Thursday, July 30, 2009


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There's a well known saying, "Luck favors the prepared." The Boy Scouts of America have the motto "Be Prepared!" We've all heard that we should be prepared, but what for, and what does being prepared entail? Preparedness is not necessarily about stockpiling years worth of MREs, or having weapons buried in your backyard, although there certainly could be situations that call for that. No, preparedness is about being ready to handle anticipated crises. Preparedness ranges from having automobile and home owner's insurance policies, to making sure that your family has an evacuation plan and bug out bag (BOB) in the case of a disaster (see our article on Bugging Out.)

Being Prepared

What to Prepare For

The first step in being prepared is research. It is important to research what situations one should be prepared for. There are a myriad of disasters that could strike anyone at a given time, and it is almost impossible to prepare for all of them. That being said, it is possible to prepare for the most likely scenarios, and being prepared for those will inevitably help you to endure other less plausible disasters.

Not everyone needs to prepare for every possible emergency. What you prepare for may be very individual depending on your medical condition, the weather where you live, and what the political climate is. If you live near the coast, you may consider hurricanes a likely threat. In the Southwest, wild fires may be the primary concern. Residents of the Western United States may prepare for an earthquake or blizzard. People who live in the Midwest may be foolish not to prepare for tornadoes and floods. If you live in an area with an unstable government, you may prepare to defend your home from rioters and looters. Regardless of where you live, there are some disasters that are more likely than others. By preparing for one, you are also at least partially prepared for other possible crises.

Natural disasters or apocalyptic scenarios aren't the only situations that one can prepare for. Mundane emergencies are much easier to handle with just a little bit of preparation. Your car probably has a spare tire and roadside change kit in it, but do you know where it is and how to use it? You probably have homeowner's or renter's insurance but, as important as that is, it is equally important to be prepared with items such as fire extinguishers and smoke detectors. Even something as irritating and mundane as having your wallet stolen can be made much easier to handle if you have a small cash supply and copies of your credit cards and identification safely stored at home. Preparing for the zombie apocalypse with shelves stuffed full of MREs and an expensive solar electrical system does not help you one bit if you neglect to have a fire extinguisher to prevent a small kitchen fire from consuming your entire house.

Have a Plan

The second step in being prepared is having a plan for every situation. This may be as simple as thinking through various "what if" scenarios in your head (what if I lose my wallet or have a flat tire?), to something as elaborate as having a written escape plan and bug out bag in the case of a house fire. Have a family meeting to discuss the plans you make. Other family members may have ideas or concerns about your plans. Make sure that everyone in your household knows what the plans are for each situation, and share your plans with other friends and family so that they know where you are and what you will be doing in an emergency.

Air, Food, Water, and Shelter

In every situation, you have certain needs. These needs were first categorized by Abraham Maslow and are referred to as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Clean air, water, food, and shelter are the most basic of these needs. Meet these four requirements, and you can live. Eliminate even one of these needs and death is imminent. You can live four minutes without air, four days without water, and up to forty days without food. Survival time without shelter depends on a number of factors such as temperature, humidity, sleep availability, etc.
Most disasters threaten one or more of these needs. Any disruption of power or transportation will quickly make food and clean water extremely scarce. Disasters such as fire, severe weather and earthquakes threaten to destroy homes and buildings, our shelter. Other disasters such as volcano eruptions and chemical or biological attacks can make the air itself unsafe to breathe.


The most basic requirement for survival is clean air. Gas masks or respirators, plastic sheeting, and duct tape are the most common items used to ensure that you have clean air to breathe. Respirators are the most basic form of protection, and are useful for filtering out 95% of contaminants as small as 300 nanometers. This is enough to filter most smoke, dust, and pollution particles, but not small enough to filter out individual viruses or airborne chemicals. Respirators also do not protect the eyes. Gas masks are able to filter almost all viruses and chemicals, and are full face masks that protect the eyes as well.

Proper fitment of respirators and gas masks is critical to achieve adequate protection. Gas masks should create an air tight seal around the face, and respirators should have a good seal around the mouth and nose. Respirators with an exhaust valve are preferred since that prevents moisture build up in the mask. In addition, the exhaust valve reduces the chances that rapid exhalation will cause the mask to "blow off" and break the respirator's seal around the nose and mouth. Respirators should be discarded and replaced on a daily or even hourly basis depending on the levels of airborne contaminants, and gas mask filters should be changed according to the manufacturer's recommendations.

Duct tape and plastic sheeting are great for sealing up the doors and windows of your house. While it may not be a perfect solution, even this can stop the infiltration of smoke, ash, or other particulates into the air inside your house. Though it won't stop everything, it's still a good protection to take in the case of a chemical or biological attack, and, combined with respirators or gas masks, could make the difference between life and death.


Severe flooding or power loss can cause tap water to be unavailable or contaminated. Some people are lucky enough to have their own water well, but most of those still require electricity to pump the water up, and the ground water can still become unsafe to drink. If you are in the city, instead of having your own well, you may be limited to rainwater catchment systems or stores of bottled water. When planning how much water to store, plan on one gallon of water per adult per day. This provides enough for only the most basic needs of washing and drinking.

If you have access to water, there is still the possibility of contamination. Water from streams, rivers, lakes and ponds should always be treated as if it is contaminated. Always boil potentially contaminated water, or use water treatment tablets. Small amounts of bleach can also be used in an emergency. To treat water with bleach, use 5.25% - 6% plain bleach. Mix 1/8 tsp. bleach per gallon of water, stir in the bleach and let the water stand for 30 minutes. You may also consider investing in a water purification system. Katadyn manufactures a number of water purification and desalinization products that can be used to produce enough water for an individual or, with their more expensive products, enough for an entire household in an emergency.


You don't need dozens of cases of MREs (MRE-500) to be prepared for a food shortage. Most people are woefully unprepared should the corner burger joint be closed, or the local grocery store be empty. It's simply amazing how many people have little more than leftover Chinese take-out and a bottle of mustard in their refrigerator.

By simply having a well-stocked pantry you can easily stock up enough food to last a month or so. Always remember to rotate food in and out of your pantry, eating the oldest food while placing newly purchased food in the back to be consumed later. Canned foods are inexpensive, easy to store, and can last 3-5 years. Dried foods have an even longer shelf life. 50 pounds of rice stored in a Mylar bag sealed in a 5 gallon bucket can last 20 years or more. Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber and calories and, with a mill, can be made into flour. Of course you can always freeze foods, but in the event of a power outage that food will quickly spoil, so make sure that you have an alternate power source such as a generator to keep your refrigeration running.


Fire and severe weather can quickly leave you without a roof over your head. Being prepared may mean that you have alternative places to stay with friends or family, or it may mean having cash and a bug-out-bag so that you can evacuate to a safer location. Whatever your solution, should floods, fire, or high winds leave you without a place to lay your head at night, you should plan what you will do in the event that your primary residence is no more.

The Mundane Disasters: Financial Emergencies, Power Loss, Fire and First Aid

Not all disasters involve zombie hordes or the outbreak of war. Even mundane disasters such as house fires, bank holidays, or acute injuries require some planning to mitigate potential damage.

Fire Prevention and Mitigation

The most commonly neglected household emergency is the house fire. Do you have fire extinguishers? Are your smoke alarms tested twice a year (you do have smoke detectors, don't you?) Little things such as a Carbon Monoxide detector, smoke alarms, and a fireproof safe for important documents can prevent a minor incident from becoming a major disaster. Draw up a fire escape plan, including a rendezvous point for everyone to meet at so that you can quickly identify anyone who might still be inside. Place emergency ladders in upstairs bedrooms so that you can escape a blaze that blocks the stairs. Make sure that everyone old enough to use a fire extinguisher knows their locations and has instructions on their use. Flashlights are also useful for navigating smoke-filled hallways.

First Aid Kits

For any household, a first aid kit is a must. If you do not already have one, you can build your own first aid kit or purchase pre-assembled kits such as the STOMP Portable Hospital Extensive and Intensive Medic Care kit (MHR-316). Inspect your first aid kit yearly and discard and replace any old, damaged, used, or expired items in the kit.

Don't forget to include in the kit a supply of any prescription medications taken in your household, as well as materials to care for a sick or injured pet. If you have infants or pets, you may need to make sure that you have a supply of formula and diapers, or a stockpile of pet kibble for Fido. If possible, generate at least a 30-60 day supply of medicine over and above what you usually have on hand. This is especially important for critical prescription medicines such as insulin or heart medication. Most doctors will be willing to write a larger prescription, especially prior to hurricane or storm season, if you explain to them that you want to have a 60-day supply that you can rotate through. Your prescription insurance may not cover a large purchase like that, but it is well worth the money spent. Once your supply is established, continue to rotate new prescriptions through the supply using the oldest dated medicine first. Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, burn ointments, and instant glucose are all examples of over-the-counter medications that should be considered for inclusion in your first aid kit. Over-the-counter Benadryl and an EpiPen can also be considered for inclusion in any first aid kit. These can be used to quickly arrest what might otherwise be a fatal allergic reaction.

It is important to address how waterproof your first aid kit is. If the bag itself isn't waterproof, the individual containers in it should be. In an emergency situation, the bag may be exposed to adverse weather or moisture, and that can ruin many of the items inside if they are not properly protected.

Financial Emergencies

I cannot stress enough the importance of having a cash reserve. In this modern day and age we are becoming more and more accustomed to paying for everything with a credit or debit card. But what happens when those financial systems are inaccessible or nonfunctioning? Everyone should have a moderate amount of cash that is easily accessible in case of emergency. The cash should be in a safe, accessible place somewhere in your house, or apartment, not in the bank. In the event that there is an extended power outage that prevents you from accessing your money, your cash reserve will be there to allow you to purchase necessary goods and services.

When financial disaster looms on a national scale, the first steps are often the declaration of bank holidays. Consider what has happened in the recent past with the twelve month long corralito in Argentina. Banks were effectively shut down for over a year, and withdrawals from US dollar denominated accounts was almost completely prohibited. Just a little farther back in our own US history, financial institutions were shut down for four days during Roosevelt's Emergency Banking Act during the Great Depression. Having your own cash reserve can minimize the hardships of such situation.

Power Loss

Much of what we consider hallmarks of a modern society are predicated upon the cheap abundance of electrical energy. But what happens when that electricity is no longer available? Many of us have been without power for a few minutes or hours. We've huddled around a battery-powered radio or played Monopoly by candlelight while we waited for a storm to abate and the power to be restored. Yet sometimes, it can take days or weeks for a power grid to be brought back online. Hurricane Katrina and Ike are two examples where the power was not restored to some areas for more than a month. Without electricity, refrigerators and freezers begin to defrost in a couple of days. Food that once may have been available is now rotten. Most gasoline pumps are non-functional without power, making fuel shortages a distinct possibility. Without air-conditioning the heat can become unbearable and even deadly.

Flashlights, candles, and a battery-powered radio are just the beginning of a power-loss kit. Food preparation is something else to consider. Without electricity, microwaves and electric ranges will not work. In some situations, natural gas may not be available to run a gas stove or oven. Barbeque grills are one option for cooking food, but they can only be used outside, and can require copious amounts of fuel to be used for extended periods of time. Propane ranges, Sterno kits (CAMP-097), and white-gas camp stoves are a better alternative. These systems use fuel that is safe, easily portable, and very efficient at generating heat.

Generators are one solution to an extended power loss, but if you have a generator you must also have a fuel supply for it. Stored gasoline and diesel fuel can go bad in less than a year if left untreated. There are numerous products such as Sta-Bil for gasoline and PRI-D for diesel. Such products can extend fuel shelf life anywhere from 5-10 years depending on storage conditions. Other fuels such as propane and natural gas do not go bad, but can be more difficult to store. Propane and natural gas-fired generators are available too, but are usually larger, not easily portable, and meant for use as a standby generator.

Other solutions for power generation such as photovoltaics or windmills can be expensive and inefficient. In addition, such installations may not be permitted in urban areas. Cities often have maximum height limits on structures, and winds closer to the ground are weaker. Home owners associations also have strict rules that often prohibit wind generators or solar panels.


Preparedness is not just the domain of survivalists and people with piles of MREs still left over from Y2K. Everyone is prepared to a certain degree, but we sometimes neglect certain areas of preparedness. While one person may consider simply having a savings account their acceptable level of financial preparedness, others may see the wisdom in having access to cash in an emergency. Some people simply stop with a home owner's insurance policy, while others religiously test their smoke detectors and keep fire extinguishers strategically placed throughout their dwelling. Preparedness also varies from place to place. A resident in Colorado would likely be wasting their time preparing for a hurricane, while a resident of Florida would be foolish not to. Whatever you need to prepare for, it's not hard to do with a little research and a little planning. Just remember that preparedness is not something you do once and leave in the closet until a disaster strikes. Preparedness is a state of mind, of anticipating, planning for, and being ready for whatever life throws your way.

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