Staying safe in disasters: Beyond the gun

Maybe you’ve heard the internet tough guy on the local gun forum talking about being prepared for “when the big one hits.”  What the “big one” is in his mind is anyone’s guess, but other than some really cool airsoft equipment this guy picked up on eBay, he isn’t likely to be prepared for the reality of a true survival situation.

A disaster could mean any number of things from losing a job to a nuclear attack.  For the purposes of this article, lets focus on the localized disaster where normal services will be interrupted for a few days to a few weeks.  This could be a hurricane that hits south Florida, an earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area or a tornado in the Midwest.

In any of these events, you can expect to lose communications, access to stores and a loss of utilities.  While the readers of this column are more likely than the general population to provide for their own protection, there are a number of other things to consider beyond looting and civil disorder.

Trauma Kit

In a disaster, normal emergency medical services will not be available.  Firefighters and paramedics are not likely to be able to get to you even if you were able to contact them.  Quite frankly, the system will be overwhelmed and you will be on your own.

Most people have a boo-boo kit already.  Things like adhesive bandages and antibiotic ointments will be very useful, but are not going to help you save a loved one with a traumatic amputation or sucking chest wound.

The most important piece of gear you can have in this kit is knowledge.  There are training classes through the Red Cross and other providers that will teach you how to deal with serious injuries.   I strongly recommend finding a local class and having all adults and responsible children take it.

While not as good as hands-on training, studying a good emergency medicine book like the 68W Combat Medic Skills can also help prepare you for dealing with serious injuries.

A trauma kit can contain many different things, but the basics should include:

  • tourniquet
  • QuikClot combat gauze
  • Israeli-style compression bandage
  • elastic bandage
  • chest seal
  • decompression needle (if properly trained)
  • CPR mask
  • EMT shears

These are the basics, and you can certainly add additional gear that meets your needs and level of training.  Standard first aid items from cold packs to Tylenol should also be on hand.

Air

One of the quickest things that can kill you is a lack of breathable air.  Yet, this is a critical area that is often overlooked.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas that can kill you without you ever realizing you are breathing it.  Gas ranges, fireplaces and machinery can introduce it into your home.  Likewise, smoke from a fire can also overwhelm and kill you.

Carbon monoxide and smoke detectors are simple devices that can be installed in a residence by anyone.  The simplicity of operation belies the devices’ importance in preventing tragedy.

Having detectors installed makes sense all the time, but especially in any type of emergency situation.  In tough circumstances you might do things you otherwise would not, such as starting a fire in a fireplace you haven’t used or cleaned in years, or running a generator close to the house.  Having these detectors in place can give you an early warning of problems and prevent a bad situation becoming a grievous one.

Combination smoke and carbon monoxide detectors tend to cost less than $40 and run for about months on a single battery.

Water

Most people take water for granted.  In the United States, it seems that free, clean water is virtually everywhere.  Should you ever have a disaster befall you, clean water could become as hard to find as it is in a third world country.

Drinking water is exceptionally important.  Without it, a man could die within just a few days.

There is an old survival guideline that states you can live without air for three minutes, exposed to freezing temperatures for three hours and without water for three days.  While these guidelines are good to put survival priorities in order, the exact times are highly variable depending on the person and environment.

For water, an adult in good physical shape who is not exerting him- or herself can probably survive three or four days without water.  However, alter the variables even slightly and the time drops significantly.  For example, someone who is sick, elderly, young, performing vigorous labor or who is in a hot climate is not likely to have even that much time.

Therefore it is extremely important to have clean drinking water stored for every member of your household.  How much you store is up to you.  The Mayo Clinic suggests that a healthy adult living in a temperate climate drink 2.2 to 3 liters of water a day (9-13 cups).  Factors such as climate and exertion levels can alter these numbers.

To put those numbers in perspective, there is 0.5L in each plastic bottle of water that many of us buy at the supermarket by the case.  So, for every day, an adult will need six of those bottles.  In a family of four, that works out to be 24 bottles of water, or once case of bottles, every day.

I recommend having at least a week’s worth of water stored in cases like these.  Even more is better.

Communication

In a disaster you can expect to lose cell phone coverage and your internet connection will likely go down as well.  Do you have any other means of communicating with family or emergency services?

First of all, if you do not currently have an old “land line” phone from Ma Bell, consider having one installed.  Those phones are copper lines that conduct their own electricity, meaning that unless the phone line is cut along with the power, they will continue to work even when the lights are out.  Make sure you aren’t trying to use a cordless phone though.  They still require AC power.

A side tip on old phone lines:  they can be used to power or charge small appliances and electronics.  I won’t go into it here, but use your favorite search engine and the term “use phone line as power source”.

While cell coverage will likely be knocked out in many disasters, it will also be one of the first things brought back online.  In many communities, cell towers also serve as repeaters for public safety radio communications.  Additionally, a lot of the dispatch functions are handled via cell data.  With all of the local fire, EMS and police units relying on those towers, they tend to be a priority for repair crews.

A very reliable form of communication is via amateur, or ham, radio.  Over the years the licensing requirements have eased significantly and things like knowledge of Morse code are no longer required to obtain the technician license.  The FCC handles licensure, but local volunteers administer testing.

Basic amateur radios are also very affordable with handheld units like the Baofeng UV5RA costing less than $40.  In a situation where other communications have utterly failed, a ham radio operator can still communicate with the rest of the world.  If you need emergency help or just want to let relative know you are safe, there may not be any other feasible means of communication.

Disasters are awful things to live through, but they happen all the time.  What you do now can make a difference between surviving with stories to tell or being memorialized in the nightly news as a part of the death toll.

The things mentioned in this article are not an exhaustive list; rather it is a reminder to start preparing today for whatever disaster may befall you in the future.

 

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