Are you prepared for the worst?

2013-09-30 15:44

I don’t know if the world is actually becoming a nastier place but the phrase ‘shit happens’ seems to be proved accurate more regularly these days.

I had a very interesting experience about 10 days ago. I was travelling from Heathrow Airport, London, to New York in the US and was sitting looking forward to catching up with some of the latest films on the in-flight entertainment system. The system was suspended, however, as the aircraft had only taken off a few minutes before and we were in the phase where the plane is nose-up, engines at full-pitch, whilst the pilot climbs to the cruising altitude. All of a sudden, though, a klaxon began to sound loudly throughout the cabin and a recorded message announced, “Do not panic. Pull the oxygen mask towards you, place it over your nose and mouth, and breathe normally.”

Well, I’d have been very happy to follow those instructions. I guess most of us would have been. Unfortunately, the masks, which we are always told will drop automatically from the cabin roof above us, seemed reluctant to put in appearance. As passengers began to look nervously, and worriedly, around them the klaxon sounded once more, as did the recorded message. At this point, I noticed that a member of the cabin crew who was strapped in not far from me was also beginning to look equally nervous and anxious.

You know how people say that your life flashes in front of you when you are about to die? Well, that’s not true. What flashed through my mind was, “Why do I just get a belt across my lap whilst cabin crew get shoulder straps too?” This thought was interrupted, however, as the recorded message came on for the third time but with additional words advising us not to be alarmed as the aircraft was descending rapidly to an altitude where cabin pressurization was not needed. Only the plane wasn’t descending and neither, still, were the oxygen masks. Both the masks and the pilot seemed determined to keep heading up, up into the wide blue yonder.

Having seen the James Bond film ‘Goldfinger’ years ago, my thoughts had wandered from cabin staff getting better safety gear than me, to pondering why I wasn’t seeing anyone being sucked out of a window. As alarming situations went, it had had great promise but seemed to be rapidly fizzling out.

To cut a long story short, several minutes into this situation both the purser and pilot reassured us that there was no loss of cabin pressure, that the alarm system had activated in error, and our flight across the Atlantic was completed without incident. Oh, apart that is from the entertainment system, which appeared to have been knocked out and it was a plane-load of very bored passengers who disembarked in JFK seven hours later. Since I’m hoping it’ll provide some compensation, I won’t name the airline today.

But reflecting on the incident, and describing it to friends and relatives, set me thinking about how we respond to emergencies. Indeed, whether we even can respond. On-board an aircraft, your life is very much in the hands of the pilots and, to a lesser extent, the cabin crew. It is only once the aircraft lands, hopefully not too heavily, on terra firma or water that matters revert back to your control. These thoughts, in turn, set me wondering about how any of us might have reacted had we been inside the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi when it was stormed by terrorists. (‘Stormed’ may be the wrong phrase, since some media reports suggest some of those responsible may have been inside for weeks leading up to the incident and had been storing weapons inside in advance.)

There were undoubtedly displays of great calm and courage shown during the Nairobi incident, just as there almost inevitably are whenever any ‘emergency’ occurs, but footage also showed confusion, panic and, in some cases, an apparent total inability to know what to do or how to react. Media reports suggest that applied also in the case of some of the emergency services.

I don’t know about Kenya, but years ago in Scotland the Police created contingency plans for almost every-imaginable crisis scenario and these were drawn up in relation to most major places where the public gathered in large numbers. When something happened, our Command and Control Room staff at headquarters would call these up on their computer screens and work their way through checklists relating to dispatching relevant personnel, equipment and vehicles, establishing rendezvous points for fire tenders and ambulances, alerting hospitals, etc. Every police officer in Scotland gets intensive training on emergency-response and several of these major plans are tested, in conjunction with building owners, operators and their staff, on a regular basis.

Now, no one can anticipate each and every incident that might occur, just as no one can reliably predict how each person will react when faced with any given scenario. But at least we can try and be prepared. As a Police officer, I was often surprised at how outwardly and apparently courageous my colleagues and I could be on occasions. I finally realized that none of us were particularly brave but, rather, the uniform provides one with a subconscious feeling that it somehow comes with a protective shield like those that Chief Engineer ‘Scottie’ on the Starship USS Enterprise constantly battles to maintain during each Klingon attack. Plus, the uniform brings with it an expectation on the part of the public that you will do something appropriate on their behalf. Consequently, I can recall many occasions where I acted in circumstances, or against people considerably larger than me, when common sense should have told me to look after ‘number one’ first. Yet, with very few exceptions, I got away with it time after time.

‘Civvies’, as we used to refer to the public, don’t have shields, invisible or otherwise, but surely they deserve to be prepared too? Especially if they find themselves waiting lengthy periods for the emergency services to arrive or, if they’ve arrived, waiting for them to determine what to do next.

Right, let me try and pull all these thoughts together. If you get onto an aircraft tomorrow, you can be sure that there will be a safety card in the pocket in front of you and there will be some form of demonstration of evacuation procedures, lifejackets, etc. If you check into a hotel tonight, there will probably be a notice behind the door telling you where the fire escapes are and what to do if the fire bell sounds.

Shouldn’t someone, the government, your employer or the owner of a large shopping mall, tell you what to do if some nutter or ‘freedom-fighter’ runs amok with an automatic weapon and starts shooting people indiscriminately? After all, one doesn’t have to look far to see that such incidents have taken place, this year alone, in cinemas, theatres, shopping complexes, sites of religious worship, workplaces, schools, air, train and bus terminals; just about everywhere that groups of men, women and children come innocently together for everyday activities. Maniacs and terrorists don’t seek empty places - (a) because of the lack of potential victims and (b) because firing off guns and detonating grenades in the middle-of-nowhere gains no publicity for whatever cause makes you pull the trigger or pin.

The chances of your aircraft dropping out of the sky or your hotel catching fire are, thankfully, very remote. So too, even more mercifully, is the chance of you or your family being riddled with bullets from an AK-47 assault rifle. But the chance is there.

The grand old US of A may not be a world-leader when it comes to gun control but its authorities have learned some hard lessons from the right of its citizens to ‘keep and bear arms’. Its Federal Emergency Management Agency, in conjunction with local, State and Federal law enforcement agencies, has produced some really good guidance for owners of buildings, workplaces, etc. on how to prepare for major incidents. If you visit the FEMA website, you’ll find more information.

And it has also prepared an excellent, but simple, booklet for Joe Public in relation to reacting to what is termed an ‘Active Shooter’. It is just a few pages long and it will probably only take about ten minutes (if that) to read it. You can access it here:

http://emilms.fema.gov/is906/assets/active_shooter_booklet.pdf

Since there seems to be no shortage of firearms in South Africa, maybe you and your family might like to take a look at the booklet. If the Government of South Africa has already prepared such public information material, then I apologize for publicising something American. If it hasn’t, maybe it would like to produce its own version?

How many of us who travel regularly on airlines have actually properly studied the safety card in the pocket of the seat in front of us? Probably not enough. How many trips do we make to schools, our workplace, the local shopping mall, the cinema or our city’s sports stadium? A hell of a lot more than trips on planes.

In the days when I was responsible for security at a location regularly visited by the British royal family, I used to brief my officers using the following words, “Every day that passes when nothing happens brings us one day closer to the day when something will.”

Please read the booklet. You know it makes sense.

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