Emergency Prep for Small Spaces & Budgets

Emergency preparedness and disaster training: not the most fun or uplifting topic, but an important one. I’ll try not to cover too much of the same ground as Alyssa or Conrrado, although Alyssa and I are both from the same part of the world and so are primarily trained in the same types of natural disasters (earthquakes and wildfires, mostly). But whatever your local circumstances, here are some easy things you can do now, that don’t cost any money, don’t take up any space, and only take a little bit of time, that might come in handy in the future (but hopefully won’t).

  1. Get in the habit of thinking about where you’re standing, and who you’re standing with. I perform a mental exercise with myself every once in a while: I’ll stop somewhere random while I’m walking through the library and ask myself, ‘What would I do if an earthquake hit right now?’ or ‘How would I react if an alert came through our emergency campus notification system?’ Am I near an exit? Am I standing underneath something heavy that could potentially fall? Do I have my cell phone on me, and charged, so that I could receive that alert?
  2. In that vein: Keep your stuff on you. The library where I work, like a lot of libraries and other public spaces in California, participates in the Great California Shakeout every year, and after having run this drill eight times now I can confidently say: people get really nervous about leaving their stuff behind. The most-asked question I get when evacuating the building is, ‘Should I take my stuff with me?’ During a practice drill is one thing, but during a real-life emergency scenario is maybe not the best time for you to be asking this question. Sometimes I feel silly walking through my building holding my cell phone, my office keys, and my car keys just to go to the bathroom, but then I remember that if we had an earthquake while I was in the bathroom, I might not be able to get back into my office to retrieve my purse before evacuating, and my purse is not worth risking my life for. People are more important than things, and if you need to make the choice between evacuating right now, or running back into a (burning building/insert other disaster scenario here), choose evacuation.
  3. Know your exits. My library hosts an annual retreat for our hourly student workers over the summer every year, and I always carve out thirty minutes or so in that training to talk about emergencies and how to evacuate the building – and then I actually demonstrate how to evacuate the building. It’s important to make as much of your emergency prep as automatic as possible. If you can act on muscle memory, so much the better. We all walk through our emergency exit doors, set off the alarms, and let everyone see where the doors lead and what’s on the other side. If you’re starting a new job, I recommend you ask for a tour that includes things like ‘where does this emergency exit door lead.’
  4. Know your responsibilities. Unless the building is actively collapsing down around me, as a full-time staff member I am required to assist in evacuating it. Our part-time hourly workers, however, are not – they are to immediately exit the building with the rest of the students. (I always like to say, if you can convince some students to evacuate with you as you go, that’s great, but you are only in charge of your own person.) What I am not responsible for, however, is staying and pleading with/convincing/arguing with anyone who refuses to leave. I realize drills are different situations than real emergencies, but every year during Shakeout, we have at least one person who just refuses to leave the building. Were this to happen in ‘real’ life, I would need to warn them, remember where I left them and perhaps a vague description, but then I am free to leave, and relay that information to the police chief/fire marshal/campus president/whoever asks for a headcount. This may be totally different at your place of work, but it’s important to know your responsibility (and what and/or who you’re not responsible for).
  5. Keep your own area stocked. If you work for a school, they’re probably required by law to keep some emergency supplies on hand – water, food, blankets, etc. Even if your workplace has that stuff, though, you may want to keep some of your own. (This is the only tip of mine that does require both money and space, so adapt this to your own abilities.) At my current job, I’m lucky enough to have my own cubicle in a shared office, so I keep: a gallon of water (in addition to my regular, daily water bottle) that I drink and refill twice a year, a box of granola bars that I likewise eat and replace twice a year, a flashlight with batteries that I test twice a year and replace as needed, a whistle, and a five-pound mallet. (The mallet is because my office only has one entrance/exit door, but it does have a large window. Were the single door to be blocked or inaccessible for any reason, but my co-workers and I still needed to evacuate, we could use the mallet to break the window and climb out through that.) If I happened to drive to work that day, I also keep more emergency supplies in the trunk of my car, but I sometimes take the train to work, so I wanted to keep at least the bare bones in my office and not rely solely on what’s in my car. But, the point is, however you set it up: prepare for the fact that you a) may need to shelter in place in your office or building for some indeterminate length of time, but also simultaneously b) may need to evacuate your building very quickly, so you don’t want too much stuff that it will weigh you down. Perhaps keep your things in a backpack, or something else wear-able and hands-free. At my old job, I didn’t have the luxury of a cubicle, but I was assigned a locker. In addition to locking my purse in there every day when I came to work, I also kept a bottle of water and a bag of dried pineapple in there. I never needed them for emergency, but if I forgot to bring a snack to work one day, at least I had some dried fruit to eat!

The point of emergency prep isn’t to be a bummer or to make things inconvenient or depressing. Weave it into your daily life, your regular routines and procedures, and what you need in your situation to be comfortable and secure. And, of course, as usual, if you have any tips I overlooked or things that work particularly well for you and your workplace, please share them in the comments below!

Lauren Bauer is the HLS associate editor, works in circulation and ILL at a Los Angeles community college library, and attends San José State University, where she’s focusing her studies on academic librarianship, OER, and metadata. She is a huge fan of asynchronous classes and coursework.

Photo by DDP on Unsplash

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