Typically the work of science fiction, a zombie apocalypse has proven an effective way to engage citizens in disaster preparedness. Dispersing instructions within entertaining stories about the living dead, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention runs successful campaigns with this theme in order to share insights about how to brace for natural disasters. Getting residents prepared for emergencies helps trained first responders to become more effective in their own response within a community.

The federal government has plan for every zombie
An unclassified document—”CONOP 8888″—released by officials from U.S. Strategic Command details protocols to use if attacked by zombies. Some may question the government spending resources documenting how to survive a zombie outbreak, but the plans serve as a training template for real-life, large-scale military operations in the event of global emergencies.

Popular culture paves the path to learning about disaster preparedness. Click To Tweet

“The document is identified as a training tool used in an in-house training exercise where students learn about the basic concepts of military plans and order development through a fictional training scenario,” Navy Capt. Pamela Kunze, a spokeswoman for U.S. Strategic Command, told CNN.

The plan is extensive, even enjoyable to read, and covers a wide variety of countermeasures and recovery efforts to prepare law enforcement and their communities for realistic but fictitious attacks. Each phase of the operation is discussed, from coordinating zombie awareness training for citizens to restoring society once the outbreak has been neutralized by armed forces. The document even outlines rules of engagement, such as: “The only assumed way to effectively cause casualties to the zombie ranks by tactical force is the concentration of all firepower to the head, specifically the brain.”

The Pentagon document describes a range of zombie types—Pathogenic Zombies, Radiation Zombies, Evil Magic Zombies, Space Zombies, Weaponized Zombies, Symbiant-Induced Zombies, Vegetarian Zombies and Chicken Zombies (the only kind of zombie proven to exist)—each with their own lethal abilities that require specific preparation and response.

Popular culture paves path to learning
Why zombies? Storytelling can be a viable method for engaging with participants and increasing awareness.

“The idea of using stories to teach makes sense because there is a lot of data out there to support the idea that kids believe what they see,” says Steven Schlozman, M.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry.

Like the Department of Defense, Schlozman leveraged popular culture when he developed online science curriculum—”Zombie Apocalypse”—as part of Texas Instruments’ “STEM Behind Hollywood” program. The movie-inspired online education courses, aimed at middle and high school students, use entertaining stories to teach kids about subjects they might not normally pursue on their own.

In an effort to capture the attention of citizens, the CDC designed its own zombie preparedness campaign to coincide with the start of the second season of The Walking Dead, a popular cable television show with a zombie theme. Many of the items included in the CDC’s zombie survival kit—such as first-aid supplies, medications and copies of important personal documents—are basics that would also be useful in the event of a real disaster.

Ali Khan, M.D., assistant surgeon general of the CDC, told Forbes magazine, “If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse, you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack.”

The CDC campaign includes eye-catching posters and educational materials that helped make it the agency’s most popular public health campaign. According to Forbes, it cost just $87 for one week of work to produce millions of dollars of free media coverage.

Some state leaders have picked up on this, urging residents to develop emergency plans for a zombie apocalypse and collect enough survival supplies that could last up to three days.

While shrouded in fun, participating in zombie-scenario preparedness drills often results in increased interpersonal communication among residents and better relationships with participating first responders. Citizens emerge with the confidence that they can navigate potential disasters together.

Just like the instruction that police officers, EMTs and other first responders routinely receive, hands-on emergency training can ensure that local residents of a community can contribute positively to disaster recovery. Shared cultural references give participants a language and a context for that learning. Surviving a zombie apocalypse requires the same approach that would be helpful in reacting to extreme weather and earthquakes.

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