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Tara Parker-Pope was in the World Financial Center on September 11, 2001. When they were evacuated, she had no idea what to do or where to go: a co-worker led the way. That taught her a huge lesson.
In a NY Times article, Parker-Pope says there are several simple steps we can all take to improve our odds in an emergency. Take part in those fire drills. Get to know your neighbors. Listen to the flight attendant’s instructions before take-off.
The most important variable in an emergency is your own behavior, even though most discussions focus on community resources.
Parker-Pope recommends a book by Amanda Ripley, a journalist for Time Magazine, “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why.” Ripley has collected stories from survivers, whom she considers invaluable resources for making it through a disaster.
“There are people walking around who have been through disasters and emergencies and have learned really interesting things,” says Ripley. “I’m always amazed by their stories, but that’s not part of our national conversation about emergency preparedness and homeland security.”
Ripley also writes about the science of disaster preparedness and survival.
One of the main lessons is that panic, denial and fear may be inevitable during a disaster, but if your brain has already been put through a few rehearsals it will perform well in a stressful situation.
Do the fire drill. It’s important to make that walk down the fire stairs to the exit so that your brain can store the physical memory of the experience.
“Your brain works by pattern recognition,” says Ripley. “When it’s in an extremely frightening situation it sorts through a database for a script. It’s important to get to the stairs and go down them. Your brain relies on that memory and responds to it much more quickly and fully than words.”
One common disaster behavior, surprisingly, is the tendincy to gather things before making an exit. People often move surprisingly slowly and find reasons to delay evacuation. During the 9/11 attacks, Ripley notes, one woman puttered around her desk and retrieved a book she had been reading. In burning planes, where flames can turn toxic in minutes, passengers routinely open overhead bins to retrieve bags.
Being aware of this “gathering instinct” can help you overcome it, says Ripley. “You need to move quickly, and it won’t be your first impulse.”
Crowd behavior is also surprisingly predictable. While there are cases of panic and stampedes, the more common response is “group think,” say Ripley. People stick together, follow one another, and are usually civilized but painfully slow during evacuations.
People also stick to their roles: passengers listen to flight attendants, diners listen to waiters and other remployees. During the terrible fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky in 1977, guests typically waited for instructions from staff members.
A person who takes a leadership role in a disater, it seems, will invariably be followed. In that fire, hundreds of lives were saved by a busboy who barked orders at wealthy patrons; a bride took charge of evacuating the guests at her reception.
In a disaster, small steps can improve your odds. Airline passengers should count the number of rows between you and the emergency exit, since smoke and darkness may make vision impossible. Listen to the flight attendant; read the safety card; your brain will be programmed to respond. One surviver of a crash credits the fact that he assumed “the crash position,” curling and protecting his head as the safety card had instructed.
Fires, floods and weather emergencies are more common events. Take part in evacuation drills; organize them at home. Make a habit of changing batteries in your smoke detector on a schedule, like the first of the month or every time you change the nearest light bulb. Keep a functioning emergency radio ready to go.
Get to know your neighbors, who can be a valuable resource in an emergency.
Ripley contends “You have to feel like you are an agent in your own survival. You and your co-workers and neighbors are going to be there, not homeland security paratroopers. The more confidence you have before the event happens, the less debilitating the fear will be and the better your performance will be.”
sole source: Tara Parker-Pope’s NY Times article on 8/8/08. www.nytimes.com
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