Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Forget the Zombies & Aliens, Are You Ready for a Real Disaster?

As science fiction and fantasy fans, we're well-versed in the subject of mind-blowing, world-altering disasters. We watch them and read about them over and over, and discuss them ad-nauseum online and at conventions. But in the wake of the recent tragedies in Japan and New Zealand, I thought I'd take a quick break from SF in this post and ask whether you're prepared for a real emergency.

Put aside the so remotely unlikely that they're for all intents and purposes impossible SF-relegated scenarios like an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse. Then let's put aside the geologically occasional but in human terms by no means regular catastrophes like large meteorite/asteroid/comet impacts and supervolcano eruptions.

Let's focus on the sadly more common emergencies that you will likely have to deal with (one or more of them) at some point in your life. The house fires, highway pile-ups, train derailments, toxic spills, avalanches, blizzards, tornados, volcanic eruptions, disease quarantines, city-wide power outages, civil unrest, floods, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, forest fires, and yes, earthquakes and tsunamis.

One thing I've noticed, both as a former news reporter/anchor and as a current volunteer emergency preparedness session presenter for the City of Vancouver, is that most people are aware of the possible disasters that could happen in their regions, but they're not actually prepared for them. They haven't thought through a plan to deal with disaster and they don't have supplies to help themselves or their loved ones and neighbours. Admittedly, in some cases the forces of nature are just too powerful, but generally, taking the time to make a plan and create emergency kits tends to make life a little easier for people dealing with emergencies.

If we, as geeks, are supposed to be the smart ones, the ones who discuss all these eventualities or possibilities that just don't occur to most people, shouldn't we be the ones who are prepared to face an emergency?

Have you made a home/work disaster plan?

Do you have an emergency kit ready if you need it at a moment's notice?

If the answer is "no", here are 10 tips for emergency planning that we teach people in Vancouver's Neighbourhood Emergency Preparedness Program. They're not just for people living on the West Coast of North America - they're helpful for people living anywhere to plan for most types of emergencies that you could face.

1) Identify the hazards in your area.
What's most likely to happen in the region where you live and work? Is it a blizzard, earthquake, train derailment, or something else? The type of emergency you might have to face can affect your planning and definitely what you'll include in your emergency kits.

2) Establish a family meeting place.
If something does happen (whether it's a house fire or a major natural disaster) and your family has to evacuate your house, or can't come back to your house, where will you meet up? This should be somewhere nearby that everyone in your family knows where it is and can reach easily on foot. Maybe the home of a trusted friend or family member? A local community centre or park?

3) Establish an out-of-area contact.
This is someone who does not live in your region who would not be effected by any natural disaster that you might have to deal with. If there is an emergency, your family might be split-up (maybe you're at work when it happens, your spouse/partner is at home, and your kids are at school) and unable to reach each other or communicate with each other. However, it might be possible that social services at a disaster shelter could get word out to a friend or family member outside of the affected area. This person, your out-of-area contact, can act as your family's communications link, letting everyone know as they check in how the rest of the family is doing and where they are waiting. Make sure everyone in your family knows who your out-of-area contact is and what that person's phone number is.

4) Emergency kits.
These are your emergency supplies. In most places, governments will quickly set up disaster shelters to get people out of the weather and offer food and medical care, but sometimes it takes a while for these services to get up and running, and you may have to travel a bit to reach them. It can make your life a lot easier if you have emergency kits ready with the essentials that you will need/want. Here are the different kinds of emergency kits you should have:
  • a) Grab-and-go kits. This is exactly what it sounds like - a duffle bag or backpack in your home that you can grab easily on the run and take with you as you get out of your house quickly. It should have essentials that you'll need for at least 3 days. A first-aid kit is a must. You should also include food and water, a flashlight (preferably crank-powered, or with extra batteries stored separately), a radio (crank-powered radio/flashlight combos are widely available), a blanket or plastic rain poncho, a knife, matches, an extra sweater, work gloves, toiletries, any medications you require, anything else you think you might need. Everyone in your home should have their own grab-and-go kit (that includes having a separate bag for each of your pets with items and food/water they will need).
  • b) Home kits. These are larger emergency kits with all of the essentials listed above and, again, anything else you think you might need (like candles, a tarp, rope, cooking apparatus, more batteries, more food/water, more first aid supplies, books or games to pass the time with, more clothing & blankets).
  • c) First aid kits. This is a no-brainer. Every type of emergency kit you have should include a first aid kit. Make sure all of your first aid kits are fully supplied, and ensure there is a first aid kit for every grab-and-go kit in the family.
  • d) School kits. If you've got school-aged children, think about putting a small version of a grab-and-go kit in their schoolbag with a first-aid kit, contact numbers for you and other trusted family and friends, water and food, etc. Ask your child's school what its emergency plan is... Does it have emergency supplies of its own? What is the school's policy about caring for children during a disaster, especially if parents aren't able to reach their children by the end of the school day?
  • e) Car kits. Another no-brainer. Keep an emergency kit in the trunk of your car with your jumper cables and other auto necessities. You don't want to be stranded on the highway without emergency supplies if you get stuck in a disaster.
  • f) Work kits. Keep a small grab-and-go kit in your desk drawer if you work in an office in case you need it. Ask your employer about their emergency plans. Does the office have emergency supplies ready if employees are stranded there? Ladies: consider keeping an extra pair of running or hiking shoes under your desk - high heels may look great, but it'll be hard if you have to walk in them through a couple of kilometres of rubble, snow or water.
5) Food & water
Store foods that require little to no preparation and will store safely for a long time. Try to get foods that are familiar to your family (less stress during an emergency if you don't have to worry whether your kids will eat that brand of canned soup or dried noodles). Try to get foods that are low in salt/sodium so that they will not increase your thirst. Keep enough food to last everyone in your home for at least 3 days (preferably 7 days, because you don't know how long it will take your government to get help to you). For water, have at least 4 litres per person per day ready.

6) Prepare your home.
You can do a few things that might make your home safer such as checking your hot water tank to make sure it's secure. Something that's very important to us nerds: bookshelves! Make sure they're secured to a stud in your wall to minimize the risk of them falling on you. Look around your home to see if you have heavy items up high on shelves or in your kitchen, consider whether you can move them to lower storage spaces or make them more secure so they don't fall on you. Attach door fasteners to your cupboards to reduce the chances of them opening and dumping items on top of you.

7) Utilities and fire prevention.
Make sure everyone in your home knows how to get out of it in an emergency (and where to meet-up afterwards). Ensure you've got a working smoke detector and fire extinguisher. Know where your gas, electrical and water shut-offs are.

8) Plan for helping vulnerable populations
Do you have children, seniors, or people with disabilities living in your home? What about your neighbours? These people may need your assistance in the event of an emergency. Be sure to plan how you will help get these people to safety. If they require special equipment (like a walker or wheelchair), be sure you know how to help the person get to safety in/with this equipment.

9) Plan to help your pets
Pets are part of the family too! Make sure you plan for their safety. Have a grab-and-go kit specifically for your dog/cat/bird/whatever that you can take with you along with your animals if you have to evacuate. Include food, water, medications, a collar and leash, bowls, vaccination & registration papers, toys, a blanket, kitty litter or newspaper and plastic bags for waste, and a carrying cage/kennel. Anything else they might need.

10) Practice your plan.
Hey, your parents and teachers were right: practice makes perfect! Practice your disaster plan and check your emergency kits at least once (preferably twice) every year. That's a good way to keep your food/water supplies fresh and to consider whether you need to add anything else to your emergency kits or if you need to alter your evacuation plan.

If you've got a disaster plan and emergency kits, you'll be better prepared for an emergency. If you're prepared, you'll be in a better position to help your family and friends and others in your community.

For more tips on emergency preparedness, visit the City of Vancouver's emergency preparedness pages.

Or check the website of your city/regional/provincial/state/prefecture/national government to get information specific to your area.

You can also get lots of helpful information from the Red Cross/Red Crescent branch in your country.

Stay safe.

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