Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book 1: The Unthinkable: Who Survives when Disaster Strikes, and Why

The Unthinkable: Who Survives when Disaster Strikes, and Why 
By Amanda Ripley

This book sits happily in my favorite genre of books; emergency and disaster planning. I have more than a few of these books and sincerely appreciate when a new one gives me some ideas or tips I hadn’t heard before. This book did just that.

First things first. I love quotes like this: 
A few recent studies have found that people who are unrealistically confident tent to fare spectacularly well in disaster….These are people who think more highly of themselves than other people thing of them…” 
because quotes like this affirm that I will be pretty amazing in a disaster scenario.(See what I did just there?! Demonstrated arrogant confidence and the whole point of that quote!) Indeed, give me half a chance to make some decisions and I start barking out orders like a drill sergeant on speed.Doesn't always get friends, but it does usually get results.

The book goes over some great information that, if you’ve never read a preparedness book before, may come off as surprising. Information such as, people don’t tend to panic and overreact in a disaster situation, they tend to under-react and do nothing.  You as an individual will need to overcome the somewhat overwhelming desire to not look like an idiot and get your butt in gear if you’re going to act quickly and survive. It goes through why we have those responses and covers the phases of denial, deliberation and deciding that people go through when reacting to disasters. It talks about the dangers and advantages of groupthink. There are plenty of anecdotes to make the reading not only interesting, but keep it permanently lodged in your brain. 

In that, there was some information in there that I hadn’t read before. This was the first book that covered the dynamics of crowd crush, which was fascinating. I had always assumed people were trampled as the leading cause of death. Not true! It’s the actual pressure of the crowd that causes asphyxiation and death, and that pressure can be applied by a surprisingly few amount of people to kill you. 

Additionally, it covered what causes paralysis in disaster situations, which previously I had only seen covered in regards to wild animal attacks. We, as mammals, tend to freeze and ‘play dead’ in this instance which is not surprising when considering a bear attack. It IS surprising when considering a plane crash. It covered the somewhat rare responses of panic and what causes it, and the even rarer responses of heroism and some of the complications that ‘playing the hero’ can cause disaster workers. 

The biggest take away from the book was something I had underestimated, and which we are now enacting in our household fire disaster response. We have  fire alarms which tend to go off in the wee hours of the morning, for no particular reason, sending Greg and I scurrying around the house trying to figure out if it’s a false alarm or not. When it goes off, we immediately sit up, get out of bed, and start rushing around. This is not a good response at all. In fact, in the event of an actual hot house fire, it would kill us before we could save our kids. 

The correct response to a fire alarm is to ROLL out of bed onto the floor and THEN assess the situation BEFORE standing up. 

One breath of hot smoke and you’ve seared your lungs and died. A hot house fire gives you exactly zero chances to inhale smoke, and that one breath is how a lot of people have lost their lives. So now, Greg and I will be retraining our brains (also covered in the book) to respond automatically to a night fire-alarm by rolling onto the floor. The chances are very slim that we would have a fire that hot without knowing it. However, if we did, there are no second chances.

This is why I love this kind of reading. I imagine myself as Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Edge’* finding a situation where I can apply all this learning in a disaster scenario. I’m not sure if it will ever happen, but I do know that I’ll be fairly prepared. 

I especially loved the profile of Rick Rescorla, the Morgan Stanley Head of Security in the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11. It was a well-placed, excellent profile which showed how even if others think you’re being paranoid and crazy…all that training just may well pay off and save not only your life, but others. 

Definitely read the book. It’s quick and easy and won’t take you long. Then assess your home life and make sure that in the unlikely scenario of a high-impact disaster event, you and your family will be prepared enough to respond effectively and get out, get up, get better, or get back.  

See you next week!


*A relevant follow up: one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite movies. ‘The Edge’
Charles: You know, I once read an interesting book which said that most people lost in the wilds, they die of shame.
Steve: What?
Charles: Yeah, see, they die of shame. "What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?" And so they sit there and they... die. Because they didn't do the one thing that would save their lives.
Bob:  And what is that, Charles?
Charles: Think.”

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