As part of the #museumalphabet, we’ll uncover a new letter each day until we get to the letter Z. Then, you’ll know your (Bunker) ABCs.

A is for Air Raid Siren

Air Raid Sirens alerted civilians to an impending attack so that they could take cover immediately. During the 50’s & 60’s, there were 1703 air raid sirens across Canada. They were incredibly loud and would be heard for several kilometres.

In the event of a nuclear attack, personnel at Canadian Forces Station Carp (aka the Diefenbunker) were responsible for triggering the air raid siren warning system across Canada. This responsibility switched between CFS Carp and the NORAD base in North Bay, Ontario.

If you were designated to take shelter at the Diefenbunker, when the air raid sirens sounded, you disappeared underground. You couldn’t tell anyone where you were going and should you return, you couldn’t tell anyone where you had been.

B is for Bomb

The Diefenbunker could withstand the blast of a 5 megaton nuclear bomb at a distance of 1.8 Km (1.1 miles) away.

Early Cold War bombs had very little accuracy. No matter how precise you tried to aim them, once they left the aircraft, they were at the mercy of the wind.

“How did we expect to get everyone out to the bunker before bombs started falling?”
During the Cold War, it was expected that there would be a period of rising tension. During that time, the Canadian Government would make the call that things had become sufficiently serious to start manning the bunker. Otherwise, the bunker is located 30km west from Parliament Hill and (at the time) took approximately 30 minutes by bus.

C is for CONELRAD System

Do you remember those two triangles (or with our radio you see CD) that used to be found on AM radios?

These were part of the CONELRAD System (CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation). All AM radios made after 1953 were required to have these Civil Defence (CD) marks.

In case of national emergencies, all radio stations in North America would change from their normal AM frequency to 640 kHz or 1240 kHz. Selected CONELRAD stations would inform the public about emergency measures and serve to deceive incoming bombers.

This requirement was dropped when the CONELRAD system was replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System in 1963. Today, Alert Ready is Canada’s emergency alerting system.

D is for Decontamination

After a nuclear attack, if you made it to the Bunker, the only way inside was through the Decontamination Showers. The walls are lined with yellow lead paint. The lead is not harmful as long as you do not scratch or lick the walls.

Imagine the decontamination process:

  • Upon arrival you immediately have a shower – fully clothed – to rinse away any radioactive dust, dirt, or debris that you have acquired outside.
  • Then, you would strip off all your clothes and throw them down a clothing chute in the wall. Your clothing would fall into a lead-lined bag and would later be buried by a soldier.
  • After this, you would take another shower without your clothes. You would be given a rough brush, some hot soapy water, and told to rinse your entire body.
  • Finally, a soldier with a Geiger counter would check your radiation levels. If the levels were acceptably low, you could proceed to the Medical Centre.
  • If you failed the radiation test after more than a few showers, you would still have remained in the Bunker but isolated to the medical centre or medical overflow for the remainder of lockdown. You still needed to work to run the country.

E is for Escape Hatch

Did you know that there is only one entrance into the bunker? In the likely event that a nuclear blast would make it impossible to get out through that entrance (or exit), the bunker is equipped with two escape hatches as backups.

Each escape hatch includes a 25-foot-long vertical tunnel up to the surface and is topped with a Plexiglas skylight. The bottom of that tunnel is secured on the inside by a large lever. Inside the each of tunnel is 20 tons of pea gravel to stop radiation from entering the building.

When the lever is released, a grate in the floor with a large pit underneath would catch the gravel. The suction of the falling stones would pull in the skylight at the top, creating an opening to the outside world above. The shaft of the tunnel had a ladder, so one lucky official could climb up and see what was left of the world above.  

Photo credit: Leslie Hossack

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