The letter that would dramatically kick-start my emergency management career landed on my government desk inside a mangled brown inter-office envelope with a number of signatures on the back and a classic red string looped around a button clasp that was supposed to keep it secure.
The acceptance signatures were like passport stamps, chronicling this envelope's many mailroom journeys, and, like the nosy person I am, I checked them all out before adding my signature to the long list. Then I opened the envelope and pulled out a one-page sheet with a big crest embossed on the top left corner.
This was a seriously-official letter.
It informed me (guised as a "request") that I should fulfil the role of communications 2IC for a massive three-day joint disaster exercise between the feds and the western provinces. I had no idea what a 2IC was and read it as "twenty-one C." Despite my complete ignorance, I decided right then that I was going to be the best damn twenty-one C that they had ever had!
Later, I learned that 2IC stood for "second-in-command." (This is what "leaning in" looks like in real life. It's enthusiastically putting up your hand when you have no clue what's going on.)
I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I was second-in-command because that meant there was somebody who was first-in-command. Little did I know that the 2IC does all the work and that I would barely see my higher-up-the-chain-of-command person who had no more experience or training than I did.
The year was 1992 and the exercise scenario was a mega-thrust earthquake along the Pacific coast. I'll let that one sink in, for a moment. Yes, in 1992, we were already training for a mega-thrust quake. We've known for a very long time what you might have just read about recently.
Day 1 arrived and I showed up in my Forest Service uniform to lead a team I had never met before, to participate in a disaster exercise for which I had no training. The only thing I had going for me was my training as a pilot which had taught me how to think through rapidly-evolving situations that have a tendency to go sour. (Today, I would never do this to a team and expect to see good results. Training is critical to success.)
I wish I could say that the government's confidence in my abilities were based on some sort of selection criteria but they weren't. I just happened to be an appropriate body to fill a seat on short notice which illustrates the real inside level of planning and coordination and should provide ample insight as to why personal preparedness is so important. Don't rely on any agency to take care of you.
Still, all things considered, my team did pretty good, given the horrific scenario. Some people see disaster exercises as "compressed time torture" but I prefer to see them as "team bonding opportunities." Some memorable highlights include:
- Dispatching hand-written critical information via messengers on foot and on bicycles to the only radio station still operating on a generator because there was no power and the streets were covered with debris and impassable to vehicles
- Learning that some designated shelter locations for the public were no longer standing
- Taking over a telephone company and its staff to set up a public hotline using our state of emergency legislation
- The grounds of a cemetery that liquefied and clogged a river with floating coffins (simulation)
- Finding out what kind of personalities will step up to the task or crumble in chaotic environments
- Discovering that nothing is so severe that you cannot stop and thank your staff.
And, when it comes to earthquake preparedness, let's stop sugar-coating what we tell the public. The recent and much-talked-about New Yorker article was accurate and alarmist and that's exactly what's needed. My experience with the general public is that they will only prepare if they are sufficiently alarmed.
In my past disaster management role, I was once accused of being alarmist by a mother who called into a radio show that I was on. She was incensed that, as a government agency, we dared to send earthquake preparedness pamphlets home with her child.
There were many ways to respond to that accusation so I chose to ask how many bridges she crossed during her daily commute to work. She answered "two." Next, I asked what was her plan to get back home to her child with both bridges out after a big quake? There was dead silence. "Do you have a boat?" "How many miles can you walk in a day?" Can you swim across a large river?
And that, in a nutshell, is why we send home pamphlets. To help your family survive when you're not able to be there.
Throughout our day-to-day lives, most of us incorporate preparedness without ever thinking about it. For example, we wouldn’t go to a job interview, defend ourselves in a court trial or write a university exam without doing some preparation first.
Similarly, emergency preparedness increases your odds of a successful outcome but it does not necessarily reflect the odds of ever needing those emergency kits or stockpiled supplies. However, life is just random enough that many are not willing to gamble their lives on it. They’d rather be prepared and never use those items than experience the stomach-churning realization that it’s too late to prepare. If you’ve ever tried to buy water, food or batteries ahead of a storm, you’ll know exactly what this means.
The easiest way to envision disaster preparedness is an “extended camping trip.” Many of us are familiar with camping and some even go so far as to rock the camp-out with a hand-crank blender. There's nothing that says survival more than sipping hand-cranked blender Margaritas around the campfire. Long gone is the tent that self-destructs with the slightest breeze or the air mattress that lies in wait for its first victim, deflating slowly in the middle of the night. Today, it's just you, the coyotes and a ton of awesome gadgets.
Now, if you're a follower of this blog, it should come as no surprise that my idea of camping is a Class A motorhome with satellite uplink and an espresso maker. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of camping I’m referring to in emergency preparedness although, depending on the type of disaster, motorhomes and recreational trailers are definitely a plus, if you have one.
In simpler terms, let's take a look at some easy-to-understand comparisons between emergency kits and real life:
- Car emergency kit* = a hiking day trip where no one remembers to bring any trail mix except you (you'll need 12-18 hours worth of supplies)
- Work emergency kit* = overtime shift with no food truck stopping by (you'll need 12-18 hours worth of supplies)
- Evacuation kit = a weekend group getaway with your kids and pets (you should have three days worth of supplies in backpacks)
- Shelter-in-place supplies* = just had plastic surgery and can't be seen in public (1-3 weeks worth of supplies so that you don't need to leave the house, depending on the scenario)
- Disaster supplies* = an extended camping trip with no access to amenities including toilet paper (three months worth of supplies)
- The end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI) kit = loved "Little House on the Prairie," always wanted to be a farmer or maybe a hermit (one year of supplies including seeds, tools, building materials, medical supplies, clothing, how-to books and solar-powered or hand-crank gadgets, guns and ammo optional but recommended)
Hopefully, the list above helps you set some targets for prepping. You can decide how much and how far you want to go but I would recommend the first four as a minimum.
And, if you're new to this blog and missed the earlier steps in the Prep for Free program, then you can find them here:
Now, for step 4!
STEP 4: Buy low, sell high
In an era of disposable everything, many of us upgrade our home furnishings, small appliances and electronics as new versions come out. As proof of this, quite a few of us have at least one cellphone stashed in a drawer that still works just fine but hasn’t been touched in six months. These items may be perfect to sell for hard cash that you can use for prepping.
As you pillaged your village in step 1, you may have already identified items in the home that you don’t need or use any longer but aren’t suitable for your emergency kit. If not, then go through each room and consider what you can sell to raise funds. Then it’s time for a garage sale or some classified ads. Today, you can place free ads online at sites such as VarageSale, Craigslist and Kijiji and it takes nothing more than your time to start selling some clutter.
Here are some great ways to gain both closet space and money for emergency kits:
- Sell your broken or unwanted gold or silver jewelry (often, you'll get the best prices from local jewelers compared to national buyers)
- Sell your used clothing, shoes and purses (you can also consign these items to stores that will sell them for you, higher-end or designer clothes do very well)
- Sell your older model electronics (don't wait too long to sell things like cellphones, GPS units and cameras since the technology is changing fast and your item will get less money as it gets older)
- Sell your unwanted small appliances, decorative items and outgrown sports gear (every dollar counts towards your prepping efforts).
- Sell donated items. Ask relatives and friends if they have items that need selling and then offer to sell the item for a portion of the proceeds. Many people don't have the time or can't be bothered to sell their items, choosing to donate them instead. Explain that you'll do the work of selling their item and you'll split the profit 50/50.
- Repair items and re-sell. In many cases, family and friends will be happy to clear out items that need repair, giving them to you for free. All you have to do is pick the items up and thank them for their generosity. Next time you see them, let them know what you’re doing and nicely ask for their support. Make sure to email a free thank-you card or send over some homemade cookies if someone donates to your preparedness efforts.
- Monitor online ads for free items. Scroll through the “free” ads which offer items that people just want taken away. You may find exactly what you need there! Many people just want to get rid of items, especially towards the end of the month when families are moving. Make a habit of checking the ads or doing a search for "free" and then select items that you either need for your kits or could re-sell or repair/re-sell for the cash.
- If you’re gutsy, place a nicely-worded “wanted for free” ad on the many free online sites. Indicate clearly what items you need and why and you’ll be surprised by the kindness of strangers. These items may need to be repaired but they’re still free for the asking.
- Don’t forget to talk to your employer. Companies sometimes happily pass on items to employees at no cost. Keep your eyes and ears open at work and offer to work an extra hour in appreciation of a donated item. At many workplaces, you may be able to get free boxes or containers for your long-term supplies. Cardboard isn’t ideal since it breaks down when wet but some companies will dispose of plastic containers. Be first in line if those become available. You can also recruit family and friends to check out their workplaces for free items as well which they can pass on to you. You may get items that you can sell for cash or items that can go directly into your kits.
Important note: Use caution when allowing others into your home. Try to always have another person present when selling an item that requires a home visit. Exercise common sense when contacting strangers. Use the buddy system so you are never alone during the transaction.
Your strategy for step 4 is to buy low and sell high. Get as much money as you can for the items your selling and then re-use the funds by buying used gear or by spending prudently at stores like Walmart and Costco. However, hands down, the best place for new disaster supplies are Dollar stores.
Here's a great Dollar store article with photos and uses for all of the amazing disaster supplies you can get there and at the lowest price possible. This is a fun way to buy low. Let's say you can only get $20 for that ancient flip-phone in your junk drawer. That will buy 20 items for your kits at the Dollar store!
So, gather up your unwanted and unneeded items and post them online. Sell them and then take the cash and head to your nearest Dollar store. You'll be shocked at what you can get for a few bucks and your emergency kits will thank you.
Cheers for now,
P.S. My sincere apologies for the longer-than-expected gap between blogs. I had company visiting and also unexpectedly ended up hosting two air cadets from Britain on an exchange program.
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© Copyright 2015 Nancy Argyle