on security

How to Pack for Emergency Situations

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
7 MINS READAug 4, 2016 | 08:00 GMT
Carrying certain items that will fit in a briefcase can prove lifesaving in an emergency.
Carrying certain items that will fit in a briefcase can prove lifesaving in an emergency.
(SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images)

We often talk about the need for people to prepare for emergency situations. In relation to personal preparedness, I'm frequently asked, "What equipment do you carry with you?" In fact, several people raised that exact question last week when I was teaching a course on travel security. As I replied, it occurred to me that Stratfor readers might also be interested in my answer. So, if you'll indulge me, I'd like to divert a little from the usual Security Weekly format to discuss it in the hope that readers will come away better prepared for emergencies.

Fire Protection

As we've discussed in the past, fire is a vastly underappreciated threat. Far more people die each year from fires — mostly from smoke inhalation — than from terrorist attacks. But as we've seen in places such as Benghazi and Mumbai, fire can be used as a weapon during an attack.

Because of this, I recommend that people carry a smoke hood whenever possible. Having a smoke hood can mean the difference between living or dying in a fire. Many people lose sight of the fact that U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and communications officer Sean Smith died from smoke inhalation during the Benghazi attack. Had their safe-house been stocked with smoke hoods as required by U.S. State Department regulations, both men would have likely survived the attack on their building. Smoke can prove deadly not only inside buildings but also in buses, aircraft, and train or subway cars. We have repeatedly seen people die from smoke inhalation after fires or bombing attacks; smoke hoods can give people trapped in such situations enough air to escape.

As my friend and colleague Fred Burton mentioned in the video to the left, there is something of a size-versus-effectiveness trade-off when it comes to smoke hoods. The larger hoods generally provide better protection against dangers such as carbon monoxide and toxic gasses, but many people, including me, find the larger hoods too bulky for everyday carry. There are some very good compact hoods that provide protection from carbon monoxide, but since they use compressed oxygen cylinders, passengers are not permitted to take them on board aircraft (although flight crews use the same smoke hoods). Since I travel by air often, this style of smoke hood simply is not practical for me. But if I lived in New York or Washington and took the subway or bus in my daily commute to work, I would carry this type of mask. By contrast, if I worked in a high-rise office building or lived in a high-rise apartment building, I would keep one of the larger, bulkier smoke hoods in my office or bedroom — and have one for every member of my family or staff.

I have decided to compromise: I use a smoke hood that I can bring aboard an aircraft and carry in a small briefcase wherever I go, even if that means it provides only limited protection against carbon monoxide and toxic gasses. I consider some protection better than none, and my smoke hood never leaves my briefcase, except when I place it on my bedside table when I sleep in hotels.

Flashlights are another lifesaver in a fire. Though I do carry a flashlight with me most of the time, in the form of the one on my smartphone, it is not particularly strong. Therefore, I also always carry a high-intensity tactical flashlight in my briefcase. This flashlight would be far more effective than my cellphone in cutting through smoke in a dark subway tunnel or hotel stairwell. A tactical flashlight also doubles as an effective weapon. Even in places where it is difficult to carry weapons legally, such as Japan or the United Kingdom, I have never had anyone stop me from carrying a flashlight. A small emergency roll of duct tape, safety pins, cable ties and paracord also take up very little space but can prove quite useful in an emergency.  

Medical Emergencies

Smoke is not the only danger to be ready for. As seen in recent bombings, armed assaults and edged weapon attacks, victims frequently die from blood loss before help can reach them. Consequently, being able to stop bleeding is important. As I noted previously, police officers and firefighters are now being provided with first-aid kits that contain things such as tourniquets and hemostatic bandages to stop bleeding. Twenty years ago, tourniquets were considered a last-ditch effort and their use was discouraged in all but the most extreme cases. In recent years, however, the common wisdom has changed. 

Based on experience with combat wounds in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan — and in attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing — tourniquets have been deemed lifesavers; civilians can and should consider carrying them.

In my briefcase, I keep a clear, quart-sized plastic bag containing a tourniquet, a six-inch Israeli combat dressing, a chest seal and some regular Band-Aids for non-emergency situations. These items are not overly bulky, fitting easily inside even a slim briefcase. Such a kit can also be assembled for less than $15.

I keep a similar set of items — a tourniquet, a couple of Israeli combat dressings, a few triangular bandages, gauze, a chest seal and a space blanket, along with a small first-aid kit — in each of my vehicles. Certainly, an improvised tourniquet or field-expedient chest seal can be created in a number of ways, but these items are inexpensive. Moreover, though I have never had to use a tourniquet or an Israeli bandage on anyone, they are so small and light that there is little reason not to carry them.

Travel Medicine

For travel to places where medical help may not be readily available, I supplement the small emergency first-aid kit in my briefcase with a larger travel first-aid kit that goes in my suitcase or backpack. This kit contains basic first-aid items such as alcohol preps, antibiotic ointment, hydrocortisone cream, burn and blister cream, gauze, moleskin, a variety of Band-Aids, a triangular bandage, tweezers, safety pins and a thermometer. The kit also contains a prescription antibiotic for severe dysentery, as well as loperamide, Pepto-Bismol, Benadryl, pain reliever and allergy medicine. (If you have severe allergic reactions to things such as bee stings or seafood, you should also carry an EpiPen at all times.)

Even combined with the plastic bag containing the bleeding-control items, this kit weighs just over a pound. I've had it for 20 years now and have carried it all over the world, from Kaabong, Uganda, to the Raggeds Wilderness in the Rocky Mountains. Though I've never had to take care of a major medical emergency, I have used the kit to treat a number of people who have suffered scrapes, sprains, cuts, blisters, bug bites and traveler's diarrhea. I check this kit before, and replenish it after, each trip. It is important to remember that any time you have a first-aid kit you must periodically review the contents to ensure that they have not expired (or dried out, in the case of items such as alcohol wipes).

Of course, what I carry is only one point of reference. Other people in other occupations living in other places may have different requirements. I would carry a different kit if I were still working executive protection — especially in a high-threat environment. But I hope that at the very least, this article will give readers a chance to think about what they could (and should) carry with them to help keep themselves and others safe.

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