I can’t emphasise enough that this is about a small medical experience of my own – it’s not medical advice. That said, please keep reading …
I needed to pop over to my GP’s last week, and luckily I was able to squeeze in to their “clinic” – which seemed to mean “you don’t get an appointment, just turn up at midday and we’ll see you when we can”. Fair enough – I was seen at about 12.20, in and out in a few minutes.
I’d been chopping back brambles during the previous weekend – which is most definitely a prep, clearing a garden so that you can plant edibles – and at the end of the day, noticed a bright red area. A bite? A bramble puncture? Who knows, I’d have to have a time machine to find out. But 24 hours later, there was a big problem, a huge swelling, that increased the size of my ankle by maybe 40% . Not great, not great at all.
Since it was still there two and a half days later, I went to the doc. After looking at the NHS website, I was concerned there might be an infection, especially an infection of the cellulitis variety, which can be horrendous. But although it was bright red, it wasn’t sore and it wasn’t tender, so I was hopeful it was something easily sorted.
And it was! I was given the acronym RICE: rest, ice, compress, elevate.
REST: let your body heal a bit. Not so relevant to me this time, but important at other times. Apparently, it’s best to take 1 or 2 days rest, if indicated by a doctor.
ICE: to take down the swelling, and help the area heal faster. Don’t put the ice directly on the skin, wrap it in a towel or just use the classic bag of frozen peas, wrapped in a tea towel.
COMPRESS: to help limit the swelling to the injured area, and to give support. It’s crucial not to compress too much, if you cut off the blood supply to the affected area, you could then give yourself a life-changing, totally avoidable injury.
ELEVATE: elevating to ease the pressure on the wound, and to help gravity with the healing.
Because of the particulars of my little wound, I was also advised to use an antihistamine, and an antiseptic cream such as Savlon. Job done.
It did start me thinking about wounds like this in relation to prepping, however. If it had been an infection, that would have depended upon antibiotics to cure it – and antibiotic useage is in deep trouble right now, as all the drugs we have are becoming less effective, and resistance has recently been discovered even to the antibiotic of last resort, as described in this BBC report from the end of last year. And everyday gardening is mentioned in that report, incidentally.
Once I’ve been wearing my heavy duty gardening gloves, I’ve become pretty cavalier about protection whilst gardening: that’s going to change. Ankles are vulnerable too, even in sturdy sandals like mine, there are plenty of openings that leave you vulnerable to problems. I really don’t fancy becoming a statistic in the Antibiotics Apocalypse, even though that phrase is only a marketing headline, it does sum up what could well be a severe problem in the future.
There are a huge number of lightning strikes every year, and a surprising number of them kill people. Exact numbers, however, are hard to come by – so, using data on the USA collected by NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), it can be confirmed that over 400 people are struck by lightning every year in the USA, and that between 55 and 60 of them are killed. Of the rest, many of them suffer permanent neurological damage. Let me repeat that – permanent.
It can be a devastating problem. Just last month, in June 2016, almost 100 people were killed in India – in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkand and Madhya Pradesh. These figures represent catastrophe for the communities and families involved, especially as most of the casualties are labourers with only one income in the family.
Weather is more extreme in the USA and in India than it is in the UK – but we’re catching up quite a bit, thanks to climate change. Just this week, there was a warning for a majority of the UK for “Thunderstorms/Flash Flooding/Large Hail/Tornadoes”. I was surprised to see that list presented in such a matter of fact way, and it’s only because there’s so much going on right now – Nice, Turkey, Brexit after effects including a new Prime Minister – that it didn’t make headlines.
There can be very little notice of lightning strikes, because they can occur so far away from the centre of the storm – thats why it’s important to err on the side of caution, although that can seem completely impractical. What if there’s a storm, with distant thunder, when you’re due to leave the house for the day, dropping the kids off at school before getting to the train station to go to work?
I can tell you what best practice is, around lightning strikes. I can tell you that if I finish seeing a client and there’s a storm on, I suggest that we wait it out before either of us leaves. But I’m self employed – now that I know so much more about lightning, I’m not sure what I’d do if I was still an employee. Please leave feedback below, if you can, or contact me privately if it feels too identifiable.
The installation of lightning conductors and protectors is outside the scope of this article (though I sense another article on it’s way about that) but there are many, very simple things that we can all do to reduce the likelihood of lightning damage.
Switch appliances off AND unplug them. When there’s a surge in electrical supply because of a lightning strike, it has to go somewhere. Surge protecting extension leads will probably protect from comparatively small surges, like the ones that happen when electricity comes back on after a short power cut.
Storms can happen fast: make sure that you can get to your wallplugs quickly, that you don’t have to manoeuvre heavy furniture out of the way. Or that you have one of those protective extension leads – you can unplug your appliances really fast, and then, if you want, you can still grapple with the furniture to try to ensure that the extension lead isn’t fried.
There are UPS as well as extension leads: Uninterruptible Power Supply products ensure that the computer can be shut down safely, rather than an emergency shutdown. At the level of investment that most individuals can afford, that’s the best there is. Power down, in good order and unplug.
Don’t use a landline phone when you can hear thunder and especially not when you can see lightning. If the phone line itself is struck, even a couple of miles from where you are, you might quite easily be thrown across the room. Cordless phones, and mobile phones, are said to be unaffected – but isn’t a cordless phone plugged in to your landline is still liable to get affected by a strike on the phone line? I wouldn’t risk it, it’s a very low probability event, but a very high impact one.
Don’t use water, or touch metal or electrical objects. This is the time for reading a book, doing a few stretches, having a singsong or writing a letter. Dusting the skirting boards, even!
If you hear thunder, you’re close enough to be struck by lightning – take precautions as above as quickly as possible. Lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from the rainfall or thunderstorm cloud.
If you’re outdoors, get indoors as soon and as safely as you can. Remember that all thunderstorms produce some lightning, and if you can hear the thunder, you’re in danger. And there’s no safe place outdoors in a thunderstorm.
Move away from tall things (trees, power lines) and metal things too (parasols, bicycles) since they all attract lightning.
If you’re surrounded by trees, take shelter under the shorter trees.
However – don’t be the tallest object in the area, so avoid open areas as well.
Get to a low-lying area if you can, because of lightning striking the tallest objects around, but remember that flash flooding is increasingly common these days, don’t put yourself at risk of that either. All of this really emphasises my first point – there’s no safe place outdoors in a thunderstorm.
If you feel your hair stand on end and feel tingly, that means that lightning is about to strike, so crouch down, get on the balls of your feet and bend forward putting hands on your knees. The scientific basis for this is to make yourself as small as possible, to make yourself as small a target as possible, and to ensure that if you are unlucky enough to be struck anyway, the current will pass through your extremities, not your torso (i.e. not your heart and lungs).
Don’t lie flat, that will make you a bigger target, and put more of you in touch with the wet earth. Water is a great conductor.
Speaking of which … if you’re swimming, get out of the water, fast. If you’re in a boat of any sort, the same applies. Get out of the water, and get away from it.
If you’re with a group of people, spread out – statistically, this actually increases the chances of someone getting hit, but it also increases the chances that not all of you will be hit, so that any victims will have help on hand.
Lightning can strike several people at once, especially grouped together, and a mass casualty situation caused by lightning is triaged in a different way from others: if a strike victim is breathing on their own, they’ll probably continue to breathe, so most attention is paid to the people who aren’t breathing.
The best-practice recommendation is to stay inside a safe building or vehicle for 30 minutes after you hear the last thunder clap. That’s a long time, I know – but how often are thunderstorms in your area, even nowadays?
IN A VEHICLE
Keep the windows closed, that will help them conduct the electrical charge through to the ground and away from you. And the window area itself may be struck: if the window is open, that means that you will be struck, directly.
A car only provides protection if you are inside it (and it has a hard top). But just as with the surge protectors above, there’s still a chance. Be careful.
Don’t touch any metal part of the car, or the car radio.
IF SOMEONE IS HIT
Lightning victims don’t carry an electrical charge – they’re safe to touch, but they need medical attention urgently. Phone 999, or the medical emergency number of your own country if you’re not in the UK.
Real life issues came calling on me in late spring and early summer, some good (weddings!) and some bad (illness and a few unnameable emergencies). So there was no blogging, but I was still taking pictures, and bearing in mind my determination to post a series about flooding, I thought I’d put up these pictures, taken during the storm that killed my garden fence.
The media love stories about sharks in British waters (though here’s a more realistic piece from the Beeb last year) but my pictures to the left show the real dangers: people getting swept off their feet by a large wave and not being able to get back in control, swimmers not realising how dangerous the water temperature and currents can be, people jumping off the piers and either hitting their heads or just not having the strength to swim back to shore. Even on sunny days. And sadly, people jumping in to try to save their dogs: usually, the dogs manage to swim back, and the people drown.
Brighton and Hove Council have got a good section on their website about sea safety, including videos and video transcripts and a link to RNLI information. The text includes the weaver fish, which I’d heard of, but didn’t know how to treat. I do now!
Such avoidable deaths … please make sure you and yours are safe near the water, wherever you are, and that you know about any local hazards.
As I’ve done with other big topics, I intend to write about this in several parts. This part is an introduction and the rest is about what to do to safeguard against flood effects – good solid prepper activities, which will make recovery from any flooding go more smoothly.
Coastal flooding on the scale of the 1953 disaster, when over 300 people died, isn’t currently as high up the UK government’s disaster scale as it used to be, because of all the money that’s been thrown at sea defences since then. Pockets of land still suffer from coastal erosion, and for the people affected it’s life-changing; plus one or two storms each year are bad enough to damage sea walls, causing flooding and endangering life, but it’s not currently as severe as inland flooding. It may become so once again later on in this century, because of sea level rises, but as of this moment, it’s inland flooding that needs our attention.
Inland flooding happens more often nowadays on a yearly basis, and it’s now started to happen repeatedly within each year, often in the same places. This year, 2016, saw people in north west England flooded half a dozen times, and the year before, parts of Somerset had been flooded for weeks at a time. The National Risk Register details the consequences of inland flooding:
casualties and fatalities
damage to property and infrastructure
loss and/or interruption of supply of essential goods and services
Consultation for a review of national flood resilience has just finished (on 4th March) though heaven knows when it will actually be published. In the meantime, there’s a central government page on the .gov.uk website for the 2015-2016 floods, which is more immediately helpful. Though my guess is that if you’re one of the people who have been affected, that page won’t look that great, and I must say, the government flood pages, whether they’re warnings, advice or active help, are a complete mess. There’s no one listing of all the useful pages that I can find, not at all. I can find them all, eventually, but I had a real sense of being on a merry-go-round.
Summary of the points below
check if you’re at risk.
sign up for flood alerts if so.
if you’re especially vulnerable, check beforehand if you can evacuate to somewhere safer close by.
nothing is 100% perfect: you may have to accept that the water will get in.
put everything as high up as possible: the next floor, the tops of the cabinets, tables, furniture on bricks if nothing else.
phone numbers and references of utilities, aid agencies, insurance company, financial affairs, friends and relatives should be kept with you.
deploy any flood defences you have: sandbags, floodboards etc.
garden: move any large/loose items or weigh them down.
move animals to safety, or prepare to evacuate them too.
move your car out of the flood risk area, but make sure you can still access it for evacuation.
make sure your flood kit is up to date: torch, warm and waterproof clothes and footwear, water, food, medication, rubber gloves, basic entertainment.
Although it’s not really near any particular danger points, the little streams that run through it have the potential to cause local havoc. That dark blue colour means there’s a 1 in 30 chance of flooding in any one year, that’s worth knowing.
There’s also a map showing current river levels: there are up to three information or gauging points in Bicester, where river data is collected, and this one shows that at the time of writing (10 March for this section) it’s in some danger of flooding, though it’s far from the worst it’s ever been. There’s also a link for danger from surface water flooding, and that one made it look like poor old Bicester was in danger of drowning.
So that’s the first thing: check whether your particular location is in any danger, both long term and right now, and checking the “gauging stations” close to you to see exactly how dangerous the current situation is. You could also sign up for flood alerts (like the maps, a link to the signup page is on the “Winter Flooding 2015” page). For people in danger zones, the flood alerts are free; I suspect others have to pay.
If you’re especially vulnerable – you live in a park home, or a ground floor flat, or a bungalow, or you or someone who lives with you is disabled or even bedridden, you have fewer options than most of us, and you’re unlikely to be able to ride out any flood in your own place safely. So you have to be prepared to evacuate, whether that means getting in your own car and driving out, or heading to a neighbour – maybe to a flat on a higher floor, or to the clubhouse if you’re in a park home, but something, somewhere. I strongly urge you, if you’re in this situation, to talk with your neighbours and see if a mutual aid exchange can be established. You can evacuate to them, maybe you can water their plants and draw their curtains when they go away?
The last thing to remember is that nothing you do is 100% perfect: even if you’ve done everything, and the three feet of water flowing past your home isn’t getting in, you may need to open your doors yourself, to let it in. Unfortunately, this is so that the pressure of the flood doesn’t collapse your walls – better to have to gut the inside of your house than have it collapse altogether.
If whatever defences you do have are overwhelmed, what would help you inside your property? I’ll write about defence products another time, but putting everything as high up as possible is a good basic precaution. Start with things that are low down, near to the floor, that are absorbent: wooden furniture, equipment or decorations – chairs, tables, and so on. I have a semi-abstract wooden sculpture of a cat that I’d hate to lose to a flood, it sits on the floor like a real cat would. Plenty of useful things aren’t particularly valuable but would be thrown out if they were contaminated by floodwater (remember it’s likely to have raw sewage in it): the wheels of a trolley, a wheelbarrow, or a bike, anything with moving parts like a hand whisk in a drawer. Plants and dishes … put everything up high, as far up as you can, on top of the kitchen cabinets is probably the highest – the floor above is best of all, of course.
There’s a two page pdf document that could be helpful. The listing of phone numbers – gas, electric, insurer, local council etc – is something that was amongst the first precautions I took when I first started prepping, and I’d hope anyone who’s been prepping longer than six months or so already has that bit sorted.
That document also has a list of specific actions which are really useful in case your defences are overwhelmed, as mentioned above:
move furniture and electrical items to safety
put flood boards, polythene and sandbags in place
make a list now of what you can move away from the risk
turn off electricity, water and gas supplies
roll up carpets and rugs
unless you have time to remove them, hang curtains over their rods
move sentimental items to safety
put important documents in polythene bags and move to safety.move your car out of the flood risk area
move any large or loose items or weigh them down
move animals to safety, or make sure you can take them with you when you yourself evacuate.
Inform your family or friends that you may need to leave your home
Get your flood kit together and include a torch, warm and waterproof clothing, water, food, medication, toys for children and pets, rubber gloves and wellingtons.
Other subjects I’ll be covering later include:
travelling/moving in a flood
flood defence products pre-installed in your property
afterwards: your health, your garden, your future.
All sorts of unforeseen events can affect our financial lives, not just financial catastrophes themselves, but illness, terrorism of one sort or another, even the weather.. Real world prepping encompasses many different types of skills, events and objects, and for me, finances are a part of that, as they are for many, though not all, preppers.
Financial preps are funny old things. I did a couple of posts about financial prepping a while back, but right now I’m spurred to write because as usual last January, I finished my income tax declaration/negotiations with HMRC. And on the day I did that, what should happen but a major UK bank goes down under a DDOS attack! There are thousands of people who don’t pay their income tax on self employment until the last possible day, and if they got caught out by the DDOS attack (on HSBC) then they’d really be scrabbling around to try to finish things off. HMRC has rightly said that people can estimate figures to make a final payment, and then amend them within a year, and that’s true, of course. But there’s be chaos and stress that would be totally avoidable, with a little bit of forethought: preparedness!
As preppers, we talk (or at least, I talk) a lot about how the “just in time” culture of our retailers can lead to severe shortages in very little time if there is even a small problem. Likewise, for us to rely on a just in time approach to our tax affairs could present us with problems that would then be of our own making. For instance:
31 January, when our returns have to be in, is smack bang in the middle of the ‘flu season. If you’re relying on the last week in January to get your return in, and you come down with a bad case of flu on 20 January, HMRC really aren’t going to be too sympathetic.
A DDOS attack, exactly as happened on 29 January, could leave you without access to your money.
Other forms of cyber attack exist – internet servers themselves can be overwhelmed, leaving you stranded for an unknown length of time.
Your own internet connection could go down. Mine went down earlier in January – there was a problem at the nearest telegraph pole, believe it or not, and I lost internet and phone connection for two days. I could have coped with sending a tax payment by using the banking machines at the nearest branch, but if I’d still needed to fill in the online tax form, I’d have been in deep trouble. Going to a public computer, wherever it’s based, to fill in your tax return, must be an unpleasant feeling.
House fire. Imagine it. 27th January, and you’ve easily got four days to sort everything out and send HMRC the money. But a pan boils dry in the kitchen, burns, and then catches fire: you were in the attic, fetching down the tax papers. You make it outside the house, with your go-bag, but all the papers you were about to use are burned, and everything else is soaking wet after the Fire Brigade put the fire out.
Weather-related problems. Anything from your own connection breaking down with water on the line, a local electricity exchange flooded even though your home is dry, a lightning strike on a building or a crucial cable.
Figures might be unavailable – up to date log in details, new passwords, activation codes, all sorts of things, are necessary.
Complicated financial affairs? You may well need to amend figures and resubmit. Mine are a little bit complicated because I have some assets in the European Union, not just in the UK, and believe me, it makes everything trickier.
When you’ve finished inputting, and you’ve really got everything the way you want it, it takes a few days for the HMRC website to churn through your information and tell you what you owe on what you’ve submitted. Leaving your submission to the last possible day is really asking for trouble on this – I left 10 days, and I still made a hash of it, even though I’ve been doing these returns for 5 years. Their software told me I was entitled to a refund, but then I realised I’d filled in some figures incorrectly, and resubmitted. So then the software told me I’d made late payments for the last two years and I owed interest – not much, but still, thats what they said. I should have been working more slowly and submitted the figures earlier, then I wouldn’t have made the mistake that caused this problem, and both I and HMRC would have had less online kerfuffle.
Have enough money to pay and of course this particular tax prep is becoming more and more problematic for a lot of people. Claiming everything that’s tax-deductible, claiming all benefits you’re entitled to, legal methods of tax avoidance – like a private pension! – all of these are important, and if they’re not enough then second and even third income streams are called for.
Communicating with HMRC so that if there’s a problem filling out the form, or paying, you’re able to get through to them, instead of being 118th in the phone queue.
How is this prepping? Prepping isn’t all about making fire in the woods and purifying water – even though those skills are important in some circumstances, and lifesaving in others. Currently, we all live in this society, which uses money and insists we hand over some of it to central government. Ensuring that you meet your legal and financial obligations in the world as it currently is, is also about prepping. If you don’t do that, action can be taken against you, from fines at the very least all the way up to imprisonment. Like me, you probably want to avoid those things.
Nearly all of these events are outside our own control, and the only way, really, that you can ensure their effects on you are minimal, is to take action in good time. With an important event like submission of your tax return, don’t leave yourself only a week or so to get things completely done: personally, even though I often finish the submission in January itself, I start it the preceding April, with income details, regular outgoings, the easy stuff. This year, I aim to get it all done by the start of the preceding winter, but we’ll see.
Money can buy flexibility, but just like anything else, it has to be used correctly. And the more we use it correctly, the more we liberate for our own discretionary spending or saving.
Yep, you read that right. Harvest from the windowsills, harvest from a culture kindly shared by an online friend, and harvest from the supermarket – sorry about that last one, I’ve got no magic formula for conjuring food from the garden at this time of year, though perennials such as lemon balm, rhubarb, sorrel, garlic and salad burnet are all starting to grow.
This is a bit of a different from my usual post, but it underlies a great deal of preparedness in general. It’s about using what you’ve got, whether that’s cheap fresh food from the supermarket or first aid supplies from plants you’re growing yourself, or swapping cultures online. Thinking a bit outside the box to improvise, to keep alive the old skills, to become more self reliant. That means relying less on big business, saving money and giving yourself a bit of concrete insurance to ensure that you can cope with whatever comes your way in these uncertain times.
First aid supplies and food stocks are the two areas I’m most interested in. So last week, I was repotting my aloe vera plants, and three became five. I hadn’t repotted them for about 3 years, and I meant to just get some fresh soil in there and repot them in the same plantpots, but it wasn’t possible – the “pups”, the new plants, were too big, and some had to be separated out, so that’s what I did. I was really badly organised about it, I hadn’t got enough plantpots ready and my equipment was stretched out over almost the whole of the kitchen and the patio outside, as well as needing to find new sites for the newly potted pups. Not good.
But I ended up with five well-nourished plants, so that’s good, for sure. Aloe vera are incredibly easy to grow as a houseplant in the UK – ordinary potting compost, a windowsill, water once a week, and Bob’s your proverbial uncle. In fact, they’re quite hard to kill. Mine have suffered from not being repotted earlier, it’s true, but they’re still alive, and now they’re flourishing again.
They have quite a few uses – not just snipping a bit of leaf for a burn, which seems the only widely known use. Instead, I had a look at WebMD, a pretty orthodox site as these things go, and I was pleasantly surprised at what I found there. It can be used (every so often) for constipation, for many skin conditions (from psoriasis to male genital herpes) and I was shocked to find there are also studies supporting its use for diabetics, in lowering their blood sugar, and possibly in lowering cholesterol too. It is already used in conjunction with radiotherapy and is considered helpful for “radiation induced skin injuries”. That’s quite something.
It has to be processed carefully, however, and it can’t be used constantly, so I’ll be doing another post on the actual useage – I need to let my new plants settle in and expand their root system, in any case.
The supermarket harvesting was onions at 60p per kilo, not particularly cheap, but cheap enough, and I wanted to do another experiment with dehydrating. A lot of people who identify as ‘preppers’ already dehydrate, of course, and it became almost mainstream a few years ago, when Alys Fowler of Gardener’s World devoted most of one of her own TV programmes to it. But it’s new to me. I need dehydration as a form of preserving food – I don’t like using sugar for that, and vinegar is bad in any quantity for people with arthritis. I don’t quite trust my freezer any more, it doesn’t seem to store frozen veg too well, so dehydrating it is. Because there’s no magical ingredient to it, its quite hard to take it on board, so I’m doing gradual experiments – grapes and sweet peppers a few weeks ago, and onions today, a kilo of them.
Omigod! Never process that amount of onions without wearing swimming goggles, it qualifies as a chemical attack. Or a sinus treatment, I haven’t quite decided.
One lesson I did take on board from the work on the aloes was to be much better prepared from the outset. So the base of the dehydrator was sitting right by the out-of-the-way electric socket, where it could hum away to itself for the next ten hours. The trays were stacked just behind me, on the way to the pre-positioned base. And I was stationed at my work area – a kilo of onions in front of me, a small chopping area to take the onion skins, a used pot to take the skins ready for the compost bin, and a knife and full-sized chopping board to slice the onions ready for the dehydrator shelves.
The jars I used to store the dried onions are Kilner jars, meant for home canning in the American sense; the bodies were run through the dishwasher and left to cool and dry, and the lids were just washed and dried – in future years, maybe I could make my own antimicrobial fluid by harvesting my aloe vera plants! But there are many experiments to come before I’m ready to do that. Interesting, though.
The final part of all this harvesting was an experiment with the kefir culture another prepper sent me: I’m sure mumsnet users share their kefir and scoby cultures around too, and once I’m comfortable with the process, I’m willing to pay it forward as well – if anyboy would like kefir culture, just get in touch with me via the comments.
I used a very pretty jar I had lying around, and seconded an old peanut butter lid to lay across the top, then put the whole construction in my airing cupboard. The hot water wasn’ t on, so it didn’t overheat.
It’s very, very simple to harvest – after 48 hours, I strained the now-lumpy milk into a jug. The strainings went into a new jar with more milk. The kefir-ed milk was put into the fridge – I’ll use it over the next few days. I don’t want to drink this much milk regularly, even though apparently the fermentation uses up the lactose, so I’m going to be experimenting with water kefir, which comes up prominently on a web search.
Looking after the culture is a little bit more complicated than this – making sure you have clean jars and lids, timing the fermentation to fit in with your own life, and how much product you want – that just takes time to find the right way forward for each person.
Each experiment worked well, and the dehydrating in particular means I’m not reliant on continued electricity to power the freezer, to keep my food stocks good to eat. Dehydrated food stores compactly, too – as anyone who’s soaked beans overnight knows, dried food has much less volume and weight than the original food. The dehydrator can’t work without electricity, of course, but that’s my next personal project, and a solar briefcase is already sitting in my stores, ready for the battery of my choice. A haybox is half made, to cook dehydrated food – an electric slow cooker can be used in the meantime. The aloes and the kefit mean that I’m looking after the health of me and my family.
One project leads on to another, and the net result is more stocks, more skills, and more preparedness all round. I like it.
This is the last in my “terrorist” series … I did think it needed a post to itself, as there are several time frames to think about.
Don’t gather in large groups, whether or not you’re close to the scene of the attack(s) – groups are more likely to be targets than individuals.
Just because you’ve got away from the immediate area of the attack, don’t consider yourself safe: attackers are mobile too. In the Bataclan in Paris, some people who were shot were already outside. And the Sousse attacker roamed the area for many minutes.
Shelter somewhere safe as soon as you can. Don’t necessarily try to travel – terrorists may still be around, and there may be other devices planted, or other attacks planned, e.g. at travel hubs. Plus the security services may well shut down all travel in any case, and even if you have your own transport, there may be delays, or even, horrifyingly, you could get caught up not just in further attacks, but in the flight of any surviving terrorists – for example, you could be the unlucky person whose car is hijacked. You should wait for a while – you will need to judge at the time what this means – maybe public transport is running again, maybe all terrorists have been captured or killed.
Even if you don’t need medical attention, getting somewhere safe will let you recover from the shock and get first aid for any minor wounds. You’ll also be able to find out the latest news on the security situation.
Is everyone in your own circle of friends and/or relatives safe? Are any of them wounded? Do they need support in hospital? Is there information about what to do if one of your party has been killed?
The phone lines and frequencies will be crazy busy. Send texts where you can – keep your voice calls to a minimum.
Helping the authorities
Make sure you contact the police or anti-terrorist services, so that you are on record as having been at the event. You may have pictures or film on your phone or camera that could help identify the terrorists, or at the very least help with the timeline of events. The authorities know that not everything they get will be useful to them – they’re used to having to sift through for those little details that help take things further.
Even if you don’t have concrete evidence like that, you have your memories and impressions, and anything you can remember about the attackers will be useful: height, sex, weight, colour, build, accent, language, what they said, what they gave as their “reasons”.
If you’re not interviewed straight away, maybe because events are ongoing, write down your memories and impressions. That becomes more important when you’re watching the news, as the film of events can start to infiltrate your own memories.
Twitter: Twitter was used on the same night as the Paris attacks, not just to hear news and express emotion, but to offer help. The hashtag #PorteOuverte, or “open door”, was quickly up and running, with residents in the affected areas offering shelter to anyone who had been cleared from the streets and had nowhere to wait.
Some just posted their addresses, while others asked Twitter users to contact them; another tried to bring in the basic security of not sharing addresses publicly, which makes sense. And most powerfully of all, “tweet safe places, not your thoughts on the matter. A shelter will help, prayers later.”
If you’re in a big city that’s mostly unknown to you, you might be miles away from your temporary base, and a grassroots campaign like this could feel like a lifesaver.
Facebook: Facebook was soon doing what it could by marking everyone in Parisian locations “safe” as they checked into their pages.
If you or your loved ones were caught up in terrorist events, you’re bound to want to talk about what happened and what might have happened – debriefing, in a way, and it’s a normal, healthy human reaction. You’re also bound to have feelings of one sort or another that you didn’t experience at the time – that’s often what shock is, numbing us out so that we can feel the feelings bit by bit. Respect that process, give yourself time to go through it all. If you need help to talk things through, then you do, and that needs to be respected as well. Counselling and PTSD work can be a big help.
Precautions will be very high locally, and probably nationally, maybe internationally, for a few weeks, or a few months. In relation to the IRA bomb campaigns, precautions in the UK were very high for years, and some of those precautions are back again in relation to new terrorist threats. Accept it with good grace, and take it into account when you judge journey time.
What do we do now?
I’d caution everyone against knee-jerk reactions demanding sanctions against one group or another. I’m a little wary of saying that, as I do think our Western ethos of tolerance is being used against us. However, knee-jerk reactions (usually the result of “this sabre tooth tiger is going to kill me”) rarely give the right answer to 21st century life.
Life really does go on after even the worst of this type of event. But it doesn’t go on for the people killed, and it’s forever changed for their families and friends. This post, like all the others in this series, is meant to help you ensure that your life, and the lives of your loved ones, are preserved from the toxic chaos and hatred of the terrorists.
I took a long Christmas break, but I wanted to continue my series of posts on terrorism: and this one is about what to do if you’re unlucky enough to be at a location that gets attacked. What can you do to improve your chances of survival, and the chances of those around you?
If you can, get out, get away, any way you can, though a door that’s blocked by a frantic crowd is no exit at all. A side exit, a staff door, a window, a fire door, anything at all. Getting out and then getting away is by far your safest option, of course. It sounds mind-numbingly obvious to say, but it does need to be said.
What if the worst happens, and you’re actually caught up in the nightmare of a terrorist attack? What can you do to improve your chances of survival, and the chances of those around you?
“After fleeing, Julien Pearce, a Europe 1 radio reporter who witnessed the carnage, said terrified fans had tried to reach the stage by clambering over others cowering on the floor, but the attackers had gunned them down. Pearce said he saw one gunman clearly – a calm youth, without any mask, and a blank expression on his face. Pearce and others managed to flee while the gunmen were reloading their Kalashnikovs.”
The parts I’ve bolded say it all: be vigilant, try to see what’s going on, stay calm and take your chance if you see it. If you panic and run, you might be putting yourself directly into the line of fire. If you’re stuck and you then hide or pretend to be dead – you may see an opportunity, you might be able to get free. Julien Pearce, above, saw the terrorists reloading their guns – he had the knowledge about what that meant, that they wouldn’t be firing for a few seconds, wouldn’t even be looking around them, and he took his chance.
Sometimes getting out isn’t an option: hiding
If you’re hiding in another room in the same building as terrorists, lock the door, don’t talk, just whisper if absolutely necessary. But only if necessary. Use your initiative – in the attacks on the beach in Sousse in Tunisia, some tourists escaped by paddling or swimming and hiding amongst the rocks at the water’s edge. And some of them were then taken aboard boats by locals wanting to help.
Hiding from gunfire or bombs, and protecting yourself from them, are different things. A curtain can hide you, but it won’t protect you. If you can, consider layers of hiding. It was said that in the Bataclan, people hiding in one of the dressing rooms were killed, all except for one person hiding under a coat. I haven’t traced that definitely, so it may be apocryphal, but if you’re trapped and have to hide, then why not double the layers of hiding?
Some people at the Bataclan survived by playing dead, but that’s not actually recommended, for the simple reason that terrorists may walk around the room shooting the bodies, to make sure. They know that people will try to play dead. If it’s your only option, then do it, of course – they might be distracted, they might miss, their weapon might jam, anything.
Don’t make yourself a target by using your phone in an actual attack
One woman caught up in the Paris attacks said that there were actually people in the crowd who took their phones out, in view of the terrorists, and tried to use them: “they were immediately killed”. I don’t really understand the mindset that thinks using a phone while you’re in the view of terrorists who are shooting people is a good idea. All I can say is, don’t. Don’t do it. If you’re in a locked room, and there’s no noise nearby, then maybe that’s a good time to send an emergency text, as long as your phone is on silent and not on vibrate either – your whereabouts, numbers of casualties, descriptions of the attackers – but otherwise, just keep quiet.
Giving the authorities, the rescuers, all the information you can, is one thing that you absolutely can do, and it could be immensely valuable. But wherever you are, don’t put yourself in danger to send it, whether you’re still in an active situation or you think you’ve managed to get clear. Make sure you’re clear, well away from the zone. And remember that what you’ve heard can be just as valuable as what you’ve seen.
If you’re playing dead or hiding, keep quiet, keep still
In the worst situations, as happened at the Bataclan, you might be lying right next to the bodies of victims of the terrorists. It’s terrifying to even think about imagining what that must be like, but to give yourself the best chance of survival, that’s what you might have to do, and as mentioned above, it’s not a preferred course of action.
Help others if you can
You can best help others by helping them to stay quiet, making eye contact, holding hands, even keeping pressure on a wound. If you had your children with you at such a terrible time, what could you do? Check for wounds, naturally, but what else? They’d be shocked, terrified and upset, of course – but reassuring them by singing to them, or letting them cry, might well bring you all to the attention of the terrorists. On a beach like in Sousse, or in a noisy environment like a football stadium, that’s less likely simply because of the ambient noise – sea, seagulls, wind, the pounding of feet in concrete hallways, the roar of a crowd, whatever, but in a closed environment, it could be deadly to make noise. I have no easy solution for comforting a child, I’m sorry to say. I wish I did. A silent physical connection, being held, is all there is.
Suicide bombers and attackers want to kill
Playing dead or waiting to see what happens often doesn’t work when you’re being attacked by suicide bombers: they’re not temporarily preserving their hostages so that they can negotiate with the authorities, their only aim is almost always to kill. That’s it. If you don’t have a way out then playing dead, and hopefully hiding while you do it, is the least-worst option; but both government advice and common sense say the same thing – if you can get out, do it, right away.
What about fighting back? Only if you can’t run any further, and only if your hiding place has been found. It’s the very last choice of all, only one step up from death, quite frankly, and then only because suicide bombers aren’t interested in taking prisoners. If you’re actually found by one in spite of your precautions, and you do decide to fight back – you might get lucky. If you’re only faced with one attacker … if you manage to hit them … if they fall over and bust their head … maybe. Maybe.
My instinct is to say “play along, and wait for your chance to get away”, and that’s probably what a lot of people think. I don’t know how helpful that is when faced with modern terrorists.
But if you don’t do anything when discovered, you could well die anyway, that’s the stark reality, when face to face with a fanatic who wants to kill as many people as possible who are like you, and then die as well. I keep thinking of United 93, the plane that was hijacked on 9/11 but crashed in Pennsylvania before it reached the terrorists’ goal. It’s clear that the passengers fought back, and they nearly won. I don’t know all of the publicly available details of that day, but I know that they worked together to save themselves and the terrorists’ other intended victims; I’d like to think that I’d take part in that effort, if I was in that situation.
But not every terrorist is a suicide bomber
That’s true, they’re not, even nowadays. There are copycats and opportunists who haven’t had the training, and a few suicide bombers are reluctant to follow through when it comes to it. Or sometimes the suicide bombers are waiting to corral all the hostages together before they shoot them, for whatever twisted “reasons” they have for attacking like this in the first place. It’s impossible to know before the event. If you’re caught and not killed immediately, is there anything you can do? Not much: most of the advice I’ve found seems to be the classic group hostage advice of attracting as little attention as possible: do as you’re told, keep your eyes down and don’t make eye contact, don’t stand out, just wait. If you can move, you might want to edge away from choke points and even from windows – if the authorities storm the building, tear gas through the windows is the least you can expect.
Do you have specialist training that could be used in this situation? That could be a lifesaver, for you and the others with you, but only use it if you’re up to date and you’re sure it’s relevant. You’re betting your life, and the lives of others, that it will be so.
Not directly involved? you still need to take precautions
If you’re near an attack but not directly involved, don’t try to find out what’s happening – get away as fast as possible, and help others to do so – the attackers may start attacking people on the streets, there may be additional attacks from other sources, and you may well get caught up in the response or obstruct the emergency services.
If you’re in a building close to the site of a terrorist attack, keep away from the windows, and if you can go to the other side of your building, to rooms that look onto another street, then do that. If you can’t do that, consider going into the corridor, or into your bathroom. If that’s not helpful either, then at least close any big open windows, if you can do it without endangering yourself by putting yourself on view through the window, maybe by pulling it shut with a broom handle. Stephane Hache was killed in his apartment next to the Bataclan – he was taking cover, but the poor man was killed by a ricochet, according to news reports at the time.
Don’t be distracted by trying to use your phone. By all means, try to send a text to a loved one to let them know you’re safe, but don’t send a text to all your contacts, or make a video call. In the event of a major incident, the networks will be either overloaded, or deliberately down, so any time spent on the phone is time wasted and could be better spent removing yourself from the immediate situation or, even better, planning your next move.
The advice seems to be, get somewhere safe and stay there, until you get official advice that to do otherwise is safe. The Charlie Hebdo killers were on the run for three days, and were 85km from Paris when they were finally surrounded and killed. Anyone between Paris and Dammartin, the village where they went to ground, could potentially have been another victim. It may be impossible or inappropriate to hole up for that length of time, but you should be aware of the potential danger, so that your decision on your course of action takes into account as much as possible.
Some of this sounds pretty gloomy: the thing is, if you’re caught up in a mass terrorist event, especially in an enclosed space, you can’t be sure that even your best efforts will be enough to ensure your survival. That’s the truth. But you can survive, and you can increase the odds in your own favour, that’s also the truth. Be one of the survivors.
1 It is worth remembering that this scenario is highly unlikely and most people won’t encounter anything like this in their whole lives. We can’t live our lives in fearfulness of this sort of event, but a couple of minutes alertness to potential dangers is a very small price to pay in order to live your life and minimise dangers. A “what if” plan can actually cover many scenarios, not terrorism alone: you may escape a fire, a burglary, or a drunken fracas.
2 Also worth bearing in mind that you don’t know how you would react in any sort of emergency. If you happen to be one of the people who are paralysed by fear, the sort of planning I’m suggesting really could save your life, or your children’s lives. This sort of situation is terrifying enough, but to be responsible for young children at an event which is then targetted by terrorists, is unimaginably awful. Do what you can to give those in your charge a chance of surviving.
3 Learn to be aware of what’s around you. Study your destination beforehand and when you get there, whether it’s a building or a transport intersection of any kind. I started to draft this after the Paris attacks, but now the smaller weekend attack at Leytonstone Tube Station (and I used to live half a mile away from there) has just happened. What are your options? Check for exits and emergency exits. Check for personnel and security personnel – how many are there, and of what sort? Are there bottlenecks? There often are, especially to help check tickets, for instance; try to plan to avoid them if you need to get out. In emergencies, many people apparently make for the main exit, but subsidiary exits are often much easier to use. And in a life threatening situation, nobody’s going to care if you go through a door marked “Staff Only” – though it would be great to know where that door leads before you do it, it’s better than nothing.
4 Make prior arrangements with friends about where to meet up if you get separated. In the news that came out of Paris, nobody mentioned the mobile phones not functioning, so maybe they would, for longer than we’d hope, but making a prior arrangement would probably help. It might not, if the meet area is threatened by the terrorists (or a fire), but that’s always the chance you take.
5 You could make “layers” of emergency routes: out of the building, out of the immediate area, and even out of the town, though the latter is contrary to recent advice.
6 Get a map – even a single page printout. Just something basic to orient yourself, let you know the possible routes to safety, if the ones you choose are blocked for some reason. It might even be helpful if you were to mark hospitals, police stations and embassies – there will be armed guards at all these places, and people whose function it is to help you.
7 Check what each member of your party is wearing and remember it: at a big event, if you lose one another, it’s potentially an easy way to check around. As for children, if you’re going to a big event, or a big place, or you’ve travelled a long way from home, take a photo with your phone as you leave – it saves the stress of describing them to the security guards in the heat of the moment, and it’s astonishing how you can just forget what they’re wearing.
8 It pays to talk to younger family members about safe rendezvous points if mobile phones are down for any reason. With the best will in the world, members of the same party can easily get separated in emergency evacuations, and if it’s a big enough situation, the mobile phone network will go down from gridlock, let alone the security services actually shutting it down.
9 Report any unattended bags, suspicious items. And don’t then return near them.
10 If there is a security alert, whether because of a suspected gun attack, or a suspect package at a travel hub, follow instructions from the security staff immediately. They’re really not doing it solely to inconvenience you.
11 Think about what you’re wearing at likely target venues, especially at times of high alerts – if you’re going out to have fun, you want to dress in a fun way too, but do think about the “what ifs” here, if it’s the sort of event that terrorists now seem to target, or if there were a fire. What if there really was an attack? How high are your heels? If you really had to run for your life, are they good enough for that?
12 Consider the situation for the less able members of your group, maybe you yourself, up to and including wheelchair users. If the only way to save your lives was up a flight of stairs, do you know how to band together to carry that person? Is there a refuge area? It might be safe from fire, but not necessarily from a terrorist. What if the wheelchair user wants the others to go, and to save themselves? Parents would often want to save their children rather than themselves. This kind of thing needs to be talked about, and any exit strategies you can manage need practising. And remember, it will be different at different venues.
13 This might sound offensive … but several terror attacks by Islamist groups are reported to have quizzed their captives about Islam … recite a verse, name the Prophet’s mother, that sort of thing. If you think a destination of yours might be at risk, it could be worth memorising a few lines, a few basic facts. Is this pandering to terrorism? Maybe … I love languages, I love the architecture of mosques and Islamic decoration, the call of the muezzins in the morning in a city like Istanbul, it’s no hardship to me to think of memorising a few facts, and a few quotes, though I hate the reason for it. There are free copies online:
14 Local self defence laws. If you’re heading abroad, try to check out the self defence laws of the country to which you’re heading, possibly from their embassy: there might be something you know how to use thats legal at your destination while being illegal in the UK. It will need to be discarded or destroyed before you return, of course, but it’s still an option. Do bear in mind that in the heightened situation immediately after an attack, you might well be searched when crossing borders etc, make sure you’re keeping to what’s legal within the jurisdiction.
15 A list of emergency phrases, if you’re heading abroad, is always useful – that’s why we have phrasebooks, after all. But some of the newer phrases we need aren’t in the books yet: not only “I’m British”, “I’m lost”, “Do you have any water”, but also “the gunmen are over there”, “I have been shot at”, “my family have been taken hostage by terrorists”. Think about it.
16 Who would you want to call in an emergency, to let them know you’re safe? Parents, partner, children … You might not be able to get on to Facebook or WhatsApp or Twitter. Make sure you have contact numbers with you – hotlines and friends and relatives too. Your memory will probably be shattered by the stress, so write them down somewhere. Your phone might not make it through whatever you need to do to escape.
17 Identity papers: this might be as simple as your driving license, but in other parts of the world it might be your passport and an entry visa. Follow the laws of the land about whether or not you’re supposed to have that paperwork on you. It might be safer to have it, or it might be recommended you keep it in the hotel safe, and carry around a photocopy. If you need to scribble a note to yourself about the hotel and it’s name and phone number, so you can prove who you are more speedily, then do that. You might even want to make notes for yourself and your partner/friends about blood types, allergies and drugs. Many people with chronic conditions are requested to do this as a matter of course.
18 What kit to carry? So far, I’ve mentioned six items: a map, a phone, possibly an item for self defence that’s legal in your destination country, a list of emergency phrases, a list of emergency contacts and identity papers.
You could also carry a few other things, even if you’re restricted to a bum bag: a torch, more cash than you think you’ll ever need, a first aid kit, an emergency foil blanket, some water, some snacks, an extra day’s meds if you need them. Another seven items, thirteen in all.
16 And finally … what if I think there’s a terrorist attack, and there isn’t, and I overreact? The web is full of stories of overreactions – to small fireworks, backfiring cars and the rest. Let’s look at this sensibly. What would your over-reaction actually be? Are you going to prick your ears up and look around tensely until you can find what the source of the noise was? Are you going to duck down and hide behind a room divider? Are you going to start knocking people over and screaming at them to eff off out of your way? Your answer to that question tells you how embarrassed you’re going to be, and that some forms of overreaction are really, really unhelpful. If your reaction is panic, either freezing or freaking out, you’re going to harm your survival chances in a real event, and the chances of those around you. But if all you do is crouch down or check things out visually, then really, so what? There’s a great quote from Bernard Baruch, an adviser to American Democrat Presidents in the mid twentieth century:
“Those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.”
I’m interrupting the series on gardening to run a few posts about terrorism and our reaction to it, for obvious reasons.
This is the link to the download page for the advice published by the UK government very soon after the Paris attacks. According to the BBC earlier this week, it was meant to be published next week, to coincide with a planned security awareness week. They could have done a little bit more work on it, to be honest with you, but the most important thing is to get the information out in public.
This particular document is aimed at businesses – it includes advice on storing fertiliser safely, for example, and on how to secure your buildings against hostile vehicles and cyber threats. But it’s a great summary for all of us, letting us know some of what may be going on behind the scenes, and possibly giving us ideas about how we can further help ourselves.
It was reported by many news organisations around the world, of course including Sky News and The Telegraph but the BBC has come up trumps: their article here is a million miles away from the tripe they’ve been publishing recently about preparedness. It’s thoughtful, wide-ranging, informative, well-sourced and deals with the psychology of the situation, as well as the options. It’s written by Camila Ruz, who I see is a freelance science journalist. All power to her laptop.
Please download the government document to which I’ve linked, read it through, then check out what I’ve written below – I’m commenting below on it, one section at a time. Your own comments are welcome at any time.
The anti-terrorism hotlines to contact the Metropolitan Police and MI5 are at the bottom of this article.
Section One: Threat Levels
Useful to know, but not immediate: the threat level has been at “severe” for the UK, level 4 of 5, for a long time now.
Section Two: STAY SAFE: Terrorist Firearms and Weapons Attacks
This is the one I think most people will find most helpful. Run if you can, hide if you can’t, tell the security services what you can about the attackers when it’s safe to do so. And remember that the security services on the spot don’t know you, they don’t know whether or not you’re one of the attackers. For everyone’s sake, they have to make sure. Do as they tell you.
However, the points about planning are spectacularly uninformative:
What are your plans if there were an incident?
What are the local plans? e.g. personal emergency evacuation plan.
And thats it! Obviously, I’ll be covering planning to safeguard yourself in a post really soon, I’ve already spent some time drafting it.
This is about how organisations can fight against the effects of car bombs, which have sadly been deployed in the UK already. I don’t think there’s anything here that’s useful on an individual basis, except that maybe you can learn to recognise “hostile vehicle mitigation measures” when you see them at public venues.
Section Four: Suicide attacks
As Londoners and others will remember, these too have been used against us. Looking at the advice given to businesses here, I’d say there are a few relevant pieces of advice:
vehicle access control points can be extremely dangerous – potential suicide bombers might realise that they’re about to be apprehended, for example, and set off their devices early. An exchange of gunfire is also a possibility. It’s safer for you, and less constraining for the guards concerned, if you don’t dawdle around such places. Once you’re through, carry on, and leave the area.
as for any other occasion, stay aware, and let someone know if you see something suspicious.
Section Five: chemical, biological and radioactive threats
I’ve actually covered radiological threats already in a previous post (which you can see here) but the important bit as far as this document today is concerned is this: “The impact of a CBR attack would depend heavily on the success of the chosen method and the weather conditions at the time of the attack. The first indicators of a CBR attack may be the sudden appearance of powders, liquids or strange smells within the building, with or without an immediate effect on people.” That’s useful information, that we all could bear in mind.
I’ll cover the other threats in due course.
Section Six: Insider Threat
In this country, this is currently unlikely to be violent on a mass scale, but things change all the time in this arena … perhaps the most helpful thing any outsider can do, as mentioned previously, is to report any suspicious activity. That culture of “reporting difference” leads to its own problems, which is a discussion preppers and civilised human beings need to have.
Section Seven: Cyber Threat
We are the customers whose details are stolen if any company we use has their client list stolen – so it makes sense to be as careful as you can with things like passwords, clicking links and maintaining your privacy about your details as much as you can. You might also usefully check what the policy is of any company with which you have strong links. Books are written about this subject – I have a fair few draft posts about it myself, but there’s nothing in this document that’s particularly relevant to individuals in the here and now.
Section Eight: Further Information
The links here are all meant for businesses, but if you live, work or visit in an area that’s particularly vulnerable, you might want to cast your eye over some more information.
So, that’s it for now. The events in Paris signalled the start of a terrible week for decent human beings all over the world. By spreading information about how to keep ourselves that bit safer, I hope I’m helping just a tiny bit in the fightback. You can spread it too.