The Importance of Planning
Those in the vicinity of an attack have the best chance of escaping and reconnecting with loved ones if they have a personal contingency plan. Sudden disasters, such as tornadoes, earthquakes, school shootings or the derailment of train cars carrying chlorine, can strike anywhere.
Emergency plans are vital not only for corporations and schools, but also for families and individuals. Such plans should be in place for each regular location — home, work and school — that an individual frequents, and should cover what that person will do and where he or she will go should an evacuation be necessary. This means establishing meeting points for family members who might be split up — and backup points in case the first or second point also is affected by the disaster.
The lack of ability to communicate with loved ones because of circuit overload or other phone service problems can greatly enhance the sense of panic during a crisis. Perhaps the most value derived from having personal and family contingency plans is a reduction in the amount of stress that results from not being able to immediately contact a loved one. Knowing that everyone is following the plan frees each person to concentrate on the more pressing issue of evacuation. Additionally, someone who waits until he or she has contacted all loved ones before evacuating might not make it out.
It also is important to have a communication plan, which should include the contact information for the pre-chosen rallying site, as well as an alternate communications hub outside of the area. It might be difficult to communicate from Point A to Point B, but both A and B might be able to get through to a person at Point C. Alternative means of communication also should be included in the communications plan. If the phone lines and cell phones are clogged, many times text messages can still get through and Internet connections will work to send e-mail. The communications plan also will be helpful in case one member of the family is unable to evacuate immediately or finds it unwise to evacuate at all. In that case, he or she will know where the rest of the family is going and how to contact them once communications are restored.
Planning is additionally important because, when confronted with a dire emergency situation, many people simply do not know what to do. Not having determined their options in advance — and in shock over the events of the day — they are unable to think clearly enough to establish a logical plan, and instead wander aimlessly around. Having an established plan in place gives even a person who is in shock or denial and unable to think clearly a framework to lean on and a path to follow.
If You Must Evacuate
One of the keys to surviving a catastrophe is situational awareness (see post on this topic). This means recognizing the threat at an early stage — and taking measures to avoid it. Another element of situational awareness is to know where to go when an unforeseen disaster strikes. For example, if an improvised explosive device (IED) were to detonate in a subway car ahead of the car you are in, would you know how to get out of your car and in which direction to travel to get to safety? If your office building is hit by an IED or catches fire, do you know where the fire exits are located and where they lead? Could one fire exit take you out of the frying pan and into the fire? Situational awareness also involves knowing how to react. If a subway tunnel is filling with smoke, you must have the situational awareness to keep low in order to avoid being overcome.
In some cases, evacuation might not be the best idea. If there is no immediate threat to you at your current location, you could run a larger risk of being injured by joining the crowd of panicked people on the street. In some cases, it might be safest to just stay in place and wait for order to return — especially if you are in a location where you have emergency stocks of food and water.
If you work in a high-rise building, frequently travel or take a subway, there are a couple of pieces of equipment that can assist you in case the need to evacuate arises. One of these is a smoke hood, a protective device that fits over the head and provides protection from smoke inhalation. Smoke hoods are relatively inexpensive devices that can be carried in a briefcase or purse and quickly donned in case of emergency. They will usually provide around 20-30 minutes of breathing time — which could quite literally mean the difference between life and death in a smoke-filled hallway, stairway or subway tunnel. The second piece of equipment is a flashlight small enough to fit in a pocket, purse or briefcase. Such a light could prove to be invaluable in a crisis situation at night or when the power goes out in a large building or subway. Some of the small aluminum flashlights also can serve as a handy self-defense weapon.
Even if you don’t live in an area which is prone to extreme weather or is a likely terrorist target, it is still prudent to prepare a “GO Bag” kit (knapsack) containing clothes, water, a first-aid kit, nutritional bars, medications and toiletry items for you and your family. (See post on Go Bags and Emergency Kits). It also is a good idea to include a battery-powered radio and other useful items, such as multi-tool knives and duct tape. The kit should be kept in convenient place like the trunk of your car, or some other convenient location that makes it easy to grab it on the way out. Even if it is impractical to keep all Emergency Supplies in one place, develop a list to help you collect other items quickly. You need to be ready to get out the door and “fly away” in seconds.
Your GO Bag knapsack should also contain copies of important documents such as each family member’s drivers license, insurance papers, medicine and eyeglasses prescriptions, passport, birth certificate, vehicle titles, deeds, credit card information, and photos of yourself, and individual photos of each family member and loved one. Though a paper copy protected by a zip-lock plastic bag is best, some of this (and additional information) can be stored electronically on a thumb drive, CD, or other small media-storage device.
The Need for Flexibility
It is important to listen to authorities in the case of an emergency, though you cannot rely on the government to take care of you in every situation because the resources simply are not there to do so. You must have plans ready to take care of yourself and your family.
If you have pets, you will want to take them into consideration when you make your plans. Will Fluffy be taken to the evacuation site in the case of a dirty bomb attack, or not?
The emergency plan also must be fluid and flexible. It is important to recognize that even a good contingency plan can be worthless if protective measures taken by authorities during an emergency impede execution of the plan, or if the catastrophe itself closes down a section of your route. For example, bridges and tunnels might be closed and streets blocked off or jammed with traffic, meaning you might not be able to travel to safety or pick up family members or coworkers. Those whose plan calls for a flight out of the city might be unable to get to the airport or helipad and, once there, find that air traffic has been grounded, as happened after the 9/11 attacks. For these reasons, it is best to have several alternate contingency plans that account for multiple scenarios and include various evacuation routes. Once the emergency is announced, it likely is too late to start devising a plan.
Plans must be reviewed periodically. A plan made following 9/11 might no longer be valid. Bridges and roads you included might now be closed for construction. If Uncle Al’s place in Texas is your planned bug-out retreat and communications hub, then that needs to change when he moves to West Virginia.
Your equipment should also be checked at least semi-annually to ensure it is functional. Have you checked the batteries in your flashlight and radio? (Batteries should usually be stored separately from your battery-powered device as prolonged storage make cause leakage and render the item unusable). Has your smoke hood become battered from being carried around for too many years? Have the power bars in your Go Bag knapsack become fossilized?
Finally, while having a contingency plan on paper is better than having nothing, those that are tested in the real world are far superior. Running through an evacuation plan (especially during a high-traffic time such as rush hour) will help to identify weaknesses that will not appear on paper. It also will help to ensure that all those involved know what they are supposed to do and where they are supposed to go. A plan is of limited use if half of the people it is designed for do not understand their respective roles and responsibilities.
No plan is perfect, and chances are you will have to “shift on the fly” and change your plan in the event of an actual emergency. However, having a plan — and being prepared — will allow you to be more focused and less panicked and confused than those who have left their fate to chance. In life and death situations, an ounce of prevention is a good thing.