Let’s face it: we live in an extremely safe society. Too safe. We aren’t regularly exposed to danger, and we do our best to reduce such exposure for our children. The thinking appears to go “If I remove this dangerous object, and this one, and this one, and demand that manufacturers make this product safe and that one, and add child-proofing to everything, then everyone will be safe.” And that’s a false sense of safety that can get us killed that much faster. Worse, we ignore drills and practices as false alarms, or assume we have more time than we really do. Our society is so safe that we are our biggest threat.
There are a number of things we can do to increase our chances of survival – and ignoring alarms is nowhere on that list. It takes 90 seconds for smoke from a fire to fill a house or a huge office complex – 90 seconds! And yet, the average response time to a fire alarm is 8 minutes. The whole place could be enflamed by then and guess what? You’re dead or dying.
We’ve lost our respect for fire because we don’t live with it everyday as we did back when fireplaces were our primary sources of heat and cooking. Now, we get fire in the special outdoor barbecues or maybe, once in a while, out camping. There are people who go months or even years without ever seeing an open flame. We’ve forgotten just how devastating fire is. Even when fires are all over the news, like the California wildfires or apartments fires or house fires, it doesn’t really impact us – we didn’t experience the fire first hand, weren’t damaged by it, and so it doesn’t affect us beyond sending some token aid or sympathy to those who were impacted by the fires. The reason people die in fires like the one in that Rhode Island club is because they don’t respect the fire; ignoring the alarms and reacting slowly when it finally dawns on them they really are in danger. By then, they’ve gone beyond danger and are dead.
The point of drills is to teach us to respond immediately, without having to process each step of the way and think about what we need to do next. Drills take us through the steps until we can do them without wasting time figuring out what we have to do. Respond to drills as if they were the real thing. Even if you know for a fact that the drill is just that, move as if it were real. If you’re drilling your children, reward the first one to respond, and make the response times shorter and shorter until they all move the moment the alarm sounds. Teach them that it’s much better to look foolish and live than to be fashionably late and hurt or dead because of it.
As the “drill sergeant”, you must respond even quicker to the drill because you have to make sure everyone under your care got out safely. If the emergency is real, you don’t want to have to risk your life going back in to get someone who was goofing off instead of responding to the drill.
Respect fire. It kills quickly. It can kill before flames are visible. When it doesn’t kill, burns are among the most painful and disfiguring injuries. Smoke inhalation injuries can cause permanent breathing problems. Of all the things we need to survive, air is the most important one – and smoke and fire can reduce our ability to get air, and thus our chances of survival.
Always have a plan. Always check the places you go for escape routes – and walk those routes. Count how many doors or seats are between you and nearest emergency exit, and know what the second and third exits are in case the first one is blocked. Consider these your personal mini-drills. If you’ve practiced the escape route and safety drill even once before, if an emergency happens, you’ll be prepared. You won’t dither about wondering what you are supposed to do, or going through drawers looking for the building’s escape plans, or trying to read the exit map on the hotel door in the smoke. Those maps are always posted up high and not sensibly near the ground as they should be. You don’t want to find out there’s a problem with your escape route when you’re in a desperate need to use it. Also, in a hotel, try to get a room below the 6th floor because few fire ladders go above the 6th floor.
You may think surviving a plane crash is not possible, but so far, 95% of the people involved in plane crashes in the US survive. So you have a 95% chance of surviving. One important tip is to not inflate your life vest until you are actually outside the plane. Inflating it before you escape may trap you inside, which means you will probably drown. There is no magic sweet spot for survival in a plane, although, like a hotel, the closer you are to an exit, the better. Aisle seats are good because you don’t have to struggle over unresponsive passengers.
In trains – above or below ground – avoid the first and last cars. When a train crashes, it most likely involves these cars. Sit with your back facing the direction of travel because when the train or bus stops quickly, you’ll be held in your seat, not thrown out of it. Make sure overhead luggage is either not present or is well secured so it doesn’t fall on you if the train stops quickly.
Boats and ships have so many ways to go down that your best bet is to know where the life vests and flotation devices are. You are marginally safer in a cabin or below decks during a storm because at least you won’t be swept overboard by the weather. If you must be on deck, make sure you are secured to a lifeline. Stay calm, storms pass and most ships weather them quite well. If your ship does sink, grab a life vest or a flotation device or a get in a life-boat. If nothing else, grab onto floating debris. Most countries track ships and when one goes down, rescue crews are generally on their way quickly. If you’re in a pleasure yacht or small craft, make sure you radio in your position regularly so if you get into trouble, help will soon be on its way. If you establish a routine and tell the dispatcher when you will be checking in again, if you don’t call at the appointed time, they’ll come looking for you.
Like I said – we live in a very safe society. Rescue crews are there, but you’ve got to do your part until they arrive. Only you can save yourself at least long enough for rescue crews to get to you. Whether you’re in a car, a hotel, a train, plane, or bus, you are the first responder. Drill yourself on your own rescue in as many situations as you will be in so you’ll still be alive when rescuers do arrive.