Keep calm and don’t panic
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:
- this one is from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community
- this one has an audio version too, which is helpful for our purposes.
- there’s Zen, Buddhism and the Norse sagas here too, amongst many others.
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.”