Community Resilience Emergency Management

The Truth About “72 Hours”

Why you need to be prepared to be on your own for up to six days.

Credit: Matthew Woodall (see also matthewwoodall.medium.com).

“I never thought it would happen to me”.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that as a firefighter/first responder, an emergency manager, or in my work with disaster philanthropy. The truth is it will happen to you — and you need to be prepared.

Many people have often heard that you need to be prepared for 72 hours without help after a disaster — and while this is partially true, the reality is that it could be much longer in some cases. When I’m working with people and organizations, I suggest that they prepare for 120–144 hours. This is 5–6 days, and up to double the current guidance. Why do I suggest this? Read on to find out.

The Truth About Disaster Response

There are two major types of disasters to consider: pre-alerted, and no-notice. Pre-alerted disasters are those that provide some type of warning — particularly hurricanes and other severe weather. No-notice disasters are those that happen suddenly and without any warning (as the name implies). Some disasters are a mix of the two, such as a wildfire that may threaten some people suddenly, but then provide some warning for others. The advice to prepare for 72 hours is largely related to pre-alerted disasters.

When a disaster happens with some warning, there is time to stage rescue workers, critical infrastructure teams, and relief supplies close to the affected area. There is also time for people to evacuate ahead of the disaster. As a result the time between the disaster and boots on the ground is measured in minutes or hours. This is far different when a no-notice disaster happens, especially in rural and remote areas.

A major disaster such as the quad-state tornado a few days ago, or a major earthquake has a far different response time. While local emergency responders are out the door as soon as it is safe to do so, specialty teams and the mass numbers of emergency responders necessary to help a large number of people will take days to arrive.

This is what a general timeline for response organizations often looks like for a no-notice disaster:

  • Hour 0: Disaster occurs.
  • Hour 1: Local emergency responders on-scene, performing rescues and assessing needs.
  • Hours 2–6: Awareness of the disaster grows, some disaster response organizations pre-alert their members and prepare to respond.
  • Hours 6–12: Disaster response organizations call their staff back, assess their capacity and capability and start to deploy.
  • Hours 12–24: Nearby disaster response organizations arrive at the scene, however there must be consideration of rest, food, and other needs.
  • Hours 24–48: Disaster response organizations are in transit and begin to arrive at the site.
  • Hours 48–72: More organizations arrive, it is only at this point that full disaster response operations are usually able to begin.

After 72 hours, there are finally enough resources available to begin work in earnest. Resources and people will continue to arrive in the coming days, but realistically it will take at least 72 hours to get enough people on the ground to start relief operations. There is still the need to establish long-term shelters, food and nutrition services, water/sanitation/hygiene facilities, and other immediate needs.

Why 120-144 Hours?

If you are lucky enough to be able to prepare in advance for any type of disaster, here is why I recommend 120–144 hours instead of 72.

Every day you are able to survive without help, is another day where people who don’t have the resources to prepare will be able to get better help.

Having the money and time to properly prepare for a disaster is a privilege because it means that you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck and that you have time because you aren’t working multiple jobs. You have a certain responsibility to other people in your community to survive for as long as you can without relying on external help so that people who aren’t as privileged can get the help they need. Once you get to six days after a disaster, there is lots of help available and everyone who needs help should be able to access it.

In the first three days after a disaster, help and resources will be focused on those who need it most: the injured, those who don’t have access to food or water, those who are trapped and needing to be rescued, and others who need immediate assistance. The longer you can wait for help, the more help will be available to those who need it the most. The nice thing is that by starting now, you don’t have to break the bank when preparing, you can stay within a budget and make sure you’re covered.

What about you? What are the ways that you prepare for a disaster?

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