Sunday, January 12, 2014

Emergency preparedness and the time factor

We've discussed many aspects of emergency preparation in these pages (see the list of articles in the sidebar under the heading 'Articles On Emergency Preparation').  I've been reading about the subject for many years, both overseas and in the USA, and on more than one occasion have had to put what I've learned into practice.  However, most of what I've read has not discussed one of the most important aspects of surviving an emergency.  That aspect is the value - and the shortage - of time.  In a critical situation, time saved on routine, mundane matters is time you can devote to more urgent needs . . . like, for example, staying alive!

We're accustomed to a certain degree of time management in our everyday lives.  We know we have to get up at a certain time if we're to be washed, dressed and ready to leave for work.  We know we have to leave the house by a certain time if we're to arrive at work on time.  We know we have to get the kids to their appointments, pick them up, have food on the table at mealtimes, all that sort of thing.  However, we seldom think about the activities that go into those tasks.  We do them automatically.  In an emergency, that's going to change very rapidly indeed.

Let me give you just one example.  How do we normally prepare food?

  • We use appliances, and a stove and/or oven, that are powered by electricity or gas.  They're instantly available, ready for use with minimal delay whenever we need them.
  • We take food out of a freezer or refrigerator that preserves it until we're ready to use it.
  • When we've finished, we wash the knives, cutting-boards, pots, pans, dishes, crockery and cutlery we've used, either doing it by hand, or putting it into a dishwasher that does it for us.
  • When the dishes and utensils are clean, we put them away - only to start using them again at once for the next meal.

All fine and dandy . . . but what happens when an emergency arises?

  • The electricity and/or gas supply will likely be cut, if not at once, then after a few days.  What are we going to use as a source of energy to cook?
  • The water supply may also go down as power is cut to the pumps.  Where will we get water?  How will we store it, purify it, use it, recycle it?
  • The sewers are also likely to shut down over time.  How will we dispose of waterborne waste products, from washing food and utensils, to showering, to using the toilet?
  • When we can't wash our crockery and cutlery, what will we use to serve and eat food?
  • How will we dispose of solid waste (kitchen or otherwise) when there's no garbage collection?

These problems will apply whether we stay put or bug out.  We need to think about the answers to them now, before an emergency arises, otherwise we'll be caught short when it does.  This comes back to the problem of time.  Under normal circumstances we have all sorts of conveniences, labor-saving devices, and sources of energy that make it unnecessary for us to do these things as our ancestors used to, as recently as the first half of last century.  Consider:

  • They had to gather fuel for their stoves and ovens (wood or coal).  They pumped water from a well or brought it from a stream, storing it in barrels ready for use.  Running water in houses only became common from the 19th century onward.
  • Many of them had to grow at least some of their own food, on farms or in suburban gardens.  Some had to hunt for their meat.  It wasn't (and still isn't) unknown for a hunt to be unsuccessful, or to take a very long time (sometimes stretching into days).  If they didn't succeed in shooting or trapping something, they went hungry.  Today, during an emergency, we might have the same problem.
  • In the absence of refrigerators or freezers, they preserved their own food by bottling, canning, drying, smoking, salting or otherwise preparing it.  Most of us have lost that skill, and no longer possess the equipment and supplies needed to do it.
  • They prepared and cooked their food the hard way, without microwave ovens or toasters or electric mixers or whatever.  Again, many of us have lost those skills, and prepare our food out of cans or boxes.
  • They washed everything by hand, without the convenience of dishwashers or garbage disposal units in their kitchen sinks.  Waste and sewage often had to be dumped onto a midden, or even into the street.

Our ancestors had to do all that day in, day out, for the whole of their lives.  Needless to say, doing all that work took a lot of time - so much so that it's no wonder one adult in a marriage (almost always the woman, because jobs back then were generally more physically demanding) was expected to stay at home to look after it, clean, cook, supervise the kids, etc.  That was a full-time task in itself.  They couldn't be spared to go out and work.

In an emergency, we're going to find all our labor-saving devices becoming useless over time, as the power runs out or they break down.  If we 'bug out' to a safe location, that might happen very quickly.  If we hunker down in our homes to make the best of it, the decline may happen more slowly, because not all municipal services will shut down immediately.  Nevertheless, we need to take account of it in preparing for emergencies, and make emergency preparations that will minimize demands on our time, in order to allow us to focus on those activities that will take more time and trouble than they do at present.  On the other hand, supplies that require minimal time and effort to use or prepare will also generally be more expensive than 'basic' foodstuffs, and may also be heavier, bulkier, and less portable.  The latter factors might make them less suitable in a 'bug-out' situation, where light weight and compact size become very important considerations.

Let's look at some concrete examples.  It'll take one or two people to fetch water, or cut or gather wood for cooking, warmth, etc. when the gas or electricity runs out.  Has your household budgeted for that expenditure of time?  Do you have the tools (containers, carts, axes, saws, etc.) needed to accomplish those tasks?  Can you spare the people and tools needed to do them while other people take care of all the other tasks that need doing?  (If all of you are out gathering food, water or fuel, who's going to protect your home and your supplies while you're away?)  That's why it's worth building up a 'ready-to-use' stock of firewood, water, etc. in your basement or back yard or garden shed.  You can draw on it for immediate use while other members of your family or household are out scavenging for more.  That saves a lot of time for the food preparers, and takes the pressure of time off the scavengers.

(Remember, too, that there's going to be a lot of competition for scarce resources.  Everyone living nearby will want firewood, so local trees are going to disappear quickly.  Many people may be forced to hunt for food, so the local population of deer, rabbits, even cattle, is going to be rapidly depleted.  Expect conflict between rival hunters and gatherers for the limited supply.  Those who own that supply - e.g. farmers with cattle, land-owners with woods on their property, etc. - will probably end up in the firing line themselves if they try to protect what's theirs.  If you have a decent stock of supplies at home, you can hunker down and wait for the madness to pass.  You can choose if, when and where to participate in the competition for ever-more-scarce resources.  That sort of flexibility might save your life, by keeping you out of harm's way until it's safer.  It might also allow you to glean what's left behind by those who don't survive the competition for resources.  That's a brutal thought, but I've seen it in action in Africa on more than one occasion.  It's a grim reality.)

Consider options that will allow you to make the best, most efficient use of your time in a situation where there will be all sorts of new demands on it.  Here are a few examples.

  • Canned foods are quicker and easier to prepare than dried foods (e.g. beans, rice, pasta, etc.) that require some form of preparation.  The latter are very important for longer-term storage, as canned goods are bulky and heavy;  but when time is in short supply, it's worth having some ready-to-eat cans of ravioli, baked beans, Spam or corned beef, etc. that can be heated quickly (or even eaten cold, straight out of the can, if there's not enough time or fuel to heat them).
  • Stock up on disposable plates, bowls, cups and eating utensils.  It's much faster to use them, then throw them away, than it is to wash 'good' crockery and cutlery.  Also, if water's in short supply, you won't waste it on that task:  and if you skimp on washing-up to save water, poor hygiene may lead to food-borne diseases.  Montezuma's Revenge or WAD (known by many other names around the world) are no fun at all, and in the absence of medical supplies or facilities may even prove fatal.
  • Get a small, low-cost, hand-powered clothes washer like this one (I have two of them, and give it my personal 'thumbs up').  They can hold two pairs of jeans, or a pair of jeans, a shirt, underwear and socks from one person, or a couple of towels.  They'll wash a small load like that quickly and economically, using very little water and only muscle power.  That way, instead of building up huge piles of dirty clothes that someone has to take hours to hand-wash (because your electrically-powered washing machine won't be operating), you can make each person responsible for washing his or her own clothes, taking a few minutes every day or two.  It saves time and water.  What's not to like?
  • Time is a factor in your security as well.  Rationalize your selection of defensive and emergency weapons.  I'm not saying you have to get rid of the rest of your collection:  but standardize on weapons for defensive use, hunting for food, etc..  Make sure every member of your family or household has at least one proven, tested, reliable gun chambered for that round.  If they use external magazines (e.g. an AR-15 or AK-47-type rifle, or a semi-automatic pistol) make sure they all use the same type, and that you have enough of them.  That beats trying to obtain and/or maintain a supply of several different cartridges and/or magazines, and allows everyone to use the same supply in an emergency - saving time, and perhaps lives too.
  • Build up a supply of ammunition in your selected defensive and emergency caliber(s).  Reloading is time-consuming, and time may not be available under the pressure of events.  It may also require power for lights, electronic reloading tools, etc.;  but in an emergency, the power will probably be out.  Also, if you have to 'bug out', reloading equipment and supplies are bulkier to pack, heavier to carry, and less immediately useful than loaded ammunition.  Most serious shooters I know keep at least a hundred rounds of defensive and hunting ammunition on hand for each of their primary weapons.  I prefer to have a lot more than that . . . but after 18 years living in an environment of terrorism and civil unrest, I'm a little more ammo-supply-conscious than some.
  • If financially possible, have enough spare magazines on hand that you can store your 'ready-use' supply of emergency ammo in them.  If you need them in a hurry, you may not have time to load them.  (For long-term storage, I recommend downloading each magazine by 10%, rounded down to the nearest whole number, so as not to over-compress the springs.  In a 15-round magazine, load 13 rounds;  in a 20-round magazine, load 18;  in a 30-round magazine, load 27;  etc.  I've known magazines loaded to those levels to be fully functional even after ten years on the shelf.  Test one every few months for smooth, error-free function.  Rotate them as you see fit, transferring the ammo to fresh magazines and allowing the springs in the previously loaded ones to relax for a few months.  Keep spare springs on hand.)
  • You may have planned to ride out an emergency at home, but situations can arise (natural disasters, rioting mobs, etc.) that make it imperative for you to leave.  Consider preparing in advance a 'bug-out kit' containing a few days' or weeks' food, clothing, equipment and supplies.  It can be stored with your normal emergency supplies, but packed in duffle bags or storage containers ready to load into your vehicle at short notice.  Keep lists of other items to take with you (identification documents, bank details, cash, weapons and ammunition, etc.), and store them where you can get to them in a hurry.  (Don't forget enough fuel to fill your vehicle[s] - the gas stations may be out.)  In an emergency, you can grab what's on the list, load your pre-packed supplies, and be out of the door and on your way in fifteen to thirty minutes if necessary.  By preparing beforehand, you'll save time in a genuine emergency.
  • Particularly in urban or suburban areas, consider having alternative bug-out equipment ready for use - bicycles, bicycle trailers, garden carts, etc.  If you have to get out when the roads are blocked by other traffic, these will allow you to load more, and move faster and with less effort, than if you had to walk out, carrying everything on your bodies.  Pack your emergency bug-out supplies in containers that will fit into or on your alternative bug-out transport - you don't want to find out at the last minute that they won't!  Have straps, rope or bungee cords available to secure them, and something to cover them, protecting them against rain or prying eyes and fingers.

Those are just a few suggestions.  I'm sure each of us can think of many more in the context of our own lives.  Start thinking now about the demands on your time in an emergency, and take steps to reduce and control them.  If you do it now, it'll be a lot easier than trying to do so in the midst of a real emergency.



Anonymous said...

When packing survival supplies, consider how they're stored, and who will have to move them. You may have several critical components (two is one, one is none, and three is safer) but if you can't lay hands on them quickly it's just like not having them.

Having all your bug out (or, even bug in) supplies in a container is good, but can you, or a spouse, or a child, move and/or carry them? Better to break them up among smaller containers, and create redundancy among those containers for critical items. Are those containers water resistant, meaning if they get rained on will they disintegrate (cardboard boxes) or leak sufficiently to damage contents?

What's your Plan B? And Plan C? And Plan D? Have you turned off the power to everything (except the refrigerator) for a weekend and lived without it? (That includes not using the fridge - work out of a cooler, hopefully with ice).

Is every rifle zeroed? To the same distance? How many clicks up from bottom is a 200 yard zero on rifle X? 300 yard? Have you taped a P-38 to every 10th (or 5th) can in your emergency food closet?

The list is nearly endless, but if you haven't started making it yet, you're already in deep yogurt.

Peter said...

@Anonymous: I hear you, but remember, not everyone is a dedicated 'survivalist' - including myself.

Emergency preparation is just one aspect of a normal lifestyle. It's not (and for most of us should not be) an all-consuming obsession. To say that one's "already in deep yoghurt" if one hasn't started doing the things that you suggest simply isn't realistic. We do the best we can, where we are, with what we have.

I (and, I daresay, most of my readers) simply can't afford to stockpile vast supplies of food, tools and other essentials, and be ready to exist off-grid for a year or more. Even if I could afford it, my state of health almost certainly would not allow it. If the SHTF for an extended period, I'm probably not going to survive it. That's the way it is, and there's nothing I can do to change it.

I hope and pray that all our preparations are never needed. Unfortunately, such hopes prove unfounded all too often. If we've made basically adequate preparations, we'll be able to cope with most emergencies. If things go to hell in a handbasket, it's unlikely that even the most prepared will survive unscathed - but I think that's an extreme scenario. I guess only time will tell.

Phssthpok said...

Having perform the act myself at my off grid mountain retreat, I can attest that a simple $3 plunger in a 5 gallon bucket will do a small load of laundry just fine.

In fact, Lehman's Hardware markets specially (re)designed plungers for just that purpose (though not for $3):

Secure more than one, and you could have an 'assembly line' for bucket for wash, and two more for rinse. I found that getting all the soapy water out of the clean clothes was more involved than getting the clothes clean in the first place...go figure. (It could have been due to the super soft water I get from my spring)

Peter said...

@Phssthpok: That's a great idea! I've never heard of doing laundry with a plunger in a bucket. I'm going to have to try it, just as an experiment. Thanks!

Mark/GreyLocke said...

And a 5 gallon bucket with a 7 gallon trash can liner plus some kitty litter will do for a temporary toilet. Just be sure to try to catch the liquid/urine in a different container.

Also since household bleach doesn't store long term very well some calcium hypochlorite from a pool supply business can be used for long term storage for purifying drinking water.

The biggest issue is try to learn how to use your prep items properly before you actually have to.

Trying to learn how to use them while the lights are out or the water is out or the whatever is out will be very stressful and you might find what does and doesn't work before hand.

suburban said...

We are retired, and the kids are all out of the house. This gives us the luxury of more time to deal with things than a family that had to work, get the kids to school, etc.

Electricity - we have some micro-solar setups that provide power for the most life critical things. We have generators that can provide power for refrigerator, and washer, as long as the fuel lasts.

Heat - Natural gas, wood, kerosene.

Water - city supplied, with 55 gallon drum as backup.

Sewer - passive septic system which is a big advantage over city sewer.

Cooking - several camping stoves.

Communication - cell phones with solar chargers, ham radio with solar chargers.

In an emergency we would be busier than normal, but with a bit of luck we can manage to do the most important things.