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Survival Basics

Survival basics for your car will keep you going and improve response.

Hundreds of motorists were stranded on the New York State  Thruway this week when a tractor-trailer jackknifed blocking the road during a snowstorm. The storm eventually dumped over 2 feet of snow in the region south of Buffalo, New York. Hundreds of occupants of personal vehicles and commercial vehicles were stranded without any means of escape during the storm. Many were stranded for over 24 hours. Eventually, local fire department and police crews were able to make their way down the miles long lanes of stranded motorists to deliver extra fuel, food, and to assess the situation.

Criticism of the New York State Thruway authority has been building since the event on December 1, 2010. One of the criticisms was that the authority allowed traffic to enter the block area of roadway during the storm even though they were aware of the traffic jam. Another shortcoming has been described as the lack of a plan to deal with such emergencies and allowing the area to go on monitored and not being able to remove the truck blocking the lanes of travel.

This event has important emergency management and preparedness implications for us. First, we have to remember that no response will be successful if the public involved has not done at least some preparedness. In this case, it appears that few if any of the motorists in either private or commercial vehicles had any emergency supplies. Most complained of being cold yet did not have any spare clothing with them… some did not even appear to be dressed appropriately for the environment found in western New York this time of year. Another important thing to consider is the length of time it took traditional responders (police and local fire apartment) to get to those trapped in the snow. Most accounts indicate that it was over 12 hours before rescuers were able to make their way into the traffic jam to deliver supplies and assess the situation. One source was quoted as saying the reason for this delay was because this area of roadway is not routinely monitored by any jurisdiction.

Another frustration expressed by stranded motorists was that the responders were not able to give them any information on the situation. While this may be difficult to do, we should make every attempt to craft a generic statement that will give the civilians some information. That statement could be as simple as which radio station to tune into to get information and updates. A common misconception is that if we inform the public of the actual situation they will panic. This is clearly a false belief. Information helps keep people calm and promotes compliance with instruction. Disaster research shows that when people are poorly informed, feel trapped, and hopeless that they begin to panic and make poor decisions.

Once again we have a local example of Optimism Bias in action. That is, it won't happen to me… if it happens to me, someone will be there to rescue me. We have to take measures to protect ourselves and be able to be self-sufficient (even rudimentary effort would help) in cases where rescue or assistance may be delayed.

Here are my tips for survival when stranded:
First, be sure to keep your car's fuel tank greater than half-full. Keeping your vehicles fuel tank  above half full or better will help make sure you can navigate detours if you're route is blocked. Keeping that much fuel in your vehicle will also allow you to run the engine for much longer in order to stay warm. It's important to keep in mind also that you should run the vehicle's motor only intermittently when stranded… just enough to warm up the interior every 30 to 45 minutes. On this point we should also mention the need for good ventilation in your vehicle… keeping a window cracked open to allow for fresh air and periodically checking the exhaust pipe to ensure it has not become blocked with snow or debris. Failing to do either of those could result in exposure to automobile exhaust and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Second keep a survival kit in your car. It does not have to be elaborate put should contain a few simple items. A hat, gloves, extra socks, and a pair of boots would be helpful as well as a warm blanket. It's best also to have some shelf stable snacks available. Candy bars, energy bars, and those little crackers and cheese combination will work just fine. Along with something to eat you should try to keep something to drink in your vehicle as well.

Third, communications is key. Although we all have cellular phones these days it won't do us much good if the battery runs out. Therefore, keeping your cell phone charger (the car adapter type) in the vehicle will go a long way to letting people know where you are and getting information… especially if you were stranded for a prolonged period of time. Another important part of communications is your communications plan. Although we take traveling for granted it's important to let people know when were leaving and when we plan to arrive at our next destination. This is especially helpful when traveling during inclement weather seasons or in unfamiliar areas.

And finally, don't forget the shovel and salt. Keeping a small shovel in your vehicle may mean the difference between being stranded and effecting a self rescue. Also keeping a small bag of sand, gravel, or rock salt may be able to provide the needed traction to get yourself unstuck.

Although I recommend a shelter in place approach to surviving these situations, there may come a time where you have to decide to attempt self evacuation. The decision to leave safe shelter and walk out into a storm is not one to make lightly. You must consider your level of fitness, your clothing, your hydration and nutrition status, and the environment before attempting self rescue.

Planning and preparedness.
For those of us responsible for responding to such events there are several keys to successful operations. The first, of course, is pre-incident planning. If you have stretches of highway in your area you can find yourself dealing with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stranded motorists in any season… from any cause. There is no excuse for not pre-planning your response with various size highway incidents involving multiple patients. Your threat assessment is a major part of the pre-planning process and should include natural as well as man-made events.

As a traditional responder you'll need to consider additional points:
First, what personnel and resources will I be able to bring to this situation and how long  will deployment take. In these large-scale events deployment of resources is often best done only after sufficient personnel, supplies, and equipment have been staged to support the effort. Although rapid triage crews may be effective, the main thrust of the response should only take place when all the pieces are together.

Secondly, you must make provisions early on for emergency incident rehabilitation. Your responders will be providing assessment and care in very difficult environmental conditions. Appropriate rehab and rotation of responders will go a long way to maximizing efficiency and extending crew viability.

Third, you'll have to make some difficult decisions as to shelter in place versus attempt evacuation. As noted above there are several conditions that have to be taken into account before people are moved from an area of relative safety into a hazard area.

This post will also appear in ProResponder

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