The Value of Contingency Plans
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
The chaos resulting from a crisis event can be overwhelming, but a contingency plan can help you and your family surmount the chaos. Here’s how you can create a personal or family contingency plan.
Turmoil and Confusion Unleashed
When a crisis occurs as the result of events such as civil unrest, a natural disaster or a major terrorist attack, several things happen rapidly and sometimes simultaneously. First, panic erupts as people attempt to flee the immediate scene of the incident. In many cases, gridlock and significant pedestrian crowd-control problems occur, as people seeking safety trying to flee the area use the same routes police, fire, and emergency medical units use to respond to the scene. In some events, streets and highways may also become clogged with protesters, police or even military units. As was demonstrated in the recent massive explosion in Beirut, streets and highways can also become blocked or otherwise unusable by rubble from collapsed buildings, or by damaged bridges and overpasses. This chaos is often further magnified by dust, smoke and fire which reduce visibility, affect breathing, and increase the overall sense of panic.
In many instances, an attack, large scale accident or natural disaster will damage the electrical grid. In other cases, the electricity may be cut off as a precautionary measure. Natural gas, water and sewer lines can also be damaged – resulting in leaks and even explosions or fires in the case of natural gas. Earthquakes, floods, and mudslides can also cut roads and shut down mass transit lines. Often, people find themselves trapped in subway tunnels or in high-rise buildings, and they are sometimes forced to escape from these spaces through smoke-filled tunnels or stairwells. Depending on the incident, roads, bridges, tunnels, mass transit and airports can be closed or overwhelmed. Grocery stores are frequently inundated by people scrambling (and sometimes fighting) to obtain food, water, and other supplies.
Amid the confusion and panic associated with a crisis event, telephone and cell-phone usage soars as people attempt to locate and communicate with their loved ones. Even when main trunk lines and cell towers are not damaged by the event, this huge spike in communication traffic quickly overloads phone exchanges and cell networks. The wave of chaos and disruption then radiates outward from the site of the crisis as people outside the immediate vicinity of the impacted location hear about the breaking crisis via the media and attempt to find out what has become of loved ones who may have been in or near the location where the crisis event occurred, further overloading communication channels.
Not Just for Expatriates
People who find themselves caught amid the chaos of a breaking crisis event don’t have to fatalistically surrender to it. Turmoil can be tamed, and people who have well-conceived and tested contingency plans will have a huge advantage over those who are forced to improvise and plan on the fly. Most people recognize that such plans are critically important for people who live and work overseas in high-threat locations, but recent events, including protests, fires, and hurricanes in the U.S., have demonstrated that even people residing in places considered to be generally safe can find themselves caught in the middle of a crisis. Natural disasters, school or workplace shootings, civil disturbances, and industrial accidents can strike almost anywhere. Consequently, everyone should prepare a contingency plan for themselves and if applicable, for their family.
Such plans should be in place for each regular location—home, work, and school—that family members frequent and should cover what that person will do and where he or she will go should an evacuation be necessary. This means establishing meeting points for family members who might be split up—and backup points in case the first or second point also is affected by the disaster.
When school-aged children are involved, parents need to take the time to coordinate with the school to ensure that any measures the school employs in its crisis plans can be accounted for during the planning process. A crisis plan should also include family pets.
As noted above, communication channels often become overloaded, and the lack of ability to communicate with loved ones can greatly enhance the sense of panic during a crisis. This is especially so now when people are so dependent on almost-constant communications via their smart phones and apps. Perhaps one of the most important benefits of having contingency plans in place is the reduction of stress that results from not being able to immediately contact loved ones. Knowing that every member of the family knows the plan and will be executing it frees each individual to concentrate on the challenges presented by their personal evacuation. This is critical: someone who waits until he or she has contacted all their loved ones before beginning to evacuate the area might not make it out.
When confronted with a dire situation, many people simply do not know what to do or where to start. Not having determined their options in advance—and in state of shock over the events of the day—people quite often find themselves unable to think clearly enough to establish a logical plan, so they just drift around aimlessly or collapse in helplessness. Having a plan in place gives even a person who is in shock or denial and unable to think clearly a framework to lean on and a path to follow.
But with a plan, even if one member of the family is unable to evacuate immediately or finds it unwise to evacuate and decides to stay put, knowing where the rest of the family is going and how to contact them once communications are restored will provide a sense of comfort. Contingency plans should include provisions for sheltering in place for times when it is either not possible or prudent to evacuate.
In addition to evacuation information such as establishing rally points and the best routes to take to get to them, contingency plans must also contain a communication section. This should include information for the designated rally points, as well as information for alternate communication hubs outside of the area. In come cases it may be difficult to communicate from point A to point B, but each may be able to communicate to C. It might not be possible to call from your office in Manhattan to your spouse at home in Stamford CT, but each of you might be able to call a third person in a third place depending on traffic. The communication plan must also include alternate means of communicating in addition to by telephone. If the phone lines are clogged, often SMS text messages can still get through and email or messaging apps that use the internet will often work when phone lines are overloaded. Satellite telephones, or devices such as the Garmin inReach, are also very useful in a communications blackout, as are two-way and HAM radios.
People who are going to serve as communication hubs should be people who are cool and collected under pressure. They must also be briefed so that they understand the evacuation plan and be provided with the contact information (landline and cell phone numbers, e-mail addresses, app handles, etc.) for each person who will be participating in the evacuation. The person serving as the communication hub should also be provided with important personal data on each person, including full name, date of birth, etc.
Understanding Your Environment
One of the keys to surviving a catastrophe is being aware of the environment around you, otherwise known as situational awareness. Situational awareness allows people to recognize potential threats at an early stage and take measures to avoid them. In the big picture, situational awareness helps people more effectively move through a city or region when an unforeseen disaster strikes. For example, understanding that a bridge has been damaged or obstructed by an incident will help you seek an alternate route. At a lower level, being well acquainted with the layout of your residence, school or workplace can help if the building is hit by an incident of workplace violence or catches fire.
Situational awareness also aids in reacting to a dangerous situation while on the move. If a subway tunnel is filling with smoke from a fire or bombing, situational awareness tells one to keep low to avoid being overcome by smoke. Better still, proper preparation can result in people carrying important items such as a smoke hood that can be worn to protect against smoke and a high intensity flashlight to help navigate a dark place like a tunnel.
Speaking of smoke hoods and flashlights, I highly recommend them for individuals who work in high-rise buildings, frequently travel or routinely take a commuter train or subway. They are literally life savers. Smoke hoods are relatively inexpensive devices that can be carried in a briefcase or purse and quickly donned in case of emergency. They will usually provide around 20 to 30 minutes of breathing time, which could quite literally mean the difference between life and death in a smoke-filled stairwell or subway tunnel. Likewise, a small high intensity flashlight is invaluable when a crisis strikes at night or when the power goes out in a large building or subway. Yes, most smartphones do come with flashlight apps, but they are not as bright as a high intensity flashlight, and I believe it is better to conserve your cell phone battery for communication—so carry a flashlight in your bag too.
As noted above, in some situations, evacuation might not be the most prudent course of action. If there is no immediate threat at a specific location, it may be more dangerous to join a crowd of panicked people on the street. In some cases, it might be safest to just stay in place and wait for order to return—especially if you are prepared and the place you are seeking shelter is stocked with food, water and other basic necessities. Situational awareness then will empower you to make the call on whether to stay or go.
As part of a contingency plan, it is also prudent to prepare a small “fly-away” kit containing clothes, water, a first-aid kit, nutritional bars, medications and toiletry items for each member of your family. It also is a good idea to include a battery-powered or crank-powered radio and other useful items such as appropriate maps, a portable cell phone charger, multi-tool knives and duct tape. An appropriate amount of cash can also prove quite useful in most situations. The kit should be kept in a convenient place, ready to grab on the way out. Even if it is impractical to keep all these items in constant readiness, keeping most of them together and using a prepared list to collect the other items quickly can help get one out the door in seconds. Maintaining important papers, such as vehicle titles, deeds, licenses, birth certificates, passports and credit card information, in a central file allows it to be quickly retrieved in case of an evacuation. Of course, passports are of vital importance in an overseas situation.
Another important part of situational awareness is having the means to receive instructions and information from the authorities. In addition to radio and television, many locations have emergency text and e-mail alert systems that can provide critical information. For those overseas, embassies also maintain networks for disseminating information to expatriates. Individuals should register for such services and ensure they know how information is disseminated before the crisis hits and results in communication disruptions.
When it comes to information pertaining to emergency plans and fly-away kits, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration’s website is an excellent resource. For people residing overseas, the U.S. Department of State’s travel information site and the Overseas Security Advisory Council are also valuable resources filled with helpful information.
While it is important to listen to the orders and advice of the authorities in the case of an emergency, individuals cannot rely on the government to take care of them in every situation because resources simply may not be available. This means that individuals must have a plan in place designed to take care of themselves and their families.
Fluid and Flexible
If a plan is too rigid, it becomes brittle and can be easily broken. Even a well-conceived plan can be worthless if the situation on the ground prevents it from being executed as drawn up. It is thus best to have fluid and flexible contingency plans that account for multiple scenarios and include various routes and modes of transportation. Once the crisis happens and a route is blocked it may be too late to start devising a back-up plan.
Plans must be also reviewed periodically, at least once a year. A plan made following 9/11 might no longer be valid. Bridges and roads included in the original plan might be closed for construction at the present time or could have been changed to a one-way traffic pattern. Communication plans may also need to be updated if family members move or change telephone numbers—or abandon a communication app they used to use. Technology and our habits change, and our plans must evolve to account for those changes.
The contents of fly-away kits should be checked periodically to ensure they are still functional. Flashlight and radio batteries can lose their charge and need to be replaced. Items such as smoke hoods can become damaged by being carried around in a purse or briefcase for too many years. Food can become stale and inedible. Medications can expire. Children grow and can require different sized clothing.
Finally, while having a contingency plan on paper is better than having nothing, those plans that are tested in the real world prove to be far superior to plans that are never tested. Running through an evacuation plan (especially during a high-traffic time such as rush hour) will help identify weaknesses that will not appear on paper. It also will help ensure that all those involved know what they are supposed to do and where they are supposed to go. A plan is of limited use if half of the people it is designed to help do not understand their respective roles and responsibilities.
No plan is perfect, and in the event of an actual crisis it is highly likely that family members will find themselves adapting as conditions on the ground change. However, being prepared, having a plan, and following it permits a person to be more focused and less panicked and confused than those who have left their fate to chance.