Monday, December 07, 2015

Emergency preparedness-some observations and tips

Nobody likes to be victims of an emergency situation. We are only used to watching on our TV screens emergencies unfold somewhere else in the world and never think one day it might strike us as well. Chennai residents are going through one such emergency now-floods and heavy rains since weeks, throwing life completely out of gear and making normal living very difficult. I experienced being part of Chennai flood crisis last week (Detailed account here) and saw first hand the emergency unfold. While the primary cause of emergency (in this case heavy rains) might stop in few days, the secondary effects (Shortage of essential supplies, damages etc) caused by it will take weeks to get sorted out. When it happens and normal life becomes near impossible, some leave the city, others wait for rescue/relief, few resort to beg-borrow-steal. From whatever I have observed, below are some pointers that can help us stay better handle an emergency that knocks our doorstep.

Like they say in "Seconds before disaster", emergencies do not occur all of a sudden. There will be a chain of critical events over a span of few hours to few days resulting in a calamity. If you can predict the worst case scenario at the first signs of trouble and get ready to face it, then you will be far better off. But most of us ignore the initial signs of warning and just hope that everything gets normal automatically and soon enough. We get caught unprepared and helpless when worst case scenario unfolds in-front of us.
Representative image of an overflowing river in Chennai

1. Stocking up essentials- In our case, though rains started on December 1st, ATMs were working fine on 1st and 2nd, milk and water supply was available. But after 3rd December things began to worsen- petrol bunks started closing, ATMs were out of service, milk and water availability became scarce. So though there was 48 hours time to get prepared, no one predicted the rains to be this worse. Hoping for best, but preparing for worst helps.

2. Communication and Information- Not having actionable information can spoil your plans and may even make it worse. In my case, we didn't know how long it will take for situation to improve- few days or few weeks, if there is any way out etc. We need to stay clear of rumors that spread further confusion. Newschannels also often keep showing sensational news which is of no use for affected people. I spent about 15 minutes watching news on CNN IBN at Fortune Hotel on 2nd Dec evening- they help looping some 2-3 headlines related to Chennai floods again and again- one was that more rain is predicted over next 3 days, other was some relief money announced by central government and other one I think was about army being called in. All fine, but I couldn't know if I can get out of city safely, when would power return or other such critical information I needed to plan my future course of action. Sometimes we need to get out and talk to multiple people to figure out what's happening, sometimes we need to take a decision based on gut feeling- it could be right, it could be wrong. At times cost of not taking any decision (and hoping everything will sort it out itself) can be greater than cost of taking a wrong decision. Bus drivers, police patrol, twitter (if you have connectivity) etc can be referred to understand what is happening around you, when conventional sources of information like TV/Radio/Newspaper are not available or don't have anything actionable.

3. Keeping your loved ones informed- family members, friends and relatives naturally get worried about your safety as they read about a crisis in your city. You might be safe and better off than most others, but unfortunately TV channels usually show only most dramatic visuals again and again which makes everyone believe your area is also equally affected and you also might be in grave danger. It is important to keep them informed-Tell them you are safe, tell them you are switching off mobile to save power. Last thing you want is some family members risking their own life trying to check on you. The SMSs I sent to one person never got delivered though my phone showed they were sent (met that person after few days and heard none of the msgs were received. So do not assume anything- send msg to multiple people, send via different channels (SMS, whatsapp, fb etc)

4. Deciding to hold on vs deciding to leave- You will have to decide between the two-both have their pros and cons. If you decide to leave and the way out is not available/not safe, you might get stuck elsewhere or face greater risk than staying back in the comfort of your home. But if you manage to get out safely, those who are left behind will have better per capita access of essential supplies.

If you decide to stay back and things get worse, you will regret your decision. Also getting essential supplies will be very difficult after few days, if supply is not restored. There could be theft, looting and other unlawful activities by desperate people, making life even difficult. Depending on your assessment of the risk, the options available to you, you need to take a call.

Shifting to a hotel is NOT a viable option long term, but if you can get a room will be good for a day or two. After a day or two hotel will also run out of diesel to power generators, won't have proper supplies of water etc.

5. Safety from side effects- while rain itself may not kill anyone, the side effects can. Electrocution, poisonous reptile bites, water borne diseases, non availability of medicines or drinking water, falling into open manholes/pits while negotiating flooded streets, trying to swim and getting washed away are some of the potential reasons people die. Various timely precautions need to be taken against each of these possibilities.

6 Living on bare minimum-We are so used to comforts of life offered by mobile, electricity, cars, AC and so on. We can't imagine a life without electricity. But when crisis hits, we will have to live with bare essentials, conserving all available resources. Once a while try to simulate this emergency at home and see how you can cope up (like we do emergency evacuation drills in offices).

7 Conserving all available resources: I saw few people going from ATM to ATM in an auto, hoping to withdraw money, but most ATMs were out. In such cases, burning few hundred rupees you have with you on auto fare may not be good idea. Either walk around, or use social media to find out if anything is working.

We won't know if we should manage with remaining water for how long. So every drop is critical.

Mobile battery is absolute critical. Keep charging whenever possible, don't wait till it gets low. Switch to power save mode, delete unwanted apps, switch off when not using or turn off WIFI, Data and other stuffs that drain power, reduce display brightness etc to conserve power. Having a second phone, powerbank etc helps. Calling people will waste battery as phone rings, you talk for several minutes etc. SMS is better- you can send brief updates to many people in one shot.

8. External Help- External help may not always be available. Sometimes it will be too late. So you need to assess if you can manage on your own or need help. Best is to help each other around you when you can. Also be ready that scope of external help could be very minimal (like rescuing you from your home to a safe area by boat and giving you some relief materials, after which you will be on your own). In case of Chennai floods volunteers are doing great job- Indian Army officials reportedly commented that they saw for the first time more volunteers than victims.

9. Learning local language really helps. If you are living in a town, learn a bit of local language. In times of emergency, getting some help and information will be lot easier if you can make basic conversation in local language, instead of trying to manage with Hindi/English

10. Learning life saving skills and maintaining a fit body. Being in good shape helps a lot in case of emergency- you can survive longer, won't have to depend on others and can extend a helping hand. Similarly learning critical skills like swimming, driving, having a general sense of direction and understanding of topography around you will help a lot in case of emergencies.

Stay safe.
Similar- Life saving skills from movies * Europe Migrant Crisis *


Arun Prasadh said...

This was the worst disaster we have seen. That too so close to home. This was one of the unforgettable incidents that has happened. Hope you and your family are safe in chennai

Shrinidhi Hande said...

Hi Arun, Yes, we are safe n sound (Shifted to BLR temporarily, read my other post)

It is a warning call for other cities too...

VJ Sharma said...

It's difficult to relate to the feeling of folks in impacted city, but it's always important to aware of few things which could be helpful. Nicely compiled post !

Destination Infinity said...

Good to see the sun out today, at last. Hope the city will come back to normalcy soon.

Destination Infinity

Sreedhar Bhattaram said...

Very useful Information, Srinidhi!

Shrinidhi Hande said...

Thanks Sreedhar, VJS,

@DI- great to know

Ajay said...

Good insights. especially #simulate the worst case scenario once in a while.

Shrinidhi Hande said...

Thanks Ajay