September 28, 2021

Surviving the Disaster Golden Hour – Part 3, by J.M.

(Continued from Part. 2)

Another way to reduce the impact of surprise in an emergency is to be able to detect the potential signs that something may be happening you need to be concerned about before it reaches the critical stage. Outside of sudden events like explosions and earthquakes there are almost always early indicators that something may be going wrong around you. A slight whiff of smoke, the creak and groan of a roof support, wildlife acting strangely or a look of concern on the faces of facility security personnel as they hurry by may be signs that you need to raise your alert level and begin focusing on an egress strategy. Besides the obvious approach of not having your head buried in your cell phone all of the time there are a number of exercises you can undertake to improve your powers of observation:

Your physical condition can also have a big impact on your tendency to panic and your ability to get safely out of an emergency situation. If you’re out of shape, injured, sick or have a medical condition you may be more focused internally on yourself and not on your surroundings, reducing your situational awareness and your ability to plan for emergencies. Your body chemistry may also be impacted, which in turn could amplify or skew your body’s panic response. Your physical condition can also slow you down or impact your ability to move, maneuver and clear obstacles, reducing the odds of getting clear of the situation in a timely manner. If you have a treatable medical condition, get it addressed and under control, and if you’re out of shape start working on improving your physical condition. You should focus initially on cardio-type exercises, since being able to move quickly may be the difference between life and death.

A Little Knowledge

Understanding how the world works and how various emergency conditions behave along with how to deal with them can make a big difference in how you react when you encounter them. While it’s probably impossible for anyone to know everything about everything (except for your spouse, of course), having some foundational knowledge can enable you to deal effectively with a wider range of conditions that may be encountered during an emergency. Understanding what’s going on can also reduce the tendency to panic when you’re overwhelmed by sudden changes in your immediate environment. There are a number of ways you can gain useful knowledge that can help you survive emergency situations:

  • Take some rescue training – There are a number of training institutes that teach various rescue techniques which would be useful for self-rescue. Some examples include TEEX at Texas A&M – Rescue | TEEX.ORG, Rescue Training International – Rescue Training International – Training Responders Worldwide (rescueti.com) and SERGEANT RESCUE TRAINING & CONSULTING – Sergeant Rescue Training & Consulting, Llc : Services
  • Learn from first responders – Firefighters and other rescue personnel have tons of knowledge and experience in getting to and rescuing people trapped in burning or collapsed buildings, remote wildernesses, etc., and a lot of that knowledge is available online and in books. Depending on your particular location you may also be able to convince your local fire folks to share some of their knowledge and experience – firefighters spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for a fire to happen, so they’re frequently happy to shoot the breeze with someone that shows an interest in what they do.
  • Learn how simple machines work – Being able to leverage the concept of a wedge, lever, screw, etc. might allow you to move that heavy chunk of concrete that’s blocking your exit. Don’t laugh, but a good source of this type of information for me has been watching MacGyver (mostly the original series, but the new one isn’t too bad). There’s even a book that describes how to do a lot of the stuff they do on the show – The Official MacGyver Survival Manual: 155 Ways to Save the Day. One MacGyverism that’s always stuck with me that’s actually proved useful is when he had to move a heavy log, so he looped a rope over a roof support and under the log, then put a stick through the looped rope and twisted it, which lifted the log.
  • Take a trauma first aid course – I haven’t discussed first aid so far, but there are a lot of great articles on SurvivalBlog.com that cover the topic. If you get hurt during an emergency you should be able to apply emergency first aid that can get you through the critical part until you can reach professional help. There are some good training courses like ‘Stop the Bleed’ that provide you with the basics that may save your life of the life of a loved one.
  • Do some research – There are a number of web sites that provide good information on things you should do during an emergency. For example, WikiHow has articles on things like escaping from a fire, and local fire and emergency services departments typically provide useful locale-specific information on their web sites.
  • Learn your environment – If you work, visit or operate in or near large buildings, building complexes, industrial parks, etc., learn about their environment and supporting infrastructures. Where are the emergency exits, and where do they come out? What egress paths might be blocked by fences or locked doors? Are there chemicals or compressed gasses stored in or near the building? Is there an attached structure like a parking garage that would allow you to safely exit from an upper-level window? Where are fire extinguishers or other firefighting equipment located?
  • Ask for it – Companies, organizations and government agencies spend huge amounts of money developing emergency plans, and most of that information is freely available to the public. I’m amazed by the number of times I’ve asked to see a copy of an emergency evacuation plan when walking into an office building, convention center, etc., only to be told I’m the first visitor that’s ever asked to see it. I’m also somewhat distraught over the number of times I’ve asked to see one and was told they didn’t have one they could share with me – I’m not clear on why an emergency evacuation plan would be considered company confidential information.

In addition to the broad knowledge that can help prepare you to handle a wide range of disasters, realtime data collection can provide you with situational knowledge relevant to your current circumstances. Earlier I discussed the need to maintain situational awareness and improve your powers of observation – the knowledge you gain from these activities can potentially minimize or even eliminate the risk from disasters. For example, you know that it’s been raining heavily for several days and the bridge over the raging river that you need to cross to get to the store isn’t in the best shape, so you make the decision to delay your trip. If you’ve had the heaviest snowfall in recent history you may want to avoid visiting that large box store with the flat roof. If you smell smoke or notice building security and maintenance personnel running around with worried looks you should consider getting clear as quickly as possible. Running out on a business meeting may be embarrassing if it turns out to be nothing, but getting trapped in a building fire can be fatal.

If the situation is a longer-duration type that requires you to evacuate or exfiltrate from a building or locally impacted area, you may also be able gather some additional intelligence from various sources to help you plan your escape. A handheld radio scanner can allow you to listen in on facility maintenance and security personnel or first responders to figure out where the danger lies, and a mobile device with local maps and GPS can help you plan an escape route. I’ll be discussing these options more in the next section.

Some Kit

While planning, situational awareness and managing your physical and mental condition are absolutely critical to surviving an emergency situation, having some gear with you can help you surmount the obstacles that might stand between you and survival. The first and most obvious piece of kit you should always have with you is a trauma first aid kit (TFAK) and the skills to use it quickly and effectively. If you’re injured during the initial event impact or while trying to evacuate and can’t staunch a serious bleeding injury, getting clear of the event becomes a moot point. There are tons of articles here on SurvivalBlog about trauma medical care, so do some research and get trained. The one thing that’s critical to remember is that your TFAK has to be something you will always have with you if an emergency occurs – it doesn’t do you any good if it’s out in your car and you’re injured while trying to escape a building collapse due to an earthquake. That’s why I always carry something like the Rescue Essentials Pocket Trauma Kit in a cargo pocket, backpack or laptop bag wherever I go. Even carrying a simple Israeli Bandage can help you quickly treat many wounds well enough to allow you to escape.

One condition that’s common to a lot of emergencies is the presence of smoke, airborne particles or gasses that can disable or even kill you. Smoke inhalation is the most common cause of death in fires, and being unable to breathe or see can make escape almost impossible. Being trapped in a burning building is one of my biggest fears, so I always carry a compact smoke hood with me. There are two different models that I’ve found – the Technon Breath of Life™ and the HKMASK Pocket Smoke Mask!

Both of them claim to provide 15-to 20 minutes of filtration for smoke, gasses such as Carbon Monoxide, Hydrogen Cyanide, and Ammonia and even some biological agents. Note that they provide filtration only – they will block most of the harmful components from what you’re breathing in, but if there’s no oxygen present you can still suffocate. Since they both have plastic hoods they’ll also keep smoke and other airborne particulates from getting into your eyes. I’ve taken both versions to my local fire department to get their opinion, and they both passed muster. They’re small enough to fit in almost any pocket or bag, and like a TFAK I have one of these with me at all times. If you’re even more concerned about escaping fires, you may also want to consider having a fire blanket handy in your desk at work – you can cover yourself with one of these to keep your clothes from catching on fire, but they’re kind of bulky for everyday carry.

The last few pieces of self-rescue kit that I always have on me are:

  • A dog tag on a chain around my neck with contact and medical information in case I’m found unresponsive by rescue personnel.
  • An Acme Tornado Slimline whistle (also on my dog tag chain) to signal rescuers. You can make a lot louder noise for a lot longer with a whistle than you can with your voice.
  • VICTORINOX Hiker Pocket Knife – if it works for MacGyver, it might actually help me.
  • A Maratac Titanium double-AAA flashlight, because emergencies don’t always happen in well-lit areas.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 4.)

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