Howard County unveils Ready Eddie to teach children the need to be prepared for natural and manmade disasters

This mascot's on a mission


Remember those school assemblies with McGruff the trenchcoat-wearing, crime-fighting dog? Or Smokey Bear in his dungarees and forest ranger's hat?

Yesterday, Howard County rolled out a mascot for an era of dirty bombs and Category 5 hurricanes: Ready Eddie, a sunglasses-wearing, emergency kit-toting flashlight who helped second-graders prepare for terrorist strikes and natural disasters.

Hurricane Katrina reminded Americans of the importance of fending for themselves for days on end. But there is no national preparedness campaign for children - the Department of Homeland Security is set to release one within the next six months - so Howard created one as part of a weeklong series of readiness events.

The centerpiece is Eddie, intended to add what one expert called "a little spoonful of sugar" to the alarming prospect that government might not respond right away in times of emergency.

"We can't take care of people carte blanche," said Victoria Goodman, the county's spokeswoman, who helped invent the pilot program. "That just can't happen. There's a component of personal responsibility to disaster preparedness. We're out here saying, `This is what we can do, but this is what you have to do.'"

Eddie's message to children: Nag your parents about storing batteries, a flashlight, a radio and enough water to last the family three days.

That method of communication has worked in the past with seat belts and smoking, experts say.

"If you believe that FEMA needs to be more prepared, then children need to be put into the equation, even though you run the risk of scaring the living daylights out of them," said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "Hence, a smiley flashlight."

Yesterday's rollout at Laurel Woods Elementary School was a far cry from the Cold War's "duck-and-cover" civil defense exercises that Thompson said put "the fear of the apocalypse" into him and other baby boomers.

Sparky the Fire Dog - the popular fire safety mascot - showed up at the assembly to introduce his new friend Eddie, whose colorful $4,000 costume was stitched together by a Columbus, Ohio, company.

With Sparky and Eddie at his side, County Executive James N. Robey reminded the students that a Category 5 hurricane loomed in the Caribbean and that snowstorms and tornadoes could disable the county. Robey also emphasized the need for families to have an emergency kit at home stocked with necessities.

But other than a brief explanation of the difference between "manmade" and "natural" disasters, the county executive shied away from any mention of terrorism.

Experts said that treading lightly limits children's anxiety and is more effective.

"Americans are in denial about the possibility that they would ever be the victim of a terrorist attack," said Peggy Conlon, president of the nonprofit Ad Council, the creator of Smokey and McGruff. "They think that if it happens to me, it will be so cataclysmic that no preparation will make a difference.

"However, people are much more accepting of being a victim of a natural disaster, such as a flood or hurricane. That's when they start listening."

And a mascot can be an important tool in making sure people listen.

Over the years, the Ad Council, other nonprofit groups and governments have dreamed up an array of cuddly and clever creatures for public service campaigns, from Woodsy Owl ("Give a Hoot. Don't Pollute") to Larry and Vince, the crash-test dummies.

Some have succeeded beyond their creators' wildest dreams - Smokey Bear is ranked with Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus among the most recognizable images in America. Others, such as the National Rifle Association's Eddie Eagle, have sparked disputes in some quarters.

Conlon said a little bit of shock can be an important element in an effective campaign.

"In the early Smokey ads, they encouraged children to prevent forest fires so that Bambi wouldn't get killed," Conlon said. "I don't think anything could be more scary for young children than the concept of Bambi getting hurt."

But Bob Garfield, who critiques commercials for Advertising Age magazine and is a co-host of National Public Radio's On the Media program, isn't so confident. He said that kids who nag their parents "can be effective and persistent voices of reason" but that "fear is fear, whether you're swallowed by an earthquake or evaporated by a loose nuke."

Talking about disasters is "still disturbing," he said.

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