It’s a Mad, Mad World. Have You Packed Your Go Bag Yet?
For many Americans, the death of Osama Bin Laden has brought both relief and closure. However, those of us who live overseas may be contending with other realities and emotions, particularly if we spend time in countries that are vulnerable to political instability and religious extremism. In fact, just hours after the news of Osama’s death broke, the State Department issued a grave statement warning U.S. citizens in areas where recent events could cause anti-American violence to limit their travel. Whether it’s terrorism, another nuclear disaster, a deadly pandemic or some other perfect storm, we live in an era of unprecedented turmoil. So, while millions celebrated the end of America’s Most Wanted, my husband and I finally took the time to update our emergency protocols and commence what I’ll call “the most uncomfortable talk in the world.” As an expatriate global traveler who has been in a few unsavory situations and who has written emergency preparedness manuals and related planning documents in a professional capacity, I thought it might be helpful to share 10 personal tips for emergency preparedness with you. Enjoy, prepare well, and be safe!
1. If you haven’t done so already, consider registering with your embassy. You can easily do this online. The U.S. Department of State offers a free service, The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to aid in assisting Americans abroad in the event of an emergency. It also provides travel warnings and travel alerts. Most other countries offer similar programs.
2. Create an easily accessible document listing important emergency numbers. I recommend listing five direct contacts, with at least one in your home country and one in the country that you’re currently residing in. Include their email addresses and home addresses, if possible. Also list local emergency numbers for ambulance, fire and police as well as the phone number for your country’s embassy. Email yourself a copy of this information, create an emergency file on your hard drive, and print out two copies to keep in your home and workplace. Downloading this information to an encrypted thumb drive isn’t a bad idea either (see #6).
3. Create a document containing emergency medical information and, if applicable, share it with your spouse. This document should include the names and phone numbers of your regular physician and dentist, any medical conditions and drug/food allergies you may have, your insurance information (if any), and your blood type. You may also wish to indicate whether or not you’re an organ donor. As this information can be very personal, you may just wish to share it with your family via an encrypted file kept on your desktop or thumb drive, and/or on a piece of paper stored in a safe place.
4. Assuming that you have a strong partnership, you probably want to share other important information with your spouse and/or children, including your social security number, your passport number and your banking number. This is a very personal decision and one that should never be taken lightly. In other words, if you’ve only been dating for a few weeks, you might want to rethink this level of openness.
5. Step Five is very important and often overlooked because we assume that our mobile phones and internet connections will work in any situation. WRONG. In case of a disaster which compromises communication lines, establish at least THREE meeting places to convene with your loved ones. The first place should be your home. I recommend that the second place be approximately 5-10 miles away from your home, and the third place be 15+ miles away. Workplaces, airports, embassies, and sports arenas are good alternative venues to list. Be sure to discuss a meeting plan with all of your family members.
6. I highly recommend creating an encrypted thumb drive containing your emergency medical information, emergency contact numbers, and other important information like your social security number, banking numbers, and passport number. Be sure to store this in a safe place and only share your password with the few people you’d trust your life with.
7. Pack an emergency “GO BAG” for each of your family members. A durable but lightweight backpack or duffle bag with an identification tag is sufficient. Items should include:
- Important prescription medications and OTC drugs like ibuprofen and antibacterial cream
- First aid supplies, including bandages, gauze, alcohol swabs, scissors and burn relief cream, Epi-pens and cotton balls
- Non-perishable food items and a large thermos of water. Recommendations call for a gallon of water per day, but you need to be able to carry your bag, so… I’d personally go with a reusable thermos. Don’t forget a can opener.
- A flashlight and a battery-powered hand crank radio for emergency reports. Be sure those batteries are good!
- Matches and a lighter
- Water purification tablets
- Duct tape
- Extra batteries for both the flashlight and the radio…
- A charger for your cell phone, a backup battery and, if possible, an extra cell phone
- At least one full change of clothes, a blanket and some comfortable shoes
- A whistle and, if legal in your area, some pepper spray
- Copies of important documents kept in a waterproof envelope. Be sure to include copies of your passport, your driver’s license, proof of residence, and your birth certificate
- Pictures of your family
- Plastic garbage bags, ziploc bags and a roll of toilet paper
- Notebook and pens
- If you’re female, don’t forget sanitary napkins or tampons
- A small box of hand and foot warmers
- A face mask, like the N95 mask. There’s still some debate over whether or not it really protects against viruses, but I’d include it
- Local map and compass
- Cold, hard cash in ziploc bags. I personally recommend carrying at least $200 in US currency, $200 Euro, and $300 in the currency of the country you’re residing in. An activated extra credit card and travelers checks are also handy to have. However, in an emergency, cash is king.
- If you have a beloved pet, be sure to pack a few cans of pet food and some extra water, as well as any essential medications
- A good luck charm. Maybe it’s a life-changing book or a family trinket or a framed photo that reminds you of the best day of your life. Whatever it is, it should have special importance to you
8. In addition to the GO BAG, an at-home emergency kit is essential. Items should include all of the above. High-calorie food items like peanut butter and at least a few gallons of water per person is a smart idea. Walkie-talkies, a strong multi-tool with a blade and pliers, ponchos, a thick towel, and a spare set of keys are also items to consider including. You can organize the contents of this kit in a durable bag or a Rubbermaid tub and store it in an easy-to-access place like a front hall closet or under the bed. What’s most important is that it’s filled and up-to-date and that every member of your family knows where it is.
9. If you haven’t had the highly uncomfortable “worst-case scenario” conversation with your partner or closest loved one and a lawyer, you might want to consider just getting it over with now. The conversation and agreements should include a living will (organ donation, what happens if you become incapacitated, etc.), life insurance information, and preferences for burial/funeral. This is a difficult talk to have, but for anyone with a family, it’s also a very important one. For an easy three-step approach, chat about the basics, visit with a lawyer to create a living will, and place the rest of the information on an encrypted thumb drive (don’t forget to share the password and consult with your lawyer).
10. Learn about survival. Some of us have already had to apply our survival skills in one way or another, whether because of a life-threatening accident or illness, homelessness, violence,
or a particularly difficult life challenge. Survival training of any type- whether a self-defense course, outdoor survival school, endurance training, sea survival, or emergency rescue- are extremely helpful in boosting both your knowledge and your confidence. In addition to manuals on first aid and edible plants, two books I highly recommend reading are The Survivor’s Club and Man’s Search for Meaning. Finally, beyond the classes, sticky situations and trips to the emergency room, if there’s anything I’ve learned about survival, it’s that faith is the enemy of despair. Believe in something.
”Ultimately, what defines a survivor is the talent for making the most of life, however much remains.” – Ben Sherwood