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Get real about grab bags

Get real about grab bags

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In the week that has seen #GrabBags trending on Twitter and a BBC news article on the same topic ranked at number 5, there has never been a better time to try to capture my own thoughts on ‘grab bags’.

Here’s one of the tweets that caused some online excitement last weekend.

I can’t get fully behind any advice that provides a checklist of ‘essentials’ to stick in a bag like this. In fact, I can rarely get behind any advice in checklist form because I think the real world is more nuanced; at best a checklist is a starting point.

I say I can’t fully get behind the idea; what I mean by that is I can see situations and locations where that advice (and, gasp, even checklists) is sensible, but they are not here in the UK.

In August I attended an Emergency Planning Society event and made a confession. I don’t have a grab bag packed in case of emergencies. 

The reasons for that are numerous and some of those reasons listed below. But, I genuinely would be interested in counter-arguments. Am I wrong about this? Tell me!

  • The stuff that I would find really useful is the stuff I use every day. So I’d either have to have two of everything or spend all my time packing and unpacking bags.
  • A lot of the stuff included in checklists is obsolete – a wind-up radio, in 2019? I’m going to get my news online. (What about if it’s a power cut you say? Well, even then it would have to be super widespread and of an extended duration, and in the very unlikely event that does happen, then really what use is a radio going to be anyway, all it’s going to tell me is that there is a major power cut and I’ll be like “yeah, thanks”.)
  • We’re not exposed to the types of risks that would require the kinds of evacuation where a grab bag would be useful. This is actually the biggie for me. We don’t have the types of risks that warrant 48-hour survivalism.
  • I reckon I’ve got a level of personal resilience that means I could look after myself in most situations. What this means, in reality, is provided I’ve got my phone and access to a charger there’s not a lot else that I need. (Yes, I know this smacks of privilege, I’ll get to that later).
  • I know I would be terrible at keeping something like that updated. I cleaned out a kitchen cupboard a few weeks ago and found a tin dating to 2009. Reader, I have moved house three times since then!

So, I don’t have a grab bag packed for emergencies. What I do have is a series of grab bags stashed around the house for the Zombie Apocalypse.

Wait…keep reading…

This isn’t about baseball bats with nails through them. It’s the name I jokingly give the places I store useful things, so that I know where to find household essentials – string, fuses, batteries, picture hooks, duck tape. They’re in a bag, biut I’ll probably never grab it.

As one of the contributors in the BBC article notes, we all prepare ‘grab bags’ every day. If you take a bag to work or the gym, you’ve got the things you need. If you’re pregnant you’ve probably thought about a hospital bag. If you regularly make long car journeys you’ve probably got some essentials in the boot. Grab bags need to be both personally and context-specific. That’s why checklists don’t work for me.

Now, let’s get back to that bit about privilege because this is definitely not an issue to overlook. In the last five years, food bank use has increased by 73%. Read that again. It has nearly doubled. People are reliant on emergency food every day, are they likely concerned about some possible ‘what if’s’?

Not everyone is able to pack a bag in the way that some advice encourages them to.

But now think about how would that make you feel? If you were a single parent reliant on food banks to feed your family. And you see this advice coming out that of by the way you should also have all this extra food just hanging around, and while you’re at it, that money you were going to spend on rent or whatever, no, no, invest in a wind-up radio that you’ll never use.

Of course, I do think that presonal preparedness is important (and often overlooked). But emergency response plans and the systems and processes that support them, should not be so inflexible they can’t cope if someone hasn’t thought to bring a copy of their home insurance when evacuated in the middle of the night because of a gas leak.

Emergency Management needs to wake up and see the real world. And then it needs to come up with solutions and advice that chime with a broad spectrum of people’s realities.

At its heart, the grab bag advice isn’t bad, it’s just ill-framed. Do people really need a bag packed by the front door?

Or is the message really saying “Hey, it might be handy if you’re able to put your hands on some things if you get chance and it’s safe to do so. Oh, but don’t worry if you can’t for any reason, we’ll be here to support you.”

30 Days 30 Ways: Day 4

30 Days 30 Ways: Day 4

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I’m currently in Spain, so will be trying to inject a bit of Iberian flavour to the next couple of blogs. Here’s my responses to today’s challenges.

UK Challenge 4 – Who you gonna call?

The instructions or the fourth 30Days 30 Ways UK task state:

  1. Make sure that children and young people you know their address so that they can tell the emergency services.
  2. As a bonus, @NorthantsFCR who will be tweeting about real calls – your challenge is to identify those you feel are not a genuine emergency

999 headline

999 is a system that I have grown up with. I’m probably closer to it than many people having worked in and with the emergency services over the last ten years. I also have personal experience of being on both ends of a 999 conversation, and it can be extremely stressful. In Spain, and all of Europe (including the UK), 112 is the single number for the emergency services.

It’s not just children that need to know their address. Landline phones are decreasing in popularity, but it used to be my top tip to keep a post-it note near your home phone with your address.  Now my tip is to make sure that your house number can be clearly seen from the street.

I’ve watched the @NorthantsFCR tweets with interest today, sharing a flavour of the types of calls they receive, many of which could be reported via other channels, like non-emergency number 101.

USA Challenge 4 – #Hashtag

We want you to share what#Hashtags are used in your area and why they could be valuable to you to follow.

I’m gonna be honest now. I don’t know of any ‘routine’ hashtags for use in emergencies in London.

I know there are hashtag standards developed by the UN, which offers some good guidance, but I’m actually not that keen on the idea. Something about it just doesn’t ring true with me. By it’s nature twitter is ephemeral and develops through how it’s community use it (see below). It’s not just the idea of pre-scripted hashtags in an emergency that irks me, I also despise when a TV programme flashes up the hashtag they want you to use. For me it’s a an approach to social media which doesn’t respect it’s inherent messiness.


I think it’s more important that emergency responders have the ability to identify and adopt user-generated hashtags rather than assert their own. That takes more advanced monitoring processes and confidence to not have 100% ‘control’ of the message.

30 Days 30 Ways: Day 3

30 Days 30 Ways: Day 3

Reading Time: 3 minutes

And I was like, I mean, this is exhausting, blogging every day!

Thankfully, NorthantsEPTeam and CRESA have done all the hard work and I don’t have to actually think about coming up with ideas, just ordering my thoughts into something vaguely logical! Blogging professionally must be really difficult!

UK Challenge 3 – Risk of Flooding? 

Take That - The FloodToday’s challenge requires me to

  1. Check to see if your home is at risk from flooding by going to the NCC Floodtoolkit website.
  2. As a bonus, have a look around the website and let us know what parts you like the best.

Unfortunately the data on the Flood Toolkit website is limited to the Northamptonshire area, but of like me you’re outside of that area you can use the Environment Agency map to check the same information.

I already knew that I was outside of the risk area for flooding from rivers and the sea, but it did reveal that I have a low risk of surface water flooding. That means that in any one year there is somewhere between 0.1% and 1% chance of being flooded.

My favourite part of the website is the Flood Library, specifically the case studies from businesses who have direct experience of flooding. It might not be the most flashy part of the website, but for me it’s the most important.

Although we like to think that we’re modern beings, actually we’re still hardwired very similarly to our ancestors whose main method of conveying important information was to turn it into a story. Stories both inform and engage because they activate both hemispheres of the brain, which also helps with retention.

Emergency planners aren’t always great at framing information in the language and style that people are receptive to. So for that reason I think its great that businesses have shared their stories. It gives the information immediate ‘relate-ability’.

USA Challenge 3 – throwback thursday, or #tbt 

We want you to share a link or picture of an event that moved you to take some sort of preparedness action.  Along with sharing the link/picture, tell us what action this event caused you to do and if that helped motivate others around you.

I’ve been involved professionally with a large number of incidents, but the one which I remember having a marked effect on me happened over 4 days in August in 2011 when London seemed to ‘loose it’. Public disorder sparked by a police shooting occurred spontaneously and was sustained for a number of days.

Near where I live a whole section of the High Street was damaged by rioting, and it was very unnerving having the police helicopter directly overhead for three consecutive evenings. It was strange seeing shops proactively boarding up at 2pm in advance of further looting that evening. It was worrying walking to and from the station in the dar, in what is usually a comparatively safe area.

I remember seeing the following footage live, and being concerned for the reporter, who makes some interesting comments which I’ll leave to speak for themselves.

Personally for me, the biggest challenge came towards the end of the day when I had to think about eating. Because shops were closing early I was unable to purchase food (at the time I shopped on a daily basis). This meant reliance of takeaways for several days, which was both expensive, unhealthy and also in high demand.

Since then I’ve made sure that I always have ingredients to make at least one meal. A frozen pizza here, a couple of cans of beans there…nothing which is massively expensive, and certainly not the 72 hours that some sources suggest.

Oh, and why that picture at the top? Well it’s a still from The Flood by Take That, and it seemed appropriate to a post about awareness of flood risk as one of the lyrics goes ‘although no-one understood, we were holding back the flood…’

30 Days 30 Ways: Day 2

30 Days 30 Ways: Day 2

Reading Time: 2 minutes

My self-imposed task to complete the UK and USA challenges continues…

UK Challenge 2 – Talk to your children about road safety and share a road safety message on social media


If you’ve experienced crossing a street with me you’ll know that I take road safety very seriously. Sadly my cautiousness hasn’t rubbed off on one of my friends, who has been hit by a car on four occasions (fortunately not seriously).

I know the Green Cross Code is a thing…but if I’m honest, I couldn’t tell you what it was. I posed the same question to my housemates…“Stop. Look. Listen.” they cried, putting me to shame.

Growing up I remember TV road safety promotional films with a man in a questionable green outfit, and one with some hedgehogs. Today’s TV (and YouTube) films are more graphic, depicting snapping bones, perforated lungs and craniums hitting asphalt.

Although it’s not specifically road safety and it’s from down under, the Dumb Ways To Die campaign was a viral hit, having been watched by over 110 million people. It’s actually impossible not to sing the jingle after watching the clip.

This got me to wondering, is there any evidence that ‘shock tactics’ work any better than cute animated cartoons?

USA Challenge 2 – identify who is in charge of emergency preparedness where you live, reach out to them and let them know you’re playing 30Days30Ways.

Ok, this is a super easy task – it’s me! You can find out more about me or connect with London Resilience Team for more information about emergency preparedness in London. In fulfilment of the challenge, I’ll also share a link to a useful twitter list of official emergency planning accounts in the UK.

Last year I made an estimate that there are 8,500 emergency planners across the UK. Despite restructures and budget cuts, I think I’m still comfortable that this figure is ‘about right’, meaning that on average there is one ten-thousandth of an emergency planner per person.

I’m sure there are some massive errors in my calculations (let me know how I could improve my estimate!). However, what this also highlights is another reason that we should all take responsibility for preparing for emergencies. Something my SMEM colleague Mary Jo Flynn put very succinctly earlier:

Preparedness, response and recovery is a shared responsibility #EveryonesJob #30Days30ways

A photo posted by @mjflynn001 on

30 Days 30 Ways – UK vs USA

30 Days 30 Ways – UK vs USA

Reading Time: 3 minutes

You may remember that I participated in the American initiative 30 Days 30 Ways last September. It’s a monthly series of daily challenges designed to be simple tasks to help improve emergency preparedness. This year, colleagues in Northamptonshire have also developed a UK version.

Having a local version of the game is great. I found lots of the challenges last year rather difficult and the reason that I gave for this was down to different structures and practices. However, I drew this conclusion with very limited evidence….

Big Brother Eye and EP

As I’m involved in promoting #30Days30WaysUK, and therefore know the list of challenges, it would be a bit of a conflict of interests for me to participate properly. Instead, I’ve set myself the rather impossible challenge of competing tasks from both the UK and USA versions with a view to drawing out similarities and differences.

Each day (or as often as I can) I’ll provide my ‘answers’ to both the UK and International challenges. Where I can I’ll also provide trackbacks to my musings last year.

UK Challenge 1 – talk about emergency preparedness and develop a grab bag

Ok, part one is easy, I talk about emergency planning fairly often, although mostly in a work context rather than how I would actually respond myself.

Those who know me will have heard about my Zombie Apocalypse bag. In reality it’s more of a series of small packs that I’ve stashed in various locations (not just at home) which have some essential items.

There isn’t so much of a grab bag culture in the UK. I think this is largely because we don’t face many of the acute risks that other places do. UK citizens are unlikely to be directly affected by earthquakes, volcanoes or hurricanes, so I’m not convinced that encouraging members they need to be able to live ‘off the grid’ for 3 days would ever have any traction. I do though, think there is merit in having situation dependant grab bags – live in a flood zone, then have a flood kit prepared; driving in the winter, better pack your winter car kit.

I despise checklists, especially when it comes to grab bags. There isn’t one bag to rule them all. Each of us need to tailor the contents to specific actual and perceived needs.

Many of us pack grab bags on a daily basis – whether it’s children’s school bags or the bags we each take to work. They contain what we think we need to get through the day. If you have a gym bag, it has the necessary items you’ll need for your workout. If you’re pregnant then your grab bag for the hospital contains essentials for mother and baby in the first few hours. A grab bag for emergencies is really no different – some key items that might make the disruption more bearable, but as different emergencies would have different impact I’m not keen on the grab-bag-by-numbers approach.

So, whilst I won’t be consolidating my grab bags into one, I’ll stick to maintaining my series of pick’n’mix grab packs!

USA Challenge 1 – Share a sign that illustrates a preparedness message

Any tourist that’s been to London in the last 8 years will know that you can’t move for souvenirs plastered with the Keep Calm and Carry On logo. It’s a fantastically simple message, but I thought it was too obvious a choice.


So after some head scratching and googling I opted for this sign taken about 20 mins from where I live, regarding the Oak Processionary Moth.


Although recently removed from the London Risk Register this remains my favourite (and by far the cutest) risk I have been involved with!

In case it’s not something you’re familiar with, the spines on the caterpillars can aggravate existing respiratory conditions such as asthma, but the little critters can also do damage to oak trees themselves.

Day 1 down, just 29 more to go!


Oh, and the top image is ‘adapted’ from this years Celebrity Big Brother logo. If the big wigs at Endemol don’t like my edits then I’ll remove it, until then I’ll take my chances!

30 Days, 30 Ways: Day 20

30 Days, 30 Ways: Day 20

Reading Time: < 1 minute

I expect everyone remembers the episode of F.R.I.E.N.D.S where it was revealed to everyone that the smell of gas is synthetically added…

That’s a helpful safety feature which makes it possible to detect a gas leak early, and report it to your gas provider.

Reporting utility incidents is the focus of Day 20’s challenge

1 Pt: Identify all of your homes emergency shut offs…  Should you shut these off or do you need to call a professional?

2 Pts: Who are you gonna call?  We want you to program into your phones emergency contact numbers for power, gas, and water.  

As well as saving the numbers below to my phone, I’ve also included the out of hours number for my landlord, so that I can pass on any relevant information in the event of an emergency. I’ve also followed the relevant social media accounts as the companies often provide really useful information about service restoration on twitter.

UK Power Networks – 0800 028 0247 or @UKPowerNetworks

SGN Gas – 0800 111 999 or @SGNGas

Thames Water – 0800 714 614 or Report A Leak or @ThamesWater

I have also located my utility shut off points, however I’m not sure I’d have the confidence in knowing how to switch off gas, so that’s something that I’ll need to follow up!

I’m also aware that there are conversations within the electricity industry in the UK at the moment about having a single reporting line for power-cuts rather than each operator having different details. Whilst I think a common number makes it easier to find the right number (as for the National Gas Leak Number) whether they will ever be as ingrained as 999 I’m not yet convinced.

30 Days, 30 Ways: Day 19

30 Days, 30 Ways: Day 19

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I’ve been wondering recently how much Resilience is connected to stamina. The ability to ‘keep going’ surely has a crossover to being prepared for any eventuality? It;s therefore telling that I’ve struggled, for various reasons, to maintain stamina to complete the 30Days challenges! Sometimes life just gets in the way!

However, I’m determined to see the challenge through to completion, and will be attempting to meet the deadline! With that in mind…here’s day 19’s task – to create a preparedness message

1 Pt: Today we ask you to create your own preparedness message. Share on your Facebook page or Tweet it out.

2 Pts: Add a photo or make a video of your message and share it with us.

BONUS  3 Pts: Create your preparedness message  with a “Pirate Theme.”  Today is National Talk Like a Pirate Day!!  

Ok, lets see, a preparedness message. I have two options, one which I have suggested at work, and one which I’ve shamelessly stolen from elsewhere!

Option 1 – Go In, Stay In, Tune In, Join In

In July 2004 the UK Government initiated the Preparing for Emergencies, which saw the distribution of a booklet to every household, with advice on preparedness. The key strap-line of the campaign was Go In, Stay in, Tune In – advice that in the event of an emergency it was usually best to get inside, to stay inside, and to switch on your TV or radio for more information. Not bad advice, but to me it was missing one key element, looking after each other. So I’d like to suggest adapting the national message to include Join In as the final call to action.

Share the information that you have, encourage friends and family members to be as prepared as you are, and don’t forget to check on them should an emergency occur.

I’d also propose a slightly adapted logo…


Option 2 – Keep Calm and Carry On 

One of the challenges in developing preparedness messages is understanding your audience. The messages that resonate in America aren’t necessarily those which would be well received in the UK. In addition, they need to be developed informed by local risk.

I can’t take credit for this message, which was developed but never used during wartime in Britain. Whilst it doesn’t actually provide much advice this message perfectly captures British stoicism and resilience to adversity, and I think it’s very applicable to preparing for emergencies.


And for the bonus points, here’s my Pirate translations:

Go In, Stay, In, Tune In, Join In = Avast, batten down the hatches, listen for ye shipmates report from the crows nest and look after ye hearties. (not quite as snappy!)

Keep Calm and Carry On = Blow me down and hoist the mizzen