Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
Kevin Mason, a fireman with Fire Station 88 in Los Angeles, paced back and forth, agitated, in a back room of the First Presbyterian Church in Encino. He was tall, with gray hair and the hardened humor of someone who’d seen people die in his arms. “If there’s a big disaster,” he was saying, “you cannot expect assistance for how many days?”
“Three to five days,” forty people recited in a staggered response.
“You cannot count on us,” Mason continued. By us, he meant the fire department, the police, the ambulance companies, the national guard—anyone. “So who’s going to get you when there’s an emergency?”
“Nobody,” the class thundered.
“Nobody’s coming to your aid in a disaster,” Mason said, drilling the point into the head of every student, businessperson, housewife, and grandparent in the room. “You have to be independent.”
This was the CERT class the survivalists had recommended. And it had already taught me that my expectation that the government would save and protect its citizens after Hurricane Katrina was unreasonable. According to Mason, the federal plan was and always had been: let the mess happen and hope the people take care of themselves. Then come in, scoop up the survivors, and help the community recover.
The CERT program was originally developed by the Los Angeles Fire Department in the mid-eighties to help citizens and communities become more self-sufficient in the event of a disaster. After the Federal Emergency Management Agency caught wind of CERT many years later, it took the program nationwide.
The more I learned, the more surprised I was that I hadn’t made any disaster preparations earlier. Up until then, I’d been so focused on man-made and political catastrophes that I’d given little consideration to nature’s many forms of population control. In Los Angeles, an earthquake or wildfire could easily devastate the city, while in St. Kitts a hurricane could decimate the island. In fact, according to the Uniform California Earthquake Forecast, California had a 99.7 percent chance of experiencing a severe earthquake rating 6.7 or higher on the Richter scale in the next thirty years.
“You have to get that through your head,” Mason was saying. “Every year in the country, there are twenty-five thousand disasters. When’s our turn?”
“Anytime,” the class recited.
“That’s right. It’s sooner than you think. The San Andreas Fault is overdue. So who’s responsible when that happens?”
“Right. And”—he smiled wryly at his students; they knew the line coming next—“it’s not looting if you leave a note.”
This was class number three of seven. When it was all over, I would be issued a green CERT vest, a CERT helmet, a patch, a diploma, and a card identifying me as a CERT battalion member. I had originally taken the class solely to obtain these signifiers of authority, hoping they would make bugging out easier. When escaping through the mountains on my Rokon Trail-Breaker in my CERT uniform, I figured I’d be able to get past roadblocks by saying I was doing relief work.
But I was surprised to discover that the classes were actually valuable. Each one had the potential to save my life. Furthermore, it was reassuring to hear someone with experience, authority, and government credentials justify the concerns I’d been having for the past few years. They didn’t seem like paranoia anymore. They seemed like common sense.
Our first class was about general emergency preparedness. The average person, I learned, needs a gallon of water a day to survive—but after a massive earthquake, Los Angeles could be without water for up to thirty days while workers fix the pipes.
So how do you get the gallons you need, especially if you haven’t stored any water? Mason taught us there are forty gallons of drinkable water stored in most home heaters, as well as gallons more in toilet tanks. But, he warned, in his world-weary, people-are-idiots voice, “Never drink from the bowl.”
“If you live next door to Noah and he’s building an ark, you best be building one too,” he told us while listing items to stockpile. So many of the tips I’d been given by neo-Nazis, gun nuts, and fringe weirdos were actually the same things the government recommended doing. The system actually wanted and encouraged us to be prepared to live without it. It was designed for its own obsolescence.
Between classes, drawing on my survivalist books and the Survivalist Boards for additional guidance, I began stockpiling. I stored ten gallon-sized jugs of water in the garage, taking care not to put them on the concrete floor, which would react with the plastic and contaminate the water. I bought a two-thousand-watt Honda generator, along with a hand-cranked generator. I filled five two-gallon containers with gasoline, then added Sta-Bil to prevent the gas from breaking down. And I tracked down lanterns, kerosene, forty-four-hour candles, hand-crank-powered flashlights, rechargeable batteries, strike-anywhere matches, water purification tablets, and first aid supplies.
My goal was to eventually conduct what Bruce Clayton in Life after Terrorism called a three-day test, which meant shutting off all utilities and living off my stockpile for three days to see what supplies I’d overlooked. Afterward, I planned to bring a duplicate set of provisions to St. Kitts.
In class two, we learned about different types of fires and the various extinguishers designed to put them out. We were taught the five-second rule: if the fire doesn’t get smaller or go out within five seconds, evacuate immediately. Then we were taken outside, handed an extinguisher, and given the chance to put out an actual fire, which taught me something very obvious I’d never thought about before: always aim the nozzle at the base of a fire, where the flames are interacting with the fuel.
And now I was in class three. Today’s topic: handling mass casualties.
“This is the way we look at disasters: we’ll get to it,” Mason said. “Katrina came and went. We’ll get to it.”
I was surprised by the casual way he treated disasters, as if they were television shows that reran every night rather than tragic historical anomalies that destroyed lives, families, communities, and even generations. He was more of a Fliesian than I was. I, at least, lived in a world of order that was occasionally disrupted by chaos. As a fireman, he lived in a world of chaos occasionally interrupted by order.
“The goal is not to save everyone,” he instructed us. “It’s to help the greatest amount of people in the least amount of time. So you have to prioritize. You have to sort.”
That day, we learned START, which stands for Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment. If we were the first to arrive at a mass-casualty incident, our job was to sort through the victims swiftly and mark them—with a Sharpie or lipstick on their forehead if triage tags weren’t available—as one of four types of casualties: immediate, delayed, minor, or dead. This way, when the professional rescuers came, they’d know who needed treatment and transportation to a hospital first.
After triaging, if rescuers still hadn’t arrived, Mason instructed us to create treatment areas for the victims. “Have bystanders get you medical equipment. Check people’s trunks for emergency supplies. If there’s a nearby grocery store, have volunteers get whatever they can carry. And remember…”
The whole class repeated in unison, “It’s not looting if you leave a note.”
Despite my paranoia, I didn’t think I’d ever have to go to this extreme. But in less than a year, I’d be living this scenario.
“Find somewhere cool, like the ice chest of a 7-Eleven or an underground parking lot, to store the dead,” he continued. The class seemed to get more macabre each week. “The coroner will love you if you wrap them with plastic. And don’t forget to provide some sort of security, because people will strip the dead of their belongings.” There was no irony or humor in his voice, just a lack of faith in human goodness.
History is full of tales of people who behave altruistically in disasters, even when resources are scarce. Some will sacrifice their lives to save someone else or give away their last sip of water or share their shelter with a destitute family. But history is also full of people who behave viciously in disasters and will betray, torture, and kill fellow victims to save themselves. It has yet to be proven which group has a better chance of living, but there’s no doubt which group is better able to live with themselves afterward.
“Who do you think my best friends in the neighborhood are?” Mason was asking. “The plumbers, contractors, and carpenters. I have a Christmas party every year and I always invite those guys. Why? Because when it hits the fan, I’m going to need them.”
Apparently Mason was as thorough a survivalist as the guys on the Internet forum.
I was disturbed to discover that almost every bit of folk wisdom I’d previously learned about surviving natural disasters was wrong. I’d always thought that in an earthquake, for example, the safest place to be was in a door frame. But Mason taught us that’s true for the small number of houses made of adobe or unreinforced masonry. In the majority of homes, not only is the door frame one of the weaker parts of the structure, but if you stand inside it you’re likely to get knocked out by flying debris or the door itself.
The safest thing to do during an earthquake, he said, is hold fast under something sturdy like a table—after checking to make sure there are no windows nearby or heavy objects hanging overhead. As for a hurricane, if you’re unable to evacuate, close and brace all exterior and interior doors and windows. Then lie on the floor under a sturdy object in a small windowless interior room or closet on the lowest level of the house.
Before heading to my fourth CERT class, I tried to talk Katie into coming along. “If you know what to do when bad things happen, then maybe you won’t be so scared of them anymore,” I told her.
“I don’t know. I think if something bad’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.” She muted the movie she was watching, Interview with the Vampire. “If there’s an earthquake, the ground will be shaking underneath you, and you’ll fall over and hurt your head. There’s not much you can do about that. You can’t walk around with a helmet all day long.”
She didn’t even have to pause to invent this scenario. I had no clue where some of her ideas came from, because they were too absurd for movies. Perhaps Tom and Jerry cartoons.
I tried to reason with her. “But what about fires? Wouldn’t it be useful to know how to put them out?”
But she turned out to be more reasonable. “I don’t think I need to learn to put out a fire, because I don’t want to be anywhere near a fire. If I see one, I’ll just avoid it.”
Our approaches, I realized, also reflected the way we dealt with problems in life.
In that week’s class, we learned how to stop bleeding, splint broken bones, care for burns, and preserve amputated body parts. The lesson was so useful—not just for survival, but for everyday life (minus the amputations)—that immediately afterward I signed up for a slightly more thorough course with the Red Cross to receive these:
In the next class, we learned the basics of search and rescue. We were taught how to assess whether a building is safe to enter after an earthquake, how different structures are affected by seismic shifts, which parts of a damaged building are most likely to contain victims, and how to use cribbing—small blocks of wood—to lift rubble weighing hundreds or even thousands of pounds off trapped victims.
“Who are the rescuers?” Mason asked afterward.
“That’s right. We’re not going to be able to run the city. If something goes wrong, we’ll be looking to you to run the city. Why do you think we give you that green vest with the City of Los Angeles logo on it? You are the trained personnel in a disaster. Because we’re not coming. We’ve told you that for five weeks.”
I looked around the room. Half the people seemed like they couldn’t climb a staircase without getting winded.
“That C on your vest is for community,” he continued. “You don’t want to be the lone wolf. What happens to the lone wolf? He gets picked off.”
I reflected on his words, because unlike most people in the class, I wasn’t there to be part of a community team. I was the lone wolf.
Fortunately, Mason had second thoughts. “Actually,” he added, perplexed, “I guess the lamb gets picked off. I don’t know what happens to the lone wolf.”
The next class, in which we role-played various disaster scenarios, was taught by a different fireman, Sergio Mayorga. Though he was less cynical than Mason, he was no less apocalyptic.
“Next week, after my terrorism lesson,” he warned as class ended, “you’re not going to be able to sleep for two weeks.”