emergency checklist and ballpoint pen. close-up.


We’ve had quite a number of natural disasters this year, and many Americans have been killed or injured in the chaos, not to mention losing all of their material possessions. Could they have been better prepared for disaster? Our guests are emergency response experts and they lay out some strategies for weathering big storms and fires to keep yourself and your family safe during an emergency.

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  • Peter Duncanson, Director of Systems Development for ServiceMaster Restore
  • Dr. Joseph Alton, fellow in the American College of Surgeons, a medical preparedness writer and author of The Survival Medicine Handbook

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Emergency Preparedness

Marty Peterson: There have been a lot of disasters around the world this summer, what with the wildfires in California, the mammoth flood in Louisiana and the tragic earthquake in Italy, to name just some of the biggest events. Many people were severely injured or died during these disasters, and thousands were left without homes to go back to. It’s not easy to watch the scenes of devastation on television or read about them online, but these stories should make everyone think about being prepared for an emergency should it strike your city or town. We asked Peter Duncanson, Director of Systems Development for SerivceMaster Restore about what homeowners and individuals should have at the ready in case they need to evacuate their homes in a hurry.

Peter Duncanson: Emergencies range from anything from the storms that we’re dealing with in Louisiana or the wildfires in California, to rain storms and thunderstorms that occur locally almost on a daily basis. All homeowners should have emergency plans in place with your family. Not only preparing your home, but ways that you can mobilize if you have to, if you have to evacuate, or even ways to regroup and communicate if the kids are at school and an emergency occurs, how do you all get back together are plans that every homeowner should do.

Peterson: If evacuation is necessary, Duncanson says that it’s wise to have your important papers such as insurance policies, birth certificates, and passports close at hand. He suggests that you keep them at a remote location like a safe deposit box, put the originals in a plastic bag or even copy them in digital form on a flash drive so you can grab them in an emergency. He also says that every family should have “go bags” with provisions if they have to leave in a hurry.

Duncanson: Rain gear or that type of protective items, but then you can place all the other items you need (like) clothing, medicine is one of the big things – make sure that you’ve got an ample supply of medicines as you evacuate; being able to put all of your emergency documents, and if you’re carrying any paper documents, put them inside a Zip-Lok bag even before you put them into a travel bag so if something does occur, they’re protected at one more layer. The other thing to think about, especially with children and in you families, make sure you’ve got a supply of food. Normally we talk about 72 hours is the emergency level of food and water that you want to be able to have, but even for evacuation you want to have emergency food that you can carry with you as you get in the car. People driving out of hurricanes quite often with that amount of traffic sometimes they get stranded.

Peterson: Duncanson says that before the storm hits, all loose items such as lawn chairs, bicycles, toys and gardening supplies should be brought inside to prevent them from blowing around and causing injuries to people or damage to property. Along with preparing your property during an emergency, you need to prepare for your own health and well-being. Joseph Alton, MD, says that walking through floodwaters can be very dangerous because you don’t know what’s underneath. Dr. Alton is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, a medical-preparedness writer and author of The Survival Medicine Handbook .

Joseph Alton: There’s debris in the floodwaters. Usually floodwaters are somewhat murky, you may not be able to see down to where your feet are actually stepping and many people wind up getting cut or having injuries to their feet as a result. If the water is moving, still actively moving, oftentimes there’s mud underneath and it just takes a few inches of moving water, rapidly moving water, to knock someone off their feet and take them right downstream.

Peterson: Alton says that people who sustain cuts during a flood need to be very careful to clean their wounds thoroughly or they could be in for a nasty infection.

Alton: Most people should have some type of medical kit as part of their supplies that would allow them to access antiseptics that they can use to really clean out that wound. If it’s a deep wound you want to flush that out with, let’s say, a syringe of water. There’s something called an “irrigation syringe” which is a 60 cc or 100 cc syringe so that you can actually apply some force to the water going into the wound and the antiseptic going into the wound so that you can really dislodge debris and bacteria that can be very deep within it.

Peterson: Alton says that an emergency medical kit should contain items that can be used for first aid for a variety of injuries.

Alton: Let’s say in an earthquake you really would want to have a lot of materials that would help you deal with trauma. Materials that would help stop bleeding. Tourniquets, perhaps. You want to have a lot of bandage dressings. These are not a bad idea for many different types of events. You want to have antiseptics, those are very, very important to help clean out wounds. If you are in an area where there is bad water you’re going to want to have water sterilization tablets. These things are available commercially. You’ll want to have materials to deal with burns. In the wildfires that are occurring in California certainly there’s the possibility of that and so you want special types of dressings that won’t stick to burns because it’s very painful to remove those. You want to have things like aloe vera gel or other types of commercial burn gels that would help you with burns. So it depends on the injuries that you’re most likely to incur in the disaster that has happened.

Peterson: One thing we hear about in many different types of disasters is injured people suffering from “shock.” Alton says the symptoms of shock are a drop in blood pressure, disorientation and loss of body heat. He says that the best way to begin treating shock is to find the cause, such as heavy bleeding, and apply a tourniquet or direct pressure to the wound.

Alton: People who are in shock lose a great deal of body heat so you must have some kind of covering for them. If you have a blanket, that would be great. There are some very compact Mylar blankets, or otherwise known as “solar blankets” that are very, very helpful to maintaining body heat, so that’s important. Of course you want good blood flow to the brain and to the heart, and so what you need to do is to take the person’s extremities, in most cases you’re going to want to raise those extremities, so feet especially, 12 inches above the level of the heart. That’s known as the “shock position.”

Peterson: After a disaster, when residents return to their homes, they aren’t out of the woods yet. Duncanson says that cleaning up the debris or assessing damage after a flood should be done by professionals to ensure that a home is safe to move back into.

Duncanson: What you want to watch for is the structural damage that will occur. Things like drywall, plaster, things like that will crumble from the water, will lose structural integrity. As you look at lower structures – basements or crawlspaces – you have to also consider the wood structure, the wood framing and look for structural integrity. Obviously if you’ve got a basement and there’s been water in the basement, you want to make sure the electricity has been turned off or there’s no electrical current before you reenter a site. The cleanup of that area really should be left to professionals. You’re going to be looking at either pumps or industrial extraction devices to remove the water and start the drying process. And then using controlled demolition to areas that can’t be restored, that are going to have to be removed, and then doing adequate drying using air movers and dehumidification.

Peterson: Even if the home looks structurally sound, Duncanson says that there can still be health dangers lurking inside the walls such as places were microbes can multiply and cause health problems down the road. That’s why it’s important to have professionals dry out and inspect the surfaces underneath the drywall. One thing that Duncanson says it also important is to know how to deal with neighbors, colleagues and customers who have sustained a loss due to a disaster.

Duncanson: The fire or flood in your home, many people go through the same stages of grief that they do at losing a loved-one. And once you realize that you’ve got the anger and the denial and the acceptance, etc., but walking through those stages is difficult and every person is going to do it differently. Part of what we do with our businesses is that we train our businesses how to talk to the home owner, the business owner, to help them go through those stages so that they understand we’re here to help you cope and get through the stages of the event.

Peterson: Finally, Dr. Alton says that even though most people won’t experience a disaster in the next few months or even years, in this day and age it’s likely that they will be called upon to weather an emergency in their lifetime. That’s why he encourages everyone to take the time to prepare for the worst and learn some basic first aid skills.

Alton: I think it’s just very, very important to get a little medical knowledge, learn how to deal with at least with basic first aid. Encourage your school to teach students how to put together a program, perhaps, to learn, and just learn to stop bleeding or to deal with some basic medical issues. And if we can do that, I have no doubt that we’re going to save lives down the road and we’ll be a much more prepared nation.

Peterson: To find out more about how to prepare for a disaster, you can visit Dr. Joseph Alton’s website at DoomandBloom.net and pick up his book, The Survival Medicine Handbook. Peter Duncanson invites listeners to visit ServiceMaster’s site for information on emergency preparedness and restoration at ServiceMasterRestore.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.