Monday, August 5, 2013

A Moment's Notice

The shrill clangs pulled me out of a deep sleep. What the ...? My mind spluttered. I grabbed my cell phone and peered blearily at the numbers on the lock screen: 4:02 AM. In the next instant it dawned on me that the fire alarm was wailing. Not the tiny smoke detector in my apartment, but the full-fledged clanging of the building's alarm.

I sprang out of bed and bolted to my apartment door. The hallway was lit, reverberating even more loudly with the clang of the alarm, but deserted. For an instant, I wondered if this was a drill. Why wasn't everyone evacuating? But in the next moments I was grabbing a coat, fumbling to unplug my cell phone, reaching for my keys and cane, slipping on some sandals, and was out the door.

The hallway was still deserted. The stairwells were lit, and everything seemed normal. But as I descended the first flight I heard the banging of doors and echoes of footsteps, and I was soon joined by a stream of other residents evacuating the building. Trailing down the stairs in our pyjamas and robes, we emerged into the warm summer darkness to find a few dozen residents milling around the building entrance. In another few seconds the murmur of the gathered crowd was overtaken by the wail of sirens as several emergency vehicles pulled up.

Definitely not a drill.

The crowd parted to let the firefighters through. People craned their necks to look up at the high-rise, searching for any hint of flames. Some speculated that they thought they smelled smoke. Other comments were impossible to hear, vying with the alarms still wailing from within. I stood quietly to one side, taking everything in and thinking.

In the light spilling from the building entrance and the intermittent flash of siren lights washing over the mingled crowd, I noticed that some people were carrying backpacks or what looked like coolers. I thought of my earthquake kit up in my apartment, and allowed myself to consider the possibility that some sort of emergency had actually occurred. What if we weren't allowed back in the building tonight? All I had on my person was my cell phone, keys, cane, and the hundred or so units of insulin in my pump. No meter, no glucose tablets, no money or wallet. I was woefully unprepared to get through even one night on my own.

I live in a major earthquake zone, part of the so-called Ring of Fire. Periodically, we get articles in the paper about lack of emergency preparedness by the denizens of this metropolis. Yet I, and probably a majority of young adults who grew up in the area, have never lived through any kind of natural disaster. For us, transit shutdowns or local power outages are the extent of our experience, and they hardly quality as anything more than an inconvenience.

I have an earthquake kit which has remained untouched for several years, the supplies in it likely long expired. Ironically, I've always been a fan of post-apocalyptic stories and have always had an interest in earthquakes (I wanted to be a seismologist when I was in high school, until I changed my mind and went into teaching). Just this past weekend I watched Under the Dome online, and I'm currently halfway through reading One Second After. Incidentally, both stories involve characters with Type 1 diabetes. I've also recently begun co-chairing the Health and Safety committee at work. Perhaps due to this combination of stories and events on my mind, as I stood there huddled in the night with the others I wondered if I would be prepared to up and leave my building right then and there with only the items I carried. Not necessarily to survive the zombie apocalypse, but to survive a real-life emergency.

I've known friends whose lives have been turned upside down in an instant by house fire. I see natural disasters affecting metropolitan areas in the news on a regular basis. What if I'd been woken to my building swaying and the city shaken by a major earthquake? Was I prepared to survive for even a few nights on my own without warning?

The short answer to that question is no. I'm not prepared, at all.

In the end, it turned out that the fire alarm had been, while not quite a false alarm, triggered by a minor issue involving some piece of equipment in the building's innards. Those who thought they smelled smoke were not imagining things. But a half hour after we congregated on the sidewalk beside the building's entrance, a firefighter gave the all-clear for everyone to return to their apartments. I returned to my suite, had a glass of water, and climbed back into bed. I read for a long time before finally drifting off to sleep.

Today I dug my long-neglected earthquake kit out of my front closet. I realized immediately that it wasn't in a pack that I would ever grab in an instant as I headed out the door as I had last night. I unpacked it and found expired pump cartridges, written settings for a model of insulin pump I no longer used, batteries that looked like they were decaying, and glucose tablets that had expired years ago. I found a spare cane, a flashlight that still worked, bottles of water, and some cash. A few years ago my mom, after seeing earthquakes on the news, bought some supplies for my brothers and I, and so I also found a poncho, matches and a lighter, prepaid long distance phone card, and a whistle. Other things which I think would be useful or essential, such as a magnifier, spare meter, insulin (and allergy and asthma medication such as Reactine, Benadryl, an inhaler and an EpiPen), and any sort of food, were completely absent.

Definitely a good foundation for a kit, if it was replenished and updated and stored in a more suitable pack. Definitely not a bad thing to be reminded of every once in a while, either. I think my late-summer project will be updating the kit and making it into something I really can grab on a moment's notice.


  1. I'm glad the alarm turned out to be nothing serious... and that it had the benefit of forcing you to re-evaluate your emergency pack. These things tend to get pushed to the back of the closet (literally and metaphorically) after years of non-use. Stay safe!

    1. You're right; it's never a bad thing to be reminded of (in a safe way), in my opinion.