February 27, 2021

Surviving the Disaster Golden Hour – Part 1, by J.M.

Editor’s Introductory Note:  This lengthy article will be posted in five parts. Please reserve most of your comments until after Part 5 is posted, on Saturday.

If you’ve ever had any involvement with trauma medical care (especially in the military) you’ve probably heard the term ‘The Golden Hour’. This is generally considered to be the hour immediately following a traumatic injury in which medical treatment to prevent irreversible internal damage and optimize the chance of survival is most effective. For this article, I’m going to re-purpose the term ‘Golden Hour’ and use it to frame a discussion about surviving the period immediately following a local disaster. What I consider a ‘local’ disaster is an event with dangerous consequences that impacts you and yours at a minimum but stops short of impacting a large part of the country. This can be anything from a vehicle accident up to an earthquake. As a result I’m also assuming that some form of rescue or other assistance will be available eventually.

Many people in the prepper community tend to focus primarily on long-term survival for wide-ranging end-of-the-world-type events like a financial meltdown, societal collapse, EMP/CME, nuclear war, meteorite impact, zombie apocalypse, etc. However, if you stop and think about what really happens on a daily basis you’d realize you’re a lot more likely to be involved in a short-term localized disaster like a car crash, building fire, wildfire, earthquake, flood, explosion, etc. Unfortunately, when such emergencies do occur, most people tend to be woefully unprepared. Think of the videos and image you’ve seen of the immediate aftermath of events such as 9/11, the Paradise fire, the Beirut explosion, Hurricane Katrina and many other events – people are trying to escape the fires, smoke, debris, dust clouds, floods, collapsed buildings and other aftermath in order to survive. In many cases the people that do succeed in getting out alive frequently suffer from long-term health impacts due to injuries and the conditions they were subject to. Even many of the long-term events that preppers like to focus on can have dramatic impacts to your health and safety early in their evolution – a lot of those scenarios will start with short-term localized conditions such as explosions, fires, riots, etc.

The most common approach that many people espouse when this issue is discussed is to suggest simply avoiding locations and situations where you might be subject to localized emergencies. While that sounds good, it’s almost impossible to accomplish in real life. Even if you live in the middle of nowhere you could still be subject to wildfires, earthquakes, dust storms, building fires, bridge collapses and other events that can quickly kill you if you’re not prepared. This doesn’t mean that planning and situational awareness aren’t critical – you should still make sure you understand what types of events can occur wherever you go, what steps you can take to minimize their impact and what your options are to get out alive if they do happen. For example:

  • You’re visiting a sports complex in the winter after a big snow storm, so you should consider what you would do if the roof collapses due to the weight of snow and ice. Are you paying attention by listening for the types of structural noises that would precede a collapse? Are you looking up occasionally? Do you always know where the nearest exit or strong support structures are?
  • You’re in a city on business and terrorists pull off another 9/11-type attack. Do you have an emergency exit route mapped out? Will you be able to breathe and see where you’re going while you’re exfiltrating? Can you get clear of any rubble that may get in your way?
  • You’re out backpacking in the mountains in the summer in an area that’s experiencing a drought. Did you check if there are any wildfires in the areas? Do you have alternate escape routes mapped out in case a fire springs up? Do you have an easy access to a bail-out bag with a first-aid kit, water, etc. in case you have to dump your full backpack and run? Can you survive running through smoke for a period of time if the wind shifts and the fire starts moving towards you? Do you have a handheld GPS capability in case visibility suddenly drops due to smoke?
  • You’re driving to visit relatives during the holidays and your vehicle skids down a steep embankment in an isolated area during a blizzard. Do you have enough gear in your car to keep everyone warm and survive until you can get help? Do you have multiple ways to signal for help?

Planning, risk avoidance and situational awareness are critical factors in any disaster scenario, and applying these to tactical emergencies can significantly increase your odds of surviving a short-term localized disaster or the opening act of a longer-term SHTF event. Having the world’s greatest Get Home Bag (GHB) in your vehicle doesn’t do you a lot of good if you can’t get clear of whatever immediate danger you’re in to get to it.

Timelines

When it comes to emergency scenarios there are literally an infinite number of combinations that can happen in an infinite number of ways, but for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to try to breakdown some basic temporal criteria to consider their types and effects.

To start with, every event has conditions leading up to its occurrence. An electrical fire might be due to someone carelessly nicking a power wire near some flammable material, a gas explosion might be caused by a corroded gas line leaking, a tsunami can be caused by an underwater earthquake, a wildfire could be started due to a lightning strike during drought conditions, a thunderstorm spawns tornados, etc. For some events there may be no way to detect these causative conditions or to understand their significance prior to the event occurring, but in many instances there are signs that, if heeded, could save your life. The timeframe for these leading conditions could encompass anything from seconds prior to the event up to months or even years. And no, I’m not going to discuss the butterfly effect here.

The next phase is when the actual impact of the event begins. This can be the moment that the flame ignites, an earthquake occurs or a meteorite hits the earth. Some event impact manifestations can be categorized as rapidly energetic, such as an explosion, earthquake or roof collapse. Others such as a fire or flood may start smaller and spread their impact more slowly. For rapid energetic events the best way to avoid serious injury or death is to not be close to where the energy transfer occurs – e.g. next to an explosion, under a roof that collapses, etc. Other than being aware of possible events and being as far from their energy transfer as possible there isn’t a lot of you can do at this phase if you are impacted by a rapidly energetic event – you either make it or you don’t, although you could survive and be seriously injured. Chaos theory also comes into play – there are plenty of documented stories of people surviving uninjured when near an explosion or inside a building that collapses.

Next is the active impact phase – this is the period immediately after an initial rapid event or during an ongoing slower-evolving event where you’re still in danger and you need to get somewhere else in order to survive. I’ll be covering this phase later in this article.

I consider an event to be done (at least from my perspective) when me and anyone I’m responsible for are safe from its immediate impacts.

Impacts

When planning for and dealing with events you should try to ascertain what the impacts are and the scope of those impacts. For example:

  • A building fire has an initial impact of extreme heat in what starts as a localized area and (typically) spreads, along with smoke over a larger area that also spreads. There is also frequently structural damage to the building, which can cause walls and roofs to collapse. As the fire spreads it can encounter dangerous chemicals or explosive compressed gas, resulting in additional subsequent impacts.
  • An earthquake initially causes a lot of structural damage, with subsequent fires, explosions and further building collapses over the impacted area, and is frequently followed by aftershocks which can cause even more damage.
  • A tsunami starts with a high-energy wall of water knocking down pretty much everything in its path, with further flooding, structural collapses and potential immersion in contaminated water later on.
  • An explosion has an initial massive overpressure, frequently followed by fires, smoke, debris, structural collapse, etc. Consider the 9/11 terrorist attack in NYC – clouds of smoke and dust were present at quite a distance from ground zero for hours after the initial attacks, and the resulting fine particulates were still being stirred up weeks and months later.

Tertiary impacts such as large mobs trying to evacuate the area can also impact you by slowing down your own escape or even trampling you, resulting in injury or death.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)

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