Stay or go? This is the first and sometimes most difficult question we may have to ask ourselves in an emergency. Emergency events are not only disruptive to our physical situation, but they are also disruptive to our mental status as they can happen anytime, anywhere and to anyone.
One moment you may be sitting down to dinner, and the next, the building may be shaking, the lights flickering and smoke filling the room. When something like this happens, most of us will fall back to our primal instincts of either fight or flight. In a situation that suddenly changes from what is expected to chaos, the longer we take to accept that new reality, the longer we delay our required response.
From a disaster psychology perspective, it is normal to take a moment as we struggle to wrap our minds around what just happened. This can take longer if there are injuries, and the less we expected something to happen, the more difficult it may be to understand.
The usual cautions all apply, such as knowing your surroundings, exits, and being situationally aware, but what is the next step once something happens?
To aid in your preparedness and response, it is helpful to know that there are similarities to every emergency. We do not need to prepare separately for every possible event—we just need to prepare to attend to our safety first, then transition to the length of the event. If the event is a house fire, we just need to escape to immediate safety. If the event is widespread, such as a severe pandemic, we should plan to shelter in place for long periods of time.
Sheltering in place, or bugging-in as we often call it just means to stay where you are because it is the best option at the time. The best way to decide how to bug in is to understand what events could cause you to close the doors on the outside world in your area.
Doing a disaster analysis will help you in this. In simple terms, ask yourself what could possibly happen, how likely is it to happen, and how much impact it would have if it does happen. Be prepared to think outside of the mental box.
Hazards often cause other hazards, and the chain reaction can be something you never considered until now.
If a dam breaks two towns away, will it wash out the road you plan to use to evacuate?
Could a hurricane cause travel restrictions?
Could a flooded river cut you off from emergency services?
How often do these events happen in your area?
How will they impact you if they do happen?
Once you have a list of potential hazards in your area (do this for all of your frequented locations), you can then prepare accordingly with supplies, skills, equipment, and people.
There are eight major areas of preparedness we need to consider when planning for survival: food, water, shelter, safety/health, security, energy, communication, and transportation. If you don’t know where to start in your planning, use this list as a guide.
The important part is not to be lopsided in your planning. Too much of one area and nothing in another can lead to problems later. Rather than quantity, think in terms of time.
All the food in the world won’t help you if you can’t protect it or move it in an emergency. And storing it all in some distant place won’t help you if you cannot effectively get to it.
If you live in an urban area, you will have slightly different preparation requirements than the rural survivor. Urban dwellers often live in multi-unit structures or tight neighborhoods with limited access points, limited storage space, and perhaps no independent transportation.
If a dirty bomb or large explosive devices were detonated or a chemical agent dispersed in such an environment, you may find yourself sheltering wherever you can with almost no advance notice. A citywide blackout could strand you away from home with no way to communicate.
Are we safe now?
As a basic rule, the easy answer to whether you stay or leave is as simple as asking if you are safe in this location at this time. If so, maybe you should sit tight. This is not the end of the question, though. Since conditions can change in an instant, we must constantly reconsider our situation.
How long can we stay?
Do we expect the situation to deteriorate?
Are we prepared to leave?
And what supplies would we need for a successful evac?
For our sample scenario, we’ll make a case for sheltering in place. Our simulated emergency event will be a power grid failure. There are several levels of power grid failure, from the common, several days blackout to community destroyers, such as the power grid failure in Texas. If an extended blackout has overcome your community, there will be a strong chance that many people will decide to stay home and/or figure out how to ride it out.
Most families are not prepared to shut in for long periods of time, however. We live in a convenience society and usually don’t think twice about running out to the store for supplies or services. Since we expect an extended blackout to affect the entire community, lasting upwards of one month at a time, we must look at how we would survive in such conditions with little to no help from the outside world.
FEMA advises staying home in such an event. This strain on the workforce would certainly limit our services from sanitation to water, sewer, power, medical, and law enforcement agencies. Absolutely everything we have come to depend on could be unavailable in a complex human disaster such as this.
Knowing the possibilities, we can plan appropriately, but how many of us have a true power grid failure plan and the equipment to manage such an ordeal?
Going back to the similarity in disasters, we may discover that we are not as unprepared as we may think. A blackout often occurs after natural disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes. The good news is if you are ready for the hurricane season, you are close to being ready for something much worse.
What supplies do you have on hand if your family is forced to stay home? Add some more personal provisions, basic medical supplies, food, and water, along with cleaning materials, and you are now in better shape to successfully shelter in place when the outside world is getting darker.
As a survivor, you probably already have many of these basics and would only need to look at some additional items like solar power kits and pretty much anything that will help you get electricity when the fuel you’ve stockpiled for your generator runs out. You probably have some of these things already, too.
Shelter in place
Sheltering in place does not always mean staying home. In actuality, many of us spend great amounts of time away from home every day. To further the point, many of us spend our days in distant and arguably more dangerous places than home.
Additionally, we often have the mentality that we will be at the house when disaster strikes, so we prepare the home more than the other areas we frequent. For many people, this is a mental blind spot.
We never know when bad things might happen, so we need to carry our survival mindset and some key supplies everywhere we go. Working or living in a big city requires adhering to the same rules as anywhere else. You will just need to modify your plans based on limited travel resources and the biggest hazard of all: masses of other people.
For example, if you are caught in an attack on a subway or other transit system, you may only get what’s in your pockets to work with. If you know this might be a possibility, you would be wise to prepare accordingly with something called an everyday-carry kit.
To design such a kit and make it easy to carry, think of what might happen and then consider some items that would help you to survive in any location you may potentially find yourself in.
Prep your response
What are the most common problems in urban environments? Poor air quality from explosions, injuries or entrapment by debris, darkness, dehydration, physical attack, becoming lost, travel restrictions and the inability to contact help or family.
With these hazards in mind, we can consider skills and items to have on hand. Since we never know when such an event might occur, we should be ready at any time and at any of our usual locations, including our office, car, apartment, school, etc.
Based on the aforementioned hazards, a basic, easy-to-carry kit can be assembled and carried in a backpack, purse, or pocket. This includes:
- N95 respirator and swim goggles
- First-aid materials/trauma bandage/ bandana
- Mylar emergency water pouches
- LED flashlight/chem light glow stick
- Self-defense tool(s)
- Personal identification
- Communication device
All of these basics will easily fit into a small pouch or pockets and could be invaluable to your survival efforts. If you are responsible for others, such as family or children, don’t forget to provide some of these items for them, too.
Keep in mind that these are just tools to get you to fresh air and out of immediate danger. From there, you will need to use your wits and skills to continue your journey to the next safe location.
Seeking safe space
Often we are asked which is better to do first from a planning perspective, be ready to shelter in place or be ready to bug-out?
My answer is that it is always better to be able to leave immediately than be restricted to staying in place. If you can evacuate and survive somewhere else, you can also survive with that same equipment at home. But if you begin your planning with the thought that you never intend to leave and something happens that forces you out of your home, you will likely have nothing useful to evacuate with.
While your home may seem like the best place to ride out a disaster, things don’t always work out that way. You need to be prepared.
In conclusion, you do have some say in how a disaster might affect you and your family. It all comes down to knowing what could possibly go wrong, how likely it is to happen and how it could impact you. With this information, you can easily prepare a plan to either deal with it or be somewhere else when it does happen.
Suggested resources for prepper and survivalists: