In Case of Emergency….

I have often been able to gauge the level of my anxiety by the weight and contents of my handbag. Yesterday it was back-breaking, even though I removed certain items.

By coincidence there was a programme on BBC2 last night about surviving emergencies and disasters; it was at once reassuring and disturbing at the same time. Reassuring because one of the key ingredients in increasing your chance of surviving an incident is preparation; both mental and physical and by having a plan BEFORE the event that means you can do things without having to think. For me, this means a lot of things. I’ve always gone through a mental checklist when arriving in a hotel room; check the window opens properly, check the fire exit so I know where it is, things like that. When I get on a ferry, I glance to see where the exits are, where the lifejackets are kept, which deck I am on. It’s no big deal; I’ve always done it, and I have had people tell me I am morbid or mad to even think about it. Even in a cafe or pub, I like to sit where I can see a clear route to the outside.

It was also reassuring because as a habit I carry various things with me much of the time; a dynamo torch, for example, sits in a pocket in my handbag. It can’t run out of battery because it is self powered. I used to carry a multi-tool, but that was either lost or half-inched last season; I must replace it. I would like to carry a knife but since that is now considered a problem, I don’t. My multi tool had small blades so I couldn’t have taken it on a plane but it was fine for the UK rules. I’d run through the current contents of my handbag but I think it would betray me as utterly neurotic even though I have removed some of the more telling items like the space blanket.

The disturbing thing about the programme was the fact that what is now known to kill more people unneccesarily in the event of a disaster is not, as you might think PANIC, but rather a failure to react. People will sit there like rabbits in the headlights waiting for someone to tell them what to do. In the 9/11 catastrophe, people did things like finish writing emails, filing papers and putting things in the safe, assuming they had more time than they did. If it had been a drill, they may have feared disciplinary action or the sack if they had failed to file sensitive papers first. People wait for peer confirmation that something is wrong. There was an experiment using smoke in a waiting room; people alone raised the alarm fast, but when surrounded by actors who ignored it, they waited and waited, fearing looking silly by reacting.

Now, this is disturbing because I have done just this thing myself. In late August 2001, I was returning from an overnight stay in a London hospital; I’d had an operation the night before and when I got to King’s Cross, I had just missed my train. So I sat down to wait; I was tired and groggy from the anaesthesia and my wounds were hurting. About ten minutes later, a strange siren began. I ignored it, assuming it was a false alarm, and also because nobody else seemed to react. Thankfully, the station staff came along and shooed us all out of the station and we were all shocked to see fire engines, police vehicles and the bomb squad.

Now I grew up during an era when IRA bomb threats were common and a very real danger; indeed, my high school was often disrupted by bomb threats and once, when I was 18, there was a real bomb in the building(but that’s another story) So for me, this was a real shock and I was scared and very worried. Not only were we all standing too close to the building to escape flying debris and glass, none of the emergency services seemed to know this. I moved as far from the building as I could and sat down on a kerb stone and waited.

Nothing happened. It was indeed a bomb scare; no device was found. Less than a fortnight later, 9/11 changed the world.

Now, I didn’t react. Had there been a bomb, I might well not be here writing this. I might well have been blown up, simply for not realising the siren meant GET OUT THE BUILDING NOW, YOU MORON.     

The experts interviewed stated that one of the biggest factors in survival in an emergency is not intelligence, or strength or speed or equipment but SELF-CONFIDENCE: The ability to act believing that you are doing the right thing.

Of course, blind luck plays a part too.  It can be a matter of utter chance. But an equation was emerging I found worrying. 5 parts self-confidence +  2 parts preparedness+ 1 part luck = possible survival. I have very little real self confidence; I can blag it in plenty of circumstances and pretend. But when push comes to shove, I seldom believe I am right.

Let’s hope then that in the unlikely event of a real disaster, luck and the insane contents of my handbag might save me!

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6 thoughts on “In Case of Emergency….

  1. Very interesting about human behavior in a crisis, yet I believe is probably so true. And, the key being the level of self confidence is fascinating to me, but so on target in my mind it is amazing.

    I thought what you were going to write as the conclusion about the full purse was going to be this: That the reason you have more prepared items in your bag when you are feeling anxiety ridden and low, is because you anticipate more dire situations then, worry about so much more, and therefore, want to be that much more prepared.

    So, even though I don’t want you riddled with anxiety, I DO want you around me when troubles arise!!! And, make sure that bag is with you……

    I do hope this anxiety eases for you soon, and from what I have read here, I do hope that you can create a life for yourself where you acknowledge your own worth…..

    Hugs v! The other V.

    • I found this rather nice and amusing, so thank you for that. I don’t actually worry about dire situations at all; I have a very logical and analytical approach that means I can do an overall risk analysis and let it be. Some of what I carry is to ensure comfort away from home. I have a lurking tendancy to agoraphobia and the best way of making sure I leave the house is if I leave with all I might need while away.
      I didn’t want to list all my bizarre contents, but it is quite funny too. After the usual run of bank cards, credit cards and money(when I am away I have three purses: one for company Euros, one for my own Euros and one for sterling) I carry a small kit of first aid and basic medicines(pain relief, diarhrea tabs, throat sweets, caffeine pills) plus antiseptic hand spray, toilet seat cleaner wipes, lavender oil or gel, lip balm that is edible if need be, sick bags that double as poop scoops for the dog, sunglasses, tissues, sanitary products, pens, note books, Filofax, mobile phone(plus emergency charger for said phone) a folding hair brush, make up, safety pins, mirror, sachet of salt, clik-it for insect bites, eye drops, folding carrier bag, torch, (there was a multi tool I need to replace) and usually a bottle of water. Stuff like space blankets, granola bars, mints etc and a book to read also come and go, depending on location.
      The funny thing is that when I go out with the dog, I simply carry a small rucksack with water for me and her, her travel bowl, poop bags and hand sanitizer, phone, camera and note book. It’s a totally different scenario and it does rather point to a problem with people and not with disaster. Alone on beach or in woods, I am much more unconcerned.
      My daughter’s former fiance had a plan for most things, including zombie invasion. I don’t do that one but most I do have ideas about. The key to the back door is hung on a hook, out of reach from outside but easily found in the dark; the front door keys always hang in a similar place, all to make sure exit is possible in fire.
      I think when I do my courier work abroad it frightens me that I am responsible for a whole coach load, and in a serious emergency would have to be the one to act not just to save myself but the group. So I am alert the whole time and do not sleep on the coach at all.
      I do think I doubt my own ability to both react and react effectively. I did once save someone from drowning in a swimming pool but then I wasn’t in danger myself, so that doesn’t count!

  2. This is a very interesting post and it’s followed by great comments.

    Viv, I think part of the problem of people not reacting is that we get desensitized with all the beeps and sounds that make up every day of our lives. There’s the ubiquitous sounds from too many cell phones (mobiles), beeps and rings and screeches and horn blowing from traffic and car alarms, doors opening and closing, elevator signals for each floor passed or arrived at, sirens, clashes of doors andgates…etc. When a real alarm goes off, we probably unconsciously group it together with those unnecessary but pervasive sounds and we tend to block them out.

    It’s hard with all the demands on our attention and distractions that surround us – i-pods and earphones, cell phone messaging, video players, radios, adverts and commercials, etc. – that we become less aware of our environment immediately around us. We need to stay alert of where we are and what noises are usually heard in those situations and what is different, learn to recognize those signals and then respond to them.

    We are responsible for our own well being first and then we can think about those around us, and that includes children. If something happens to us, how can we then help someone else? We can’t take it for granted that someone will always be available to tell us what to do or when and how to do it. They can advise us as to procedures as they do on airlines and ferry transport, but ultimately we have to respond, act and do for ourselves.

    This is a great topic and a wake up call – literally.

    • I think this is true, Bonny, because there is so much of this noise going on. In fact they discovered that beeps were ineffective in warning of reversing trucks and started a good while back to have a message, “Danger, vehicle reversing!” be played instead of a beep.
      We have tuned out too many of our instincts that were there for a good reason. I bet many people have the sense of being watched and ignore it. I also wonder how many people might have avoided trouble if they had listened to instinct. As an experiment, try some time staring at the back of someone’s head and see if it makes them turn round. Sensitive people pick up on this and it makes them uneasy. I’ve been naughty and done it many times.

    • an equally interesting phenomenon is in places like nuclear power plants, they have a constant beep going but use silence as the warning signal by turning off the sounds. Apparently people respons more rapidly to the turning off of a familiar sound. WE also respond better to a voice telling us what is wrong.
      Also, and this is worth the ladies remembering, apparently if you shout Help or rape or something like that, it gets ignored but you get people running if you yell FIRE instead! Weird.

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