Do More to Be Living Prepared

The American Red Cross launched its latest campaign – Do More Than Cross Your Fingers this month.  A major focus of this campaign is to get people thinking and planning about preparedness more, and stresses the importance of getting emergency supplies together, which is actually at odds with a recent shift in focus by DHS/FEMA away from kits and towards the “getting informed” aspects of their Get Ready campaign (apparently mostly because of the cost factors involved).

Personally and professionally, I think having sufficient emergency supplies available for your family should be non-negotiable, and there are plenty of ways to do this effectively on a budget and at little to no extra cost (think stock rotation). [hmmm… I feel another posting series coming on – Living Prepared on a Budget].

I was introduced to the the Do More campaign by e-mail, which read in part that “The Do More campaign encourages families to take easy steps to prepare for the unexpected and provides a game and many resources to help parents do so.”

I like this.

The Prepare 4 game will collect your name, zip code and e-mail address and then has you search through the aisles of a grocery store to find missing items in your emergency kit.  The game will pause at some point and ask you some questions about your household (number of persons, pets, etc.) and you’ll soon receive an e-mail with a customized emergency supply list that you should get for your household.  It’s a good list.  The one they sent me you can see here.

The Do More site also has a flash bulletin board called My Kit where people can post and share their own ideas for items that should be included in an emergency kit, or you can simply browse the ideas of others.  (I assume someone is vetting the submissions before they are made publicly available).

I really like this.

Making learning about preparedness to be a fun online experience is a great way to attract an audience and impart important knowledge.

About a year ago, I was introduced to a link to an online game in which you were presented with a few different earthquake scenarios (at work, at night, one other I can’t recall) and you had to pick the best option (e.g. hide under bed or desk, run outside).  It was developed for a California county as I recall, and despite spending some time searching online today, I couldn’t find it.  If this rings a bell and you know the url, please send it to me or add it as a comment to this post.

I believe that gaming is a great way to impart disaster preparedness knowledge in a fun and educational way to a large number of people.  There are several good simulations out there already – but there is much more fertile ground for development in this area.

I did find a few good disaster preparedness simulation games that I thought I would share with you:

Beat the Quake: developed by the Earthquake Country Alliance: in which you attempt to ready your room by securing furniture and other items before a quake hits  (impossible to get them all I’ve found)

Stop Disasters: developed by UNISDR (the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction): a very detailed and complex simulation about how to mitigate natural disaster risks from tsunamis to wildfires to earthquakes to hurricanes and more.  You have to build a resilient and resistant community before a natural disaster strikes in order to minimize the loss of life and property.

Red Cross The Game: developed by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC): a simulation of responding to international humanitarian disasters as the IFRC’s Emergency Response Unit does.  (Great fun, it reminds me of my days in the field).

Please send me links to any more.

So do more than cross your fingers, if you do, you’ll be Living Prepared.


Traveling Prepared – When to Evacuate your Hotel Room

I was on the phone this evening with family – around 6:30 PM local time, when I was interrupted by the muted sounds of my hotel’s fire alarm going off in the hallway.  The bright flashing pulse of a white strobe, that accompanies the fire alarm, visible underneath the door, confirmed to me what the sound meant.  So I quickly got off the phone and immediately exited the hotel via the nearest stairwell without hesitation, right?

Well, almost.

After hanging up the phone, I opened my hotel room door to find the hallway filled with a strong odor of burnt toast and visible smoke.  So, okay, I told myself, I really should be going now.  So I immediately proceeded to exit the hotel via the nearest stairwell, right?

Not quite.

I left the door open so I could hear any announcements or anything people in the hallway might be saying and went back into my hotel room.  I grabbed my laptop and cellphone and threw them quickly into the empty backpack I had with me (conveniently lying empty on the bed), put my hotel room key in my pocket and reluctantly, because I knew that even taking the laptop would be against my own advice, left everything else in the hotel room and exited into the hallway.

Before closing the door, a couple walked by who said that my neighbor had burned a piece of pizza in the microwave in his room.  Sure enough, next door, I found a man trying to shout over the fire alarm into the phone, who stopped to tell me, “Can you believe this?  I burned a piece of pizza in the microwave and all this happens!” and then he turned back to screaming into the phone.  There was smoke and the strong odor of burnt toast (or pizza crust, as the case was) in the room butno fire, so I was satisfied that there was no immediate danger here on the eighth floor.

The couple turned around and proceeded down the hall.

“You know,” I said to them, “this guy on the eighth floor burns a piece of pizza, and at the same time, a real fire breaks out on the sixth floor.  It would be best to take the stairs to the lobby until we know more.  The stairs are right here.”  They smiled and waved and went back to their room.

I paused in thought before my door, pulled it close, and then finally immediately proceeded to exit the hotel via the nearest stairwell, which happened to be located directly opposite my room.  From the fire alarm going off until this point in the story took no more than 3-4 minutes.

When I got outside (because the stairwell emptied to the sidewalk), I could hear no alarms, sirens or other hotel guests nearby.  The hotel entrance was just a few yards away, so I re-entered the hotel and went to the front desk, where I found a long line of people waiting to check in.  There were no alarms, flashing lights or any apparent sign of activity or response to the fire alarm that had led me to evacuate the building only minutes before.

I approached the front desk and asked whether the fire alarm had been cleared and whether it was safe to return upstairs.  The girl behind the desk told me that they had turned off the alarm (so noisy) and sent someone upstairs to check it out.


When I returned upstairs, the alarms were not sounding anymore, but the strobe was still flashing (it went off within 10 more minutes); I opened my window for a while to air out the room, and sat down to write up this story.

Lessons Learned:

So, how did I do?

I just finished reading Amanda Ripley’s exquisite book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why.  She spends a lot of time discussing the different ways in which people respond to disasters.  She breaks down how people respond into three phases: denial (inaction), deliberation (deciding what to do), and “the decisive moment” (when you decide to act).

According to these standards, I think I did pretty well.  I spent no time in denial, moved quickly into deliberation, and acted fairly decisively according to my training and experience.

I did leave my flashlight behind in my suitcase (and my keys with my keychain flashlight was in my computer bag).  Boo.  They weren’t on my person at the time, and I honestly very consciously did not want to spend a lot of time thinking about what to take with me, because when you are evacuating a building or an airplane or anything else that may be burning, the rule is to leave your belongings behind (because they can only get in the way) and get your person (and other persons) to safety as soon as possible.  Things are just that, things.

I honestly think that I returned to my room to grab my computer because there was smoke in the hallway.  Otherwise, I probably would have assumed that the fire alarm was a false alarm and would have just left it.  But faced with the prospect of a proximate cause of smoke, I considered the real possibility that anything I left behind in my hotel room might be damaged by fire, smoke or water.  And I just couldn’t bear to leave the notebook behind – and that wasn’t a case of it being valuable monetarily.  It was more an issue of time.  It would take days (literally) to replace it; even though I backed up all my files before leaving on this trip on Monday, to start afresh with a new computer requires hours and hours of configuration, loading/installing of the software applications I use, and restoring my data files from those backups.  I couldn’t face losing days of productivity until I got the new machine where this one is now.  Next time, I will leave it, and I hope that this experience and conscious deliberation in advance will improve my performance the next time I am faced having to evacuate.

Finally, I wanted to admit that when I made the reservation at the hotel, I requested a room on a high floor.  I did this both because I tend to find that rooms on higher floors tend to have better views, and because they tend to be quieter – especially concerning street noise. However, this was a bad choice.  In the event of an emergency evacuation, which became a real situation, I found myself eight flights above street level.  I would have been much better prepared for a disaster on a lower floor.

This is probably generally true for staying in hotels – I would not want to be trapped on an upper floor of a high-rise hotel where I am unfamiliar with the stairwells and emergency exits if there were a fire or other incident.  I think it is generally a good idea to know and use the stairs at least once to exit any building you find yourself working in or staying in regularly, including hotels, and I’m glad I’ve now had a dry run during daylight, so I know exactly what to expect if the next alarm is real, there is smoke filling the stairs, and the lights are out.  My flashlight will be on my bedside table tonight.  And when I go to earthquake-prone California in a few weeks, I will be requesting a room on a lower floor.

The last lesson should be obvious.

When a fire alarm sounds and you find yourself in an unfamiliar building, do what you are supposed to do and exit the building.  This is especially important when you find yourself on an upper floor of a hotel with several flights of stairs between yourself and the street.  I’ve stayed in lots of hotels that have suffered false alarms – some in the middle of the night – and there is definitely an almost instinctual reaction to blow it off and remain behind, especially in the absence of smoke, panic (PANIC!), and other hotel guests returning sleepily to their rooms.  Delay, inaction and denial caused many to lose to their lives in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and in many other disasters.

So be prepared to evacuate when you are traveling; know where the emergency exits and stairwells are located, and practice walking down the stairs and out of the building if you have the opportunity.  And plan, at least in your head, what you will do if a fire alarm goes off in the middle of the night.

If you do, you’ll be Living Prepared™.

Traveling Prepared – Part 2

I closed the previous post with a checklist of items to take with you when traveling by plane.  I think it is worth discussing some of these items in a little more detail.

The Ten Things You Should Never Leave Home Without:  This is a given.  Whenever you leave home, you don’t want to be without these items.  This is especially true for any trip that requires air travel.  For example, you definitely don’t want to be staying in an unfamiliar place without a flashlight with you when the lights go out.  A couple of these items (Swiss Army knife/multi-tool and Res-Q-Me/vehicle escape tool) need to go in your checked baggage; the rest are best carried in your carry on bag so you have them at hand.  I also usually pack my stainless steel water container in my checked baggage, although you can take them as carry on as long as they are empty when you go through security.

Backup Photo ID – as discussed in the previous post, personally, I carry my passport when I travel as a second ID and in case I need to travel overseas unexpectedly for professional or personal reasons.  This comes up often in my field.  I recall working with someone a few years ago who lived in Minnesota but was on a personal family vacation to Texas when the Ica earthquake in Peru struck.  A decision was made to send him to Peru to assist in the response.  Poor fellow was late arriving two days because he had to fly back home to collect his passport before being able to depart for Peru.  In the disaster and emergency response business, days can definitely mean lives.  So personally, my passport is always at hand when I travel.  And if you live or are traveling anywhere near a US border, you might elect to evacuate (or be evacuated) from a disaster into a neighboring country.  But in any event, having a second photo ID card, carried somewhere other than where your primary photo ID is carried (your wallet) is prudent in case your wallet is lost, stolen or misplaced.

A full change of clothes in your carry on bag – I promise you will never regret having the ability to change your clothes before your reach your destination and retrieve the rest of your clothes from your checked luggage.  Have you ever spilled a drink (or had one spilled) all over yourself on an airplane?  Or worst case: Have you ever had your kid (or someone else’s) throw up in your lap?  This is all foreseeable.  And if your checked luggage does not show, you will have a clean change of clothes with you until it does or you can replace it.

I always travel in what I call my traveling outfit.  I don’t find travel a good way to keep myself or my clothes clean and presentable.  Airplanes are hot before they take off; and cold afterwards; cabs and other forms of public transportation taken to and from the airport are often dirty.  Airports themselves are often dirty – especially baggage claim areas.  It is hard to eat and drink on flights without spilling a bit on yourself – especially in cramped coach seats. So by carrying on a clean set of clothes in my carry on bag, I am assured of being able to change out of the soiled-on-arrival traveling outfit into something more presentable, even if my checked baggage is lost or delayed in arriving.

A Pack Towel in your carry on bag – I must admit that I first got the idea to always pack a towel in my carry on bag from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.  But it was a good idea.  A towel, like an empty bag, has literally hundreds of uses – especially while traveling.  It can be used to help wipe up those nasty spilled drinks that fall onto your lap.  It can be used to provide a clean place to sit.  It can be used to dry your hands if the airplane restroom runs out of paper towels.  It can be used to dry your body if you need to wash more than just your hands (see spills, vomit, etc.).  It can be used to help staunch bleeding in the event of an accident.  A good pack towel almost deserves to make the list of things you should never leave home without!

MSR Packtowl

MSR Packtowl

And by a pack towel, I mean one that is designed for camping or travel – is quick drying, folds up small.  The one I carry is an MSR microfiber Packtowl Personal made of polyester and nylon and comes in a convenient pouch.  I am also a huge fan of the As Seen on TV ShamWow and typically pack a large and small one in my bag as well.

ShamWow !!!

ShamWow !!!

An Extra Empty Bag – We start from the premise that you should always have an empty bag with you.  But when you travel, you should bring an extra empty bag with you – something to serve as a day bag for excursions that you put things in that you want to take with you (camera, extra clothing, towel, etc.).  When we travel, we carry more with us when we go out because we are not at home and often do not have access to our things that we are used to having around us.  So we need a bag to carry these things in – and this is usually distinct from the bags that we pack in.  But once we put things in a bag, it is no longer an empty bag… so we need to remember to take two empty bags when we travel.  A backpack is perfect for this purpose.  So one of our empty bags that we take when we travel should be a backpack.  The one I take with me is one of the Lands End foldable backpacks.  My second bag is either an eco-tote or a kivu keychain backpack.

Medications and Prescription Drugs for the duration of travel plus at least one day – like clothing, packing medications and prescription drugs that you take regularly is something that you obviously need to pack.  I always try to bring with me at least one day’s extra supply, because you never know when you might miss a flight, or find your flight – the last of the day – cancelled.  It might be wiser to bring even more with you in case you have to delay your return home for longer, but I’m not prepared to set this as a rule.  If your return home is delayed for any reason more than a day, it is likely you will have the time to visit a local drug store and get your medications or prescriptions refilled as needed.  But having one or two extra days with you allows you to be prepared for these simple delays without causing you to miss a regular dose or having to make an extraordinary trip to a pharmacy.

Thus ends this second part of Traveling Prepared that focuses on travel by air.  The third part will focus on travel by car.

Traveling Prepared – Part 1

I have been doing a lot of traveling the past few months, both by plane and automobile and I’ve found that each poses different challenges to Living Prepared.  And I’ve been on different kinds of trips – from simple business trips (powerpoint and projector in hand) to disaster response exercises in semi-austere environments to a family camping vacation.  I thought it would be a good time to review some lessons learned from these experiences and to see how I am measuring up to the standards of this blog.

Airline travel

Airline travel poses significant challenges – especially if you are carrying on all of your baggage – to keeping the 10-12 items you should not leave home without with you – because of airport security.  I’ve gone on a couple of day-trips or quick overnights and haven’t needed to check any baggage – actually, I didn’t want to check any baggage because of the additional time (and expense) it takes to check domestic baggage.  And there are some items on the list of items you shouldn’t leave home without that aren’t going to (or shouldn’t) make it through the TSA security checkpoints – namely a Swiss Army knife/multi-tool and the vehicle escape tool.

Carry on only flights

I lost one of my Res-Q-Me’s that I have perpetually attached to my key chain at one checkpoint.  I forgot to take it off my key chain and leave it at home and the TSA screener asked what it was when I emptied my pockets and placed my keys in a bin was going through security.  Odd thing… I had to stop and explain to him what the device was and that he should confiscate it from me – both because of the blade (though shielded, it could easily be taken apart to become a weapon) – and the window shattering punch – which – although I don’t know whether it would break an airplane window – I would not want to find out.  He somewhat remained unconvinced, but I reassured him that he should indeed put it in the bin of confiscated items and that I wasn’t worried about it as it was only a $10 item and I had others at home.

Second odd thing – on two other occasions, I have successfully gone through security with a Res-Q-Me on my key chain, which I put in my carry on bag to go through screening (including, at this very moment! Yikes!  I promise to put it in my checked bag on the way home from this trip).  I don’t want to comment further on the state of screening at the nation’s airports, nor do I intend to continue to test these procedures informally or unintentionally.  But I hate being without my Swiss Army knife especially when away from home; I find that I still use it daily for both the mundane and creative tasks.

I have seen mailers at airports such that you can mail yourself items that you can’t carry on a flight.  This is a great solution if you plan to be somewhere for several days and don’t want to check a bag.  But personally, I have actually become a great fan of checking one bag – especially if I have a connection to make.  This allows me to take with me all those items that I can’t carry on – Swiss Army knife, Res-Q-Me (when I remember to stick it in there), a decent bottle of hand sanitizer, and depending on the purpose of the trip, some other tools that are prohibited from carry on baggage (more to follow).  This also avoids having to lumber around the airport and on and off planes with bulky luggage.

Packing for a plane trip

When flying, let’s start with these premise: you will always have a carry on bag, and in that carryon bag should be not only things you need/want with you on the flight (books, snacks, iPod), but also everything that you can’t afford to be at your destination without.

This actually should not be a long list.  I’ve had a couple of experiences with lost checked luggage and have learned a lot from them.  Let me share those with you.

Just over 10 years ago, I was working as the emergency communications officer for UNICEF, based at UNICEF’s global headquarters in New York.  I was part of a team of instructors who were going to be training 100 UNICEF staff from around the world to be a part of their rapid response team – ready to respond to humanitarian disasters wherever and whenever they took place.  The training was to take place at an abandoned facility outside Bamako, Mali, on the border of the south Saharan desert.  My checked luggage never, ever, arrived.  In that bag were 100% of my clothing (beyond what I was wearing on the plane) and all of the training materials that had been prepared for the trainees.  Fortunately, I was able to borrow a couple of changes of clothes from other UNICEF staff, as well as personal supplies (sunblock, etc.), and bought some t-shirts in the local market.  We conducted a hands-on training and all ended up okay, but most of my favorite expedition clothing and my camera and my personal travel kit were lost forever.

After that experience, I resolved to always carry on:

  • At least one full change of clothing
  • Valuable personal possessions (e.g. computers, cameras)
  • Anything you absolutely need to have at your destination for professional reasons (e.g. presentations, handouts)

So, I should have learned from that experience… and for a while, I tried to live by that rule.  Unfortunately, that often made my carry on bag a bit on the heavy side, and I do have chronic lower back problems, so I found myself relapsing into a check-the-maximum baggage mindset.

Just a few years later, I was caught out again.  I was sent on a mission to Dili, East Timor during that country’s process of independence from Indonesia via Darwin, Australia in 1999 on behalf of the U.S. Government.  I arrived in Darwin after 36+ hours of coach middle-seats on full planes with less than an hour to run between connections in Los Angeles and Sydney.  I made it.  Needless to say, my checked bag was three days behind me.  Being on such a long trip, I had carried on a couple of changes of clothing, but did not have the tropic-wear required of the 100+ degree heat of Darwin and Dili.  A quick trip to the local surf shops in Darwin got me some t-shirts and shorts that I still like to wear to this day.

Lesson learned again.  Maybe for you the solution is to try to carry on everything you take with you on a flight.  Personally, I find it annoying to watch people get on planes with enormous wheeled bags that take up an entire overhead compartment (which need to accommodate the bags for at least two or generally three persons each), plus a large “computer bag” plus a third tote or plastic bag – truly stretching the limits of what should be allowed on a flight.  And all that baggage doesn’t include a good Swiss Army knife or multi-tool!   Sometimes packing light enough to carry on only a small bag is possible but I find it challenging.

Right now, I am on a flight to the Midwest where I will be for the next four days.  I took a fairly large computer bag on wheels as my carry on bag.  It has four large pockets on it, but it will still fit under the seat in front of me if it has to (and it had to on the small jet I took on my connecting flight).  One pocket has a full change of clothing in it – including a pack towel and an empty bag (a Lands End folding backpack – it is always good to have a backpack with you on any extended trip away from home).  One has my computer in it.  One has reading material for the flight and files I need for this trip. The fourth has my iPod, power cords for computer & phone, pens, business cards, sunglasses & sunglass case, flashlight, and keys (including whistle, photon freedom flashlight, and Res-Q-Me [doh!]) and other small items.

I also carry my passport with me when I travel domestically – as one never knows when one will be called voluntarily or involuntarily out of the country.  My passport is also carried in a zippered pocket within my carry on bag.  In general, it is always good to have a second form of picture ID carried with you when traveling by air – and carried in a separate location from your primary picture ID (generally a driver’s license carried in your wallet) – such that if your primary is lost, you will have another that will enable to continue your travels until you get home.

Checked Luggage

Annoyingly, a lot of airlines are now charging extra for even a single checked bag.  Boo!  I prefer to fly always on direct flights – these are often cheaper – and usually not much more expensive than flights which require connections – and will get you to your destination a minimum of two hours – usually more – faster than a flight that requires one or more connections.  Living in the New York City metropolitan area, I fortunately have an awful lot of choices where airlines and airports are concerned – and can usually find a cheap direct flight that goes where I want to go and when I want to go on an airline that does not charge for the first checked bag.  [My favorite airline is JetBlue, in case you are wondering, which I take whenever possible. Four reasons:  comfortable seats, clean planes, friendly staff and DirectTV at every seat.  Beats the crap out of the major airlines which are more expensive, more uncomfortable, less friendly and with no free/no choice of entertainment (you know who you are)].

So, today, I am flying one of the major airlines, have a connection to make, and I had to pay $15 to check a single bag.  While I am on this rant, I understand that airlines have real costs associated with handling baggage, and by charging for second or each bag that passengers check, they are passing these costs on to those passengers using those services, which certainly seems reasonable on one level.  But just a couple of years ago, in part because of the stricter security screenings taking place at airports, airlines were actively encouraging passengers to check as much baggage as possible while only carrying on a single small bag.  This greatly sped the process not only of getting through security screenings at airports, but also in getting on and off of airplanes.  And that all made the process of flying so much more comfortable and reduced conflict between passengers, without overstuffed overhead compartments and bags consuming everyone’s foot-space, and it taking 20 minutes or more to deplane while everyone gathered all of their items.  All I can say is:  what happened?  This was great.

A checked bag carries all the things I’d like to have with me for the trip.  This includes clothing, toiletries, my Swiss Army Knife, Res-Q-Me (heh heh hee!), other tools as appropriate, and other obvious items.

In August, I traveled to California for a week to take part in a disaster response exercise.  I made a detailed inventory of everything I packed – both in my checked and carry on baggage.  I was going to share it here but don’t think it really adds a lot to this discussion.  In part 2, I’ll go over some of the specific items that you should be packing with you in your carry on and checked luggage, and that should be informative.

Here’s a preview:

Essential Things to Take With You on A Trip by Plane:

  • All of the things you should never leave home without
  • Backup photo ID (passport preferably)
  • Full change of clothes on your carry-on bag
  • Pack Towel (carry on)
  • An extra empty bag (min. 1 backpack)
  • Medications/prescription drugs for duration of trip + min. 1 day (carry on of not easily replaceable)
  • First Aid Kit

Much more to follow in Part 2

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