Survival of the fittest

Maybe if you listen to some Bob Dylan you'll mellow out about preparing for emergencies. Image:

Maybe if you listen to some Bob Dylan you'll mellow out about preparing for emergencies. Image:

In a world where natural disasters multiply, infrastructure continues to decay, and the implications of peak oil darken the horizon like a gathering winter storm, planning for emergency response is essential for a community of any size. Emergencies happen.  Trouble can strike the best of people at the best of times.  However, the times ahead will be more challenging. The existing emergency response infrastructure requires much more local input and volunteer effort to remain effective.  The time has come to include family and community based emergency response as a component of Transition planning. Not all agree.

“…let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
—Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower

On May 28, 2009  the Energy Bulletin website ran an exchange between Rob Hopkins and Richard Heinberg titled “To Plan for Emergency, or Not? Heinberg and Hopkins Debate.” During the conversation Hopkins expressed skepticism for community-based emergency planning, saying it should be left to “the authorities.”  He didn’t believe bottom-up crisis management could or should work and that it would interfere with the Transition movement’s positive, optimistic vision and image.  He also felt that emergency planning would fail to attract people’s energy except for “a few grizzled doomers who would thrive on it.”

Attack of the grizzlies

It’s not that I mind being called grizzled. One glance in the mirror certainly tells me Hopkins is correct, perhaps even generous, about that. And while I would prefer to be called a “grizzled realist,” I understand that a man such as I, who discusses old movies with his goats, has a dog with an imaginary friend and a duck that channels Friedrich Nietzsche, can’t really make that claim. So, grizzled doomer it is (I’m thinking of having a t-shirt made).  Fortunately, we don’t have to rely entirely on my credibility to support the argument in favor of emergency planning.

My deep and abiding respect and admiration for Hopkins is only matched by my profound disagreement with him on this one issue.  Those of us associated with Transition are here to transform and localize our food system, our energy system, transportation, money, education, housing and the very structure of our communities all in response to peak resources – but, according to Hopkins, we in the US should leave emergency planning to FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency).

I’m afraid that in the area of the world I inhabit this is just not realistic.

Across America we are seeing deep cutbacks in municipal and state government services and functions. This trend will only accelerate, especially given the anti-government spending sentiment rocking the US.

Nod, nod, wink, wink, say no more, say no more

Though never having been to Great Britain, I have a vision of the countryside and people that fits perfectly with Hopkins’s idea that emergency planning doesn’t need to be associated with Transition.  My vision of the landscape is almost totally derived from reading English detective novels and watching PBS twenty or so years ago, with a few black-and-white World War II movies thrown in.  I picture a verdant, soft-edged, tidy, rolling landscape.  It is lovely, picturesque, compact and a little damp.  Oh, and a little crowded.

My impression of the British people is derived more from some of the wonderful folks I’ve known over the years. I see the people as polite, cooperative, stable, witty, calm and confident. Given enough tea and waterproof clothing they can take on anything. And, they successfully and peacefully occupy a crowded island.

Great Britain has a landmass of about 80,000 square miles (about the size of Kansas) with a population of about 60 million.  It may be that in his new hometown of Totnes, Hopkins is absolutely correct.  With an orderly, law abiding, organized population in a compact area and an official emergency response effort that has all the resources and personnel it needs, perhaps local emergency planning by citizens will be unnecessary, even through the impacts of peak oil.

In a big country


Out in big sky country, it's best to know your neighbors, and learn to work with 'em. Photo: Bitterroot via Flickr.

I write from Montana, which covers about 145,000 square miles (nearly twice the landmass of the UK) and has a population under a million.  It is vast, diverse, harsh, and beautiful country that is prone to fire, earthquake, severe weather and interesting characters.

Unfortunately, the sense of self-reliance and tenacious individualism that denotes the state’s population may prove an impediment to Transition. This because the image of the self-reliant Montanan alone against nature and the bad guys is (in the 21st century) quite gasoline-based with all the attendant fallacies. You know, we’re built Ford tough, and all that.

I perceive a neighbor-to-neighbor emergency response planning effort (particularly to wildfire) as a way to introduce Transition, encourage it, and move it forward here.  Last May our governor, responding to scientific predictions of a bad fire year, famously told rural homeowners, “You’re on your own.”  My guess is that officials in Totnes don’t say that.

Preparedness for local emergency response builds community.  It increases resilience, a sense of responsibility, cohesion, and mutual respect.  It makes a prudent, effective response to any crisis much more likely. Including the young residents of your neighborhood in the process encourages a sense of purpose and mission. They become a valuable asset. Planning and training are what you do to keep emergencies from turning into disasters, helping one face and overcome fear in a crisis.  You don’t wait until the car skids on the ice to buckle your seat belt.

By the way, do you use your seat belt, or bicycle helmet? Do you have a fire extinguisher in your home or workplace? Are there extra candles for power outages in a drawer somewhere?  If the answer is yes, you are planning for emergency.  Does that make you a survivalist? A doomer? I think not.

Trust God and keep your powder dry

Much of the pioneer work in family and local community emergency planning has already been done. Models exist that most communities can adapt to their own situation. Programs such as MYN – Map Your Neighborhood – have been implemented in several communities in Washington state. These folks did the heavy lifting for us and have neighborhood tool kits available to download. It’s really good stuff.

In a large-scale emergency, there are things you and your family need to know. Where will you meet? Who in your neighborhood has medical training? Who has a generator, water filter, pump, chainsaw?  Who can shelter the very young while parents are engaged in response? There are homes with bedridden elderly, disabled kids, perhaps a daycare or school.  Where are they?  Who will check on whom? (This is a perfect task for older kids in teams.) Cooperation, the pooling of resources, and specific skills is far superior to individual hiding and hoarding.

While you’re at it, check out with its great preparedness lists including emergency food, medical supplies and other gear you should have on hand. I promise it wont make you a paranoid survivalist to think about these things.

See how other folks have done it. The good people at Local2020 in Port Townsend, Washington share their formula for success in a community vulnerable to earthquake on Peak Moment Television. They deserve enormous credit for approaching the challenge with a positive and effective community building effort. Notably, they’ve accomplished this with the enthusiastic participation of their emergency response officials (the “official doomers”?).  While the most likely crisis in Port Townsend would result from an earthquake, the tools they’ve developed and the organizing they’ve done would be invaluable in any large-scale emergency.

Another excellent resource is David Holmgren’s website. Holmgren, one of the original Permaculture co-conspirators, has done wonderful work on preparing for wildfire.  Following the deadly Australian bushfires a few years ago, Holmgren published extensive work on the subject available for download.  If you’re in an area prone to wildfire (as we are) you really should read this.

Make a list, check it twice

But no one’s lists are better than what you can prepare for yourself based on your location and community. I can assure you that the more training you and your family and neighbors can get the better. Do the research, practice, and acquire the supplies that your situation dictates.

Response to an emergency can bring out the very best in a community and the finest attributes of those participating. However, a spontaneous outpouring of uncoordinated though well meaning effort is rarely the most effective way to handle a large-scale crisis.  The same amount of effort using previously organized community-based resources, information, planning, and training will help more people with less risk, more quickly, and with a practiced calm that comes with running a few drills.

There is no easy and smooth way to make the point, so I will stop tap dancing. Panic kills. Ignorance kills. Training, preparation and cooperation will save lives and property every time.

For example, I have seen well meaning but inexperienced people pull the injured from a severe car wreck in the fear that the car would burn and/or explode.  There was no spine stabilization, cervical support, check of vitals or search for signs of internal injuries. They just grabbed them and yanked.  The car never did explode. (They rarely do.) One victim never walked again.

In the famous Australian bushfires Holmgren writes about, 55 people died. Many were killed fleeing homes that never burned.  A lack of education, planning and training resulted in panic.

Why should you take me seriously? Good question.

Trying to establish an edible forest garden on a very harsh site at an elevation of 5500 feet keeps me too humble to even take myself seriously. But, take me out of the equation and please give the subject serious consideration. Then, do your own research in your own community.  You need to take on this responsibility. There are many people who know more about this subject than me. Some of them live close to you.  If they are not part of your Transition initiative, recruit them. Get to know them, they are of great value. Build bridges.

I’ve seen fire, and I’ve seen rain

These days I am a Permaculture designer, consultant and teacher, involved in local Transition. I do my work on a forested ridge on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains near Helena, Montana. I’m a former volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician (EMT) who served in rural and remote communities in the Mountain West. I have seen members of my crews perform with courage, skill and intense dedication to save the lives and property of strangers and neighbors alike. Emergency response volunteers who quietly serve their communities are all over rural America, where “the authorities” can be a long way off.  They are heroes among us.

This is not work for either doomers or doomerettes.

On my very first run in an ambulance, two women on our crew crawled through a pond of fuel and squeezed through a tiny hole no larger person could negotiate, into the inverted cab of a semi-truck that had flipped.  The driver was pinned to the dashboard by a collapsed steering wheel.  These women, soaked in diesel, freed the driver from the wheel and then treated him while we enlarged the hole and extricated them—thankfully, without generating sparks. We all need to be able to picture ourselves doing that, and you can with the right training.

You might be amazed at the ability of your neighbors to respond to difficult situations with grace, skill and effective action, but they will. In a much larger emergency, a hurricane, tornado, industrial explosion, earthquake etc., this type of skilled volunteer action, if those skilled volunteers are available, will save many and go far toward minimizing human suffering. Local volunteers can respond faster with more pertinent information than overwhelmed officials.

I served with another wildland firefighter who saved a team member after a severe allergic reaction to a wasp sting by doing a do-it-yourself tracheotomy using what he had—a buck knife and a ball point pen.  This worked until the Medivac helicopter got there. Clear calm reasoning, innovation and positive, decisive action saved a life that day. Not the work of a pessimist.

A clear and present calm

Ingenuity and innovation will also be required in a prolonged emergency. As one example, consider a severe earthquake with the usual high percentage of crushing injuries.  Your neighborhood med-kit could be out of splints in an hour. What will you use? Without going into much gore, vise-grips, clamps, aluminum foil, duct tape, belts, golf clubs and much more can be useful, if you are thinking clearly.

Mmmm, mmm, Red Cross cupcakes!

If you prepare for emergency, maybe when one strikes, there'll be time to make Red-Cross-themed cupcakes. Photo: David Berkowitz.

The aversion that many in Transition have toward local emergency preparedness seems to generate images of a camoflage-clad man in a cave barricaded behind cases of Spam with a sniper rifle, lots of ammo, and some toilet paper.  In the interest of full disclosure, I do feed my critters while wearing a surplus camo jacket. I like it because no matter what one of the little buggers get on me or I spill on myself – it doesn’t show.  But, I digress.

Before the anti-doomer squad comes after me, I need to say a word or two about security in an emergency. This is another responsibility which is entirely yours. Assess your family’s situation and make the appropriate decision and arrangements.  I will share with you that my own security detail is comprised of two old Great Pyrenees dogs and five geese (yes, the dreaded “goostapo”). The geese want to rid their world of all undesirables, which would include me if they could open the grain bin themselves.

I keep an old shotgun or two because of where we live. This property, which is part of a wildlife preserve, supports resident cougar and black bear. We’ve also been visited by transient wolves in the winter and a grizzly sow and yearling cub last spring. Feral dogs are an occasional problem. And every few years I need to deal with poachers. But, I am pleased to report that donning my Captain Avenger hat when threatened has, so far, kept me from having to use a weapon.

While we’re on the subject, my personal preference for dealing with zombies is to give them a hot meal and meaningful work, but that’s just me.

In truth, your family’s security is protected best by strong associations of trust and mutual aid with your neighbors and friends. This is true in time of crisis and as we otherwise advance through the Transition. Your security is an issue that belongs to you now.  Take it seriously.

If ever allowed by the kind people at Transition Voice to return, perhaps I can discuss a topic just a little more cheery.  I had good luck with cabbages this year and the Hugelkultur grew wonderful potatoes.  The turkeys are gaining weight nicely…

Or, I could tell you about Buford. For years he was the lead goat around here.  At the peak of his career Buford did a killer imitation of actor Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca.  You’ve never seen a goat look better in a white suit and fez. But, we’ll save that for another day.

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  1. Helen Loughrey says

    I am so glad you raised this issue here, Marc! What a great essay – and great links in it too.
    I remember commenting at Rob Hopkins website on his letter exchange with Richard Heinberg that Transition US must include an emergency preparedness component for 2 reasons:
    Our winter and summer weather is life threatening without AC & heat; and EP is a great way to get the liberal / environmentalist peakniks and the conservative survivalist peakniks working together on community solutions. It bridges the political divide to unite neighbors in common purpose.

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