Monthly Archives: June 2015

“Widespread Electricity Failure” – The National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies.

Loss of electrical power seemed to be the most basic issue on the new National Risk Register, once I stopped to think about it: every single one of us uses electrical power, for dozens and dozens of things, and while a lot of them are pretty unimportant in the long term (an electric carving knife to cut my foam insulation, or the batteries for my doorbell) some of them are crucial – heat, light, fuel to cook and to use the fridge freezer, all sorts of things. In the community at large – electricity powers the pumps at petrol stations, it powers huge amounts of life saving equipment in hospitals, pumps for the sewage and drainage systems,it powers the lighting and the air conditioning in shopping centres and tunnels – imagine being in the Bluewater Shopping Centre, or on Eurostar, if the electricity supply was hacked!

There’s an interesting article on ZeroHedge about a collapse in the electricity supply as it would affect the USA. Interesting yes, but I’m really doubtful about a high-atmosphere terrorist attack using an EMP, though I agree that sooner or later, a CME (a Coronal Mass Ejection) from the sun will hit us square on and be strong enough to so some damage, solar activity being what it is.

And probably some people remember the Channel 4 drama-documentary Blackout which had it’s faults of course, but was a good first try at representing what a ten-day break in supply might be like.

So I thought I’d take stock, bit by bit, of what I have, what I still need, and I hope that other people will find that useful.

These are my efforts at alternate methods of lighting first of all, in this particular post.  This is a fair proportion of my own possibilities:


I have a lot of candles. A lot. Lots of people have bought me candleholders and New Agey type candles as gifts – I’ve never really lit them very much, so I still have nearly all of them. The only thing I use them for regularly is as a sort of prayer candle, when someone is ill, or someone has died. And the first year I was in this house, there were 3 or 4 power cuts, so my stock of candles became very important to me. I bought lots myself, much more utilitarian and longlasting, including tealights. I also put by some shallow tin cans, once I’d used the contents, so that I had extra candle holders.  I have a candle snuffer too.

Even with a candle holder, candles aren’t safe: so I have lots of fireproof surfaces they can sit on: ceramic plates and tiles, old roof tiles of lovely old slate, a couple of metal containers that I’ve re-purposed (one was meant for flowerpots! I wouldn’t want to grow anything in that, because of possible taint, but it suits candles very well). Underneath the candle, candle holder and it’s fireproof container are blocks of wood, or a few slices of cork tree I picked up in a market in Barcelona – a wooden surface underneath a candle might eventually get scorched, and there’s no reason to let that happen if it doesn’t have to, so there are blocks of wood there. If things ever got really bad, that wood could easily go on the fire to keep warm!

Candle, candlestick, fireproof slate surface, anti-scorch insulation.  And a statue of an Egyptian cat.

Tips to increase the burn time of your candles

If the candles come with instructions, read them!

Burn each candle for long enough each time to melt the wax all across the top of the candle – when it burns to the edges, it burns all the wax at each level, so it will burn longer in total. The first burn is especially important for reaching the edge. This avoids a “tunnel”, it’s much more efficient. If you do end up creating a tunnel, you can either bend the wax edges around the wick, which almost creates a lantern effect. This will mean that that wax melts as well, and lengthen the burn time accordingly. Or you could just cut away the unburnt wax, carefully, and recycle it into new candles that you make yourself.

Burn each candle for a maximum of 4 hours at a time. If you need longer burns, swap the candles over, to avoid smokiness.

Trim the wick regularly – after it’s maybe half an inch long at most, otherwise it will smoke, shed debris, flicker badly and burn too quickly.

Don’t burn a candle near a draft – or, if you have to do that for some reason, put it in a little lantern, the sort you can get from any pound shop. At minimum, turn the candle regularly, to help it burn evenly.

Circular candles burn more efficiently, and waste less wax. You can still recycle the wax, of course, but why recycle more than you have to?

Keep your candles as cool as possible, as the wax will then burn a little more slowly. I’m not quite sure how true this one is, but it couldn’t harm to keep your candles cool.

Using a purpose made candle snuffer will prevent liquid wax, soot and debris from contaminating the candle.

The longer a candle is, the more important that its laid flat – this will prevent warping, which in turn helps the candle to burn evenly and less wastefully.

The rest – plus my still-to-do list

I have a lot of matches. They’re my primary way to light the candles: I have other ways, but I’ll actually cover “lighting up”, so to speak, in a different post, there’s dozens of ways of doing it.

I have a lot of spare glass jars too – nowadays (and in the future) when I burn a candle, I collect the wax for re-use, I don’t just let it solidify and throw it away.

That’s one use for spare glass jars – another, for as big a jar as possible (or even for one of those big plastic milk containers) is to turn a torch into one that’s full of water. Because of the wonders of refraction, this spreads out the light, and a focussed beam becomes an ambient light thats generally useful over a much wider area.  There are many other uses for them, which I’ll also talk about another time.  I love this whole idea of using refraction or diffusion to aid our prepping efforts, but when I experimented with this as I was finishing off this post, it didn’t work too well.  Check out the photos immediately below:

Torch shone into a 4 pint milk container.
Torch shone directly ahead onto the opposite wall.

I have a couple of lanterns for candles, too – one’s a pretty little gift, the other is a gorgeous, rusty old thing with a huge hook for it to hang from. I only acquired this recently, from a neighbour’s skip – they were pretty surprised when I rang their doorbell to ask permission to take it, but very happy to oblige.

Rusty old lantern, a work in progress

What do I still need?

I still need wicks, if I’m going to make my own candles: pre-cut, pre-waxed wicks are available on ebay, and lengths of uncut wick are available too. I’d like to learn how to improvise wicks from old clothing made of natural materials.

I need improvised candle moulds too – I could use used tealight holders, and I have flat sheets of silicon as bakeware, so I could use those, but I need to practise.

I have torches, of course – all LED. The bulbs are practically immortal, and the batteries are rechargeable. But my big, hefty torch has disappeared, temporarily I hope – I need to buy another one pronto, illustrating the old prepper saying: two is one and one is none. My “one” has turned into “none”, right enough.

One of the nooks in my kitchen has those sticky LED lights, that you can push on/off as necessary, and there’s a couple of other stickies ready to be stuck anywhere that’s needed, As long as I have enough batteries to power them.  The spoon at the bottom of the general picture, at the top of this post, is a thin wooden disposable – I’ve found it to be really useful in getting batteries out of their niches without harming them.

The other LED lights I have are the classic solar garden lights, the ones on little sticks that light up your garden path – they won’t be particularly strong or long lasting, but they’re a great idea to be able to get around in the evening for a little while.

I need to buy some Eneloops batteries – they’re most popular among people who are In The Know, and their wiki entry explains why.  Basically, they discharge so little during storage, and that isn’t just consumerist hype. That’s very handy to have during even a short term grid down incident.

I do have the Camelion Solar Charger.  This has very mixed reviews on Amazon. I can’t review it myself yet, as I stuck it in a drawer and ignored it, basically – my bad. I’ll do better now, with the blog to report to!

I’d like to learn to make oil lamps – it looks pretty simple on various youtube videos, I just haven’t done it yet. They need wicks too, but I doubt they need to be waxed. Something else to research.

One way of maximising the light we get from any one source is reflectivity: putting a mirror, or even some aluminium foil, behind a candle, at a safe distance of course. I have both of those, so I’m good there.  And I think its more realistic (or more easily achievable) than the shining-into-a-big-water-container as experimented above.

There are some big holes in my preps on this, I confess. And I’m about to throw money at it, so I’ll work it through on here, on the blog. It should be a really interesting experiment! I know some readers of this blog are much further ahead with this, and much more knowledgeable – I’ve already had help – so I’ve got to make good. Post below about your own electrical backup, by all means.

For maximum backup, and because I adore all things solar, I need to be able to charge my battery chargers with solar power I’m struggling with this. I have a couple of low wattage solar panels, but I haven’t yet got round to connecting them to anything that would make their output useable to me. I’d also like an intelligent battery charger, one that tells me how much charge is there, though I think it’s more important to set up my solar panels into something useful.

So that’s it!  I wonder if you’ve done things differently, got different emphases?  Care to share?

“Smaller Scale Radiological Attacks” – the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies

CBR stands for Chemical, Biological and Radiological. I’m not medically or scientifically qualified (my Diploma in Astronomy is genuine but irrelevant) so this post is written by a lay person intending to be helpful to the general public. If you know more, or know differently, it would be really helpful if you would please add a comment, no matter when you come across this post.

As I say, CBR stands for Chemical, Biological and Radiological. Radiological means that radioactive material, is used, but there isn’t a nuclear explosion – conventional explosives are used instead. This means that we’re not talking about nuclear bombs being dropped, definitely not. In my research on CBR attacks, the two attacks that are constantly quoted are the 1995 chemical attack on the Tokyo underground system, using the nerve gas sarin, and the 2001 biological attacks in the USA using anthrax spores sent through the postal system.

What of radiological attacks? So far as we know, no terrorist group has yet used radiological weapons, so there’s nothing directly comparable, but there are radiological accidents, which give us the best indicators of what the results might be. I was shocked when I discoveed how many there have been – they aren’t nearly as well known to the general public as the two attacks mentioned above, probably because they’re not about terrorists, but they’ve affected many more people.

There have been no CBR attacks in the UK to date, though there are a few UK accidents included in that list.

The website of the CPNI, the UK Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure makes some really good points.

Firstly, the materials used are either very difficult to obtain (radioactive materials), or difficult to use effectlvely.

Secondly – just as with other terrorist attacks the UK has suffered, there may well not be any warning; the sinister thing is, however, that the nature of the attack may not even be obvious. “First indicators may be the sudden appearance of powders, liquids or strange smells within the building, with or without an immediate effect on people.” So, there may well not be an explosion to tell you something’s gone badly wrong.

Thirdly, when not fatal (the vast majority of cases per incident) the effects may not become apparent for some days – so if you think you may have been affected by a known incident, do your research on when, where and what, and go along to the nearest NHS facility that can help you. If there’s nothing specialist immediately available to you, go to the nearest A&E, immediately: your life and/or your health may be at risk.

If you’re caught up in an incident

The USNRC, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Committee, has some good, plain advice about what to do when you’re caught up in a dirty bomb, and it could be good advice in many types of incident. I’ve repeated the list in the next paragraph down and added to their points, in bold.

Firstly, this is their list:

  1. Move away from the immediate area – at least several blocks from the explosion – and go inside. This will reduce exposure to any radioactive airborne dust.
  2. Turn on local radio or TV channels for advisories from emergency response and health authorities.
  3. If facilities are available, remove clothes and place them in a sealed plastic bag. Saving contaminated clothing will allow testing for radiation exposure.
  4. Take a shower to wash off dust and dirt. This will reduce total radiation exposure, if the explosive device contained radioactive material.
  5. If radioactive material was released, local news broadcasts will advise people where to report for radiation monitoring and blood and other tests to determine whether they were exposed and what steps to take to protect their health.

And now the same list again, with the extras that I’ve gleaned in bold:

Move away from the immediate area – at least several blocks from the explosion – and go inside. This will reduce exposure to any radioactive airborne dust.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the people there, nearly everyone will be willing to help: remember the fantastic community response in NYC during 9/11. If you do have a nearby friendly face to go to, of course, all the better. And if you’re safe, but you can offer help to someone, then please do so.

That said, follow instructions at the scene: if you’re asked to stay elsewhere in an affected building, then do so – if you don’t you may be exposing other people to risk, and you may be depriving yourself of the chance of rapid and appropriate medical assistance.

Isolating airflow seems to be crucial – once you’re sheltering inside, wherever you are, shut down air conditioning, vents and fans, and shut doors and windows as tightly as possible.

Turn on local radio or TV channels for information and advice from emergency response and health authorities.

Having your own radio, with batteries or hand cranked, will be extremely valuable in this situation. Make a note of any phone numbers to contact, if you can get through eventually you may be able to get information tailored to your situation.

If facilities are available, remove clothes and place them in a sealed plastic bag. Saving contaminated clothing will allow testing for radiation exposure.

Borrowing, or even buying, clothes, and bagging the ones you’ve been wearing, could be hugely positive for your long term health.

Take a shower to wash off dust and dirt. This will reduce total radiation exposure, if the explosive device contained radioactive material.

Do this before you put on your new clothes, of course. But do it even if you don’t have any new clothes – and if that’s the case, it’s probably worth going into the shower with your clothes on, and taking them off piece by piece, to get rid of as much dust as possible. Wet clothes aren’t the worst thing that could happen to you.

Cleaning up also means rinsing your mouth and ears thoroughly, and blowing your nose repeatedly. And don’t forget the soles of your feet.

It might well be worth using a home made “peri bottle”. To make one, think of emptying out a squeezy bottle of washing up liquid, rinse, fill it with water and squeeze the jet of water into hard-to-reach corners – in or behind your ears, for instance, or on any small cuts you might have. Angle the jet so that the water is encouraged to flow off you, taking with it any toxins you may have gathered.

If radioactive material was released, local news broadcasts will advise people where to report for radiation monitoring and blood and other tests to determine whether they were exposed and what steps to take to protect their health.

Listen carefully to this information, and check it later on, to be sure you’ve understood; it’s a stressful situation, we can all mis-hear things in bad times.

Other action points to help you

If you are told to evacuate, do you know where to go? Especially if you’re away from home and/or in a foreign country, this may be very difficult. Having a skeleton plan beforehand, and adapting to the situation in which you find yourself, will be helpful.

If you’re with friends, always have an emergency rendezvous point if you get separated, and know the local emergency numbers and locations. Bear in mind that mobile phones may not work, either because the network is overloaded or has been purposely shut down.

What if you notice something’s wrong? I’ve called in potential emergencies a couple of times – once at Golders Green Coach Station (it turned out someone’s trolley luggage had broken and they’d abandoned it in a doorway, it wasn’t a bomb) and once on the tube (a big bag that looked like it just had takeaway rubbish in it – but it was really big, and there was a security alert on. Once you use the emergency phones, by the way, you’re on CCTV linked to the emergency centre, so be aware of that. The Police Anti-Terrorism Hotline is 0800 789 321. If you can’t remember it in the heat of the moment, call 999.  MI5 have the freefone number 0800 111 4645 specifically for members of the public to use to tell them about a threat to national security – obviously, they request that no one uses it for anything else.  Their contact page is here.

What if you think there’s a chance that something is a terrorist device, or that someone is a terrorist? Get away, of course. Obviously, you don’t run about screaming accusations – for one thing, like the false alarms I experienced, they probably aren’t, and a false accusation could see you charged for slander, if nothing else. And you might create a panic that would itself cost lives, people could be trampled. But you can safeguard yourself by distancing, and you can use appropriate channels to warn the emergency services of a potential danger that you’ve spotted.

If something happens and you’re not affected, don’t rubberneck – leave the area, leave it free for the emergency services. You will also avoid the chance that there are secondary devices set to kill or maim yet more people. Contact your loved ones to let them know you’re safe if you can, but don’t stay on too long, phone lines will be desperately important. Texts will get through more easily than calls.

Remember that in general, even today, the vast majority of the emergency services and the military are very highly trained, and they want to use that training to help you. Let them do their job, by giving them information, staying out of their way, and accepting their help.

If you’re sheltering in place during a terrorist attack of any sort at all, stay away from the windows: there may be more than one type of attack planned, and the terrorists may still be near the scene and spotting people hiding nearby.

If you need medical aid yourself, find the emergency services and tell them, but bear in mind they will almost certainly be inundated with injured people. You should have a whistle on your keyring, so that you can broadcast an SOS ( … – – – …) if you can’t move. Texting and phoning might still work, if the mobile towers are still functioning.

In everything that I’ve read, water is used as the primary means of decontamination – flowing water, obviously. So one thing that you can do for yourself is to carry a bit more water than you normally would, if there’s an alert, and you’re somewhere you feel at risk. Say, a litre instead of half a litre. Would it do any good, to pour that over yourself if something had happened? I don’t know. But it couldn’t harm to do it, and it might help. By how much? Again, I don’t know. But what if it helped lessen your exposure by 5%? That would be worth the effort carrying an extra container of water around, wouldn’t it?

Here’s an interesting one: write down what you saw and heard as soon as you can. It may help the authorities to understand what happened. Don’t delete your photos, videos or tweets.