My parents tell a story from when I was six, which foreshadowed everything I was to become. At the time we lived in Wellington, and driving past the harbour one afternoon, we watched a waterskier towed behind a speedboat. I called forward to my parents,
“That’s a very dangerous thing to do.”
“Why is that?” they asked. No doubt they thought I was weighing up the risks of a high-speed crash, an accident leading to drowning, even something as obscure as a shark attack.
Said I, “Because a seaplane might land on your head.”
It was no great surprise to them when I became a disaster response professional.
I am the Worst Case Scenario guy. I was in the Boy Scouts less than two years, but Be Prepared has been my motto, before and ever since. My heroes are MacGyver and Bear Grylls. I travel with three first aid kits, perpetually have a pocket knife in pocket, know my escape route from pretty much any room I’m in, and have a constantly updating list of contingency plans in my head.
I suspect I may take my survival just a little too seriously.
However I wanted to throw together a few posts on simple survival tips. This was inspired by a couple of recent events. About a week ago, Melbourne was struck by a minor earthquake. Minor, in geological terms, but at 5.3 on the Richter scale, it was bigger than most Melburnians had ever experienced. After the excitement of the shaking had subdued, my wife (Madam Inside Out) turned to me and said,
“What should you do to survive an earthquake?”
Needless to say, I had an answer for her, and it wasn’t short.
Today I watched friends post images of the wildfires burning out of control near Colorado Springs. It’s been more than three years since the Black Saturday bushfires ravaged the outskirts of Melbourne, but reading about the conditions in Colorado- high temperatures, dessicating humidity and gusting winds- it was impossible not to be reminded of that day, and the grief it brought so many people here. I found myself thinking I really hope somebody is giving those families the right advice right now.
So I figured I’d put together a few of the bits and bobs I’ve picked up over the years that improve your chances of not becoming a statistic on a news ticker. Some of this I’ve picked up in my career as an emergency response professional and as a trained wilderness first responder. Some of it is stuff I’ve looked into out of curiosity. And some of it’s just plain sensible.
Before I go any further, a disclaimer or two. I’m not professionally or legally qualified to be giving you survival tips, so if you have genuine questions or concerns about your own safety or that of loved ones, please check with a qualified source. This series will be much more about sharing tidbits of information, discussing disaster and survival trends as I’ve come across them in my own experience, and hopefully triggering some dialogue.
If you’re living in a shack somewhere in Montana, convinced the UN is trying to hunt you down, and you’re looking for information that will help you survive the coming apocalypse, this series isn’t for you either. Not much conspiracy going on over here.
I’m an emergency management professional with direct and indirect experience in disaster response, a generalist’s overview of the sector, and a knack for making information interesting (or so I’m told). I’m not an expert in any one given area of emergency response, and therefore I really welcome anybody reading this post who is an expert to share their advice and correct my mistakes.
And finally, if you have any questions ask them, and if you have any suggestions about what disaster scenarios you’d like to see discussed here, suggest them! I haven’t decided precisely what topics I’ll cover, though I’m thinking earthquakes, wildfires and hurricanes will be onboard, as a starter.
If you’re very, very good, I may even include something on zombies.
Before I launch into subsequent posts, however, I want to share a three key pointers to surviving any type of disaster. They’re quite simple.
1. Know the threats.
2. Have a plan.
3. Rehearse that plan.
1. Know the Threats. To be prepared to survive an emergency, any emergency, you have to have some idea of what the threats you face are. These might be the threats you face in the home where you live, or the threats associated with a particular journey you’re making that takes you someplace different, or the threats associated with a work deployment. Identify what those risks might be. Nine times out of ten, the biggest risks we face are the mundane things we write off- things like vehicle accidents.
Another time I’ll put up a more technical post on risk management and familiarise you with some of the concepts and vocabulary. But for now, I just want to encourage you to think of the things in your space that could possibly cause you harm. Do you live in an earthquake-prone region? Somewhere that has a hurricane season? Near a river bed that could flood? Does your commute to work take you through a high-crime district of your city? Do you frequently have to travel on unsafe public transportation? Is your office well prepared for a fire?
Ask yourself critical questions about the places you and your loved ones spend time or pass through. Find out from local councils or emergency services what threats they are aware of and plan for. Talk to friends, neighbours, colleagues or other locals who are familiar with the area. Arm yourself with a knowledge base.
Knowing what threats could affect you is the critical first step in being ready to survive them. Without this information, you can be blindsided by something that you might otherwise have been able to survive.
2. Have a Plan. Once you’ve identified what threats you might face in a given context, you need to ask yourself, so what? If this threat becomes a reality, what will I do? What will I want others under my care to do? How will I do this? What resources might I need to make this happen?
Your plan needs to be realistic. And appropriately scaled. Ultimately, survival can be a bit of a selfish thing. We’re talking about how you’re going to survive here. If you’re at home or in your car, then you’re thinking about how you’ll help your family make it through in one piece. At the office, then perhaps it’s the members of your team. At this stage I’m not priming you to be Action Man and carry the weight of responsibility for your entire office or apartment block (although if you decide you can see some major holes in an organization’s disaster preparedness, by all means raise it with the right people).
Think about escape routes. What’s the quickest or safest way out of here under circumstance X? Does that hold up for circumstance Y? Safe zones.Where do I need to get to before I can consider myself safe? What if I can’t get there? Behaviour. Should I be yelling instructions at people? Keeping a low profile? How will I keep my head clear? Equipment. Is there anything I should have on or near me that would help me in this situation? If an emergency arises, can I get to it in time to be of help? Other people. How am I going to help the people I care about? Do I have a moral or ethical obligation to help anybody else? Mobilising additional support. Who would I contact in this situation? How would I be able to reach them? What information would they need of me, and vice-versa? Longer-term survival. How long would I need to be able to cope for? What else might I need under these circumstances?
Make sure your plan is something you can actually do. It’s no good coming up with a plan that relies on the SAS showing up with a helicopter and a strike team to evacuate you off the top of your office tower. Likewise, don’t plan to rappel out of your 18th storey window if you don’t have three hundred feet of rope, a harness, an ATC and several years’ climbing experience behind you. And keep it simple. In an emergency, you can expect to be running on adrenaline, to experience tunnel vision, and quite possibly to be scared out of your mind. You’ll be capable of basic physical responses, but not necessarily very much more, so don’t expect your plan to include a large amount of higher cerebral function activity, such as trying to calculate the load that a collapsing wall should be able to bear, while trying to decide whether you should scramble under it or not.
And make sure that plan is adequately resourced. If your plan calls for a first-aid kit to be on hand, it’s no good for that first-aid kit to be listed as a to-do on your kitchen whiteboard. It needs to be in your glove-box, or in your desk drawer at work, or within arm’s reach of your bed.
3. Rehearse that Plan. Having a plan is all very well and good, but you need to make sure you know that plan inside-out if you want to make use of it during a crisis. The reason being, firstly, as outlined above. In an emergency, there’s no guarantee you’ll have full control of your higher mental functions- adrenaline does funny things to us. The more you’ve rehearsed a plan, the more likely it is to be embedded deeper in the instinctive portions of your mind and memory, and the more likely you are to be able to carry it out.
Research has shown that in plane crashes, there is a tendency for passengers to retrace their steps to the exit through which they first entered the aircraft- even if that exit is all the way at the front of the aircraft, and they are at the back. This is due to very old cerebral coding that dates back to when our mammalian ancestors lived in caves, or in thick jungle, and when danger threatened (usually a predator) their best form of escape was almost certainly the way they had come in by. Of course, an airplane has multiple escape routes, one hopefully close by, but you need to conciously tell your brain to use this route in an emergency. If you leave it to the moment of the emergency itself, your lizard brain may well have taken over and kicked your cognitive functions upstairs to wait it out- which may unfortunately compromise your chances for survival.
This, incidentally, is why some airlines, during their safety brief, ask you to count the number of seats to your nearest exit. It’s a way of cognitively preparing the brain- even at a subconcious level- to record the pathway to the nearest exit. I do it every time I sit down in a new plane seat- forwards and backwards. If at all possible, it’s worth physically walking the emergency escape route, as this layers it even deeper into your mind and increases the likelihood that your brain will revert to it. That, and it helps you identify any weaknesses in your plan or threats you may have missed.
Finally, and closely related to this, visualize your actions. Studies have shown that people who are mentally prepared for an emergency have a higher likelihood of surviving it. Visualization is an incredibly powerful tool in this regard. If you can picture in your head how you’ll react in a given situation, you are essentially preparing your mind (and also your body) to do just that. As in the above-mentioned plane scenario, one thing I do in every aircraft I travel is not just count the rows to the exit, but to mentally picture myself walking down the aisle, and then running through in my head the step-by-step actions I need to take to open the emergency exit and leave the aircraft. Is it one of those hatches you need to pull inside the aircraft? Is there a latch I need to throw before pulling the handle? Do I have to climb onto a wing or jump down a slide?
Repetition is key. The more you go over something, the more likely you are to respond as you imagine. The better your knowledge of the threats you face, the better you can plan for them, and the more accurately your visualisation will respond to the circumstances you might face.
Hopefully, you’ll never, ever need it.
Know the Threats.
Make a Plan.
Rehearse that Plan.
Of course, you can rely on a combination of dumb luck and your own spark of personal genius should an emergency arise on your doorstep- and you can never, of course, plan for every eventuality. But if it comes down to a choice between running through some common-sense preparatory steps for a possible crisis, or sitting back and hoping for the best, well, my parents have known all along which way I lean.
The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes- and Why, by Amanda Ripley