Being Prepared

Several events over the last few weeks have presented some scary scenarios for family and acquaintances. In one recent case, a co-worker died from smoke inhalation in a house fire that she probably should have survived. In the northeast, several friends lost power, had flooding, and had house damage from tree falls. I previously blogged here about the burglary we had at our house. And last night I had to take my daughter to the E.R. (she’s fine now).

Living in the real world means things happen. Sometimes, things happen suddenly and unexpectedly. We have systems in place (police, fire departments, etc) to respond, but it is important to note that it takes time to get them there, and sometimes that interval between discovery of a problem and getting resolution is critical.

It is a good idea to be a bit proactive to know how to respond in general ways to crisis situations. Advanced preparation can make all the difference. I had training as an EMT first responder (long ago) and taught for the Red Cross (long ago), plus my work in security has made me a little more paranoid. But there are some basic things each and every one of us can do to make us less likely to be a victim and more likely to be able to help others until more professional help is available.

The following are bare-bones basic things worth trying to do to prepare for a real emergency. (I started to write this as email to a couple of friends and it sort of grew into this longer post. Additions and suggestions welcomed in the feedback.)


Take a basic CPR course from the Red Cross or American Heart Association. These are often free or low cost (make a donation if you can), and only take a few hours. Even if you don’t have time to renew it, make the time for a class. I know of a few cases where this resulted in saving a life.

If you can spare more time, take the Red Cross Basic First Aid course. It might be a weekend, or a few nights, but you’ll learn the really basic issues of how to respond to injuries. (There is an advanced course if you have the time.)

A more advanced step would be to take any courses offered via employer or community group on handling violence in the workplace, R.A.D. (rape avoidance and defense for women), and general self-defense and protection. (Note: mace, a knife or a gun requires training to use properly, and have legal implications. Research those carefully if you are considering them.)

Most basic concept for critical support is A-B-C — airway, bleeding, circulation. Check and clear the airway (and do artificial respiration if needed), stop severe bleeding, and give CPR if necessary, in that order. Anyone not needing one of those three will probably last at least 30 minutes for an ambulance. Without aid for those 3, however, and there is little hope for survival to the 5 minute mark.

Basic idea for bleeding is to apply direct pressure on the wound with as clean an item as you can quickly grab; stopping the bleeding is more important than finding something sterile. Your bare hand will do if nothing else is available, although if you have any open wounds and you don’t know the medical history of the person bleeding this is not a good idea. If it is an extremity, elevate it. If there is a bone broken, try to keep the break immobilized. If someone may have a neck or back injury definitely keep them immobilized! Keep an injured person warm as shock will set in — this means blankets or other cover if you have them, and something other than cold ground or concrete under them (if you can move them).


Try to have a stock of basic first aid supplies on hand. The most important ones for emergency use are sterile pads (gauze not cotton) and some pressure bandages or ties. Having sterile saline solution to flush out eyes or animal bites is useful, too. Beyond that, you don’t need a lot more unless you’ve got training how to use it in a significant emergency.

Having a couple of flashlights with charged batteries is important with spares nearby.

Having enough drinking water on hand for a day or two generally isn’t a big concern until you need it after the power goes out or there is a break in the water supply. Having some sealed bottles is maybe not a bad idea. However, if you keep in mind that you can immediately shut off the gas/electricity to your water heater, and shut off the water supply into the heater, that will reserve 20-50 gallons of clean water. (You will have to open a tap and take the water out of the drain on the heater, using gravity, but that isn’t too bad. Be sure to shut off the inflow from the water supply to prevent contamination from a break, etc.)

Have smoke detectors in each bedroom and in the halls/rooms outside the bedrooms. One in the kitchen is also good. These are not that expensive, but lives are precious.

Consider a carbon monoxide detector too, with the same comment on cost.

Get a home fire extinguisher for every floor of your home, at least 10 A-B rated. Make sure everyone in the family knows how to use them. You can find these at moderate to low cost, too.

Planning Ahead

Know the phone number for your emergency response. In most places in the US that is 9-1-1.

Consider having your cell phone in reach of where you sleep so you can call if you need to without even getting out of bed. A flashlight should be kept at hand, too.

Check that the batteries in your smoke alarms work. If you don’t have smoke alarms, get some! Mark your calendar to check the batteries in these at least once a year.

Check the charge level in your fire extinguishers at least once a year. Get recharges or new ones if needed.

Know how to exit wherever you sleep using at least 2 different routes. If one path is blocked by a fire or structural problem you will need the other. Think how you’d do it if there was smoke and you could not see (you should always crawl if there is a fire — smoke rises and the better air is near the floor). In airplanes, know where the exits are ahead and behind you. In a restaurant or theater, know where the exits are.

Know the way to a nearby clinic with a doctor, and to the nearest hospital ER. Make sure you know how to get there if you must drive. Generally, for really critical events you are better off waiting for an ambulance with a trained crew if you are more than 10 minutes away from the hospital, including worse-case traffic and traffic lights IF they will respond quickly.

Consider having a home generator (at least a small one), fuel to run it, and a long outdoors-use extension cord. How much fuel? Enough to run the generator, at least off-and-on, for the longest you might be without being able to get more fuel. Be sure the fuel is stored in safe containers designed for such storage. Extension cord length? Long enough so you can run the generator OUTDOORS (avoid carbon monoxide risk and possible fire risk when refueling) and still have the cord reach anywhere indoors you might need the power. (You might want to consider a chain and padlock to secure the generator, too — if you need it, others might too, and it could disappear when you aren’t watching it.) Uses: sump pumps, power saw, medical equipment, electric griddle to cook food, radio/TV for information, chargers for cell phones, electric space heater, etc.

Have a basement that might flood with no power? Consider getting a hand-powered pump, or have a Bernoulli water-powered siphon pump installed as a backup. Electric pumps only make sense if you have an emergency generator.

Rent a safety-deposit box at a bank and put your important documents there rather than in a safe at home. The bank vault is fireproof and floodproof (if they have done it right). In the US, a deposit box rental fee is tax deductible.

If Something Happens

The first rule is always — don’t panic! If you act without careful consideration you might become a victim too, and that makes things worse. Mentally ask yourself what you are going to do first, then second, then next. Ask yourself what would be the outcome if those steps don’t work or go bad, and adjust the outcome accordingly. You probably have a shot of adrenaline, so force yourself to be deliberate. Your single biggest tool is thinking carefully!

If your smoke alarms go off, don’t rush through closed doors — feel them first to make sure there is no flame on the other side (don’t touch a metal handle first!). Note that opening the door may let in a cloud of smoke, so stay close to the floor if you open the door. If there is heat and you can’t get out another way, try to jam things along the bottom of the door to keep smoke out, and hang a sheet out the window to mark it for attention when the fire department gets there.

If you have power out and flooding in a basement, remember that water and electricity don’t mix well — especially if you are using a generator for a pump. Don’t let cords drop into the water. Instead, locate the pump in a higher area and put the intake down into the water.

Someone complaining of pressure in the chest or pains in the chest, neck or arms should get to a hospital right away to be checked for heart problems. Loss of coordination, speech, balance may be signs of a stroke and require immediate attention. Sudden confusion or disorientation can be the result of extreme fever, stroke, heart problems, or diabetic reaction — all of which require emergency medical involvement. Don’t be talked out of it — let trained, responding personnel decide. Any significant blow to the head, especially if it causes any loss of consciousness should be evaluated at an ER. Sustained fevers above 102 warrant at least calling a doctor (104 and above should be immediate), as does continuous vomiting or diarrhea for longer than about 6 hours.

Get everyone to a safe place before calling 9-1-1 if it is a fire. It is a risky idea to return into a burning building to try to rescue people you think may be inside — they might have left through a different exit, or they might be safe (for now) in a closed room waiting for the fire department. Rushing inside without proper breathing equipment may get you injured or killed.

If you have an emergency and called for an ambulance or police, have someone turn on exterior lights, and if the weather and conditions warrant it, stand outside to signal that it is the right place and guide them in. This is especially good if you want to get someone out from underfoot in dealing with the problem, but don’t have children do it.

If something has happened that power lines are down, be sure to tell that to the 9-1-1 operator so the power company can be dispatched. And always stay well away from the lines.

If you smell gas, exit immediately and leave the door open. Do not turn on lights or use your phone until you are outside. If you are at a wooden window, open it before you exit, but don’t waste time opening lots of them. Get away from the building.

If you see an accident occur while driving do NOT jam on your brakes. Instead, pull well off the side the road to a safe location. Call 9-1-1 and give preliminary information (location, direction of travel, number/type of vehicles). Only approach the accident site to render aid if you are COMPLETELY sure that you can do so safely without danger from oncoming vehicles. Do NOT attempt to move unconscious or badly injured people from a wrecked vehicle unless there is a fire in progress or similar immediate threat, or if you cannot otherwise render A-B-C first aid — many crashes involve head and neck injuries and movement makes them worse. Try to check the condition of everyone (including some who might have been thrown from vehicles) before rendering direct first aid — the first person you come to is not always the most badly injured. Often the best thing you can do is get everyone away from the roadway and the wrecks to a safer location to await professional response.

Most people have no idea what to do in an emergency, and are often stunned. Take command if you know what to do. Someone without a clue will often listen to someone with the air of authority. But remember, if you start giving directions you are taking responsibility, too, so be sure you know you are doing the right things and there is no one better qualified at the scene,

Other tips?

If you have other tips you think are worthwhile, post them in the comments.

And the next time you encounter a first responder — police, fire, rescue, ambulance, and others — consider saying thank you. They train a lot, work long hours for lousy pay and benefits, and sometimes put themselves in harm’s way to be sure we don’t have to cope with all of life’s disasters on our own. They often see us when we are most distressed and we take them for granted. I know they appreciate kind words during more “normal” times.

Have a safe and uneventful springtime.

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