Tips During A Disaster

All of us in or near Boston are still shaken by the horrible bombing at the Marathon this week. It’s unfortunately true that you cannot predict when participating in a normal public activity will suddenly turn into an emergency – though short of being in a location of overt civil or political unrest the actual chances of it happening to you are far less than the incessant media coverage makes you think.

But if you do find yourself caught up in a dangerous public emergency, here are some things to keep in mind:


Leave If You Can (if safe to do so) And Help People Less Able – If you are able-bodied help people less so, and help families with multiple small children to carry them quickly.

Take Shelter If You Cannot Leave – For sudden emergencies like tornadoes or tsunamis, do not assume you can outrun them or have time to go pick up your kids from school, etc.  In an active shooter situation the advice used to be to try to hide, but recent events have changed that advice to confront the shooter if your choice is to die or fight back.

Don’t Go Back For Physical Possessions – Anything that is not part of your body can be replaced. However, if you have a bag/backpack/etc on you and its weight does not impede you DO take it along. The authorities had to check every item abandoned in the Marathon incident area to make certain it wasn’t another explosive device.

Text/DM/Tweet/Email – If the emergency is widespread and affecting large numbers of people in a relatively small geographic area, the bandwidth of cellphone services may become severely overtaxed as everyone tries to call their family and friends. Voice transmission takes much more bandwidth than any all-digital transmission. So unless you yourself need 911-level emergency assistance use text, DM etc. to contact people inside or outside of the effected area.

Keep Up-To-Date On Basic First Aid – if you last took a First Aid/CPR/etc course more than 2-3 years ago you may be surprised at how many things you were taught are now invalid, for instance:

  • Chest compressions alone (no stopping to do rescue breaths) are recommended when untrained people need to do CPR, as keeping the blood flowing is now understood to be more important. And the type and amount has been increased to be more (at least 100 compressions per minute) and deeper.
  • Tourniquets are less likely to cause permanent limb damage than previously thought, and should in particular be used if arterial blood (bright red, not dark red) loss is otherwise likely to go on longer than 2-3 minutes (e.g., in combat situations where there isn’t time to apply compression, or when there are more injured than can be attended to by medical personnel immediately, such as at the Marathon), because a person can die from blood loss in 4 minutes.

Pay Attention To Directives From Public Safety People – We frequently want to check things out ourselves, but don’t be that person swept off the sea wall watching a big storm!

Trust But Verify News, especially “News” on the Web – While we are more connected than any time previously, this also allows for instant dissemination of information that has not had time to be verified, or has been misunderstood by those hearing it even if they are an official news outlet. For instance, reports of additional “explosive devices” at the Marathon were due to journalists who did not understand that “suspect device” as used by the Bomb Squad meant “we don’t know what it is so we are proceeding carefully.”

Take Care Of Yourself Emotionally – Avoid spending hours watching/listening to news outlets rehashing and replaying horrible scenes. Be sure to eat and drink. Talk to your friends, watch a kittencam, help your children process the events. Help out in whatever way you can, to help yourself feel less helpless:  organize or attend post-event benefits, vigils, religious services, etc. E.g., at a quickly-organized vigil last night on the Boston Common a singer who knew she had no money or physical goods to donate instead made a Facebook group and invited all her singer friends to create an impromptu choir for the vigil.

There’s far more to keep in mind than I can convey in a blog post, so here are additional sites that go into much more detail on specific emergencies:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Preparedness Site

The Red Cross – Disaster Recovery Guides

The American College of Emergency Physicians’ Guides

A useful “What to Do” page from the University of Delaware

Run, Hide, Fight Video


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