There’s only one right response when a fire alarm sounds in a school: line up behind your teacher and walk in an orderly fashion out of the building. In other words, do as the authority figure says, go where they say to go and let them be the eyes for additional danger. Fire drills have been extremely effective in reducing death and injuries from fires in schools.
Why don’t we get the same results when we order the evacuation of an office building, an apartment complex, or a neighborhood? It may seem obvious: we don’t drill on these evacuations; and the people we’re evacuating aren’t children. Those are true. The point we don’t want to miss, though, is that in the real world there is not always only one right response. The “authority” in this case isn’t walking beside the evacuees, watching out for danger and guiding them if they run into an obstacle. They are at an Emergency Operations Center or a command post. They have a very good view of the big picture, but no way of seeing what the evacuee is seeing, of knowing what resources the evacuee has, or knowing what problems they might encounter.
The difference between knowing the correct response in a controlled environment and being able to choose the best course of action in an out-of-control one is the difference between training and teaching. Trainingequips you to implement pre-developed procedures, and it’s great for things that always need to be done the same way—like CPR. Teaching creates knowledge that can be used to solve unexpected problems in stressful situations—a flat tire on a busy highway, a washed out road, or an evacuation order issued for your neighborhood.
The most important step in preparing for emergencies, whether you are creating a fire escape plan or putting together a disaster supply kit, is thinking through how a disaster or emergency could affect you: who you are, where you live, who relies on you, what resources you have, what barriers you have, and what special circumstances you may face.
What do you have that can’t be without power for three days? Your mother’s ventilator? Your child’s special diet? Your aquarium? Whatever it is, thinking about how you will solve that problem before it happens reduces your stress and frees up resources to solve other problems when the emergency does happen.
Preparing for an emergency is a learning experience. Talking to others about emergency preparedness is teaching. There is no one size fits all emergency preparedness solution, and no one right answer for most emergencies.
Back to our earlier example: yes, it is important to follow emergency instructions. If an evacuation is ordered for your neighborhood you should evacuate if you can and let authorities know if you can’t. But before that happens, learn what you need to know about evacuation. What would you need to do before you leave your home? What would you need to take with you? Where would you go? How would you get there? The stress and pressure of an emergency is a bad time to try to make the right decisions if you haven’t thought them through ahead of time.
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