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Preparing for Disaster: Go-Bags for Cops
Look back just a few years to see exactly how easy it is for our society to break down in the face of disaster, degenerating into anarchy and chaos. A catastrophe can happen anywhere in the world, at any time. When a disaster occurs, it is the first responders who will be charged with maintaining order and beginning the rescue process.
Those who are on duty at the time of the incident will be needed immediately, and the need will likely be for many, many hours to come. Normal tours of duty will be extended; normal patrol activities will cease. The support services that help us all to do our jobs will be unavailable, and the officers will, essentially, be left on their own for some time—left to fend for themselves in terms of basic needs and resupply.
Officers around the country have begun to ask themselves, “What would I do if that happened here?” Truth be told, most of them have done very little pre-planning for such a situation. Most would have to suffice with the equipment they have in their cars, in their “war bags” and on their person, as resupply would be impossible.
Preparedness is something the Department of Homeland Security is heavily encouraging. While civilians are taught to be prepared with at least three days worth of food and water, how many officers on patrol carry the same with them, or know where to find it if necessary?
In addition to food and water, what other items would be required for an officer to continue to be effective? Batteries for communication systems, lights and other devices would need to be recharged or acquired. Expendable items like flares and first aid supplies would need to be replenished. Fuel would need to be found and acquired along with all of the other supplies a police department uses each day.
A growing number of officers have begun carrying, or at least having available to them, “disaster bags” pre-packed with the materials required to keep them functional for a number of days without having to be resupplied or becoming a burden on resources already stretched thin. Once packed, the bag can be secured in the trunk of the officer’s squad car or in a locker on station for easy access. While many say this pre-positioning of supplies is a good idea, few have given thought to what really needs to be packed.
The basic needs of any human include food, water and shelter. This is not a bad starting point for a police officer’s disaster bag. An officer who is expected to not only survive in the aftermath of a disaster, but also be prepared to assist the other unfortunate victims, needs more than the basics.
If history is any indication, in a large-scale disaster it will be days before help can come from the “outside world.” You should be prepared for at least three days without help. In your normal tour of duty, what exactly do you use? How much water do you consume in one shift? In one day? In three days? How much do you eat? What products do you use each shift that you consider vital to your operations?
Radios, cell phones, flashlights, TASERs and weapon-mounted optics all require batteries. All will be in heavy use during a major disaster, and all will be in equally short supply. Looking back at the events in the New Orleans area immediately following Hurricane Katrina, you can see how pre-packed supplies can potentially make a difference between life and death.
Choosing the actual bag is not all that difficult as there are a number of good options on the market. While there are several styles to consider, including messenger and active shooter bags, one would be well advised to pick something that can be worn comfortably for extended periods without inflicting fatigue. Here, a backpack rules supreme. Choose a pack that is large enough to contain the supplies you need but also small enough to be stored inside your locker or squad car trunk.
Now consider what your pack should contain. Water and food will be a problem post-disaster, so sure to have both. Water is heavy and takes up a lot of room, but it is also the most important survival item as without water a human will rapidly fade. You can last many days without food and still remain effective to some degree; the same cannot be said of water.
Some form of water purification should also be considered, which might be as simple as water purification tablets, available from a variety of sources, or a water purifying filter—both of which are relatively inexpensive.
Food, whether in the form of compact, high-calorie nutrition such as a power bar, or a ready-to-eat military meal (MRE), should definitely be in your pack. Not only will this help to fuel your body, but it will also improve your morale, which is most certainly to be at an all-time low.
Injured people will be everywhere. Communications will be severed to a great degree and thus access to ambulances and other emergency medical care will become limited or nonexistent, therefore a well-prepared pack will contain some first aid supplies. You should pack more than the basics. Be sure to include significant trauma care supplies, including a tourniquet and wound-packing material. Hand sanitizer and other over-the-counter medical items like Tylenol or Aspirin as well as medicines for allergies, stomach upset or diarrhea should be included, as a relatively minor ailment can have immense consequences.
As more than a few officers who were in the midst of the devastation of Katrina found out, spare ammunition could be a definite need. Depending on departmental policy, carrying an extra box or two of ammunition in your disaster pack could be a very good idea. Likewise, extra pistol and rifle magazines as well as a small firearms cleaning kit, including lube, could be lifesavers—make sure you have them.
As a good number of the essential items require batteries, multiple spares should be on hand. Waiting until after a disaster to try to find the 3-volt lithium batteries that power most of the popular flashlights now in use by police officers is a recipe for failure. Have extras handy. While these are not cheap, they have a shelf life of approximately a decade if stored correctly and will be worth their weight in gold in any disaster scenario.
Also carry a AA-battery-powered light as a back-up.
Having a couple of morale boosters is a good idea. While law enforcement communications will most likely be affected, a small battery-powered, portable AM/FM radio could help gain information being broadcasted from outside the immediate area. A small radio should be included with your kit, along with some basic clothing items such as socks, underwear and T-shirts.
Baby wipes for personal cleansing purposes have proven beneficial in combat zones around the world where U.S. troops have been deployed.
Finally, try to imagine the environment you will find yourself in post-event. Rubble and destroyed buildings will abound. You will be called upon to do many things that are not normally within your functions. Having some basic tools such as bolt cutters, pliers, an adjustable crescent wrench, a hammer, a pry bar and a good strong fixed-blade knife could prove to be life-saving. Do not forget a pair of good gloves to protect your hands while you go about assisting others. You cannot afford to become a casualty yourself.
Police officers are the cornerstone of our society. In a disaster situation, the public will lean even more heavily upon law enforcement, as they will seek the safety and normalcy that only we can provide. Being ready to survive and continue to serve your community is crucial, as many lives will depend on what is done within the first few hours following an event. Long before outside resources can reach the victims, law enforcement officers will be out amongst the destruction, making a life-saving difference.
Scott Oldham is a lieutenant with the Bloomington, Ind., Police Department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Law and Order, May 2011
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