This post comes from having too much time on my hands at railway stations over the last year. And from my regular travelling companion, who isn’t a prepper, suggesting that when we meet up at a London railway terminus, we should do it outside the main station, to avoid bomb blast and falling glass. That didn’t come from me, this time: safety from terrorism in particular is definitely becoming more mainstream.
A regional station
Last summer, for instance, I was changing trains at a station named Three Bridges, which I pass through every month or so. That day, my train was cancelled so I had an unplanned half hour to spend there. I didn’t feel like settling down with my book, and instead I had a walk round, thinking about preparedness. I use this station regularly, to visit a local shopping centre, I have friends and relatives who live nearby, and I pass through it other times too, including going to and from London, so it was actually a good use of the time.
What really got me thinking was, what if I was trapped on the station platforms by a big accident or a terrorist incident of some sort, maybe in the forecourt? Trains would be stopped in such a situation, I think, because the rail line runs right by the forecourt. The forecourt is busy in itself, an ‘A’ road runs right past, there are industrial areas nearby, and the rail line itself is very, very active, one of the busiest in the country. So, as I had a whole half hour to spend, I walked up and down the platforms at the edges of the site, and had a look how I’d get out.
Any kind of expedient exit from the platforms themselves would have to be on the opposite side of the station from the forecourt, i.e. to the east, as the deadly-in-this-scenario forecourt is on the western side of the rails – and there at least two chances of escape to the east.
At one place, there’s a gap underneath the platform, and if the trains were stopped you could quickly scramble through and get out to a small road. And they surely would be stopped if, say, there was a fire on the forecourt right next to the bridge carrying the railway lines. The wriggle gap is only two or three feet high, but it’s enough. I went to the next platform over so I could take a photo of the gap (I was really into the exercise by this time!).
Further down the platform, even further away from that dangerous forecourt of my scenario, there’s a long metal fence thats maybe six feet high. But right by it are a series of seats, and poles supporting railway signage. Some of them even have a handy roof on the other side of the fence as a nice little handhold. Once over the fence, you’d be in a local car park, about thirty feet from a secondary main road, and since you’re far away from the business end of the station, you have successfully removed yourself from the most dangerous part of the event.
You’d be on foot, then, of course, but at least you have options again.
On the western side of the station, it’s much more difficult to investigate, which is paradoxical because that’s the site of the much bigger public car park; but possibly because of that, and because of building works, there are serious amounts of fencing and locked gates blocking the way. I didn’t have time to investigate from the westernmost platform either. That’s a job for another time.
St Pancras International
I used St Pancras very recently when going to see the Harry Potter exhibition at the British Museum. Preparedness is not my whole life, I’m happy to say. But the wait for the train was almost as long as it had been at Three Bridges last summer, so I did the same sort of thing. Where would I go, in a terrorist attack, or a fire?
You could hide behind one of those big pillars, and hope that terrorists wouldn’t come further down the platform (unlikely).
You could run down the tracks (you’re very visible, and there’d probably still be trains running at that stage of the emergency). But maybe better to do that than get shot, or suffer smoke inhalation.
Or you could run through the emergency exit door. I was pretty circumspect about taking this photo, I didn’t want to start off an alarm myself, but it’s clear that there’s a way out in an emergency, as long as it’s not blocked or something. Another exit sign is just visible through the glass of the door, but I can’t tell anything else about it.
This sort of exercise should hopefully be carried out in relation to any place you pass through or travel to, especially if you travel there regularly. Although of course it can be argued it’s all the more important to do this when you’re not familiar with the place, and you haven’t been there before. Remember this: things happen when you least expect them, in places which you thought would probably be fairly safe and predictable. Using a spare half hour for a thought experiment in preparedness is a useful thing to do, in itself, and because it keeps you alert to your opportunities. And they’re not just your opportunities either. In a real life emergency, maybe your demonstration of a way out from the blocked platforms could have defused tension, given anxious people something to do, or even saved lives – you can’t really know, but it’s a real possibility. When you prep in this way, you benefit yourself and other people too.
A summary of the advice in this article is given at the end of the post.
This type of attack is more and more common these days, for reasons that are sadly all too obvious – vehicles are very simple to get hold of, and even one person can do a huge amount of damage. So it makes sense to take a little while to think about what you might do if you suddenly found yourself caught up in this situation.
It might sound futile to ask the question, but I think it’s worthwhile: what can we do to lessen the effects of this sort of attack, if we’re caught up in it? If you see something like that start to happen, and you can see you’re going to be caught up in whatever happens, what can you do?
There seem to be three stages: driving by; crashing; and maybe exploding the vehicle and/or the terrorists may go on to further attack people. So the basic advice must be the same: RUN, HIDE, TELL still applies. Other than that, and in order:
If you’re a commuter, or out and about for your work, is there an alternate route you can take that’s less crowded, less of a target? If not:
Listen to what’s going on around you; don’t wear earbuds in the street in likely target areas. Screams may be the first notice of an attack. If you hear them, you have a chance of reacting. That can be seen in the youtube video.
If you can, walk to face oncoming traffic – a terrorist could well start off the attack from a position in the normal traffic stream. If you’re in a high-risk area, the extra effort might be worthwhile, and if you see it happening, you have a chance of reacting.
You can alert other people! This might be as simple as screaming, and you might be so shocked that that’s the most you can do while literally running for your life. That’s okay. I’ve been trying to think of a phrase that’s short enough and clear enough to potentially be of help, rather than just a scream, and I’ve got stuck at “CAR BOMB”. It’s not a car bomb, of course. CAR ATTACK: maybe. WATCH OUT. If anyone has any ideas, please speak up in the comments.
If you’re weighed down with shopping, just drop your things, of course, so that you can run and hide more effectively. You’ll lose your shopping, but better that than your life. On that note, it would be nice to think you have a few things on you: your ID, your ticket or enough cash to get home, your car keys, your key to your living space, maybe a little bottle of water. These things should be in your pockets or in a bag that’s small enough to hang from a belt, or from your shoulder,so that you can run without being impeded. Your life might depend on running fast.
So then, it’s about running. Run into a building, as far inwards as you can, because the kind of lorries and vans that are being used can still penetrate a good way into a building if they’re purposely crashed.
If you can’t get into a building, then shelter in any kind of inlet – a fire door or an alcove, for instance. Jump on to a parapet, or even a windowsill, some of them are certainly deep enough. Will somebody inside open it for you? Can you smash a window to get inside a building? If the vehicle is driving past you, rather than directly at you, this could help.
I noticed in the pictures of the Stockholm attack earlier this year, that nearly all the street furniture was still standing, I thought it was curious. But if you’re caught out in the open, and you can’t get out of the way, being behind something is better than being out in the open. But of course it might not work, and none of this is foolproof in any case.
Don’t relax and think you’re safe, run/hide still applies. The first reports about the Stockholm attack sounded like the motorised attack was being combined with dispersed gunmen. And London Bridge was motorised attack plus several attackers, though they had knives rather than guns. When there’s more than one attacker, it’s almost inevitable it will take longer to catch them than if there was a single one.
No one in the area is safe until all the terrorists are caught, and any/all explosives defused. Police advice in Stockholm, when they believed another attacker might still be on the loose, was to move away from the central area of the city, and not to walk in groups. This bit in particular is about vehicle attacks. Don’t make yourself a target: we’ve all seen war films where a plucky platoon is being strafed and the sergeant yells “spread out”. Same principle. Don’t make yourself a target.
London Bridge was a bit different – armed police were on the scene in minutes and a lot of people fought back against the attackers to bar them entry into a location, and the attackers were shot dead within 8 minutes. But even so, evacuations went on throughout the night, for the police to assume they’d got them all in the first few minutes would have been playing with the lives of everyone there.
What if something like this happens in the street where you live or are staying? Are you safe to remain? Are your windows, doors and locks still secure? If they are, it might be safest to stay where you are. But listen up, constantly, to what is the official advice for people in your situation: if there’s explosives nearby that are yet to be detonated, then you might well be advised to evacuate, but only via a certain route, for example.
Think about your situation. It’s obvious now that this is such an accessible form of attack, it’s going to be here for some time. How will you respond if you’re unlucky enough to be caught up?
Shortly after I drafted this, I was walking through Westminster, and took these snaps, one is by St Margaret’s Church on Parliament Square and the other is looking at the security furniture on the edge of Trafalgar Square.
The long wait I had to take comparatively clear photos reminded me of how crowded and busy these environments are: it’s very hard to protect yourself in the way I’ve described, I’m afraid. But I’m sure complete avoidance isn’t the answer either, so I’ve been up to London twice since then from my quiet little town, for optional events. And millions of people all over the world have no choice in the short or medium term, of course – where we live, where we work, our route to and from work, these things take time and effort to change. In the meantime, we do what we can, and live our lives as best we can.
Summary of advice
Run hide tell.
Change your route to a quieter, less obvious one.
Listen to the ambient sounds around you, and take notice.
Walk facing oncoming traffic.
Scream, shout, make people notice that something’s terribly wrong.
Drop your stuff so you can run more easily.
Run into a building, as far away from the road as you can.
If not, shelter in any inlet available.
If not, shelter behind street furniture, as a last resort.
Keep running. Evacuate the area. Don’t walk in groups.
If your home is in the area, seek official advice about whether it’s safer to stay or go.
A wonderfully alarmist title, that! In September, I was on holiday in Norfolk (as well as staying with friends and foraging earlier – I had a real blast). I was in a rented holiday cottage near Bacton Gas Terminal, and it was quite an eye-opener.
I saw at least half a dozen different sorts of sea defences – some designed to stop waves dead on, some designed to make them lose their power, and a couple of different types of gates too. One of the shore-side sets looked like it might have been designed to stop, or at least delay, a terrorist attack on the Terminal from small boats, but when I asked around, I was assured not. I’ll reserve judgement until I see similar defences in less security-conscious environments, however, because I certainly saw a lot of security patrols round and about, who were examining passers-by very carefully indeed. They’ve been on the go since at least 2007, so no big secret there, by the way.
The Gas Terminal is an amazing thing. It extends to each side of the local main road, but the fences and the security are things of beauty. I like panoramas of bright city lights at night (except for the effects of light pollution on astronomical studies) and the Terminal certainly qualifies as a substitute for a city in that respect.
It has its problems – there was a fire in 2011, for which Shell was fined a total of £1.5 million for neglecting basic maintenance, reported in the Daily Telegraph at the time. And at the same time, one of the oil companies that use the site was warned about inadequate moorings of one of it’s floating oil platforms. .
What really surprised me, though, was the list of precautions at the holiday cottage, which I’ve listed below. We were right opposite two fairly pleasant caravan sites, and they were only two fields away from the Terminal.
Emergency Instructions to be followed on hearing the Bacton Gas Terminal Complex Red Alert Alarm
DO NOT EVACUATE UNLESS ADVISED You may place yourself in greater danger (this will normally be done by the Police).
make sure neighbours are aware and go indoors.
close external doors and windows and turn off ventilation systems to keep out any gas.
extinguish all naked flames if possible.
stay in a room facing away from the terminal complex, preferably downstairs.
pull curtains closed and stay as far away from the windows as possible.
children at school will be properly cared for by their teachers, who will know what to do.
tune in to BBC Radio Norfolk FM 95.1, 95.6 or 104.4 or Heart Radio on FM 102.4
do not use mobile phones- except in an emergency – until the ALL CLEAR is given. This will ensure lines are free for the emergency services.
Seeing that list, I was really glad I was in a sturdy cottage, not a flimsy caravan. We had no trouble, of course, but it’s a surprisingly long list. And to be honest, the phrasing of the advice not to evacuate could really really be improved, because as it reads right now, the job of putting you in danger is to be done by the police. Not what they intend!
The sea defences were really interesting too. Below is an ingenious gating system for the thigh-high sea wall thats on top of the promenade built along the actual sea wall, near Bacton Gas Terminal. It gives wheelchair access, dogs are allowed on it all year round, no one has to worry about actual gates to be closed properly, I imagine its a fun learning experience for the local 7 year olds on their scooters too.
Here are another couple of pictures of mine too. Below is the road to the sea at Sea Palling, complete with obscured face for anonymity’s sake. It’s close enough to the sea that you can just make out, at the summit of the hill, the words “Sea Pa … epende”. That’s the Sea Palling independent lifeboat station. And that’s a really big hill, specifically to act as a sea defence, completed in 1959 after the floods of 1953, when hundreds lost their lives in Eastern England, including 7 at Sea Palling.
But that hill, more than 20 feeet high – that hill has floodgates on top. You can’t see them too well in this photo, but their seating can just about be seen on the far right of the next photo, of the independent lifeboat station, facing the sea. Those floodgates definitely show the scale of the potential problems.
It’s obvious, from what I saw, that the dangers are very real, and that any individual prepping has to take account of the large-scale emergencies that this area is subject to. Which means:
windup radios, or at least battery radios, are essential, to listen to those radio stations, whether that’s about weather or evacuation routes.
transport. If you live round here, or stay near here, I would say that personal transport is an absolute necessity.
water! When the power goes out, as it does because of flooding, water often follows.
emergency snacks too, that can be thrown into a rucksack and thrown into the car, or put on your bike if you’re on a bike.
a bug out plan. Evacuation plan, if you prefer, but between floods and gas escapes, you need to know how to get out of the area – which roads might be flooded? What does natural gas do, does it follow the contours of the land when it escapes, or does it drift into the sky? That will affect your evacuation route.
as a bit of a postscript, you should know what to do if you have a domestic gas leak. This link to British Gas will tell you. For the record, it’s 0800 111 999.
Still a great experience, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
This is the last in my “terrorist” series … I did think it needed a post to itself, as there are several time frames to think about.
Don’t gather in large groups, whether or not you’re close to the scene of the attack(s) – groups are more likely to be targets than individuals.
Just because you’ve got away from the immediate area of the attack, don’t consider yourself safe: attackers are mobile too. In the Bataclan in Paris, some people who were shot were already outside. And the Sousse attacker roamed the area for many minutes.
Shelter somewhere safe as soon as you can. Don’t necessarily try to travel – terrorists may still be around, and there may be other devices planted, or other attacks planned, e.g. at travel hubs. Plus the security services may well shut down all travel in any case, and even if you have your own transport, there may be delays, or even, horrifyingly, you could get caught up not just in further attacks, but in the flight of any surviving terrorists – for example, you could be the unlucky person whose car is hijacked. You should wait for a while – you will need to judge at the time what this means – maybe public transport is running again, maybe all terrorists have been captured or killed.
Even if you don’t need medical attention, getting somewhere safe will let you recover from the shock and get first aid for any minor wounds. You’ll also be able to find out the latest news on the security situation.
Is everyone in your own circle of friends and/or relatives safe? Are any of them wounded? Do they need support in hospital? Is there information about what to do if one of your party has been killed?
The phone lines and frequencies will be crazy busy. Send texts where you can – keep your voice calls to a minimum.
Helping the authorities
Make sure you contact the police or anti-terrorist services, so that you are on record as having been at the event. You may have pictures or film on your phone or camera that could help identify the terrorists, or at the very least help with the timeline of events. The authorities know that not everything they get will be useful to them – they’re used to having to sift through for those little details that help take things further.
Even if you don’t have concrete evidence like that, you have your memories and impressions, and anything you can remember about the attackers will be useful: height, sex, weight, colour, build, accent, language, what they said, what they gave as their “reasons”.
If you’re not interviewed straight away, maybe because events are ongoing, write down your memories and impressions. That becomes more important when you’re watching the news, as the film of events can start to infiltrate your own memories.
Twitter: Twitter was used on the same night as the Paris attacks, not just to hear news and express emotion, but to offer help. The hashtag #PorteOuverte, or “open door”, was quickly up and running, with residents in the affected areas offering shelter to anyone who had been cleared from the streets and had nowhere to wait.
Some just posted their addresses, while others asked Twitter users to contact them; another tried to bring in the basic security of not sharing addresses publicly, which makes sense. And most powerfully of all, “tweet safe places, not your thoughts on the matter. A shelter will help, prayers later.”
If you’re in a big city that’s mostly unknown to you, you might be miles away from your temporary base, and a grassroots campaign like this could feel like a lifesaver.
Facebook: Facebook was soon doing what it could by marking everyone in Parisian locations “safe” as they checked into their pages.
If you or your loved ones were caught up in terrorist events, you’re bound to want to talk about what happened and what might have happened – debriefing, in a way, and it’s a normal, healthy human reaction. You’re also bound to have feelings of one sort or another that you didn’t experience at the time – that’s often what shock is, numbing us out so that we can feel the feelings bit by bit. Respect that process, give yourself time to go through it all. If you need help to talk things through, then you do, and that needs to be respected as well. Counselling and PTSD work can be a big help.
Precautions will be very high locally, and probably nationally, maybe internationally, for a few weeks, or a few months. In relation to the IRA bomb campaigns, precautions in the UK were very high for years, and some of those precautions are back again in relation to new terrorist threats. Accept it with good grace, and take it into account when you judge journey time.
What do we do now?
I’d caution everyone against knee-jerk reactions demanding sanctions against one group or another. I’m a little wary of saying that, as I do think our Western ethos of tolerance is being used against us. However, knee-jerk reactions (usually the result of “this sabre tooth tiger is going to kill me”) rarely give the right answer to 21st century life.
Life really does go on after even the worst of this type of event. But it doesn’t go on for the people killed, and it’s forever changed for their families and friends. This post, like all the others in this series, is meant to help you ensure that your life, and the lives of your loved ones, are preserved from the toxic chaos and hatred of the terrorists.
I took a long Christmas break, but I wanted to continue my series of posts on terrorism: and this one is about what to do if you’re unlucky enough to be at a location that gets attacked. What can you do to improve your chances of survival, and the chances of those around you?
If you can, get out, get away, any way you can, though a door that’s blocked by a frantic crowd is no exit at all. A side exit, a staff door, a window, a fire door, anything at all. Getting out and then getting away is by far your safest option, of course. It sounds mind-numbingly obvious to say, but it does need to be said.
What if the worst happens, and you’re actually caught up in the nightmare of a terrorist attack? What can you do to improve your chances of survival, and the chances of those around you?
“After fleeing, Julien Pearce, a Europe 1 radio reporter who witnessed the carnage, said terrified fans had tried to reach the stage by clambering over others cowering on the floor, but the attackers had gunned them down. Pearce said he saw one gunman clearly – a calm youth, without any mask, and a blank expression on his face. Pearce and others managed to flee while the gunmen were reloading their Kalashnikovs.”
The parts I’ve bolded say it all: be vigilant, try to see what’s going on, stay calm and take your chance if you see it. If you panic and run, you might be putting yourself directly into the line of fire. If you’re stuck and you then hide or pretend to be dead – you may see an opportunity, you might be able to get free. Julien Pearce, above, saw the terrorists reloading their guns – he had the knowledge about what that meant, that they wouldn’t be firing for a few seconds, wouldn’t even be looking around them, and he took his chance.
Sometimes getting out isn’t an option: hiding
If you’re hiding in another room in the same building as terrorists, lock the door, don’t talk, just whisper if absolutely necessary. But only if necessary. Use your initiative – in the attacks on the beach in Sousse in Tunisia, some tourists escaped by paddling or swimming and hiding amongst the rocks at the water’s edge. And some of them were then taken aboard boats by locals wanting to help.
Hiding from gunfire or bombs, and protecting yourself from them, are different things. A curtain can hide you, but it won’t protect you. If you can, consider layers of hiding. It was said that in the Bataclan, people hiding in one of the dressing rooms were killed, all except for one person hiding under a coat. I haven’t traced that definitely, so it may be apocryphal, but if you’re trapped and have to hide, then why not double the layers of hiding?
Some people at the Bataclan survived by playing dead, but that’s not actually recommended, for the simple reason that terrorists may walk around the room shooting the bodies, to make sure. They know that people will try to play dead. If it’s your only option, then do it, of course – they might be distracted, they might miss, their weapon might jam, anything.
Don’t make yourself a target by using your phone in an actual attack
One woman caught up in the Paris attacks said that there were actually people in the crowd who took their phones out, in view of the terrorists, and tried to use them: “they were immediately killed”. I don’t really understand the mindset that thinks using a phone while you’re in the view of terrorists who are shooting people is a good idea. All I can say is, don’t. Don’t do it. If you’re in a locked room, and there’s no noise nearby, then maybe that’s a good time to send an emergency text, as long as your phone is on silent and not on vibrate either – your whereabouts, numbers of casualties, descriptions of the attackers – but otherwise, just keep quiet.
Giving the authorities, the rescuers, all the information you can, is one thing that you absolutely can do, and it could be immensely valuable. But wherever you are, don’t put yourself in danger to send it, whether you’re still in an active situation or you think you’ve managed to get clear. Make sure you’re clear, well away from the zone. And remember that what you’ve heard can be just as valuable as what you’ve seen.
If you’re playing dead or hiding, keep quiet, keep still
In the worst situations, as happened at the Bataclan, you might be lying right next to the bodies of victims of the terrorists. It’s terrifying to even think about imagining what that must be like, but to give yourself the best chance of survival, that’s what you might have to do, and as mentioned above, it’s not a preferred course of action.
Help others if you can
You can best help others by helping them to stay quiet, making eye contact, holding hands, even keeping pressure on a wound. If you had your children with you at such a terrible time, what could you do? Check for wounds, naturally, but what else? They’d be shocked, terrified and upset, of course – but reassuring them by singing to them, or letting them cry, might well bring you all to the attention of the terrorists. On a beach like in Sousse, or in a noisy environment like a football stadium, that’s less likely simply because of the ambient noise – sea, seagulls, wind, the pounding of feet in concrete hallways, the roar of a crowd, whatever, but in a closed environment, it could be deadly to make noise. I have no easy solution for comforting a child, I’m sorry to say. I wish I did. A silent physical connection, being held, is all there is.
Suicide bombers and attackers want to kill
Playing dead or waiting to see what happens often doesn’t work when you’re being attacked by suicide bombers: they’re not temporarily preserving their hostages so that they can negotiate with the authorities, their only aim is almost always to kill. That’s it. If you don’t have a way out then playing dead, and hopefully hiding while you do it, is the least-worst option; but both government advice and common sense say the same thing – if you can get out, do it, right away.
What about fighting back? Only if you can’t run any further, and only if your hiding place has been found. It’s the very last choice of all, only one step up from death, quite frankly, and then only because suicide bombers aren’t interested in taking prisoners. If you’re actually found by one in spite of your precautions, and you do decide to fight back – you might get lucky. If you’re only faced with one attacker … if you manage to hit them … if they fall over and bust their head … maybe. Maybe.
My instinct is to say “play along, and wait for your chance to get away”, and that’s probably what a lot of people think. I don’t know how helpful that is when faced with modern terrorists.
But if you don’t do anything when discovered, you could well die anyway, that’s the stark reality, when face to face with a fanatic who wants to kill as many people as possible who are like you, and then die as well. I keep thinking of United 93, the plane that was hijacked on 9/11 but crashed in Pennsylvania before it reached the terrorists’ goal. It’s clear that the passengers fought back, and they nearly won. I don’t know all of the publicly available details of that day, but I know that they worked together to save themselves and the terrorists’ other intended victims; I’d like to think that I’d take part in that effort, if I was in that situation.
But not every terrorist is a suicide bomber
That’s true, they’re not, even nowadays. There are copycats and opportunists who haven’t had the training, and a few suicide bombers are reluctant to follow through when it comes to it. Or sometimes the suicide bombers are waiting to corral all the hostages together before they shoot them, for whatever twisted “reasons” they have for attacking like this in the first place. It’s impossible to know before the event. If you’re caught and not killed immediately, is there anything you can do? Not much: most of the advice I’ve found seems to be the classic group hostage advice of attracting as little attention as possible: do as you’re told, keep your eyes down and don’t make eye contact, don’t stand out, just wait. If you can move, you might want to edge away from choke points and even from windows – if the authorities storm the building, tear gas through the windows is the least you can expect.
Do you have specialist training that could be used in this situation? That could be a lifesaver, for you and the others with you, but only use it if you’re up to date and you’re sure it’s relevant. You’re betting your life, and the lives of others, that it will be so.
Not directly involved? you still need to take precautions
If you’re near an attack but not directly involved, don’t try to find out what’s happening – get away as fast as possible, and help others to do so – the attackers may start attacking people on the streets, there may be additional attacks from other sources, and you may well get caught up in the response or obstruct the emergency services.
If you’re in a building close to the site of a terrorist attack, keep away from the windows, and if you can go to the other side of your building, to rooms that look onto another street, then do that. If you can’t do that, consider going into the corridor, or into your bathroom. If that’s not helpful either, then at least close any big open windows, if you can do it without endangering yourself by putting yourself on view through the window, maybe by pulling it shut with a broom handle. Stephane Hache was killed in his apartment next to the Bataclan – he was taking cover, but the poor man was killed by a ricochet, according to news reports at the time.
Don’t be distracted by trying to use your phone. By all means, try to send a text to a loved one to let them know you’re safe, but don’t send a text to all your contacts, or make a video call. In the event of a major incident, the networks will be either overloaded, or deliberately down, so any time spent on the phone is time wasted and could be better spent removing yourself from the immediate situation or, even better, planning your next move.
The advice seems to be, get somewhere safe and stay there, until you get official advice that to do otherwise is safe. The Charlie Hebdo killers were on the run for three days, and were 85km from Paris when they were finally surrounded and killed. Anyone between Paris and Dammartin, the village where they went to ground, could potentially have been another victim. It may be impossible or inappropriate to hole up for that length of time, but you should be aware of the potential danger, so that your decision on your course of action takes into account as much as possible.
Some of this sounds pretty gloomy: the thing is, if you’re caught up in a mass terrorist event, especially in an enclosed space, you can’t be sure that even your best efforts will be enough to ensure your survival. That’s the truth. But you can survive, and you can increase the odds in your own favour, that’s also the truth. Be one of the survivors.
1 It is worth remembering that this scenario is highly unlikely and most people won’t encounter anything like this in their whole lives. We can’t live our lives in fearfulness of this sort of event, but a couple of minutes alertness to potential dangers is a very small price to pay in order to live your life and minimise dangers. A “what if” plan can actually cover many scenarios, not terrorism alone: you may escape a fire, a burglary, or a drunken fracas.
2 Also worth bearing in mind that you don’t know how you would react in any sort of emergency. If you happen to be one of the people who are paralysed by fear, the sort of planning I’m suggesting really could save your life, or your children’s lives. This sort of situation is terrifying enough, but to be responsible for young children at an event which is then targetted by terrorists, is unimaginably awful. Do what you can to give those in your charge a chance of surviving.
3 Learn to be aware of what’s around you. Study your destination beforehand and when you get there, whether it’s a building or a transport intersection of any kind. I started to draft this after the Paris attacks, but now the smaller weekend attack at Leytonstone Tube Station (and I used to live half a mile away from there) has just happened. What are your options? Check for exits and emergency exits. Check for personnel and security personnel – how many are there, and of what sort? Are there bottlenecks? There often are, especially to help check tickets, for instance; try to plan to avoid them if you need to get out. In emergencies, many people apparently make for the main exit, but subsidiary exits are often much easier to use. And in a life threatening situation, nobody’s going to care if you go through a door marked “Staff Only” – though it would be great to know where that door leads before you do it, it’s better than nothing.
4 Make prior arrangements with friends about where to meet up if you get separated. In the news that came out of Paris, nobody mentioned the mobile phones not functioning, so maybe they would, for longer than we’d hope, but making a prior arrangement would probably help. It might not, if the meet area is threatened by the terrorists (or a fire), but that’s always the chance you take.
5 You could make “layers” of emergency routes: out of the building, out of the immediate area, and even out of the town, though the latter is contrary to recent advice.
6 Get a map – even a single page printout. Just something basic to orient yourself, let you know the possible routes to safety, if the ones you choose are blocked for some reason. It might even be helpful if you were to mark hospitals, police stations and embassies – there will be armed guards at all these places, and people whose function it is to help you.
7 Check what each member of your party is wearing and remember it: at a big event, if you lose one another, it’s potentially an easy way to check around. As for children, if you’re going to a big event, or a big place, or you’ve travelled a long way from home, take a photo with your phone as you leave – it saves the stress of describing them to the security guards in the heat of the moment, and it’s astonishing how you can just forget what they’re wearing.
8 It pays to talk to younger family members about safe rendezvous points if mobile phones are down for any reason. With the best will in the world, members of the same party can easily get separated in emergency evacuations, and if it’s a big enough situation, the mobile phone network will go down from gridlock, let alone the security services actually shutting it down.
9 Report any unattended bags, suspicious items. And don’t then return near them.
10 If there is a security alert, whether because of a suspected gun attack, or a suspect package at a travel hub, follow instructions from the security staff immediately. They’re really not doing it solely to inconvenience you.
11 Think about what you’re wearing at likely target venues, especially at times of high alerts – if you’re going out to have fun, you want to dress in a fun way too, but do think about the “what ifs” here, if it’s the sort of event that terrorists now seem to target, or if there were a fire. What if there really was an attack? How high are your heels? If you really had to run for your life, are they good enough for that?
12 Consider the situation for the less able members of your group, maybe you yourself, up to and including wheelchair users. If the only way to save your lives was up a flight of stairs, do you know how to band together to carry that person? Is there a refuge area? It might be safe from fire, but not necessarily from a terrorist. What if the wheelchair user wants the others to go, and to save themselves? Parents would often want to save their children rather than themselves. This kind of thing needs to be talked about, and any exit strategies you can manage need practising. And remember, it will be different at different venues.
13 This might sound offensive … but several terror attacks by Islamist groups are reported to have quizzed their captives about Islam … recite a verse, name the Prophet’s mother, that sort of thing. If you think a destination of yours might be at risk, it could be worth memorising a few lines, a few basic facts. Is this pandering to terrorism? Maybe … I love languages, I love the architecture of mosques and Islamic decoration, the call of the muezzins in the morning in a city like Istanbul, it’s no hardship to me to think of memorising a few facts, and a few quotes, though I hate the reason for it. There are free copies online:
14 Local self defence laws. If you’re heading abroad, try to check out the self defence laws of the country to which you’re heading, possibly from their embassy: there might be something you know how to use thats legal at your destination while being illegal in the UK. It will need to be discarded or destroyed before you return, of course, but it’s still an option. Do bear in mind that in the heightened situation immediately after an attack, you might well be searched when crossing borders etc, make sure you’re keeping to what’s legal within the jurisdiction.
15 A list of emergency phrases, if you’re heading abroad, is always useful – that’s why we have phrasebooks, after all. But some of the newer phrases we need aren’t in the books yet: not only “I’m British”, “I’m lost”, “Do you have any water”, but also “the gunmen are over there”, “I have been shot at”, “my family have been taken hostage by terrorists”. Think about it.
16 Who would you want to call in an emergency, to let them know you’re safe? Parents, partner, children … You might not be able to get on to Facebook or WhatsApp or Twitter. Make sure you have contact numbers with you – hotlines and friends and relatives too. Your memory will probably be shattered by the stress, so write them down somewhere. Your phone might not make it through whatever you need to do to escape.
17 Identity papers: this might be as simple as your driving license, but in other parts of the world it might be your passport and an entry visa. Follow the laws of the land about whether or not you’re supposed to have that paperwork on you. It might be safer to have it, or it might be recommended you keep it in the hotel safe, and carry around a photocopy. If you need to scribble a note to yourself about the hotel and it’s name and phone number, so you can prove who you are more speedily, then do that. You might even want to make notes for yourself and your partner/friends about blood types, allergies and drugs. Many people with chronic conditions are requested to do this as a matter of course.
18 What kit to carry? So far, I’ve mentioned six items: a map, a phone, possibly an item for self defence that’s legal in your destination country, a list of emergency phrases, a list of emergency contacts and identity papers.
You could also carry a few other things, even if you’re restricted to a bum bag: a torch, more cash than you think you’ll ever need, a first aid kit, an emergency foil blanket, some water, some snacks, an extra day’s meds if you need them. Another seven items, thirteen in all.
16 And finally … what if I think there’s a terrorist attack, and there isn’t, and I overreact? The web is full of stories of overreactions – to small fireworks, backfiring cars and the rest. Let’s look at this sensibly. What would your over-reaction actually be? Are you going to prick your ears up and look around tensely until you can find what the source of the noise was? Are you going to duck down and hide behind a room divider? Are you going to start knocking people over and screaming at them to eff off out of your way? Your answer to that question tells you how embarrassed you’re going to be, and that some forms of overreaction are really, really unhelpful. If your reaction is panic, either freezing or freaking out, you’re going to harm your survival chances in a real event, and the chances of those around you. But if all you do is crouch down or check things out visually, then really, so what? There’s a great quote from Bernard Baruch, an adviser to American Democrat Presidents in the mid twentieth century:
“Those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.”
I’m interrupting the series on gardening to run a few posts about terrorism and our reaction to it, for obvious reasons.
This is the link to the download page for the advice published by the UK government very soon after the Paris attacks. According to the BBC earlier this week, it was meant to be published next week, to coincide with a planned security awareness week. They could have done a little bit more work on it, to be honest with you, but the most important thing is to get the information out in public.
This particular document is aimed at businesses – it includes advice on storing fertiliser safely, for example, and on how to secure your buildings against hostile vehicles and cyber threats. But it’s a great summary for all of us, letting us know some of what may be going on behind the scenes, and possibly giving us ideas about how we can further help ourselves.
It was reported by many news organisations around the world, of course including Sky News and The Telegraph but the BBC has come up trumps: their article here is a million miles away from the tripe they’ve been publishing recently about preparedness. It’s thoughtful, wide-ranging, informative, well-sourced and deals with the psychology of the situation, as well as the options. It’s written by Camila Ruz, who I see is a freelance science journalist. All power to her laptop.
Please download the government document to which I’ve linked, read it through, then check out what I’ve written below – I’m commenting below on it, one section at a time. Your own comments are welcome at any time.
The anti-terrorism hotlines to contact the Metropolitan Police and MI5 are at the bottom of this article.
Section One: Threat Levels
Useful to know, but not immediate: the threat level has been at “severe” for the UK, level 4 of 5, for a long time now.
Section Two: STAY SAFE: Terrorist Firearms and Weapons Attacks
This is the one I think most people will find most helpful. Run if you can, hide if you can’t, tell the security services what you can about the attackers when it’s safe to do so. And remember that the security services on the spot don’t know you, they don’t know whether or not you’re one of the attackers. For everyone’s sake, they have to make sure. Do as they tell you.
However, the points about planning are spectacularly uninformative:
What are your plans if there were an incident?
What are the local plans? e.g. personal emergency evacuation plan.
And thats it! Obviously, I’ll be covering planning to safeguard yourself in a post really soon, I’ve already spent some time drafting it.
This is about how organisations can fight against the effects of car bombs, which have sadly been deployed in the UK already. I don’t think there’s anything here that’s useful on an individual basis, except that maybe you can learn to recognise “hostile vehicle mitigation measures” when you see them at public venues.
Section Four: Suicide attacks
As Londoners and others will remember, these too have been used against us. Looking at the advice given to businesses here, I’d say there are a few relevant pieces of advice:
vehicle access control points can be extremely dangerous – potential suicide bombers might realise that they’re about to be apprehended, for example, and set off their devices early. An exchange of gunfire is also a possibility. It’s safer for you, and less constraining for the guards concerned, if you don’t dawdle around such places. Once you’re through, carry on, and leave the area.
as for any other occasion, stay aware, and let someone know if you see something suspicious.
Section Five: chemical, biological and radioactive threats
I’ve actually covered radiological threats already in a previous post (which you can see here) but the important bit as far as this document today is concerned is this: “The impact of a CBR attack would depend heavily on the success of the chosen method and the weather conditions at the time of the attack. The first indicators of a CBR attack may be the sudden appearance of powders, liquids or strange smells within the building, with or without an immediate effect on people.” That’s useful information, that we all could bear in mind.
I’ll cover the other threats in due course.
Section Six: Insider Threat
In this country, this is currently unlikely to be violent on a mass scale, but things change all the time in this arena … perhaps the most helpful thing any outsider can do, as mentioned previously, is to report any suspicious activity. That culture of “reporting difference” leads to its own problems, which is a discussion preppers and civilised human beings need to have.
Section Seven: Cyber Threat
We are the customers whose details are stolen if any company we use has their client list stolen – so it makes sense to be as careful as you can with things like passwords, clicking links and maintaining your privacy about your details as much as you can. You might also usefully check what the policy is of any company with which you have strong links. Books are written about this subject – I have a fair few draft posts about it myself, but there’s nothing in this document that’s particularly relevant to individuals in the here and now.
Section Eight: Further Information
The links here are all meant for businesses, but if you live, work or visit in an area that’s particularly vulnerable, you might want to cast your eye over some more information.
So, that’s it for now. The events in Paris signalled the start of a terrible week for decent human beings all over the world. By spreading information about how to keep ourselves that bit safer, I hope I’m helping just a tiny bit in the fightback. You can spread it too.