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!