Civil Defense Hill: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

One of my childhood feats was when I finally managed to ride my bicycle all the way up Civil Defense Hill without having to stop and push. We all called it Civil Defense Hill but growing up, I actually knew very little about the Civil Defense complex that gave the hill its name.

The development of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II and the news that the Soviets had detonated their own nuclear weapon created an urgent need to make sure that all American citizens were safe and prepared in case of a nuclear attack. Civil Defense agencies were set up in all the states to develop plans and establish procedures for what to do in case of an emergency.

Bomb shelters were built in back yards and children were required to do “duck and cover” drills in classrooms all across America. There was a wonderful public service announcement film, “Duck and Cover,” produced by the Civil Defense in 1951 starring Bert the Turtle. It helped teach people how to properly protect themselves in the event of a nuclear attack. You can find it on YouTube if you want to relive some memories!

Fallout shelters were set up in various locations and equipped with food and supplies. When I attended the University of Central Arkansas in the early 1980s, there were still canned goods in the basement of Old Main. They had been placed there in case of emergency since the basement of Old Main was designated as a fallout shelter.

The State Civil Defense Agency, established in 1953, was originally located in the Arkansas State Capitol. It would later be moved to Camp Robinson where it was attached to the Arkansas National Guard. The fear of a Soviet nuclear attack in the 1950s and 1960s though led to an initiative to move the agency away from Little Rock. In the event of a nuclear attack or any other disaster, the governor and his key staff would go there. It was decided that the agency should be moved to Conway.

The first Conway location for the agency was in the old Conway Memorial Hospital Building at College and Western avenues diagonally across from the new Conway Memorial Hospital. The transfer was made in 1957. The agency was renamed the Executive Office of Civil Defense and Disaster Relief in 1959 and plans were drawn up to meet all emergencies and disasters—whether nuclear, natural or man-made. Local organizations of civil defense were also established.

A new Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was constructed in 1965 on the hill at the end what is now called South Donaghey Avenue. The land was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Harold J. Wasson.

The facility was originally 8,500 square feet of floor space eighteen feet underground. Additional space for administration and maintenance was added above ground in later years. Thus the hill became known as Civil Defense Hill.

The facility was operational twenty-four hours a day. In 1973 it was renamed the Office of Emergency Services (OES) and placed in the Department of Public Safety. In 1981, it was established as an independent state agency and in 1999 it was renamed the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management (ADEM).

The civil defense facility would remain in Conway for fifty years. In 2005, Governor Mike Huckabee decided that the agency needed to be relocated closer to Little Rock. Plans were made to move the ADEM operations to Camp Robinson. A new Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was constructed there and would open in 2007.