Vass asked about emergency preparedness, which is an interest (and former occupation) of mine. If you click on the tags, you will find a number of stories in which cars and other objects burst into flames (this seems to happen often in my vicinity), and in which I locked myself in my bedroom, set my pants on fire while I was naked and dripping wet, etc. (Moral: Do NOTHING before coffee.)

Information about the physical aspects of emergency preparedness (what to have around, where to store it, what training to get) is widely available and also localized. What you need depends on what you're likely to face. I have no idea what to do in case of tornados, because we don't get them where I live; a resident of Louisiana doesn't need to know about earthquakes. So I'll skip that part and instead discuss psychology, which is universal.

My experience is that not very many people are interested in emergency preparation, on any level, but that the people who are interested are very interested. And also that the people who are not interested tend to think that the people who are interested are deluded - that there is no actual value in being prepared, but that it functions as a mere security blanket of false comfort. I can't tell you how many times I hear, "Well, if it makes you feel better..."

Naturally, I find this quite annoying. I have used my training and equipment many times, and have very likely saved at least one life. It does make me feel better, but that's not its sole purpose. I also find it aggravating that the security blanket implication suggests that anyone who needs it is a coward. People interested in emergency preparedness frequently either have dangerous jobs or live in dangerous areas - that's how they got interested in the first place. If you ever take a class geared toward people who are there voluntarily, rather than being required for work, there tends to be a heavy emphasis on not being foolishly heroic. That's because the people taking the class tend to rush toward the danger, rather than running away. You don't need to warn people about things they'd never do anyway.

(Those of us who are interested can also annoy those who are not. That tends to go in the direction of "Just wait, you'll come running to me to save you when things go south.")

The most important aspect of preparedness is psychological. The place you start is believing that bad things happen, that at some point they will happen in your vicinity, that you may well be capable of doing something that will have positive results, and that you want to do so. People often don't believe (or don't want to contemplate) any or all four of those ideas. But once you consciously believe all those things, everything else follows.

(Number three is conditional because there's always the possibility that, for instance, the first thing that happened in the earthquake was that a brick fell on your head.)

The first time or first few times you're in an emergency situation, it's natural to freeze. It's also natural to freeze if something completely unexpected happens, no matter how experienced you are. If you deal with similar situations regularly, you stop freezing. However, the important thing to remember about freezing is that it's normal (so don't blame yourself) and it's temporary (so don't panic).

The freeze reflex is there, I believe, to force you to evaluate the situation rather than blindly plunging into counterproductive action. If you recognize it as that, you can use it to your advantage. So you're standing there thinking, "Oh my God, what's going on?!" Remember that this is the freeze response. Stay where you are (or take cover, as relevant) and see if you can figure out what's going on and what you can and should do about it. You only need a few seconds to evaluate. Take those seconds.

Many emergency situations are simple. Many useful and lifesaving responses are simple. Call emergency services. If someone's bleeding a lot, stop it. If someone's in danger of being hit by incoming traffic, stop the traffic and (if they don't have a possible spinal injury) remove them to a safe area. If someone does have a possible spinal injury, don't let them move. If things are falling, take cover. Stay away from live wires, including any conductive substances the wires are touching. If someone's having a psychological crisis, stay calm, listen, and let them see your sincere concern. Don't be afraid to ask if someone is suicidal. If someone says they intend to harm someone, believe them. If you're not sure whether or not someone is in trouble, ask. Etcetera.
I feel a little weird mentioning this, since it's so ME ME ME. But seeing so many Boston folks checking in made me think of it.

Should anything really big ever go down in LA, assuming I'm not already caught up in it, I will probably get called up to go help out, and so will be offline and incommunicado. Should that be the case, please don't assume I'm dead or call my cell phone; I'll check in eventually or get a message to someone.
Yesterday I drove up to Mariposa, south of Yosemite, to visit my parents. I was on Highway 41, about ten minutes south of Coarsegold, in central California. The area has been hit by a heat wave, and it was 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Fresno, and 95 or 98 in Coarsegold. (Good time for you to not come, Sherwood!)

Highway 41 is narrow in that area, one lane going in either direction hemmed in by steep slopes studded with boulders, bushes, and the occasional spindly tree, and carpeted with grass and weeds as dry and brittle as straw. There's not enough of a shoulder to pull over without blocking a lane, except for limited stretches.

I turned a corner and saw a plume of smoke going up on the slope across from me. The hillside was on fire. It must have just caught, because it hadn't spread very far: scattered patches of small flames, and one large patch maybe twenty feet square. No trees had caught yet.

I should explain at this point that forest fires are both common and extremely dangerous in this area. Fire is part of the natural ecology, and one reason forest fires are so destructive now is that we suppress fires that, in theory, we ought to let burn, destroying the undergrowth and allowing the larger trees to flourish. (According to Walking Where We Lived: Memoirs of a Mono Indian Family, which I highly recommend, the Indians of the area understood this and selected which fires to fight and which to leave be.) However, at this point there are so many people living all over the place that any forest fire has the potential of spreading rapidly and uncontrollably, burning homes and sometimes killing people.

I pulled over at the first shoulder, where another woman had already pulled over and was calling 911. She said she couldn't get through. I got through on my cell phone and reported it. The dispatcher said fire trucks were on their way. I listened, but I didn't hear sirens. The fire was fairly small at that point, but I have seen how fires can go from tiny to gigantic in a flash. I waited a moment, but no trucks appeared.

I got my fire extinguisher out of the trunk of my car, but a glance across the highway told me the fire was already too big for one extinguisher. So I got out my emergency blanket (a queen-sized flannel sheet) and emergency water, and soaked the sheet in the water. I would have liked to soak my hair and clothes too, but I didn't have enough water.

I grabbed the extinguisher and sheet, stopped traffic, and started to run across the highway. This was where I hit the first snag: a queen-sized flannel sheet soaked in a gallon of water is really heavy and awkward, especially when you're carrying something else in your other hand. It tripped me up, and I had to drop it or drop the extinguisher. I dropped the sheet in the middle of the highway, glanced to make sure all the cars were still stopped, then managed to scoop it up and get across the road.

I stood on the narrow strip of blacktop between the burning slope and the highway. The fire, of course, had already spread quite a bit in the two minutes or so I had taken to make my preparations and get there. Smoke was billowing up and blowing across me, and flakes of gray ash floated all around in the air. I dropped the sheet, yanked the safety pin out of the fire extinguisher, and aimed it at the main area of the fire. Suppressant shot out and billowed like smoke itself. I put out an area about ten or fifteen feet square, and then the extinguisher ran out. Its range was only about six feet, and the spreading edge of the fire was far past that, upslope where I couldn't get to it. But there were a bunch of isolated patches burning on different parts of the slope, within reach.

I put down the extinguisher, picked up the sheet, and started smothering those patches. The sheet, as I mentioned, was very heavy and hard to use. If I'd had time and scissors, I would have been better off cutting it in half or even in quarters. Also, I couldn't slap it down, or I'd send up a flurry of sparks, which might catch other areas or my clothes. I smothered a couple patches, working for no more than five minutes, when the heat dried the sheet and the sheet caught fire. I ditched it on the slope and surveyed the scene.

Since I'd arrived, a 15 or 20 foot tree had caught fire. It was upslope, far out of reach and partially blocked by boulders, so I hadn't even seen that it had been at risk. But in the few minutes I'd been there, it had become completely engulfed in flames. The heat became much more intense, and the acrid smoke had thickened. I could still breathe easily, but I could feel that that wouldn't be the case if I stuck around.

There was obviously nothing more I could do, so I stopped traffic again and ran back to my car. Standing at the shoulder, I saw that the fire had jumped the highway, and a plume of smoke was going up from the slope on the same side as my car, across from the larger fire. I waited a couple more minutes, just to make sure that the fire department showed up, and then three fire trucks pulled up. There wasn't much room on the road and I didn't want to get in their way, so I got in my car and left.

I was soaked in sweat - my hair drenched an inch out from the scalp, and my shirt soaked through. That was from the heat, and probably some from exertion; I don't sweat a lot just from adrenaline when I'm awake. I'd inhaled some smoke, and my lungs felt sodden for a few hours, as if I was getting over a bad chest cold. I worried about heat exhaustion, so I cranked the air conditioning all the way, drank the bottled water I had in my car, went to a gas station, drank a big bottle of gatorade, and then hung out in an air-conditioned shop for an hour before continuing on my way. (I'm fine! No burns, no anything.)

I searched the net for fire reports, but found nothing. I assume that means the fire department got it. I'd like to think that my small contribution was helpful - I may well have stopped it from spreading laterally, though I couldn't stop it from spreading uphill. I'm satisfied with what I did, and I do not feel traumatized. In fact, after my last emergency, in which I felt that I could have done better, I feel that I redeemed myself. My medical emergency skills may have been shaky, but my fire skills - honed by an absurd amount of practice for a civilian - are still intact.

If you live in a fire hazard area, it would be wise to put a fire extinguisher in your car. I'm taking my parents today to buy one. I'm getting two for myself.

Kidde FA110 Multi Purpose Fire Extinguisher 1A10BC
rachelmanija: (Princess Bride: Let me sum up)
( Jun. 16th, 2012 09:55 pm)
Today I fought a forest fire.

Details tomorrow. It was on the way to Mariposa (where I am now.) I am really tired (and had a shower, a Gatorade, and a beer). My shirt is lying on the side of the sink, reeking of smoke.
Literally. This year's Hanukkah party was livened up when I smelled something burning. A search of the house (not my house) revealed that a decorative peacock feather wreath had fallen on to a sturdy metal candelabra and was merrily flaming away. I smothered it with a wet dishcloth.

A few Christmases ago (my step-family is Christian) I was at their place when a candle on a mantelpiece fell against a huge oil painting hung over the mantelpiece, setting that on fire. I smothered that one with a cloth napkin.

And then there was the incident which can be found by clicking the "naked and dripping wet" tag. There is a reason why I have a fire extinguisher in my car!
rachelmanija: (Heroes: Save the world)
( Oct. 13th, 2008 02:51 pm)
I managed to not check the news yesterday or today, and so drove up to Santa Barbara via the 101 to retrieve a futon from my parents' place without realizing that two gigantic forest fires are burning in LA county, destroying some homes and killing one person in the fire and another in a related car accident.

First I drove under a huge cloud of smoke near Chatsworth, then I hit another, much bigger cloud at Thousand Oaks. The sky was an absolutely uniform orange-brown, and the light was deep sepia. It was an effect that one of my old Red Cross co-workers used to call "nuclear winter." I considered turning around, but it looked like that would be more likely to strand me on the freeway than continuing on my way would.

I am now in Santa Barbara trying to figure out how to get back as planned tomorrow. I would like to get to San Dimas. This would be my normal route:

I think this works, as it avoids the 210 between the 5 and the 118, which is a section of the 210 now closed down. But it comes pretty close to it. I wonder if it would be better to take the 101 S to the 10 E to San Dimas-- anyone have any thoughts on that? (Of course I'll check again before I actually leave.)
This weekend while driving in Pasadena I turned the corner and saw a plume of smoke. An SUV in a parking lot had flames erupting from the hood. No one was visible anywhere nearby.

I pulled over across the street, grabbed my fire extinguisher, and ran to the crosswalk. Two security guards ran up from the general direction of the burning SUV, and began stopping traffic.

I ran up to one and said, "Is anyone inside that vehicle?"

He said, "No. And I don't think you should get near it-- a fire truck is on its way, and that fire is getting bigger by the second."

I retreated across the street. There was a loud explosion from the SUV. The whole thing became enveloped in flames. The fire truck pulled up and extinguished it. They broke the windows and opened the doors, and smoke billowed out in great gray puffs. I then had a very bad moment when it occurred to me that I should have asked the guard the follow-up question, "Did you check?" But the firefighters didn't pull anyone out and I waited for quite a while, so I assume there had not been anyone inside.

When I later recounted this to Adrian (who is still in Denver), it occurred to me that perhaps burning vehicles are less uncommon than I imagined, and it is not so odd that I would have encountered this phenomenon three times.

"How many burning vehicles have you seen in your life?" I asked him.

"None," he replied. "So I leave for a week, and you get an earthquake and a flaming SUV... you just can't be left alone, can you?"

Public service announcement # 1: Vehicles do not normally catch fire following a crash! If a crashed vehicle is not burning and there are no other urgent safety hazards, do not attempt to extract the occupants or exit the vehicle! Crash victims should stay where they are and not move until medical personnell can make sure their spines are stabilized.

Public service announcement # 2: If a vehicle is already burning, especially if the engine is on fire, be aware that the fire can and probably will spread really fucking quickly. (This goes for non-vehicular fires as well.) I've now seen this happen twice. Get the hell out or get anyone inside out as fast as you can.

Scientific Livejournal Poll!

Burning vehicle poll )
In case that was a large earthquake elsewhere rather than a smallish one (maybe a 5?) nearby... I'm fine. Nothing broken. That was long, though.

ETA: Hmmm. The LA Times server just went down, probably from 9.6 million Angelenos hitting it to find out about the quake. But there's nothing on CNN or Google news. Must not have been that big.

ETA II: 5.8, epicenter near Chino Hills (LA County, not LA City; near Pomona.) No damage or injuries have been reported.

ETA III: Just downgraded to estimated 5.4.

ETA IV: What to do during an earthquake:
If anyone has any questions or quibbles with their recs, I'd be happy to discuss them. There are a lot of myths and outdated recommendations floating around.
This afternoon I walked into my local Japanese market to check for anime figurines when I noticed that a microwave contained a small but enthusiastically flaming container.

My first reaction, as is common with me in such situations, was to wonder whether this was actually intended. My second was to try to get the attention of a checkout clerk. This failed, possibly because I spoke quietly in the desire to not shout "fire!" in a mildly crowded market.

I then hit what I surmised was the "off" button. The microwave shut off. The container burned even more enthusiastically. I tried to get the attention of another employee, failed, then grabbed the arm of a closer one and pointed, saying, "HEY! The microwave's on fire!" He looked, then took off, presumably in search of help and/or a fire extinguisher.

Then two customers, to whom the flaming rice bowl belonged, opened the door and tried to blow it out. I helped them. The employee returned and helped them. Finally, it went out. Flakes of charred styrofoam floated about, and the repulsive chemical stench of burnt styrofoam permeated the air.

"You shouldn't put styrofoam in a microwave," said the employee.

"It says, 'place container in microwave,'" protested the customer.

Realizing that no one seemed inclined to, say, offer me a free anime figurine for sounding the alarm, I left them to their argument over the charred-- yet still largely frozen-- bowl of theoretically microwaveable teriyaki chicken and rice.
[ profile] yhlee wrote a partial report... however, it's part of her massively spoilery and awesome review of Gundam Wing episodes 16-20, spoil her for later developments and be nuked from orbit. So as to not spoil you, I will excerpt the non-Gundam portions:

"After this, [ profile] rachelmanija and I went to Thai Town in L.A. Or we tried to. Apparently I exert an anti-direction-sense field (as Joe will tell you, I am kind of notorious for having no sense of direction whatsobloodyever) because despite [ profile] rachelmanija having lived in L.A. for 11 years, my field caused her to get on the wrong highway (freeway? thingy). We ended up at La Tuna Canyon or something, although we saw some nice scenery along the way, and dramatic clouds [photographed at bottom of spoilery post].


"We had dinner at Thai Town, sharing three dishes that were all fantastic even though I have already forgotten their names. The soup was very garlicky and had ground pork balls, which I totally approve of."


"Oh! On the way to Thai Town, we spotted smoke and people running across the street. Rachel, who is very prepared and keeps a fire extinguisher in her car (I tell you, if there is ever an apocalypse, I know who I'm calling for assistance), was ready to pull over and help. Then we got a little closer and saw that (a) the people had been running just to get across the street and (b) the billowing smoke, which really was impressive, came from a barbecue. :-D"

Then in comments, [ profile] oyceter details how last month, I was attacked by a deadly morning glory during lunch:

"Oh! Did you guys order deadly stir-fried morning glories? When Rachel took me to Thai Town, we did, which resulted in the following scene:

We were peacefully eating (by which I mean, cackling insanely over various cracktastic elements and probably squeeing about Riff and Cain), when suddenly, Rachel turned a funny color and spit something out across the table. I being used to the dangers of eating assorted spicy foods assumed that she had chomped down on a chili pepper.

"Are you ok?" I asked her.

She made funny flailing motions with her hands and gulped down half of her glass of water, confirming my theory about the chomping of a chili pepper. I was about to say something about how water just spreads around capsaicins (sp) and makes it worse and to try and flag the waitress for rice because I learn everything from Alton Brown when Rachel suddenly reached over for the vinegar bottle.

"Huh," I thought. "Maybe it is not a chili pepper. I do not think I've heard of this."

"Are you ok?" I asked again.

She flailed some more, and then began to shake the vinegar bottle to get several drop of vinegar on her plate. She stared down at her plate in consternation (I probably should have said something, except I was so boggled by the vinegar!), and then picked up her chopsticks and started dabbing at the little vinegar puddle. Her eyes darted around in desperation.

Completely boggled, I started looking around the table for something, as we had no starchy things, and was contemplating handing over the giant bowl of what I thought was sugar when she reached into her glass, scooped up the lemon slice, and popped it in her mouth (peel included), chewed and swallowed.

"Pepper!" she finally gasped. "I ate a pepper!"

Later on, she was like, "Wow, you must have thought I was insane for spitting something out on the table!"

"No," I said. "I sort of figured it was a pepper. But the vinegar was really confusing...."
rachelmanija: (Heroes: Save the world)
( Jan. 28th, 2007 11:12 am)
I am now an official member of CERT. I have an official green vest with big white letters!

Yesterday we did a big disaster simulation. We were informed that a large earthquake had struck, there were an unknown number of victims inside a room, and we had sixty seconds to choose an incident commander. I cleverly avoided reminding anyone of my prior experience, squelched the woman who attempted to nominate me, let someone else be picked as the search and rescue team leader, and then instantly volunteered for his team. (The IC and team leaders are supposed to stay out of the fray, so they do not get to practice debris removal, lifting victims, triage, etc.)

At the last class, one of the firefighters had suggested that before we approach a disaster site, we take a deep breath and remind ourselves, "This disaster is not my fault. Anything I do will be a bonus." And then formulate a plan before charging in. This is great advice, but did not entirely work out. The team leader did remember to put up a sign on the door saying it was being searched and who was in there. And I did stand at the door before anyone went in and yelled, twice, "THIS IS THE EMERGENCY RESPONSE TEAM! IF YOU CAN WALK, PLEASE GET UP, FOLLOW THE SOUND OF MY VOICE, AND WALK OUT!"

And then it all became slightly chaotic. We should have all proceeded right to left in an orderly fashion, but when me and my partner went right, the other team instantly went left, and then everyone proceeded to scatter all over. I had given my pen and paper to the team leader so he could make his sign, so I had no way of marking the victims as we had no triage tags, so everyone kept having to re-evaluate them. The room was unlit and full of overturned furniture and screaming victims (other class-members, plus a couple fire department volunteers) trapped beneath things, plus one ringer, a deceased mannequin. I triaged all the victims (or so I thought) then returned to the one who needed immediate care.

That a large man who demonstrated his decreased mental status by insisting, in French, that his name was Dick Cheney. We first tried to manually lift him, but realized that would probably cause back strain. Then we tried a chair lift. The chair broke when we put him in it, to his visible chagrin, although he was not so heavy that he broke the chair even though that's what it looked like-- the chair must have been broken when they were setting up the room. Then two rescuers got him on a blanket and did a blanket drag. They didn't need me and my buddy for that, so we went to the next victim and blanket-dragged him back to the treatment area, which was in another room and where the IC seemed extremely harried.

At that point the search and rescue team leader informed us that all victims had been removed to treatment except the corpse. He asked the IC if we should take the corpse to the morgue, the IC said yes, so me and my buddy went to collect it. That was when we discovred that it was not a light Red Cross mannequin, but a Fire Department one which simulated the weight of an actual person. I switched places with my buddy, so I got the legs and he got the shoulders, and we hauled the corpse to the morgue, thoughtfully avoiding walking it through the treatment area so as not to upset the other victims.

We returned to our team leader to see if he wanted us to be re-assigned... and were informed that there was a missing victim, and dispatched to search for her. We found her hiding in a room, where she was hostile and started screaming at us. We were attempting to calm her down and assess her mental status when the exercise was concluded. It turned out that she had been on the other side of the room (which was why I never saw her) and had been fine once the desk trapping her was removed. But once she was left unattended, a firefighter instructed her that her mental status had deteriorated and she should go hide somewhere. (He was wandering around making things harder for everyone, such as informing the fire suppression squad that the fire they had put out had started up again, and telling previously stable patients to suddenly go into shock.) Luckily the IC did a head count and realized that someone was missing.

Then we did a lengthy debriefing. Actually, for twenty hours of training, I thought it went pretty well, despite the lack of organization. Plus it was gratifying to see that a former Army medic in the class also fell prey to the tempation to rush about without planning, and was rushing about without planning just like everyone else. One of the firefighters asked me why I hadn't been the IC, and I rather guiltily explained that I had wanted to do search and rescue so neglected to tell anyone of my prior experience. I assured him that in a real disaster I would let people know what my credentials were.

And then we got our shiny official vests!

ETA: CERT is a nationwide program in the USA. If you live there, you can find a program near you here:

If you do not live in the USA, similar programs probably exist under different names.
Several people have inquired about this icon. Here is the origin story for "naked and dripping wet."

When I was in grad school, I had a job interview at 7:30 am. I am not a morning person. I mean, I am really not a morning person. So when, having woken up that morning at 6:30 and found that my nice burgundy pants that I meant to wear to the interview were still not dry from having been washed the night before, I decided that it would be a really good idea to dry them as I showered by draping them over my tall halogen lamp.

Just as I began to shampoo my hair, the fire alarm went off. I dashed into the living room, and found that my pants, still draped atop the lamp, had burst into flames. I yanked them off the lamp, and they came apart into three flaming pieces, one of which remained in my hands but the other two of which flew off in opposite directions and set my carpet on fire in two places. I hurled the piece I was wearing into the kitchen sink, turned on the faucet, grabbed the second piece, which was by the front door, and hurled it into the hallway, where it set the hall carpet on fire and made the fire alarms for the entire building go off.

I ran into the bathroom, grabbed a totally inadequate towel to attempt to cover my nakedness, retrieved the third flaming pant piece from the carpet, flung it into the sink, dumped water over the carpet fires, went into the now smoke-filled hallway, grabbed the still flaming last pant piece, and hurled it onto the fire escape. People kept opening their doors, then closing them. I got more water, put out the hall fire, then went to the fire escape where the pants were still burning, but had not set the fire escape on fire because that was metal. Then I put the last flaming pant piece out.

I didn't get the job.

When I was later telling my grad class about the incident, one of my classmates interrupted to say, with a lascivious look in his eye, "So the whole time, you were naked and dripping wet?"

"Pretty much," I said.

The postscript to this story is that the apartment manager fled to Mexico along with his family and everyone's files seven hours before the cops busted in his apartment for selling crack out of his apartment. Consequently, I told the new management team that my burned carpet had been like that when I moved in, and that marked the only time I've ever gotten my security deposit back, although it was also the only time I've ever damaged an apartment I rented.

I have other tales of disasters that occurred while I was naked and dripping wet, but I have to get to work now. They all happened pre-morning coffee.


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