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There has been recent controversy about the value of ‘grab bags’ in readiness for an emergency. This article reviews some of the arguments and possible contents.

At least two UK police forces advocated grab bags to help people cope with emergencies as part of a resilience scheme called 30days/30waysUK in advance of Brexit – see image below. This scheme (now closed) complemented the US official National Preparedness Week in September 2019. Despite the initiative receiving general backing from police forces, emergency services and councils across the UK, social-media users branded it “˜ridiculous’ with many accusing the authorities of “˜scaremongering’.

What’s the threat?

The issue of preparing the public for disasters is a difficult one. Too much emphasis risks paranoia and derision from the public: too little risks criticism that the authorities are not doing enough – usually levelled after an incident. The middle of the road is usually determined by the level of threat to the country as perceived by the wider population.

For those nations experiencing regular earthquakes, wildfires and hurricanes/typhoons then there is an understandably determined effort to prepare the public, and desire by the public to respond positively. Other threats, such as a conventional attack or terrorism, provide a motive for some countries to prepare their populations with specific advice.

Sweden, for example, issued a booklet titled “˜If Crisis or War Comes‘ to all 4.7m Swedish households in mid-2018. It updated advice on how to handle terrorist attacks and cyber warfare, as well as conventional war tactics, particularly at a time when tensions with Russia were running high.

What’s the UK experience?

In contemporary times, the UK generated a major national campaign was during the Cold War when possible nuclear exchange produced a series of civil defence material under the Protect and Survive programme. This was followed by a “˜Go in, Stay in, Tune in‘ campaign, which is still being used in some parts.

However, even war-time campaigns were treated with care. The famous poster “˜Keep Calm and Carry On‘ was actually never released: it seems more popular today. Almost 2.5m copies of the poster were printed at the start of WW2 but it, like the remainder of the Ministry of Information publicity campaign, was cancelled following criticism of its cost and impact. Many people claimed not to have seen the posters; while those who did see them regarded them as patronising and divisive.

While the UK is fortunate in not experiencing regular natural disasters, we do witness serious disruptive events e.g. major power outages (9 August 2019 affected over one million), serious local floods (5 December 2017 affected 61,000 in Lancaster), industrial disputes (petrol drivers’ strike in April 2012 led to country-wide fuel shortages), and cyber-attacks (WannaCry virus in May 2018 caused 19,000 hospital appointments to be cancelled). The frequency and severity of such incidents appear to be growing.

And, of course, the UK has certainly witnessed the Irish terrorism campaign of the 1970s and 80s, and more recently that emanating from Daesh/IS. The consequential  Run, Hide, Tell and Action Counters Terrorism (ACT) campaigns by the police have generally been well received by the public in the face of major terrorist incidents in London and Manchester.

What’s the message?

There appears to be a reluctance to go further on advising the UK public with, for example, pre-incident advice on a wider range of actions that may require, for example, major evacuations from city areas (because of large-scale contamination) or prolonged stay-at-home periods (as with a country-wide pandemic).

The focus should be on general actions rather than threats per se. Beyond the derision from a few, one could argue that the public is better educated on, and more receptive to, messages about the nature and scale of modern threats.

Sudden and stark announcements can be alarmist. Rather, they need to be part of a more carefully designed, educative message that stretches from schools to retirement homes, with all manner of organisations and businesses in between. The message should be progressive, reassuring and persuasive – aimed to alert but not alarm. This will go a considerable way to help improve national resilience.

At the personal level, knowing where to go (i.e. an Emergency Assembly Point) could prove invaluable for family and friends in a crisis. This needs to be agreed in advance. 

What’s goes in a Grab Bag?

The message can and should include ideas around emergency supplies bag or grab bags, for instance, but the purpose of having certain items and their value needs to be simply explained. Among the list of items that people should reportedly be packing in their bag are items like batteries, clothing, toiletries, pen and notepad, phone charger, whistle and first aid kit, a torch, spare cash, phone charger as well as snack food and water.

Bottled water is heavy to carry but if water supplies are disrupted for several days then to wash, prepare food, flush toilets, etc, means that more than a single bottle will be needed if a household is to survive. Around 50,000 residents in the South East were without water, some for several days, during the cold snap (the “˜Beast from the East’) in March 2018, for example. Severe drought is the reverse situation but also demands the storage of potable water. Water purification tablets may be the solution as they are light and many can be carried in a small space.

There are various suggestions on the contents of grab bags available. Here are some:

  • The US National Preparedness organisation offers a link to build a grab bag. In addition, it offers advice and numerous links on preparedness for individuals and communities, including schools.
  • The equivalent official UK Government advice – Preparing for Emergencies – is very informative and provided links to various UK sites. One of those links leads to advice on the contents of an emergency backpack or a small suitcase with wheels suitable to carry the items.
  • The Swedish recommendation for a grab bag (a Bug out Bag or BOB) includes a firearm!
  • Facebook has produced its own guide on an “˜Individual and Household Disaster Preparedness Checklist’.
  • The Bath and North East Somerset Council’s Community Resilience Manual  contains (Page 9) another variation of the grab bag’s contents.
  • Finally, a UK company stocks and sells specifically designed grab bags.

For further reading, please visit our Knowledge Hub.

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