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In case of emergency

The moment that I started to consider emergencies, and how to be better prepared for them.

Monday July 3, 2017

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Marie standing on her apartment fire escape.
Marie standing on her apartment fire escape.
Marie standing on her apartment fire escape.
Marie standing on her apartment fire escape.

Last night I found myself in my PJs patting a shivering Dachshund at 1am.

Minutes before this I'd been warm and deliciously unconscious, in bed, dreaming of cheese… when a loud noise jolted me awake.

Repeated jarring bleats from the apartment emergency alarm were telling me in a mechanical voice to "evacuate the building".

Now here I was, standing on the fire escape in the cold, surrounded by a bunch of tired faces that I didn't recognise - my neighbours.

It was this moment that I started to consider emergencies, and how to be better prepared for them.

Ironically, my job at Australian Red Cross is to help people learn about emergencies, and although I knew a lot about this stuff, I had never actually taking the time to go though it.

But, you need to. Being prepared could make a difference to your survival.

So here are four key steps to prepare for emergencies, so that when something terrible happens, you respond in the best way possible.

Before taking those steps, take time to work out what might stress you and how you react, and what tricks you might employ to manage your stress. Being mentally prepared is a key factor in you being able to respond well to an emergency.

Step 1: Know what could happen

Being suddenly stuck in an emergency (especially in the middle of the night) is actually quite scary. It's not only the potential threat, but having a moment of panic based in your limited knowledge of what's going on and how to cope.

Red Cross says the best way to prepare yourself is with knowledge and planning.

Having never been in an emergency, I'd never stopped to consider it. In fact this is the case for most of us: 80% people haven't done a plan or taken steps to prepare for an emergency.

So as I lay there in bed, with the alarm sounding, my cloudy mind grappled with what to do. In a life-threatening situation, these precious minutes could mean a big difference to your chances of safety.

It's important to know what kind of emergencies can happen in your area, and to be prepared. For instance, do you live somewhere prone to flood or cyclone or other natural disasters?

When you know what could happen, you can think about how you'll respond, so that you're not taken by surprise in the awful event it happens.

It's important to devise or familiarise yourself with emergency procedures and exits for you home, workplace, and areas of your community, like busy public transport interchanges.

Also be sure you know where to find important information. Whether it be via radio, or social media, it's important to know how to access vital information updates during and after a natural disaster or emergency.

Step 2: Get connected

With the recent tragedy of the Grenfell fire it has occurred to me, and no doubt many of us, that emergencies can happen anywhere.

What saddened me the most, in the days after, was that people weren't able to find family members, friends and neighbours who had been lost in that terrible inferno.

Like me, it seems that some people didn't know their neighbours.

Part of your own preparation involves connecting with the people who live around you, and to familiarise yourself with any nearby services on offer. The neighbours, cafes, and shops around you might even offer you shelter, or much needed chat.

If things go terribly wrong, these people will be the ones who ask where you are if you're missing, give you initial information, or provide you initial emotional support.

For instance, as I stood out on the walk bridge in the cold night, I heard one of my neighbours say, "Where's Patricia? I'll go get her." Whilst she was gone, the rest of us exchanged our sleep deprivation war stories, looked out for the fire engine, and patted people's dogs.

You can also do things like planning a meeting place for friend and family, should you lose an ability to communicate. You may also want to think of someone out of town who you could call for help.

Also make sure you have all your important numbers written down - people you care about and important services you will need to access.

Finally, start talking about it! Worst case scenarios can be a hard thing to discuss, but it's important that you and your community really consider what an emergency can do. Consider how you might react and roles you could each take in responding, and supporting each other.

Step 3: Get organised

At 1am in an irritated, sleep-addled state, I wasn't sure what to bring, or in fact where to go.

It may seem alarmist, but if you've carefully considered and prepared for responding to an emergency evacuating from a life-threatening situation could be a calmer faster process.

Write down any important medical information for you and your dependents (that includes your four legged children!) may need, and make sure that any essential medications are ready to go and easy to grab.

Consider what you would do if your workplace were destroyed. You might relish the idea initially, but losing your income as well as losing your home or belongings is a very real risk during natural disasters, and an incredible blow. So have a plan of how you might support yourself, or who you might turn to.

I don't know about you, but I haven't considered what insurance I would need to recover from complete devastation if my home and all its contents were destroyed.

Emergencies can be costly, so having a backup plan is important.

Finally, ask yourself the really serious stuff - in the awful event that something would happen to you, who would get contacted first? What if I you were seriously injured and needed someone make decisions for you - who would have power of attorney? And what would happen if you die? Would everyone you care for be ok? Have you got a Will in place?

Step 4: Get packing

As the evacuation alarm rang I fumbled around for matching socks, searched and searched for my keys, wondered whether I should leave the lights on? …or take my wallet and phone (and charger)? Clothes (do I want to spend my life in PJs)? What about the very special sentimental necklace my mother had given me? …then irrationally fretted about my pot plants… and finally left the house with just my phone (in case I got bored) and keys.

Most of my neighbours came out clutching handbags and animals.

When considering what to pack, think: What essentials would I need to survive the emergency, then recover my life, if everything I owned was destroyed?

If you live in a natural disaster prone area, think about the things you need to stock up on, and create an emergency kit that you can grab or use quickly.

Could you potentially be in a situation without power, or exposed to harsh weather until help arrives? If so, put a torch and a windup radio in your kit, sunscreen, poncho, or emergency thermal blanket. If you're likely to be flooded make sure things are waterproof as well.

Then, after everything has calmed down what would you need to rebuild your life?

Think about all the documents that could take time, money, and lots of effort to replace - your passport, birth certificate, land titles, marriage certificate, drivers license, mortgage papers, or immunisation books.

Also consider, what papers you would you need for an insurance claim, ie. receipts or valuations.

There are steps you can take to safeguard and prepare you life documentation. For example, scanning and saving copies online is one practical thing you can do to be prepared. Or you might want to make certified copies of documents like birth and marriage certificates and store them elsewhere.

Whilst on an ordinary day when all is fine, preparing for an emergency might not feel like a priority, during a moment of evacuation you'll have wished you had.

Remember emergencies happen when you least expect it, and the preparation you do now, will give you the best chance to survive and recover.

Luckily, Red Cross has made it really easy to prepare for emergency - start your Redi-Plan, and those four easy steps.

My story has a happy ending: the evacuation signal was a false alarm and no one was harmed in the exercise. In fact, we'd all benefited.

During this time I'd met my neighbours, learned about previous evacuations and emergencies, and considered what things I might need to do to survive and recover.

I'd also learned that the Dachshund's name is Elliot, and his owner is Steve.

Most importantly, once we'd been given the all clear, every single one of my neighbours turned to each other and wished one another "Goodnight"… with a new and happy realisation that we wouldn't be alone in case of emergency.

Marie Bout is National Media and Communications Advisor for Emergency and Migration with Australian Red Cross