Saturday, 2 June 2012

Emergency Preparation – what to do first, Part 1

In my last post I talked about how the only question that really matters is "what the heck do we do next?" Then I went on to talk about long term plans for coping with what's likely to happen over the years ahead, promising to address short term plans – "emergency perparedness" – in my next post.

So here we are. It is a plain fact that shit happens, even in completely normal "business as usual" circumstances. With climate change, resource depletion, and economic contraction coming into play, we can expect some types of disaster to happen even more frequently. Some people live a life pretty well isolated from nature, the inner workings of our infrastructure and the grittier side of society and seem to feel that planning for emergencies is like inviting them to happen. Nothing could be more foolish. My own gut feeling (and I know it doesn't really make any sense) is that if I am really well prepared, then there will likely never be an emergency to test out my preps.

It's probably best to begin with the three rules contributed by "FreeGoddess" in her comment to my post What does this all mean?:

  • The first rule is "don't panic".
  • The second rule is "be prepared for anything".
  • Third rule is "help others to do the same".

OK, so we're not supposed to panic. For the first part of my career with the electric utility here in Ontario, I was a journeyman electrician, doing maintenance work in power stations. We were called on to respond to many emergencies, but there was always a supervisor telling me what to do, so it was no big deal. Then I became a supervisor and it was my responsibility to tell my crew what to do. This, especially when the phone call came in the middle of the night, I found to be pretty unnerving. But I learned to stop, take a deep breath, collect my thoughts and try to remember what the plan was supposed to be. There was always supposed to be a plan and people to call for backup, even if we were the first responders.

It really does help to have a plan, to know who to call, to know what to do until help arrives and to have set aside whatever tools and supplies you may need in the meantime. That's were "be prepared for anything" comes in. Of course, there are things you just can't be prepared for, and other things that are so improbable that it's not worth the effort. But when you have eliminated the insurmountable and the improbable, you are left with a list that needs to be addressed. In order to come up with this list, you need to think about the place where you live and the kind of crises – natural, mechanical, personal or social – that can reasonably be expected to happen and that you need to be able to cope with. Notice that I am not differentiating between "ordinary, everyday" emergencies and "end of the world as we know it" disasters. In my view, they exist on a continuum and the mindset that helps us prepare for and cope with them is essentially the same.

I don't claim to be an expert on emergency preparations – you certainly shouldn't stake your life on my opinions. But I hope this will encourage you to do some research of your own and at least begin to take some steps in the right direction. Having said that, here are some of the ideas I have come up with after a few years of study.

Vinay Gupta, an ingenious fellow who blogs here: TheBucky-Ghandi Design Institution, talks about 6 ways to die:

  • too hot
  • too cold
  • thirst
  • hunger
  • illness
  • injury

We are protected from these hazards by essential services – both physical and social – that are provided to us by various sorts of infrastructure. If infrastructure is working right, most of us are unaware of it. But it's not magic and it is subject to failure even in the best of circumstances – I made a living for 30 plus years trying to prevent such failures and coping with them when they happened.

Gupta divides these services into three categories:

  • Shelter protects us from heat and cold. The structure in which you live insulates you from the extremes of outdoor temperatures. Air conditioning and heating system provide further protection.
  • Supply protects us from thirst and hunger.
  • Safety protects us from illness and injury. Public heath, medical system, police.

Threats to infrastructure come in several forms: natural, mechanical, social.

  • Natural threats include hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, wind storms, ice storms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, floods, forest fires, solar flares, heat waves and such. But it seems to me that this is a really distorted way of looking at such things. It assumes that this planet was created as substrate for human activities, ours to use (and use up), and that when anything "out of the ordinary" happens that interferes with our activities then things are not as they were "intended" to be. If you've read the "What do I believe" section of this blog, you know that I don't buy into this idea. I don't believe this planet (or universe for that matter) was created at all, or that there is any sort of intention behind the way things work. The human race is certainly not a privileged part of this "creation", nor do we have a special role to play in it, other than whatever role we make up for ourselves. We are as much an ordinary part of nature as any other animal species. But we have spread over almost the whole planet and we have set up our civilization to rely on a certain set of ideal conditions. When real conditions vary from that ideal, we consider it to be a disaster. But really, all of these things are natural parts of the way things work on this planet. We have put ourselves in harm's way, and we shouldn't be too surprised that the results are occasionally disastrous. Many of us live in a way that is very isolated from nature, but that isolation is an illusion. So be realistic about the range of natural events that occur in the area where you live and the ways they may disrupt your life, and be prepared rather than surprised when natural "disasters" happen.
  • By mechanical threats I mean the breakdown of the infrastructure equipment itself. If anyone can clue me in as to a better term for this, please do. Anything that is made by man eventually breaks down. But again, this is a distorted way of looking at things. Rather, I would say that it takes a lot of ongoing effort to keep it working. If left alone technology gradually, or sometimes catastrophically, wears out and breaks down. And the more complex a mechanism is, the more susceptible it is to breakdown. When our economy was growing, the ongoing cost of preventative maintenance, repairs and replacement was something that could be borne without too much pain. But now that growth is ending, those costs are starting to get quite painful. The tendency is to defer them, since for the moment everything is working just fine. After all, most of us are isolated from the inner workings of the infrastructure that supports us, and we'd just as soon pretend it wasn't there. We have just lived through a period when enough was being spent on maintenance that failures were rare and seen as decidedly out of the ordinary. But even during that period it was wise to be prepared for occasional interruptions of vital services, and it can only become more so in the future. So be realistic about the extent to which you do rely on such services and be prepared to get by without them until emergency crews can make repairs.
  • Social threats result from the breakdown of the "social contract", what Vinay Gupta calls "state failure". Many people seem to be unaware that the social contract exists, or if they are aware, believe that it unfairly restricts their freedom. But I've always thought it was a good thing. Basically it refers to the agreement by which governments provide security and infrastructure and guarantee certain freedoms and privileges to their citizens and in return those citizens agree to pay taxes and obey the law of the land. This deal can break down from either side. Governments may welch on their promise to provide security and infrastructure. They may also restrict those freedoms and privileges which they are supposed to protect. Citizens may evade taxes and break the law. And when one side of the social contract starts to fail, it tends to put stress on the other side as well, leading to a downward spiral. The failure of security and infrastructure are our immediate concern, in an "emergency preparedness" sense. But the loss of freedoms and privileges (what some call "rights") may be an even bigger concern in the long run. In any case, it looks like in the times to come, we should be prepared for more social problems – increased criminal activity(random or organized), strikes, riots, revolutions, and wars.

So, I would strongly encourage everyone to look at their own situations in the light of these generalizations, decide services are the most vital and which threats are most pressing and start preparing for them.

This post is getting pretty long and it has taken a long time to write, so I think I'll break it off here. Next time I'll talk about the threats I'm most concerned about and the preparations I have made or plan to make.

But before I go, I'll just draw your attention briefly back to the third rule that I mentioned near the top of this post is "help others to do the same". This is really important in that it sets the kind of preparation I am into apart from the survivalist "hiding in the hills" approach. That seems to be based on the belief that disasters bring out the worst in people and the other people are likely to be one of your biggest problems in an emergency. This is part of the "disaster myth", about which I will have a lot more to say in a future post. It is hard to convince people of it, but in fact disasters bring out the best in people, and rather than behaving as helpless victims, when disaster relief finally arrives people are usually found to have already taken the initiative and started helping each other out.

The is the first post in a two part series: