I am writing this article based on my experience as Army Infantry officer, a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and intelligence professional, but most of all as someone who uses structured thinking to plan against and mitigate threats. It is important to plan for events that are less of a threat yet highly probable that in turn provide the foundation to plan for extremely dangerous threats that are less likely to happen. Structured thinking and scenario development will assist the average reader with how to move beyond theory and talk to practical planning.
The Americans I interact with live in suburban middle income communities, where we balance affordable homes against the average 30-60 minute one-way commute to our jobs. Like many of those Americans, we are concerned with the “what ifs” of disasters. I find that many well-educated people have done little to prepare for the risks that are common to both naturally occurring and man-made threats. Not preparing is generally the result of not knowing how to prepare, assuming the government will take care of them, feeling overwhelmed, or not having the time to think through situations that are likely to happen. Therefore, I am providing a “how to” methodology approach for planning against threats and mitigating their associated risks.
I am not an advocate that all must prepare for “the end of the world as we know it” (TEOTWAWKI). Even though this is a personal goal, I believe we should be realistic and have practical preparations through planning as a way of life. Most of us cannot afford to move off the grid or far away from populated centers of work. While I dream of winning the lottery and doing this, it just is not practical for many of us. What is practical for the suburban homesteader is to think through common scenarios of threats specific to their region, what those outcomes might be, and then self-assess how prepared you and your family really are. Pending the results, follow a plan to improve deficiencies and mitigate the risks over time and within budget.
Many of the more common threats, even man-made ones, require the same core preparation and planning. Planning for the highly probably threats in your region will greatly reduce anxiety of the higher impact threats. Where I live in Virginia, we deal with power outages and hazardous driving warnings on the low end of the common threats, due to winter storms and hurricanes. Even as these can be scary or exciting depending upon one’s view, the power, utilities, and drivable roads are restored to most people within a week. If one can use the methodology below and work through this likely scenario and self-assess, then they are ready to plan for the less common/no-notice events, like financial collapse and temporary shutdown of commerce to downwind hazards associated with attacks or accidents associated with toxic industrial chemical (TICs) and toxic industrial material (TIMs) sites in your area. Some threat planning will result in sheltering-in-place or being prepared to quickly relocate for several days. More extreme threats of commerce and utilities being shut down for several weeks due a wide range of events will have a bigger impact on life (extreme infectious disease, financial collapse/run on the banks, large scale city-wide explosion). I purposely do not cover TEOTWAWKI events, such as nuclear attacks, large scale bio warfare, electromagnetic pulse, etc. These truly are catastrophic and require planning and preparing at a higher level.
“How to” conduct structured thinking: Develop simple scenarios that assess the level of preparing to threat probability. By doing this, you can assess yourself and your household against a number of threats and develop a plan to improve (gap analysis).
Step 1: Scenario Generation
Scenario generation is easy, fun, and can assess multiple situations and how they might evolve. These scenarios can assist in the development of future known and unknown risks. On a sheet of graph paper, the four quadrants developed become scenario worlds generically labelled A, B, C, and D. Additionally, the X and Y axis should be labeled.
This example demonstrates a simple scenario of a severe winter storm. X axis equals “Individual/Family Preparedness” with the left endpoint labeled “Ineffective Preparation”, and the right end point labeled “Effective Preparation”. The Y axis equals “Magnitude of threat” with the bottom end point labeled “Status-quo/Minor Storm” and the top end point labeled “Catastrophic”.
For this exercise, this storm is forecasted 48 hours in advance. (This is when everyone runs to the store to get toilet paper, bread, and milk at the low end of panic to portable generators at the high end of panic.) The Magnitude of threat ranges from one day loss of power, freezing temperatures to the catastrophic extreme range of five days loss of power, inoperable driving conditions, and extreme low temperatures. Starting in the upper left quadrant, labeling this “World A” and then working clockwise, simple outcomes should be annotated per World, such as World A (Forced to flee/Forced to beg/No safety), World B (Concerned but confident/Ability to help others/Safe), World C (Panic shopping/Increased risk safety/Increased fear), and World D (Safe/No fear). World C is likely the normal outcome for most non-prepping self-assessors, whereas World B is the desired end state for all non-preppers and preppers.
Step 2: Structured Thinking
Getting to World B requires the planner to move from theory to structured thinking. A few personalized scenarios for your region should be completed. (Replace the X and Y axis with other situations.) Indicators can then be developed along the X and Y axis to provide a measurable scale. These indicators can then be applied to simple threat matrix that depicts probability and impact. This in turn will assist with how much one plans to spend or how much effort should be applied to reduce risk and/or uncertainty.
In the winter storm scenario, I applied several indicators along the X and Y axis. Along the X axis, starting at the far left end point and moving right, there are six indicators (three on scale to the left and three on scale to the right of the Y axis). These indicators are:
- Food & Water x 24 hours,
- Food & Water x 48 hours,
- Food & Water x 72 hours,
- Food & Water x 1 week,
- Gas generator/Food & Water x 1 week, and
- Gas generator/Cold weather equipment/Food & Water x 1 week
Along the Y axis, from the bottom end point moving upward, there are also six indicators (three on scale to the bottom and three on scale to the top of the X axis). These indicators are:
- Inoperable driving x 12 hours,
- Loss of power/Inoperable driving x 24 hours,
- Loss of power/Inoperable driving x 48 hours,
- Loss of power/Inoperable driving x 72 hours,
- Loss of power/Inoperable driving x 1 week, and
- Loss of power/Extreme cold/Inoperable driving x 24 hours
Ultimate preparedness for this scenario is to survive (comfortably) a week at home with no power and low temperatures. The scale allows assessment of preparedness. The results should have the planner assessing living needs in relation to the number of people living in the house. Most people have enough food in their home for several days. However, not everyone has a generator and the fuel needed for a week. (Hint: You likely have an additional 5-15 gallons of fuel in your vehicles that you can’t drive due to the snow. With planning, you can mitigate the risk of not storing a week’s worth of fuel for the generator by knowing how and having a tube to syphon the fuel. Just leave a few gallons in your vehicle for once the roads are safe to drive.)
Steps 1 and 2 can be applied to all conceivable threat scenarios. The increased risks can often be mitigated through planning and preparing. Many of the threats will require the basic fundamentals of preparation that the average suburban homeowner can easily achieve. Examples:
- “How to” mitigate the need to store a week’s worth of water: Many scenarios require having enough water stored to support a family of X size for Y number of days. Pending your scenario assessment, this might be 50 plus gallons for one week. Generally, suburban neighborhoods are not on well water. We are at the mercy of the utility system. The good news is that most systems will continue to provide clean water even if utility workers are stuck at home for days. However, some scenarios should plan for water pressure to end 48 hours after an event or be viewed as contaminated, pending how the local sewer systems work during power outages. In this case, knowing where the main water turnoff valve in your house (in case of contamination) is important. (Hint: Generally, it’s inside the home along the water pipe between the water heater and the outer wall.) The average four bedroom home has a water heater that is 40-60 gallons in size that will provide clean water through the drain valve at the bottom of the water heater even if no water pressure from the utility company is forcing water to your sinks. Turn a faucet on upstairs to break the plumbing vacuum and allow water to flow out the water heater drain that you just opened. Additionally, for those homes that have a chest freezer, a good technique is to fill empty (clean) plastic one-gallon milk jugs and freeze them. Just don’t fill them all the way, due to water freezing and expanding. If your freezer is half full of food, then frozen gallon jugs of water fill the void, helping your freezer operate efficiently during normal use while providing ice blocks as a temperature moderator if the power goes out for several days. In return, you then have drinkable water already stored. (I have on average five to ten gallons frozen at any given time.)
- “How to” mitigate medical needs: All scenarios have risks, and in many cases the probability of injury or medical need increases during common and extreme threat scenarios. Most homes have a basic first aid kit. You can supplement that with the first aid kits from personal vehicles likely parked in the garage. However, families should stockpile trauma supplies and kits knowing that deep cuts, burns, broken bones and other emergencies will have to be temporarily treated at home. The easy solution is to slowly buy kits and supplies, building up the desired stockpile. Generally, supplies do not go bad. If they do, let your children play with the bandages as training aids. This will help reduce their anxiety when they have to first use the supplies in a real emergency. Also, encourage your children to want to take basic first aid/CPR classes when age appropriate and then make it a yearly event as a family to get re-trained.
- “How to” prepare your personal vehicle for better support you in a time of need: A lot of effort goes into preparing for worst-case scenarios by stockpiling items at our homes. But like many suburban commuters, we spend the majority of the work week away from the home, either on the road or in the office. To mitigate the risk that you might not be able to drive home (catastrophic gridlock, EMP, major attack, or something else), you should be prepared to walk home. Therefore, an inexpensive backpack, pair of old shoes or combat boots, change of socks, old gloves, garbage bags for wet weather, and other items not normally found in a personal vehicle can greatly increase your odds of making the journey home safe. The backpack basically becomes a stuff sack for potentially useful items from the office or your vehicle to assist you on your trip. These might include bottles of water, office snacks, vehicle first aid kit, road flares, flash lights, tools, maps, and other items.
There are many more mitigating fundamentals that are common to less and extreme threats that may impact the average suburban American. Instead of a one week scale for the winter storm, example scenarios might depict a three week period of no electricity during warmer weather. For example, a hypothetical financial crisis might result in no electronic access to banking funds (no ATM access) for several days or an extreme shutdown of commerce for weeks. In this case, the logistics of getting food to store shelves ceases, regardless if you have cash. While there are no weather concerns, other outcomes in the A, B, C, and D scenario worlds will be different, and common mitigation might be the same. The indictors would likely be different, but the process of analytical thinking will be the same, such as: having an inexpensive shortwave radio receiver (stored in an anti-static bag or faraday cage for safe keeping) allowing you to get news of events in the case of a regional or nationwide event where cellular, antenna based, and cable services will likely be disrupted, or having additional cash on hand to pay local merchants even if there is no power (no charge card use) and no electronic access to bank funds (no ATM withdrawals).
Knowing the basic methodology to develop threat scenarios and assess and then develop mitigation plans will reduce risk and fear. The use of structured thinking to plan against and mitigate threats is a great technique for all. You do not have to have special training or experience to follow this process.