I just attended the final session of NERT training. The Neighborhood Emergency Response Team program was created by the city of San Francisco to help people become more prepared for the kinds of disaster situations that are likely to overwhelm professional first responders. If the general population is more educated and equipped to deal with foreseeable challenges the entire city will likely survive a traumatic event better than if everyone panics and waits helplessly for outside assistance.
NERT training covers a broad spectrum of scenarios and focuses on the simplest most effective emergency management techniques. The unofficial motto is, “NERTs don’t get hurt.” A significant amount of what makes the biggest difference in a crisis is knowing what to expect and being prepared ahead of time.
In an earthquake or other disaster people will likely be hurt and require physical extraction from buildings along with basic first aid. I’ve long made a point of strategically cultivating friendships with nurses and other skilled people in the neighborhood with the explicit understanding that I’m available to support them and vice versa.
Knowing how to turn off the natural gas supply and electrical system at a damaged building can be critical. Leaking gas and electrical sparks aren’t welcome in an already compromised situation. I chained a specifically designed wrench to my gas meter so I know I’ll have the right tool on hand if the need should ever arise. I also removed flammable materials such as unnecessary stocks of old paint from the building. Each one of these steps is part of a larger strategy to avoid and manage future trouble.
Clean water is always the most critical supply to have on hand during an emergency. Even the least prepared households generally have a few days worth of food on hand, even if it isn’t particularly good food. Half a box of Corn Flakes and some ramen noodles will keep you alive for a while. But if you don’t have drinkable water things get ugly very quickly. I started by washing and filling plastic juice jugs with tap water and setting them aside in a dark covered location on the back patio. I gradually upgraded to more durable water bricks, then fifty five gallon drums, and finally a couple of two hundred sixty gallon tanks.
These tanks cost about $600 each. It took me ten years to finally get around to graduating to these units, but I’m glad I did. A significant portion of the cost of these tanks is delivery. I worked with a neighbor to buy three tanks at the same time to reduce the overall price. We worked together with the understanding that we’re available to help each other. The more people who are on board the more resilient you and your whole neighborhood become. For people on a tighter budget large second hand food grade containers can be found at restaurant supply companies if you don’t mind the slight lingering taste of bakery jam, soda syrup, or pickles. But otherwise… it’s perfectly acceptable in a time of real need.
Over time I’ve accumulated a collection of useful emergency supplies ranging from water filters to first aid kits to wind-up radios and flash lights that can also charge cell phones. A toilet seat designed to snap on to a five gallon bucket lined with a plastic bag will get the job done if the plumbing fails. I put these items in a waterproof chest and keep it on the back patio. Twice a year, when I drain and refill the water tanks, I check on these supplies to see if they’re still in good condition.
At my first NERT session I noticed several people (myself included) arrived by bicycle. This wasn’t part of the training, but in many large scale disasters cars aren’t as useful as people imagine. Getting around the city in ordinary rush hour traffic is brutal enough, but in a crisis I suspect the faster and more tactical approach might be to peddle around the bumper-to-bumper bridge and tunnel nightmare as frantic drivers curse each other in failed gridlock. Fuel may not be available at gas stations. Public transit may not be running.
Having a couple of bikes on hand, particularly ones with some carrying capacity, is a good idea. But just having a bike collecting dust untouched down in the garage or garden shed isn’t good enough. The tires will go flat. The chain will rust. The brakes and gears may not function properly. You actually have to use your bike often enough that it’s in good working order. And you might want to make sure there’s an appropriate bike for each member of the family otherwise you’ll be leaving grandma and the little ones behind.
None of this is hard. Most of it can be done with very little money if you put in a bit of time and find creative work-arounds. It can all be phased in over a few years. And a great deal of this stuff can be fun if you do it with other people. Or you can do exactly nothing and hope for the best. I sleep better at night knowing I’ve done everything I can to be prepared for whatever life sends my way.