Matt Springer has been giving presentations around San Francisco about home earthquake preparedness since 2008 (for more information about the presentation, go to his earthquake preparedness website). This Quaketips blog is devoted to posts ranging from technical "how-to" articles to more philosophical "should-you" topics. New articles will be posted at most about once a month, so people who subscribe won't be subjected to lots of e-mail.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Big emergency kit for home, little emergency kits for work and car

We spend a lot of time discussing emergency kits for the home.   Those kits should be geared mostly toward keeping yourself supplied at home if the stores and banks are closed, and at least part should be a portable kit that you casually take to a shelter with you.  You presumably won’t need to grab it and run out of the building during a quake, because you are not supposed to run out of a building during a quake.  So these emergency kits can be large and contain supplies for up to 7 days.

But what about where you work, and your car?  It’s important to think about such things, because if you are stuck somewhere that isn’t home, your home emergency kit isn’t going to be much help to you.  Here are some thoughts about how to go about preparing work and car kits.

First, let’s think about the workplace.  What you need in the kit depends on the circumstances that you might face at work.  To my mind, there are two main scenarios: (1) you are at your workplace and there is no way to get home, and (2) you are physically stuck inside your workplace.  The first scenario is much more likely than the second in general.  However, it varies by situation.  If you work a reasonable walking distance away from your home, then the concept of not being able to get home isn’t relevant, and your work kit could be pretty minimal and just focus on what would happen if, for some reason like a jammed door, you couldn’t get out and the windows weren’t practical exits (very unlikely situation).  If your main concern is being stuck inside an office, then having some food and water for a day or two and having a radio and flashlight with spare batteries, and a small medical kit, is a pretty good emergency kit.  Of course, being stuck, you might wish you had stashed a crowbar.  I actually have a crowbar in my office, because it’s a windowless office with a single door that opens outwards, and it’s not out of the question that it either jams or that something else moves outside of the door and blocks it from opening.

But more likely, you work far enough away from home that getting back home may be impractical if the roads are blocked or public transportation is down.  Around here in the San Francisco Bay Area, many people do bridge or tunnel commutes (Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, BART tunnel under the bay, etc.).  While one bridge down just makes people go to the next bridge, a failure on one bridge can make the authorities close the other bridges for a while, as Marin commuters discovered after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake when the Golden Gate Bridge was shut down in response to the Bay Bridge’s failure.  If you can’t get home, and stores and restaurants aren’t functioning, then your primary goal for an emergency kit is to tide you over with food and water, with flashlight and radio and probably medical kit, until you can get home somehow.  Hmm, sounds an awful lot like what I suggested for the first scenario.

Here’s one more thing to think about: if you are working within a somewhat long walking distance from home, and you typically work in uncomfortable shoes, think about keeping a pair of old comfortable shoes in the work place so that you don’t do that 2-mile walk home in high heels or uncomfortable men’s suit shoes.

When might you need an emergency kit in your car?  Being literally stuck inside your car is not impossible, but it would be a relatively rare consequence of an earthquake.  Much more likely, you have been driving around somewhere that is not in walking distance from home, and the roads home are too damaged or are gridlocked.  Food, water, comfortable shoes if you don’t wear them already, radio in case your car battery gives out,’s starting to sound familiar!  (In fact, it makes sense to have supplies like this in your car even if you live in a region that does not experience earthquakes.)  But in the car, compactness might be more important.  Also keep in mind that any emergency food supplies kept in the car probably will expire more quickly than the food you keep in your home and work kits, due to the car sometimes being left out in the heat.  Having a cable that enables you to charge your cell phone from your car battery is worthwhile.

One more thing to consider is that, more than what you might keep at work, the car kit could be even more useful if it is easily portable, like in a backpack.  I admit that as I write this, my emergency car supplies are wedged into spaces that accommodate them, like in the well with the spare tire; but if you find yourself needing to hoof it due to impassable roads and impossible driving conditions, carrying your emergency supplies with you could be quite nice.  It all depends on what you have room for permanently in your car trunk.

If you are worried about really getting stuck inside your car, due to an earthquake, dramatic fall from a bridge, or unfortunately timed discovery of a living Tyrannosaurus rex, having a Life Hammer® in the car can help you cut seat belts and smash side windows.  I got one of those a couple of years ago.  It’s still on my desk, as I try to figure out how to mount the darned thing.

I’m sure many people will have other ideas of what should be stashed in these places: foldable rain jackets, etc.  You might want to think about what is in your home kit and decide whether it is worthwhile to you to have more in your work or car kit.  What I have described is the basic situation for both places.  In fact, if any readers out there have personal experiences from 1989 Loma Prieta, 1994 Northridge, or other situations in which you had to leave your car taking the supplies, feel free to use the comment feature on this blog to tell people what worked well for you and what you lacked but wished you had.  That means that interested readers should check back later to see if anyone posted suggestions. 

One of these days, there will probably be an iPhone app that not only lets the phone double as a radio, map, and flashlight, as it already does, but also makes it become edible and wearable on both feet.  Until that day, having emergency supplies at work and in the car makes a whole lot of sense, since you never know where you will be when you have to rely on them.

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