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The Zombie Survival Kit

July 30, 2012

Over the last 6-7 years, I’ve had to deal with an increasing number of personal medical issues, effecting both myself, members of my immediate family, and close friends. In some cases, I was an onlooker watching how others dealt with the crisis. In others, I had to make direct decisions concerning my own health. This ranged from minor issues to full-blown crises.

In addition to medical issues, I’ve had to deal with ongoing financial issues, both my own (caused by myself, for which I’ve paid my dues and learned some painful lessons), and the uncertainty caused by the current economic meltdown.

I don’t have much to say regarding the inequities of life. Shit happens. To everyone. But it has started me thinking about how I go about things.

Long before this current string of bad breaks, I’ve left the house with a list of things I consider essential, and have kept a “survival kit” at work to deal with day-to-day minor crises. I’d like to talk about how some of these things have evolved, and what they’re composed of.

The usual disclaimers

I’m not a survival nut. And I’m adamantly against almost all types of personal weapons. I have almost no respect for the mind-set of people who see conspiracies everywhere, demand the “right” to defend themselves with lethal force, and justify these things with misguided (and poorly understood) notions of privacy and property rights.

I’m also not an expert. I’m only reporting what I know, and hardly claim any secret knowledge or insider status. I’m only suggesting things, and talking about what has worked for me, and what I plan to do better.

The office

I’ll start with the office, and work my way back to personal stuff, because my work kit evolved first.

I spent almost all of my first decade in the work force in minimum wage jobs, mainly retail, but also some construction work as well. I was a security guard (for three days, a story for another time). These are pay by the hour jobs, with a lot of physical labour and not much benefits. Anything that costs you even 5 minutes of lost time on the clock constitutes an “emergency”. You get really good at keeping things around that prevent lost time. This has stayed with me during the transition to “white-collar” work, even though I still choke at using that term to describe what I do.

Things I keep at my desk (or locker), and consider essential, even though they are used rarely, include:

  • Painkillers: I prefer ibuprofen, but any other type is good. I use extra-strength.
  • Mini sewing kit: yeah. I can sew. Not well, but I can do it. When you’re standing eight hours a day, clothes can wear out or tear.
  • Stain remover: This is recent, as that Tide “pen” is brilliant.
  • Any emergency info the company provides: in most Internet businesses, I bookmark the page on the intranet now.
  • An umbrella
  • Spare change: for the vending machine, transit, and other sundries
  • Cleaning supplies: yeah. Stuff spills all over the place. Often you will need to clean up a spill before it wrecks office equipment, and won’t have time to get to a general supply closet.
  • Plastic cutlery: I can’t count the number of times I’ve been screwed by take-out places.
  • Tissue and paper towels: indispensable.
  • A lighter: not just because I smoke, but because of blackouts.
  • Extra chargers for all my gear: most can be charged via USB, but I need an extra one for my phone as well.

This isn’t really ideal, but it’s served me well over the years. Improvements I’d like to make mostly involve the emergency information. This should be a sheet listing my emergency contact details, medical history, and other necessary information in case I can no longer speak for myself. Over many different jobs, I’ve found myself in positions where that information was recorded, but not available in every circumstance due to manager vacations, or company privacy policies.

Personal

For years, I’ve been walking out of the house with the same stuff, day in, day out. It’s always seemed adequate, until recently. Here’s the list:

  • Keys and wallet: Self-explanatory.
  • Pocketknife: I may be the only human alive who has watched every episode of MacGuyver.
  • Lighter: Only after I started smoking, but it has saved my butt during blackouts.
  • USB drive: This is used to move files back and forth from the office, but has recently been used to store my medical history and emergency contact details.
  • My bag with a small emergency kit: “emergency kit” is a misnomer here. It has a comb, pen and pencil, and lens wipe. It is in a dramatic need of an update.
  • Journal: This is mainly for recording anything outside or work.
  • Cell phone
  • Glucometer: I was diagnosed last year with Type 2 Diabetes, and this is now in the bag.

When you’re in good health, this is all overkill. You can walk out the door with keys, wallet, and your gadgets and be happy. When you’re not in good health, this is woefully inadequate.

“Get the hell out the door kit”

I’ve had to make one of these for someone, and it was a painful experience, mainly because it was needed. The whole concept here is having a bag of essentials that can be simply grabbed as you run out the door. There are a couple of reasons for having this:

  • Disaster: Natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, etc, or man-made, such as home invasion.
  • Medical emergency: You need to get someone to a hospital immediately, and you only have time to get dressed and grab this kit as you board the back of the ambulance.

I started this off without actually consulting any emergency preparedness guides. This is what I thought ought to go into one (it was needed to deal with potential medical emergencies, and was tailored to that):

  • Contact details: All immediate family, physicians, and any other medical professionals treating the person.
  • Medical history: Current medication, allergies, conditions and major medical events and operations.
  • Money and transit tokens: So you don’t need to bring your wallet. No major emergency rooms guarantee you won’t get robbed, but you still want to leave the person going to the hospital with money for food and taxis. In the case of natural disaster, you would presumably bring your wallet with you.

This obviously isn’t enough. This was actually used once, and it did save time. But personal identification still had to be retrieved from the wallet. Also, it didn’t have enough personal items (like hand lotion, water, or a book to read) to make the visit comfortable. The contact and medical history details also needed a lot of work.

The home

I have to guiltily admit that I have no home preparedness whatsoever, beyond keeping my medical cabinet well-stocked. My personal papers are scattered all over the home. If there was a fire, all that information would go up in smoke. If there was a major store outage, I’d starve. I do have candles, flashlights, and extra batteries. But very few tools, or any concrete notions of how to deal with the fuses, turning the water on or off, or the like.

This isn’t going to get solved overnight. But I do plan to do some reading up on this, and doing some “disaster shopping”.

Vehicles and pets

This is rather conveniently solved by not owning a license, bicycle, or any pets. Dodged a bullet there. Of course, I’m planning on getting a bike at some point.

The Zombie Survival Kit

This was actually made. Seriously. Of course, it was a joke item I bought at a comics convention, but it highlighted an important point, in regards to ‘pocket survival kits’.

One of the many things that have been marketed to campers, backpackers, and weekend warrior types is the ‘pocket’ or miniature survival kit. A very small (usually the size of a Altoids tin) package containing various things you should have in case of an emergency, when you’re away from civilization.

But that’s the problem. They’re made for the wilderness. They contain things that are virtually useless in an urban setting.

Towards an urban survival kit

Finally, we get to the crux of the matter. I’m really looking to upgrade all of the above kits, but would like to start with what I carry in my bag first, and work backwards to my home. In general, I’m more concerned with “urban survival”. What that means, to me, is:

  • The world is not coming to an end: Like I said, I’m not a survival nut. I just need to deal with temporary emergencies and problems. Things will get back to normal at some point.
  • It has to be light: No extra baggage. Because things will get back to normal, and it is an urban setting, there will be some facility to buy or scrounge what you need as you go.
  • Power may not be available: My iPod Touch apps aren’t going to work. My phone is not going to work. Cell coverage and the Internet may be down or browned out. Recharging may not be an option.
  • I may not have the ability to speak for myself: Heart attacks. Strokes. Car accidents. What’s scary is knowing you may not always be in a position to respond. Folk trying to assist you should be able to discover essential information, and contact necessary people.
  • It has to be legal: There are so many crazy opinions regarding handguns, knives, pepper spray, and other weapons out there. I admit I’ve never been in a violent confrontation with a stranger or animal. Maybe that would change my tune, but I doubt it. All of these things are simply criminal charges waiting to happen. You don’t need them. It is almost always better to haul ass and seek assistance.
  • You may be trapped: While you may be in a city, blackouts, earthquakes, and other natural disasters can leave you trapped in subway tunnels and buildings. So, some of the stuff that makes sense in a survival kit for the great outdoors still makes sense here.

Handy items

I’ve started to compile a new list of things that fit the above criteria. Stuff you could fit into an Altoids tin. Stuff that won’t take up much weight. Things that could save your ass.

  • A whistle: This is my concession to personal defence. Obviously, it needs to be available at a moment’s notice, and should probably be on a key chain. This is advice that is almost universally given to women as a way to combat rapists, and I’m not convinced this would aid men, given cultural attitudes. But I plan to put one in my kit anyway.
  • A mini-flashlight: This is my one concession to something that requires batteries. As long as the batteries are replaced on a regular basis (bi-annually or annually), this should be ok. You can now get flashlights that are incredibly small, due to LED technology.
  • Working pen and small notepad: Indispensable. Even a few sheets of paper or a small Post-It Notes pad can fit into a tin.
  • Pocketknife or multi-tool: These are the workhorses for almost any emergency. I’ve often carried a pocketknife around, but am investigating multi-tools to leave in the pack.
  • Fresnel lens: There are the flat, flexible magnifying lenses. These are great for reading and magnification, but can also be used to start fires to signal other folk.
  • Mirror: For beauty and signalling. For signalling, you need one with a hole in the middle, which allows you to accurately reflect sunlight in the right direction.
  • Painkillers and back-up prescription meds: Again, as long as they are swapped out on a regular basis, this is essential gear. Many painkiller brands come in a small tube, which can be re-stocked from the home medical cabinet.
  • Money: You should have a mix of small bills and exact change to get onto a local transit system. There should be enough money to deal with one of the following: eat several full (cheap) meals; use the local transit system a few times; ride in a taxi a reasonable distance (from your current workplace to your home); buy batteries, a pre-paid phone card, or other supplies from a convenience store.
  • Your beer card: Basically, back-up photo ID. In Ontario Canada, where I live, the province issues age of majority photo ID (a “beer card”), but this can also be a citizenship card, or anything else that legally identifies you to authorities. If your wallet is stolen, this could be essential.
  • Transit tokens/tickets/passes: I live in Toronto, where the transit system, the TTC, still issues tokens and tickets. Other transit systems may not issue passes that you can keep for years before using, so this may not be possible. But if it is, having a few in your kit can be a life-saver.
  • Soft wipe: I’m talking about something you would use to wipe glass. If you have glasses, working phones or touch-screen devices, you will need this.
  • Basic grooming: I count job loss as an emergency (rightly so, in my opinion). Being on the job hunt without the ability to make yourself presentable for an on-the-spot interview can kill your chances of finding work. A comb, tweezers, and nail clippers are essentials. I routinely add a tie-clip as well.
  • A USB key: You can now buy 2G USB keys for around $10 CAD, and 2G is more than enough space to provide: all the information I outline below in plain-text files that can be read by almost any system out there; encrypted lists of your passwords and other data, back-up software, e-books, and other types of digital information.

Bigger items

There are a few more things that won’t fit into an Altoids tin, but should still be somewhere in your bag.

  • A collapsible water bottle: During a blackout, a heat wave, or any emergency where you can gain access to a water fountain and not much else, you’ll want this in your bag. Plus, while empty, it takes up almost no space and weighs next to nothing.
  • An extra bag: Many cities are now instituting laws banning plastic bags. Keeping at least one extra canvas bag folded into your kit is important.

What should be sitting right next to the kit

The items above are all tools, and with the exception of the back-up ID, provide no other means of identifying you as a person, or providing any other information. I’m covering that separately because I think it’s important enough to warrant it’s own section.

There should be a small booklet, or set of cards that contain the following information:

  • Emergency contact details: This should include a primary emergency contact, but also your immediate family members as back-ups
  • Full name, current address, personal/cell/work numbers, and all email addresses
  • Your employer: Your current manager, their manager, and a general contact, with phone numbers and email addresses. It should also have your work address. Your business card will not have this information. You want to provide several contacts to deal with situations like more than one of your bosses being on vacation.
  • Medical contacts: Contact details for your family doctor, dentist, and any specialists you may be seeing. This should also have your all your health insurance details: government, employer, and personal.
  • Current medical condition and history: A list of current medical conditions, medications (dosage and frequency), allergies, details about assistive devices (eye glasses, hearing aids, etc), blood type, and major events (surgeries, strokes, etc). Major events should only cover things that could effect how you are evaluated for specific treatments (for instance, allergies to medications, or conditions that prevent or make certain medications, surgeries, or treatments life-threatening).
  • A list of local, employer, and national emergency contacts: The distress line (in North America, 911) only covers a limited number of things. You should also have phone numbers for poison control, utilities (phone, gas, water), security guards assigned to your apartment/condo complex or workplace, and police/paramedic/fire numbers for situations that aren’t covered by 911. You should also have numbers for checking traffic conditions, calling taxis, and requesting roadside assistance.
  • Financial assistance: This doesn’t mean typing out your bank account or credit card numbers. In the case of theft, you should have the phone numbers to report stolen cards.
  • A medical alert bracelet: I’ve neglected this for too long, and will be taking steps to buy one soon. If you have any conditions a paramedic should be aware of, you should have one of these. When you buy it, if there’s an option to indicate that there’s more detailed information in your bag/wallet, use it.

In general, all of the contact details above should be in your phone’s contact list. Writing it down gives you additional options if you can’t recharge your phone and it dies.

I’m toying with the idea of filling this out with a more general list of information, like a current calendar, metric/imperial conversion and the like, but I’m not sure how much of that would be valuable in an emergency. In general, almost all of that information would be available via software or the Internet under normal circumstances.

What’s in your kit?

I’d love to hear what people have done for their urban disaster kits.

While I hope no one ever has to use any of the advice in here, it’s inevitable that, at some point, you’ll be involved in some type of emergency. I’ve been caught napping over the last few years, and have just caught my breath. Now I need to do something about it. I’m starting with what comes with me when I walk out the door.

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