An emergency can come in many different forms and strike at any time. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU health science professor Dr. Jameelah Powell about emergency preparedness. Whether it’s an earthquake, pandemic, hurricane, snowstorm, house fire, or just a broken-down vehicle, it’s important to be prepared so you can get through any emergency situation. Learn what to include in an emergency kit, the importance of developing an emergency contact plan, suggestions for talking to children about emergencies, and more.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Dr. Jameelah Powell, faculty in the School of Health Sciences, and our conversation today is about emergency preparedness. Welcome, Jameelah.
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Thank you. Thank you for having me back again.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Of course, it’s always wonderful having you, and today it’s an important topic and it’s something that a lot of people don’t think about until they have an emergency. So what are some types of emergency preparedness out there?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Absolutely. I think what you said is probably what I’ve heard many times. Folks are really not prepared until something happens. And I did a lot of presentations on this when I worked for the Department of Public Health, a lot of emergency preparedness, I’d go to communities, work sites, and things like that.
Because believe it or not anywhere you are, you need to be prepared whether that’s driving in your car or at your job site or at home. And I think you just need to be aware of the types of emergencies that are out there in your community.
So, I live in LA, so I know one of the natural disasters is earthquakes, there’s also floods and landslides. I don’t actually live in an area that has those types of things, but they’re pretty close to home and not far away. But, of course, there are other natural disasters, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis.
And then there’s these manmade disasters, bioterrorism, things like nuclear explosions. I know just a little while ago, there was some sort of oil spill or some sort of chemical release in the environment in a city not too far from here, and they were advising the residents not to go outside because the smell was terrible. And so, something like that is when you’d probably need to shelter at home, in place.
And then there are those regular sort of emergencies that can happen to anybody, household fires. I think a lot of people don’t think about that. Just a fire is considered an emergency because you are now displaced and some things that you may have cherished are now gone. So I always tell people, everybody, it doesn’t matter where you live, you are always vulnerable to an emergency, so it’s always better to be prepared.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is great advice. And what you said that we’re vulnerable. I think as humans, we are delightfully optimistic, which is not a bad thing. It’s good to be optimistic about always looking towards the future about opportunity, but one of the realities is that there always will be emergencies.
And just like you said, in California and southern California, there’s the real threat of earthquakes. Me and my family, we live in Arizona, we’re pretty close to California, but our earthquake threat is pretty low. And we actually had one just a little while ago, and we never have earthquakes and basically we heard something shake for about half a second and then it was done. And then later we found out it was an earthquake.
But, in Arizona, amazingly, we don’t have that many potential emergencies besides the heat. And that’s one of the things as we go into the summer, those who live in hotter climates, and especially desert climates, you have to prepare, just in case your air conditioner goes out, with lots of water. And so that leads us to how do you make an emergency plan?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Well, I think, again, depending on where you live and the type of emergency to see that you could be exposed to, I think extreme temperatures are always, again, an area that people are always vulnerable. Even in LA, over the summer, there were I think 106 degrees easy in some areas that aren’t used to that. And I think we have to be very cautious for our elderly people, folks with disabilities and just people who may immunocompromised systems, it’s really important to consider them when we’re doing these plans.
So that was one of the things I wanted to make sure I mentioned is to not forget your pets, and not to forget people with special needs. So, if you have toddlers or if you have babies that require baby essentials or baby items, please make sure that you are including that in your plan.
And I think one of the main things that people really need to plan is what are you going to do in an emergency? If you are all not in the same place, is there a meeting place? That’s one of the main things you want to figure out is, how are you going to find people?
We had a very small earthquake here several years ago and all of the cell phone towers were kind of down and people weren’t able to contact one another. And it was kind of scary, because what you’re used to doing is being able to pick up your cell phone and say, “Hey, how are you?” And people weren’t able to do that. And there was so much panic, and there was frenzy, and it was like chaos for, I want to say maybe about an hour or two.
And so, one of the things that up would help alleviate that is if you have an out-of-state contact, because then you can use a landline and everybody can just sort of check in with that one person and say, “Hey Susan, did you hear from such and such?” And they can say, “Yes,” and then you can continue to check in with that out-of-state contact, because that way there’s just one person, there’s just one source, and there doesn’t have to be like this unnecessary stress.
So I think it’s important to make sure that you know one, where’s your meeting place. If you are displaced for some reason, where’s the place that you’re going to find each other. But, also, if you aren’t able to do that, who are you going to contact?
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is really good advice, because, honestly, I had forgotten about that. I think we’re so tethered to our cell phones as providing what we do day-to-day, amazingly. But what happens if the towers go down? And having a plan, and it really does, having an emergency plan, doesn’t have to be like this whole sketched out thing where it’s a flow chart and X, Y, and Z. And that’s the important thing, because if humans could predict emergencies, there would never be a disaster or an emergency. It’s not something that anybody can really plan for it to actually happen, and that’s why having some sort of preparedness is important.
What are some other things, say, just in the house that you can have that’s very actionable that people can do for say a variety of emergencies? And, for example, when COVID first hit, and obviously COVID has been very bad, there were runs on various products and food stuffs, and it really made my wife and I think, well, we should have some water, we should have some beans, just in case something happens next. And I’m not saying you need a bunker with six months of supplies, not at all.
But what are some things that we can have in our house just in case another pandemic happens? And there’s a run on supplies, I’ll say a slightly irrational run, but people can be irrational. And how can we prepare for that?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Sure. It’s a really good question. I think part of that chaos at the height of COVID was people panicking and because they weren’t prepared. I think one of the things that you should always have is canned food. Canned food is always something that people should have around and something that has a long shelf life, not something that’s going to expire fairly soon. You need to have a manual can opener, obviously, because if the utilities aren’t working, your electricity isn’t working, you’re not going to be able to use that fancy can opener that you may have.
I think one of the other things that I wanted to mention as part of your plan was to make sure that you know how to shut off your utilities. That’s something that’s really important because if something is leaking gas, you actually are creating another emergency if you aren’t able to shut that valve off or shut off those utilities.
So what goes in with that is tools. You need to have some tools that are accessible to you so that you can shut off that valve, and some of them have emergency, they’re like automatic shut-off valves. Like in an earthquake, we have one where when it shakes, it will turn off automatically. But I think people do need to be aware of, how does my house work? What do I need to do in case of an emergency? How can I shut these off? And that needs to be assigned to someone. So whoever’s in the house, dad, it’s your job. But if dad’s not here, mom, it’s your job. So I think we all have to assign responsibility and a role when we have these plans, especially if you’re doing like an evacuation, who does what? Who’s grabbing the dog? Who’s grabbing the baby? Who’s grabbing the kids? So I think canned food, manual can opener, and, of course, tools and water.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Water, for sure. And it makes me then go to the next question: How to make an emergency kit. So including what we’ve already talked about, what kind of medical equipment should we have, being a nurse? How does a layperson, who’s not a medical person? How can they prepare with the best possible resources to help them?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Well, the first thing to consider, to make sure that you have is if there are people in your house that have medical issues, make sure there’s extra medication, because if you’re not able it out to get their medication, because you’re not able to get to the CVS. Sometimes they say you need to have supplies for three days, so you at least need to have like emergency backup of an inhaler, of emergency medication, I would say. Something that is supposed to be sustaining this person, you need to make sure that you have that available to them in that kit.
But as far as other medications, you need to have a first aid kit. I always tell people, make sure you have tampons and maxi pads, not just for the girls in the household, but also those things are really good for bloody noses. Tampons are actually really good for bloody noses and maxi pads are actually good as bandages. So it’s good, those things you can have if you don’t have like an expensive, fancy first aid kit that you’ve purchased from American Red Cross or some other place, you can just use those things that you have around the house, as long as you have access to it. That’s really the most important thing, is put it in a place that you’ll be able to get to it if you need it. You should have something in your house and it needs to be in a container that is not going to be hopefully destroyed by an emergency, but some sort of large Tupperware that can clasp down.
I think you also need to have something in your car, because you never know, especially here in LA with earthquakes, you can get stranded in your car and not be able to get out. So it’s important to make sure have some supplies in your car. I mean, at your job site, we spend quite a bit of time at work and if you have an office there, you need to make sure you have a bag or something that you can just grab in case you end up having to be stuck in your work site for a while.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is absolutely wonderful advice. My follow-up question is, how can you be prepared without being paranoid? Let’s just go with that, because again, being prepared is always so important, but the fact that there are tragedies, they do happen, unfortunately, every day. Emergencies, like you said, earthquakes, or really bad tornadoes of course that they have in the Midwest where people might not have power or water for days or weeks.
Dr. Jameelah Powell: I think people do need to be sensible. I mean, hopefully this pandemic will have helped people to realize what they need in their homes, because even, you know, one thing that I was thinking about and it happens to us, unfortunately, more often than we would probably like, we get rolling power outages out here sometimes, and they can last for a while. Without electricity, there’s not always a lot to do, especially if it’s nighttime, there’s not a lot of light. So one thing that I say is to have battery-operated appliances or things that you can use. A crank radio is really good just to be able to follow up on the news, or a battery-operated radio is really good.
I have several of those items in my house. I actually gave them away as Christmas gifts one year because it has a light on it and it has a whistle on it. So that if you are trapped under rubble and you have this, people will be able to hear you. It also has a place that you can charge cell phones and it has different adapters. And all you do is crank it. And so you don’t need to have batteries or anything, you just have this device and you have access to the outside world. You have access to your cell phone, which I think a lot of people are dependent on. So if you are going to be using your cell phone to store important information, then you need to have a backup in order to charge it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is wonderful advice. Here’s a question that, a little on the psychology side: Why do you think humans in general don’t think to plan for emergencies?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: I think with, I want to say, like many things, adults are kind of like teenagers in that way. If it’s not happening to them, they don’t really access it in the same way. I think somebody who’s had a household fire, they’re probably very vigilant about what to do and make sure that the wires aren’t exposed and make sure there’s a kit and all of these things.
So I think that it just is not in their face in that way, if they haven’t been exposed to it, and they haven’t really even listened to the information that’s out there, they’re not really thinking about it. It’s kind of like out of sight, out of mind. So if it’s not out right in your face, they’re just really not thinking about it.
That’s why, I hope, that maybe with this podcast and with this pandemic, people are just a little bit more open to what they need to do to just be prepared. And, as you said, not going overboard with it. It doesn’t even have to be a lot of things. Like literally in my car, you just need to have a change of clothing and some tennis shoes. You need to make sure you have some water and have some food to eat. I always keep food in my car because I just never know. I could be stranded in traffic. I was driving to Vegas one time and the freeway shut down and we were just sort of sitting on the freeway for about two hours and in something like that, there’s nowhere to go. And so I think it’s really important to even think of those things as emergencies.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree having driven I-8 many times from Arizona to San Diego, you have to prepare, because if you get stuck, even if it’s in the middle of the winter, which middle of the winter in Arizona is very mild, you’re still hundreds of miles from somewhere, and you can’t just assume that somebody’s going to come and save the day right away. And always having water is important.
And if you do travel in the summer when around Yuma, it’s about 120, you have to make sure that your car is okay and was just serviced because that is a deadly time. Unfortunately, many people die every year in the desert Southwest because of the extreme heat. And so, just something like that just taking a car trip from here to there, I could see it’s very important to just be prepared as much as you can, even when you’re traveling somewhere and there’s a lot of snow. Just knowing how to react to that, just in case.
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Yeah. I think planning ahead. I think planning ahead is important. I am a planner. I like to see what’s coming in the future so that I can be ready for it. And I think that is an example of planning ahead. When you’re doing a road trip, especially in an area that you’re not familiar with, I think it’s important to research that area.
I used to do these trips to Arizona as well when I was going to school out there, and I always had to make sure that my car was prepared, the tires were good, because if it was 120 degrees, as you said, if you don’t have the greatest tires, they can pop in that type of weather. And so I think it’s important to just make sure that you are aware of all of the hazards that you could encounter in doing whatever trip you’re doing.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I have two questions: One is dramatic and extreme, and the other one is more of just looking into the future. So, how can you have an emergency plan in the case of you’re with your family and there’s say a shooter or something else that happens, unfortunately, like what happened in Wisconsin where a car drove through there. As a family, what should you talk about beforehand?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: What I will say, before I forget, is there is a website called Ready.gov and they have, like for people who really need to see it and have like a visual, they have forms that you can fill out to create your plan, to create your kit, so that you can check off the list. So, you know did I forget anything? Do I need to add anything? And I think there’s even something in there about how to talk to your kids about emergency preparedness, and planning and things like that.
I think simulations are good. I have a friend who they do sort of these simulations periodically at home. So if there is an intruder, or if something happens, they know where to go, which way to run, which exit is the best. What’s the plan, do we all go here to the backyard? Do we all go to the garage, get in the car and leave? I think it’s important to do those sort of activities periodically just to sort of check-in and make sure everybody’s aware of what do we do when this happens.
And even things that you can’t really prepare for, you can always say, “Hey, we’re going somewhere with a really large crowd, if we get separated, I used to tell my daughter this a lot, if we get separated, all you have to do is go over there to that counter and tell them my name.” And she had my phone number memorized and she knew what numbers were, so that if anything happened, she didn’t have a cell phone, but she knew how to get ahold of me. She knew how to dial those numbers.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s great, because for me, large crowds, the unknown risk is too much. Now, many people go to a variety of different events, support all of them if they want to do that. But if you do go somewhere where there are large crowds, you just have to be careful. Unfortunately, certain tragedies have occurred at large crowds and it’s just something that, unfortunately, as contemporary humans and Americans, we have to think about it. Because although the likelihood of that happening is so, so small, it might. And so, the next thing is: How can we prepare, sounds funny, for the next pandemic? What can we do for ourselves and at home?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: You brought up a good point, it made me think about what we’re doing in schools with active-shooter simulations that they’re having to do in schools. And so I was thinking about like, how do you prepare for that? And the one key thing that I took away is obviously to go away from the shooting, but also if you are in the target area, to run in zigzag formation. That’s what I read is that it’s important to do that. Stay low, if you can. Stay hidden, if you can. And I think those are things, unfortunately, that we have to put out there so that kids and everybody else is aware. It’s kind of a sad state, that those are things that we’re having to talk about, that elementary students are having to learn about. middle school, high school students are having to learn how do you just survive going to school in case this happens?
But I did want to mention that, because that was one of the first things that I thought of when you were talking about large crowds. I’m not a fan of large crowds, but I am always sort of aware of like, where are the exits? So if I’m going to a facility or a place where there is a large crowd, I’m probably going to be in a place where I can get out easily. I might be in the corner chair, or the aisle chair. I might be just sort of scoping out where the exits are so I know. And not in an overboard way, but just being aware of your surroundings, I think is always very important.
I think, especially as a woman, I’m saying this, but you have to be vigilant. Walking to your car sometimes is an event, like you have to make sure that you’re being safe. So those two things I would say I wanted to just mention, because I think they’re very important.
As far as preparedness for another pandemic, I think your emergency kit is important. One thing that I will say is, I think it’s important to stay calm. Self-care. Know that you’re okay. Whatever you need to tell yourself and whatever you need to tell your family, because I think the pandemic has really heightened people’s stress levels and anxiety levels. And so I think it’s important to have tools that you can be okay.
One thing that I did see in the emergency kit that I thought was pretty cool is to have games, because I think, especially if you are in a family where they’re kids, young kids especially, have things that can distract them in your emergency kit. Whether it’s a puzzle or some books or something that runs on batteries. So that it’s distracting them from the stress and the anxiety of what might be going on around them.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is wonderful advice. One of the things that we increased during the pandemic, we went out on more picnics, which was very nice. And really reading to our kids. Where we would, of course, to them at night, but we started having reading time throughout the day. It’s a very bonding thing, which of course seems incredibly obvious and why didn’t we do it before, throughout the day? But it’s something we started doing. How can people prepare with their say scientific and medical and healthcare literacy?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Sure. I think one thing that I wanted to mention earlier, but I’m glad I got back around to this, was being prepared just as a layperson. I think it’s important to have CPR. It’s important to know CPR. It’s important to have that type of first aid knowledge, because in these situations you are the rescuer. Like you are the person that is going to provide that help. They’ve told us out here in emergencies, responders may not be able to get to you for three days. Roads may be closed or broken. Who knows? Especially with an earthquake. They may not have access to you. So I think it’s important, first of all, to just have that knowledge. Somebody in the family should be aware of, what do I do? How do I prevent or address choking? Or how do I do CPR? Or any of those things and for all ages, I think that’s important, first of all.
I think it’s also important to keep yourself healthy, as like a general rule. When we’re talking about pandemic, whether it’s a flu or whether it’s coronavirus or any other virus out there, I think it’s important for people to take responsibility of themselves and to keep themselves healthy. So that means that you are drinking water, means that you are taking your medications, means that you are exercising, right? And eating healthy and just keeping yourself in a healthy place so that you are mentally and physically able to deal with a pandemic.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that advice and especially the healthy one. America is a curious place where we could live a long time, but surprisingly not as long as other countries. And when I say other countries, including like Chile, South America. There’s countries that say aren’t European and they live longer than us. The Japanese, of course, are very famous for having long lives.
And there’s so many things, and we talked about this before, where there’s so many individual things that we can do to help ourselves be healthy. And that’s a good diet, that’s eating a moderate amount of food, and it’s so difficult because when you go out to eat, they give you enough food for two people. And because it’s in front of you, a lot of people are like, “Well, I guess I’ll eat it.” When you don’t.
And just really including exercise into your weekly habit. And it seems like because with COVID some people that were more susceptible to COVID were people that had health issues, including weight issues. If they’re overweight, they were a little more susceptible to COVID. And so, really suggesting that people take care of themselves. 100% agree with that.
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Absolutely. Yeah. And I do remember this conversation. America is very different from a lot of countries in the way that we view health, in the way that we take responsibility for our own health, what we eat, and how we view food in this country.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And even part of an emergency preparedness is being healthy. What happens if the power goes out for three days, you’re in the Midwest or in Florida and your area is hit by our tornado or the hurricane, and you have to help people around you.
And being as strong as possible, physically and mentally, is so important. And I’m not saying like, we look at some model and they look strong, who cares what models look like, but it’s really about you being strong and having that physical activity and exercising, and being strong enough to have a healthy life. And being able to then help out others in need, if needed. And most importantly, just helping out your family. Do you have kids? Are you able to actively play with them versus being tired? And health, and especially activity level, is something that we can all work on. So it’s something that each of us is constantly trying to improve on throughout all of our lives.
Dr. Jameelah Powell: When you were saying that, I was thinking of endurance. If you’re just always tired, if a pandemic hits or something happens, there’s an emergency, what kind of state of mind will you be in to deal with it effectively? Because you don’t want to make mistakes, you don’t want to forget anything. So I think in addition to what we talk about, about eating healthy, you also want to make sure you’re rested. You want to make sure that you, like I said, self-care, taking care of yourself.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And sometimes just walking, going on hikes. You don’t have to be a marathon runner. You don’t have to be a triathlete, all these things we see, like if you’re on Instagram or whatever, you see all these people who are just so incredibly in shape, and that’s fine for them. They’re probably part of their livelihood is them being in shape, which is great. But, again, for the average person, who has a job, and has kids, being active is really them most important thing.
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Yeah. I think being active, I think people need to find a way to build that into their lifestyle, and not look at it like, “Oh, I have to go exercise today,” but just build it into what you typically do. So maybe if you’re playing with the kids, today is the day you play hide and seek, that’s physical activity. I think it’s important not to view it as a chore, because I think it makes it much more challenging and much harder for you to want to do it because it feels like, “Ugh, I have to check this off my list,” as opposed to just being physically going to the garden and do something like that. This past weekend, I brought my daughter out to help me do the landscaping, like pull these weeds, or let’s trim these trees, or those types of things. That’s physical activity as well. Or walking somewhere. Like you have to run an errand. Maybe you can walk up there.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. When I take my kids to the park, sometimes I do pull ups while they’re on the monkey bars. Might as well. Something to do, but really great conversation, any final words, Jameelah?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: I just want to impress upon people the importance of having a kit. Make sure that you have food and water and supplies for at least three days. One thing that I really wanted to mention was some things that people don’t think about saving are heirlooms, things that are really important to you.
So one thing that I do have is a lockbox that’s fireproof and waterproof, and I have family photos. I have old driver’s licenses in there. I have cash. It’s really important that you have cash available because you will not be able to get to the ATM. They may not be working. So it’s important to have cash and small bills. It’s important to have your insurance documents, it’s important to have any type of bank account so you know how to access that. And if you can’t afford one of those boxes, which I think can be kind of expensive, you can also just use a Ziploc bag and put in the freezer because even in a house fire, I can tell you the refrigerator’s probably going to survive.
So those are sort of my things that I would tell people, the things that sort of may get ruined in an emergency may not be the things that you think about that you really want. So those pictures, those memories, I think, are always good to make sure that you save, because those can’t be replaced.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And most importantly, we can’t be replaced. So make sure that the plan is about us. And so today we’re speaking with Dr. Jameelah Powell about emergency preparedness, and thank you Jameelah for a wonderful conversation again.
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Thank you for having me.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Of course. And my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.