldís you might be looking for somebodyís comb.

Yeah, a comb and a newspaper. Newspapers tend to be very good. You just have to experiment.

One mistake that Iíve made is that if I hold onto the charging rod with my fingers instead of putting an insulator on, that doesnít work either.

And also you wipe the charge across the charging wire, but you don't touch it.

I was showing a theoretical physicist the KFM. His question was, ďHow do you charge it?Ē So itís really very simple, but as I say, the smarter you are, the harder it is for you to make a KFM. And thatís not a joke; Cresson Kearny found that out. Itís better to have your child do it. A twelve-year-old can do it. Itís really designed to be done by a family.

Well say you decided to do it this afternoon and have it all ready to go, how do you preserve it and keep it dry until the time when you might need it?

A peanut butter jar, a glass jar is excellent. You put it in a glass jar with some of the drying agent, which could be your drywall. Cresson Kearny outlines that in Nuclear War Survival Skills. Or a one-quart paint can is excellent. You seal that. You can put wax or caulk in the lid, but most paint cans made nowadays seal pretty tight without having to do anything else with the lid. But a glass jar would probably be the best, a big peanut butter jar.

You can buy a very nice one that has been premanufactured if you like, from people that you have taught to make them. You can order them on the internet.

Right, as from Nitro-Pak.

Itís quite expensive, but isn't that partly a little incentive to learn how to do it yourself?

Yes, I call that the price of laziness. The full retail value is about $200. It should be an incentive to people. They donít realize theyíre making an instrument thatís really worth $1,000. A comparable electronic instrument that can do all the things that a KFM can do, and that is accurate and reliable, is going to cost you about $1,000.

Of course, itís priceless in a situation where you need it.

To make a KFM from scratch and to learn to use it will take you 12 to 15 hours. Now even if you buy an electronic meter, itís going to take you eight hours to learn how to use it. So the KFM could be a good weekend project with your son or your daughter. Itís a good science project, and itís something that could save your lives.

So you can learn a number of things from this. You can learn about electrostatic charges and ionizing radiation. You can learn how to read a meter and how to follow instructions.

You can also learn about radon. You can measure relative levels of radon in your home, or in your neighborís home, with the KFM. You can obtain a radon sample by sucking air through a paper towel with your vacuum cleaner; then place the towel on the KFM. You can also buy a radioactive source for demonstration at K-mart. Most new lantern mantles, except for the Coleman, still have thorium in them. If you take a smoke detector apart, you can get a very dramatic demonstration.

This may help to show people that we live in a sea of radiation and itís the dose that matters. Itís an essential part of our existence, but too much of it very definitely will kill you or make you very, very sick.

Yes, working with the KFM gives you an understanding of radiation and helps you lose your fear of it. Once you understand the principles, and have made a KFM yourself, you can make one at McDonald's. Also, if you understand the principles, you almost don't need a meter. You will know that fallout looks like sand. If you canít see it, then the chances are you really donít need to worry about any radiation.

How is that?

Fallout that is so fine that you canít see it is going to be old and will have lost most of its radiation. It will have been floating in the atmosphere for weeks and months, even years before it is coming down. So just knowing that, you'll know that if thereís a nuclear bomb that goes off somewhere and you donít see anything, chances are youíre better off going to work. What will do the most damage is everybody in the country going to the basement if there's a nuclear bomb in say Los Angeles.

Would you like to comment on the 7-10 Rule?

The 7-10 rule is very simple. If a nuclear bomb goes off, the radiation decays ten-fold for every seven-fold increase in time passed. Let's say that radioactive fallout emitting 1000 rads/hr is deposited around your house one hour after a bomb goes off. In 7 hours, the level will have decayed to 100 rads/hr. That is still a lot. In seven times seven hours, which will be 49 hours or roughly two days, that 100 rads/hr will decay down to 10 rads/hr. In seven times two days or two weeks, it will be down to 1 rad/hr. That's almost the worst-case scenario. Most people in an all-out nuclear attack would only have to stay inside for two or three days.

But the fire department will probably be forbidden to come anywhere near you if there is that much radiation around your house if current standards apply.

Oh, yes. Youíre on your own. But just the knowledge that you can survive is more information than most people have.

That not only can they can survive but that they probably will survive.

Right. They probably will survive. The biggest danger from a nuclear attack is not radiation or blast; the biggest danger is panic. That people will stop going to work. Stopping all services, stopping food delivery to cities, that will cause more loss of life than radiation.

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