Atomic Alert opens in a classroom as children huddle around a Geiger counter. This scene depicts a tough question early civil defense planners grappled with: how to explain the dangers of the atomic bomb to school aged children? It was presumed the responsibility for this delicate task would fall to school administrators, teachers, and superintendents across the nation. These parties in turn sought guidance on the topic. According to The Education Screen, a periodical which appraised educational films, Encyclopedia Britannica responded to "a great demand for an atomic information film on the school level" by creating Atomic Alert in May of 1951. Originally titled Atomic Alert: School, Home, Street, the film was designed to teach children where to go and what to do during an enemy attack, whether home alone, walking to school, or on the playground enjoying recess.(1) While the film was produced privately, Enrico Fermi, Willard F. Libby, Samuel K. Allison, and other scientists with the Institute of Nuclear Studies, a division of the University of Chicago, served as expert advisers.
For most situations, children are instructed to rely on adult authority figures. When at school, whether on the playground, in the hallway, or in the classroom, the teacher will take charge. When on the street traveling to or from school, the nearest adult will offer assistance. “Don’t try to make it home, unless home is the nearest cover! Everyone is in on this, strangers will understand!” But what if the children are home alone when an attack warning is sounded? The film introduces two characters, Ted and Susie, whose parents are shopping when the radio announces an imminent atomic attack. Fortunately, the family has trained in previous exercises and Ted is able to lead his younger sister to an impromptu shelter in the basement under their father's work bench. Although Ted is prepared with food, water, firefighting equipment, and first aid materials, it proves unnecessary. Shortly after the blast, Mr. Carlson, a local civil defense official, arrives to congratulate Ted on a job well done. He further explains their mother has sought shelter at the local shopping mall and their father is volunteering with local civil defense. This ending reinforces the notion that adult authority figures would soon take charge of an otherwise horrendous situation.