Falling into action

Stefanie Buhrman

In 1963, George Burnet, then head of chemical engineering department, was put in charge of the ISU civil defense plan. The plan was developed during the height of the Cold War when the threat of nuclear attack was a part of daily life and the safety of college campuses were in question. Now, more than 40 years later, Burnet, currently a distinguished professor emeritus of chemical and biological engineering, speaks about what it was like to put the plan in action.

FYI: How did you receive the job of writing the civil defense plan?

George Burnet: I received a phone call from [ISU] President Hilton. I met with him and he described the situation and since he knew my military background, he asked me to assume the responsibility

FYI: What was your reaction?

G.B.: I recognized the seriousness of the situation. I wasn’t necessarily pleased, but challenged to the request. It wasn’t a quick fix. It had to be very thorough.

FYI: What did you first?

G.B.: Realizing that I had to get more than the whole campus involved, I organized a task force or a committee that included one person from each of the colleges, one person from the registrar’s office and one person from the housing department.

FYI: What was the hardest part?

G.B.: I had to cooperate with state and federal authorities. They provided the markings for the buildings and the supplies received. Everything had to be justified and all had to be incorporated.

FYI: In the civil defense plan, there is a map of steam tunnels on campus, how did you incorporate this into the plan?

G.B.: The steam tunnels were shielded areas that were good for underground communication. They were not used for moving big groups of people. There are a lot of pipes with illumination every few feet. It was a way to communicate from one place to another.

FYI: How would students know where to go in case of an emergency?

G.B.: It was very complicated. At registration, students would go from station to station and were eventually assigned to a shelter that would be most convenient. You didn’t know where they would be, whether if they were in a class or in their dorm.

FYI: Did students use the same shelter the entire time?

G.B.: At the time, [Iowa State] was on a quarterly system. Students registered every three months, so they had to register for a new shelter every time.