February 23, 2017

How to become the MacGyver of surviving terrorist attacks

It's true you're more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than killed by a terrorist, but preparing for unexpected events is always a good idea. So how can you prepare for a terrorist attack? The government tells you to:
  • Be prepared by observing the emergency exits
  • React quickly and not freeze from panic
  • Make yourself a small target by hiding
  • And if everything else fails you have to fight for your life

But I don't think reading a 4-point bullet list is enough. The list says you shouldn't freeze from panic, but who's voluntarily freezing from panic? Isn't that an involuntarily decision made by your brain? Anyway, last year I read the book The Unthinkable - who survives when disaster strikes - and why by Amanda Ripley. The reason I read it was because a guy on a radio show talked about zombie attacks and he said the book would really help you prepare for the zombies. I'm not a big believer in zombie attacks, but the book doesn't mention the word zombie, and it was actually one of the best books I read during the year. 

The Unthinkable mentions several disasters, including 9/11, the sinking of the Estonia ferry, and a huge explosion in Canada. It's true you can't survive all disasters. If you were caught in one of the floors above the floors where the aircraft hit the Twin Towers, then this book will not help you. But you can maximize the probability to survive if you know what's going on in your brain when you are in the middle of a disaster.

In an emergency situation, your brain will not always help you survive. It can begin to make stupid decisions:
  • You will not accept this is happening to you. It's common to laugh, which in these situations is a form of denial: "This can't be happening to me!" Then you might get angry and then you may become quite, so mood swings are normal. But you will most likely not panic. Most people who die in disasters die from doing nothing at all and not from running around like a wet hen. In hindsight, they might think they panicked, but they only felt afraid and that is not the same thing as panic. So what you have do is to go from the denial phase to the do-something phase while remaining positive. Studies have shown that people perform better under stress if they think they can handle the situation.   
  • You will begin to gather stuff you want to take with you but you will not need. 
  • Your memory and senses will be switched on and off. This is happening at certain key points, so you may lose your vision or hearing. Remember the soldier in the reality-based Band of Brothers series who became blind during combat, but would later regain his vision when things calmed down.
  • You will forget your obligations. One person who survived 9/11 was actually in charge of evacuating the floor, but the person forgot all about it only remembered it several weeks later.
  • You will observe what other people around you are doing. This is the reason why you won't react quickly because you don't always know if you are in a terrorist attack. For example, it's easy to confuse firing guns with fireworks. If you begin to flee and it turns out to just be fireworks, then you will be laughed at and perhaps your fleeing will end up on YouTube. So you will observe what other people around you are doing, and if no-one else is doing something then neither will you. In the past, people have died because they followed the crowd, while ignoring closer exits. 
  • Your brain will freeze. The reason is you have never before been in this situation so your brain freeze while trying to figure out what to do. One person in the book who was under fire began thinking about the The Naked and the Dead, a book about soldiers in combat, because his brain was searching though its archive of experiences. This also happened when Estonia sank. One of the survivors could see how people on the top deck just sat down in chairs and where doing nothing at all instead of trying to reach the life boats, which were very close. 
  • You will come up with stupid ideas. One woman almost died from a fire because the person outside didn't want to crush the window out of fear of getting in trouble for crushing a nice window. 
  • You will follow the wrong leaders. One of the companies with most 9/11 survivors was a company with a security chief who made sure everyone knew where the emergency stairs were, and when the attacks happened everyone listened to him. But following leaders can also be the wrong decision. Firemen have seen people moving along their fire trucks towards the fire, instead of moving away from the fire because firemen are seen as leaders in a disaster.       

But your brain will also make smart decisions. Opposite from what you may first think, you will be more kind than you would have been on a normal day and you will behave orderly. During the evacuation of the towers during 9/11, people were calm and didn't run over each other on the stars on the way down. Your brain can also toughen up itself. Research shows that special forces soldiers tend to have more traumatic backgrounds, so their brains have learned something from the trauma, which makes them more capable of handling stress.   
   
So what can you do? How can you help you brain not to freeze? Remember that your brain is freezing because it doesn't have any experience from the situation. So the solution is to prepare to get experience. One police office from the book explained how his subconscious mind made better decisions than his conscious mind, so he always trusted his subconscious mind when the bullets were flying above his head. When I was in the army I recall how we had to disassemble and assemble our rifles hundreds of times until the process became unconscious. I've luckily never had to perform this process while the bullets are flying, but if you listen to the book it wasn't a waste of time.

But preparing for disasters is easier said than done. The author of the book suggests we should build amusement parks where you can prepare for disasters. Someone in Britain had the idea to install aircraft cabin simulators in airports, so passengers who are waiting for their flight could practice open emergency doors, but they idea went nowhere...

The government bullet list says you should prepare by observing where the emergency exits are. You now know why this is helpful: it will give your brain experience and it will not freeze if something is happening. This is also true when flying. Disaster experts always read the "useless" safety briefing cards because they know each aircraft is different and they know their brain will use this information if a disaster happens. They also test to exit the hotels they are visiting by using the stairs because they don't trust that someone will show them how to escape. This is important: everyone has to know what to do if a disaster happens. Remember the person who survived 9/11 and was in charge of evacuating the floor, but the person forgot all about it? So if you just have key employees in charge of the evacuation, it is not good enough.

You need to forget your experience of what has happened before. This might sound contrary to what I said above: you need experience to survive a disaster. But experience from disasters can also harm you. You may believe that many of those who died in Hurricane Katrina were poor and couldn't escape the city. But the truth is that many of those who died because they had survived previous hurricanes and thought they also would survive Katrina. So many of those who died were not poor, but old. There's also a story about a tsunami that killed people because they had locked themselves in their house because they thought the sound of the tsunami was gun shots because that's what their experience told them.  

You have to learn not only that you should do something, but also why you should do it. For example, we have all listened to flight attendants explaining what to do if the oxygen masks drop down from the ceiling of the plane. They always say you should put on your own mask before helping others. But why is it important to always put on your own mask before helping others? The answer is that in the event of a rapid decompression, your have not more than 15 seconds before you pass out. Now you understand why you have to prioritize putting on your own mask before helping others!

You have to learn how to breathe. Both FBI agents and special forces are taught how to breathe correctly to master their fear. This is how you should do it: breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out for for counts, hold for four counts, and repeat all over again. This will help you from hyperventilating or panicking. One police office was playing a tape recording of a police siren while breathing to make it an automatic response to the siren.   

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