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"Prepare to evacuate!" A Reality Check About Emergency Preparedness

I don't normally post work stuff on this blog. But I'm breaking my own rules this time, because I want to tell you about something that I did at work that was really cool and really important for you to know about.

A few weeks ago, a call went out at my workplace looking for people to help with an activity. There wasn't much information in the request:
".....looking for participants for a video series featuring staff competing in a broad ranging skills challenge.  Candidates must be willing and able to participate in physically and mentally challenging events on camera. You will be required to provide certain specified common equipment (water, food, and a change of clothes) and must be okay with moderate exposure to rain, mud or other outdoor elements."

So of course, I couldn't resist volunteering.

It turns out that I had volunteered to participate in the "72 Hour Emergency Preparedness Challenge". I'd be competing against four of my colleagues in a five different obstacles to win the ultimate prize of office bragging rights. The purpose? To raise awareness and educate the people we work with about the importance of Emergency Preparedness. We would be filmed, with the videos being released during Emergency Preparedness Week (May 3 - 9, 2015).  The purpose: to inform and educate people where I work the who, what, where and why of the 72 Hr Emergency Preparedness Kit, and how everyone needs to be prepared for an emergency situation - including an evacuation.

I thought I was prepared and this would be a snap.  After all, I’m an outdoors enthusiast. I’ve camped in the backcountry. I have all the gear stored in my home that I need to survive, including a stash of dehydrated food. It made perfect sense to me to volunteer for the 72 Hour Emergency Preparedness Challenge – even if we weren’t given any details when the e-mail for volunteers landed in my inbox.

When I was officially asked to participate, I was excited. But much like the original call for help the invitation was really vague, so I asked questions. What do I wear? Where will we be going? What are the challenges? The only answers I received were:  "Bring your 72 Hour Emergency Kit and wear shoes that are grippy."  Emergency Kit? Grippy shoes? Yes, grippy. As in, make sure they work well in wet conditions. What was I getting myself into?

Reality Check #1:  In real life you are not told three days ahead of an emergency that you are going to be evacuated on a moment’s notice, or what shoes you should be wearing when disaster strikes.

Choosing grippy shoes wasn’t a problem, but I did have to actually pack a 72 Hour Emergency Kit. This is something I had thought of in the past and had never quite got around to doing.  But I never worried about it much. After all, I’m an outdoors enthusiast. I have all the gear I need to survive. (Stored in a few different places on three different floors) Although, to be completely honest, I wasn’t even sure what was supposed to go in a kit. After a very brief Google search, I discovered that listed everything I needed. The site was extremely helpful and even includes an Emergency Preparedness Action Plan template that is filled on line and prepared for printing via the site.  I decided to recruit my husband, Alex and my nine year-old daughter, Emma to help build the kit.

We travelled from basement to top level of the house to pull together the contents of a 72 Hour Emergency Preparedness Kit for one person. We weren’t rushing the exercise, but we were not slacking in getting the work done either. It took us well over an hour to collect the first version of my kit. A fair amount of that time was actually spent looking for stuff and digging into containers buried at the back of the basement.  

Reality Check #2:  If you are being evacuated, you probably won’t have an hour or more to build your emergency kit. It doesn’t matter if you have everything you need, if you can’t find it quickly.

I chose a red backpack to hold my emergency kit, thinking that red is easy to see and is always associated with emergency and first aid. The website recommends a backpack or suitcase with wheels.  The pre-made kits you can buy at places like Canadian Tire are packed in plastic bins.  I chose a backpack because it would be the easiest thing for me to carry, especially when I had no idea where I was going or what my challenges were going to be when I got there. With the required 72 hours supply of water and food, a small first aid kit and a few other items the final version of my pack weighed 23 lbs. It turns out that choosing a backpack was one of the best decisions I made while packing my kit.

I mentioned earlier that it took over an hour to collect the first version of my kit.  When I told Alex I needed a three day water supply and non-perishable food, he brought me one jug that could hold the entire amount of water and packets of freeze dried meals.  This seemed like a good idea at first. But after thinking and talking it out, we realised that we needed to make an adjustment.  A single jug containing six litres of water would never fit in my backpack and would be awkward to carry. We ditched the jug and gathered enough reusable water bottles to carry the required amount. (In case you’re interested, I had four plastic Nalgene bottles and two steel Kleen Kanteens.) All of them fit into the backpack.

Those six litres were designated for drinking only. The freeze dried meals required at least a cup of boiled water to make them edible. (Except for the freeze dried ice cream. Mmmmmm…. You eat that stuff right. Out. Of. The. Bag!) So to eat, I would need more water, a single burner stove, a small pot to boil the water and a fuel source for the stove.  Because we’re lightweight campers, we have an extremely small stove, pot and fuel source. But no matter how light they are, they still take up room in an already full pack. And there simply is no way to make water light.  So, I also ditched the freeze dried food – including the ice cream – and packed protein bars, single-serve tuna kits and some single-serve packs of freeze dried fruit. There were enough nutrients to sustain me for three days and none of them required cooking. I could have done without the fruit, but I couldn’t help thinking if I got stranded for three days and had to rely on my supplies, I would be awfully tired of protein bars and tuna. The fruit was super lightweight and would provide a bit of variety to the menu.

I've been getting quite a bit of teasing from the other people taking the challenge about the size and weight of my pack. It was the water that made it heavy and a bit cumbersome.  But after running through the 72 Hour Emergency Preparedness Challenge, my decision to carry individual water bottles IN MY BAG and less gear related to food was the second best choice I made while packing my kit. And for the record, I'm pretty sure I was the only challenger that actually had a enough food and water to reasonably sustain myself for three days.

Reality Check #3: Don’t trust your memory or make assumptions when it comes to the contents of your safety and first aid kits.

For the most part, I was really satisfied with my 72 Hour Emergency Preparedness Kit. After running the challenge, I knew the contents would work in a pinch and I made good choices while packing my bag. But I also discovered that there were cracks in my plan….

A really important item to have in a 72 Hour Emergency Preparedness Kit is a First Aid Kit. No problem for me there – we have three of them at home. I chose a medium-sized kit that was already stocked with items and that would fit very well into my backpack.  I did look through the kit for the standard stuff, and topped it up with a couple of items.  But I didn’t specifically read all of the packages. Instead, I relied on my memory to tell me what was contained in each little plastic or paper envelope within the kit. That was a mistake. 

I mentioned earlier that my final pack weight was 23 pounds.  The pack is a standard design that can be bought at a local warehouse store. If you have school-aged kids, there is a good chance you’ve seen this style of backpack. So, I had to be prudent in what went into the bag and how it was packed to make sure I used the space well and that I’d be able to carry the bag without hurting myself. That meant prioritizing the items that went inside. 

  • Water& food
  • Crank radio and flashlight
  • First Aid Kit
  • Toiletry and personal hygiene items. (That’s a fancy way of saying I remembered the toilet paper)
  • Tools (paracord, duct tape, a Swiss knife, candles,waterproof matches, garbage bags)
  • Extra cash in small bills and change
  • A print-out of my emergency plan.
Do you see anything missing? Here is what I decided to leave out of the bag:

A blanket.

I brought the blanket up from the basement. I tried to cram it into my backpack. In fact, I tried more than once to make it fit. I even considered tying it to the outside of my backpack. I recognized that a blanket could be a really important part of my 72 Hour Emergency Preparedness Kit.  But I just couldn’t make it work and I really couldn’t be bothered looking for something smaller. And besides, I had one of those small, foil, emergency blankets in my first aid kit. That flimsy piece of silver isn’t cozy, but it would serve its purpose if needed.

I left the blanket sitting on the dining room table.

And then I faced a challenge where I had to stay warm.  No problem. I got this. I rummaged around in my first aid kit, and couldn’t find the little, silver blanket. It wasn’t in there. It turns out, I had made an assumption. You know what they say happens when you assume.

Instead of an emergency blanket, I had a rain poncho made out of film thinner than the plastic wrap you put around your sandwich this morning.

I still used the poncho in the challenge and discovered that it would actually work for a small amount of warmth. But I really, really wish I had packed the fleece blanket that was sitting on a table at home, or had double-checked the contents of my first-aid kit.

Confession: I bought an emergency blanket after the first set of challenges and made sure it was in my pack for the second challenge day. I'm a pretty fast learner.

Reality Check #3: You can never be sure of what obstacles or people you will encounter during an evacuation or emergency.

One of the challenges involved "treating" a fellow evacuee for a broken arm.  I was able to find my first aid kit, and I had a general idea of what I needed to do to stablize the arm. But to be perfectly honest, the simulation made it very, very clear that my first aid skills are lacking. I plan to sign up for a first aid course in the near future.

Reality Check #5: If you have the gear, you need to know how to use it!

Being a player in the 72 Hour Emergency Preparedness Challenge was fun, but there was a definite serious side to the exercise. It really opened my eyes to how prepared I actually am if there was an emergency in my area.  It turns out that despite the fact that I have the gear and experience of being an outdoors person, I'm really not as ready to handle an emergency as I thought I was. At least, I wasn't until I did this challenge.

Oh - and in case you're wondering who won the challenge.... I still don't know! Each competitor ran the course individually, except for the fifth and final challenge.  In fact, I didn't even know who I was competing against until the second day we gathered for filming. And the producers of the videos aren't sharing anything with us in advance. The competitors are watching everything unfold right along with the rest of our workplace.  Since we're right in the middle of Emergency Preparedness Week, there are still a few more videos to roll out and voting on our 72 hour kits to be done.  But don't worry. I'll be sure to give you an update as soon as I know the final outcome.

While you're waiting to find out the results of the Challenge, let me know in the comments below how prepared you think you are for a major emergency in your community. Do you have a 72 Hour Kit? If so, what's in it?

PS: I did not receive additional compensation for participating in this activity. I volunteered a few hours of my time, with the permission of my manager.  I did not receive compensation for writing this blog. I wasn't asked to publish this on my personal blog by my employer. I wrote most of this post during my personal time because, like I said earlier, I think there is a great take-away message from my experience for EVERYONE to read.  The parts of this blog that I did write at work have been used on an internal workplace website as a contribution to the activity. Ok? Ok! 

1 comment:

  1. Years back I took ski patrol course wit first aid. Years went by and I still remember the basic of first aid.. I think it should be mandatory to take a first air course for all of us.


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