Flash news!
Home arrow Survival Articles arrow General Survival Articles arrow Disaster Survival Skills for the Urban Environment
Disaster Survival Skills for the Urban Environment PDF Print E-mail

Arlington County ACS-RACES 
Operator Type III  
Annual Recertification 
Unit 1 

Disaster Survival Skills

for the Urban






  • Why teach “survival” in the city?
  • Catastrophes vs. disasters
    • This is about your SURVIVAL, not volunteering
  • Priorities for human survival
  • Break-out sessions:
    • Shelter construction
    • Fire making
    • Signaling
  • Equipment and supplies
  • Social implications of disasters
    • Personal security concerns 




“Disaster ” versus “Catastrophe” 

Disasters are short term

“Make do for 3-4 days until help arrives…” 

Catastrophic events are long term

    • Katrina-scale hurricane, tsunami, earthquake
    • Major terror attack, nuclear detonation, dirty bomb
    • No help is coming soon, “you are on your own”



    • Complete loss of civil infrastructure
    • Minimal or no police, fire or EMS response
    • No electricity, municipal water, communications
    • Transport of fuel / food is severely impaired
    • Public safety agencies will be overwhelmed
    • Recovery is long term (over 30 days)




What the military survival schools teach: 
Seven Priorities For Survival:  
“Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst” 

  • Positive mental attitude
  • First Aid / Sanitation
  • Shelter
  • Signaling
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Food





Positive Mental Attitude 
Situational awareness, basic knowledge and a “survivor’s mindset” enable you to cope effectively 

  • STOP
    • Calm down, and size up your situation…
    • Anticipate which hazards are most likely
    • Take stock of materials and resources around you
    • Orient yourself to your surroundings
  • PLAN
    • Select equipment and supplies appropriately
  • ACT!
    • Execute the plan, evaluate progress, adjust, go on.





Have an evacuation kit ready at all times 

  • Don't presume that a disaster will be short-term
  • Pack essentials first, then consider comfort items
  • In real emergences, forget last-minute purchases
  • Plan for more supplies than you “think” you may need
  • Inspect / renew your supplies each spring and fall
  • Provide entertainment for young children.




Use these six steps in problem solving 

  • Size Up ...your Situation
  • Determine... Objectives (stay or evacuate?)
  • Identify ...Resources (either stored supplies or salvaged materials from your surroundings)
  • Evaluate Options (use the safest way)
  • Build ...an action Plan (use your head)
  • Take ...Action
    • re-evaluate your action plan, adapt, improvise and overcome!





  • Maintain personal and family health
    • Prompt treatment reduces infection risk
    • Sanitation reduces risk of disease vectors
      • Water borne illnesses, diarrhea

Major cause of dehydration

  • Increases your survivability!




Disaster Injury Risk Factors 

  • Tool / equipment hazards, risk of hand, eye, head injuries, electric shock, chemical burns
  • Human factors, stress / fatigue
  • Structural instability
    • Trauma risk, falls, building collapse potential
  • Terrain, loose rock, fallen limbs, wet or insecure footing, risk of falls, puncture wounds and lacerations from debris.




Disaster Contamination 

  • Stagnant surface water
    • Mosquito harborage
  • Contaminated flood waters
    • Sewage treatment system overflow
    • Petroleum, industrial, agricultural chemical contamination
  • Airborne contaminants
    • Smoke, dust, toxic plume, or radioactive fallout.






  • Protection from the elements
  • Wind and rain resistant
  • Insulation from cold


The “Stay or Evacuate” Decision 
If evacuation is not mandatory, the same safety rules for entering a structure apply to using your home as shelter 


                DO NOT OCCUPY IF: 

    • There is structural damage (6 sides of the “box” are not plumb)
    • Utilities cannot be controlled
    • Structure was damaged in a fire


DO NOT occupy a floor that has been flooded, mold grows fast!



  • It’s usually best to relocate with friends or relatives who live outside of the affected area
  • Don't rely on government-run shelters
    • They are an “option of last resort” for those unable to evacuate
  • Evacuation route selection is important
  • Make sure your vehicle can carry essentials 
    • A huge “bug-out” vehicle is a handicap on crowded roads
    • It uses more fuel, which may be expensive / scarce in an emergency.
  • Don't plan on fuel being available en route
    • Once warned of potential event, keep your gas tank at least ¾ full
    • Carry extra fuel containers outside the vehicle




Evacuate or Stay Decision? 
Conclusion from FEMA Urban-Rural Evacuation State Planners Workshop Sept. 2006 


    â— Population of the DC Metro area

    â— Propensity to self-evacuate, overwhelmingly

       by automobile

    â— Wide distribution of evacuation destinations,

    â— Perceived vulnerability to terror attack,

       and anticipation of multiple attacks


    â— A large-scale, chaotic mass self-evacuation  should be anticipated. 


Sheltering at Home During an Emergency  
For using a building without working utilities as shelter 

  • Exhaust – candles, camp stoves, lanterns, generators, heaters, charcoal grills, all generate carbon monoxide and must not be used indoors!
  • Open flame – above ignition sources must never be left unattended!
  • Fuel – most of the above require flammable fuels to operate, which must be stored outdoors.
    • Use Fire Marshall approved fuel containers




Generator Safety Tips  
From the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

  • Carbon monoxide hazard!
    • Never use indoors or in attached garages!
    • Set up OUTDOORS in well ventilated, dry area
    • Away from open windows or HVAC air intakes
    • Under a canopy, open shed or carport
  • Electrocution Hazard!
    • Ground both the generator and equipment!
    • Plug only individual devices into generator
      • DO NOT connect into household AC!
    • UL-rated cords of gage adequate for load
  • Explosion / fire hazard!
    • Fuel vapors traveling along the ground can be ignited by switching equipment or appliance pilot lights!




Improvised Emergency Shelters 
As in all real estate, most important is location: 

  • Avoid low spots with poor drainage
  • Seek a gently sloped area so that surface water drains away
  • Sheltered from prevailing winds
  • Away from bodies of water (attracts insects and animals)
  • Insulated from direct contact with ground, rock, or concrete, which conducts away body heat.




Avoid as shelter 

  • Areas around downed utility lines
  • In or near culverts
  • Within the “collapse zone” of a damaged building
    • (maintain 2:1 ratio of distance away to building height)




Improvised Shelters 

  • Sheds
  • Tents
  • Tarps
  • Vehicles




Emergency Shelter Materials 
Salvage building materials from debris or from damaged structures only when it can be done safely 

  • TYVEK building wrap
  • Plastic sheeting
  • Roofing paper and shingles
  • Siding, plywood
  • Chain link fence
  • Lumber
  • Carpeting
  • Wire, rope, and fasteners




Build Your Shelter In Layers 

  • Structural framing, lumber, plywood, fencing, metal
  • Fasteners, reinforce structural connections with nails, wire or rope ties, wooden spikes
  • Water and wind proofing, TYVEK, plastic sheeting, tarp, shingles, roofing paper
  • Insulation, drywall, leaves, tree branches, carpeting, (may also be used as ballast to hold water/wind proofing layer in place)





  • Day
    • Mirror flashes – best daylight signal device
    • Smoke
    • Brightly colored cloth flag / panel (VS-17)
    • ICAO surface-to-air signals
  • Night
    • Flashing strobe light
    • Fire
    • Signal flares
  • Sound
    • Whistle, vehicle horn


V Require assistance

X Need medical


Y Yes - affirmative

N No - negative

I am proceeding

       in this direction 




Signal Mirror 

  • Simple, inexpensive, effective
  • Doesn’t rely on batteries or pyrotechnics
  • Visible from 5 to 10 miles in daylight





  • Maintains body temperature
  • Great morale booster
  • Deters wild animals and insects
  • Boils water
  • Cooks food
  • Used as day (smoke)
  • or night (light) signal




Fire making methods 

  • Matches or lighter
  • Flint and steel
    • Use cotton ball and petroleum jelly as tinder
  • Battery and steel wool
  • Burning lens






  • Minimum for drinking
    • 1 gallon per person, per day
  • More water is needed for
    • Cooking and food preparation
    • Personal hygiene, sanitation and decontamination
  • Store a two week supply as minimum
    • Food grade containers with screw caps
    • Away from direct sunlight




Emergency Water Sources 

  • Captive water in household hot water tank and interior plumbing is OK
  • Filter cloudy water to remove particulates, using an EPA-rated filter with a pore size ≤ 1 micron, then:
  • Disinfect with Clorox (6% sodium hypochlorite) add 8 drops of bleach per gallon if clear, 16 drops if cloudy, let water stand 15 minutes before use
  • Or boil vigorously for 15 minutes
  • Store potable water in clean containers.




All surface water is contaminated! 

  • All natural sources (from springs, ponds, rivers or streams) must be boiled or chemically disinfected.
  • Chemical disinfection or boiling
    • Kills bacteria and viruses
    • Doesn’t remove particulates or chemical pollutants
  • Filtration
    • Coffee filters, etc. remove gross particulates only
    • EPA-rated filters (pore size is smaller than 1 micron) are needed to remove bacteria, viruses and Giardia cysts, but don’t remove chemical pollutants.
  • Distillation is the most effective method.





  • Lowest of the seven survival priorities
  • Need is mostly mental, because we are used to eating regularly
  • Healthy people will do OK without food for a week or more, if they are well hydrated
  • Balanced nutrition is a more important health factor for elderly and infants.




Shelf life of foods stored in the home 

  • Food in a refrigerator is safe for a day after the power goes off, either use it in 24 hours or throw it away
  • Frozen food is safe if there are still ice crystals, once thawed, cook and consume it within 24 hours
  • Next use non-perishables and dry staples
  • Canned foods are best for long term storage (up to 4 years) but are heavy to transport and bulky to store
  • Dry packaged foods are easiest to transport
  • Choose foods requiring minimal preparation
  • Eat at least one balanced meal daily
  • Include nutritional supplements in supplies
  • Drink enough water.




Emergency Food supplies 

  • MREs, or Heater Meals®
  • Prepared survival rations
  • Primitive survival methods:
    • Fishing
    • Hunting
    • Trapping
    • Foraging





  • Folding utility knife or multi-tool
    • Scout type, Leatherman®, Swiss Army or Mil-K-818
  • Manual can opener
  • Sturdy fixed blade
    • For chopping, digging, or as pry bar
  • Shovel
  • Hand saw
  • Axe




Each person should have their own backpack of personal essentials 

  • Flashlight
  • Portable radio
  • Extra batteries
  • First Aid Kit, (containing a first aid manual)
  • Personal medications and sanitation supplies
  • Cooking and eating utensils
  • Wool blanket or sleeping bag for each person
  • Sturdy shoes and extra socks
  • Rain gear
  • Change of warm clothing and underwear
  • Items for special needs, care of infants





  • Electronic transactions, account verifications may be impossible
  • Evacuate with enough cash for at least two weeks of essentials
  • Carry account numbers, contact addresses and telephone numbers for all important persons and institutions
  • Helping one's unprepared friends and neighbors may prove expensive!





Cumulative psychological effects upon survivors  

  • Warn friends not to invite others to come evacuate with them
  • Never allow family members to be separated, even if it means waiting for later rescue and/or evacuation
  • The well prepared may be threatened by those who weren't
    • Make suitable provisions for ensuring your personal security and protection
    • If you keep firearms in the home, keep them well secured and take a safety course
  • When help arrives, you may get it “whether you want it or not”
  • Don't believe that all rescuers will respect your property
  • Relief workers from other States often don't know local laws
  • Relief organizations have their own bureaucratic requirements that may conflict with your needs
  • Expect frustration over lack of communication and empathy by rescuers and local/State government.




Sources for further information 



  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department
  • Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
  • Doug Ritter
  • Derek Rowan
  • University of Florida IFAS Extension
  • Virginia Cooperative Extension Service
  • Virginia Department of Emergency Management
  • Virginia Department of Health
  • Virginia RACES, Incorporated
  • Virginia Task Force One