Let’s teach people to be prepared during emergencies

Aug. 1, 2014

When people are in an emergency situation, their lack of knowledge about water can be a dangerous thing.

During my 20-plus years in the water treatment industry I have discovered a love for teaching people about water. It’s really a fascinating and vital subject. In the past few years, my focus has become specialized on teaching people how to prepare for an emergency.

You certainly have noticed that the vast majority of people have a shocking lack of knowledge about water. We, as a society, take our safe drinking water for granted. Simply turn on the tap and get safe drinking water or go to the store and buy bottled water. It’s so easy, why do we need to know more?

But, what happens when a disaster strikes? What happens when the power goes out for weeks while our infrastructure is severely damaged or destroyed? Just in the past few years we have witnessed massive hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear accidents. The threat of an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP), which is a weapon that could destroy our electrical grid, is also a real possibility.

When people are in an emergency situation, their lack of knowledge about water can be a very dangerous thing. Most people have no idea how dangerous water can become in an emergency or what to do (or what not to do) to provide their family with safe drinking water. Very few people know what the Red Cross recommends or that there are different types of water emergencies and that the proper way to treat water in one type of emergency is exactly the wrong thing to do for another type.

There are very few people providing this education. I think that the most qualified people to provide this training are water treatment professionals. We, as an industry, should take a leadership role in providing this training.

What are some key points that should be communicated to people? Here’s a start.

1. Emergencies happen without notice, so be prepared

If an emergency strikes and you are not prepared, your family’s health could be at risk. You will be dependent upon government response and you could find yourself in a very scary situation.

Over the past few years we have seen some terrible disasters around the world, from the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear accident to Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines, and major earthquakes in New Zealand and Chile.

By being prepared, you allow yourself the opportunity to stay calm and collected. Having a calm state of mind allows you to react properly to a situation and it allows you to be a calming voice in a troubled time.

2. Water is crucial for life

You won’t understand how absolutely vital water is until you don’t have it. After a disaster, water may not flow from the tap or it may be contaminated. Bottled water is the first thing to fly off of store shelves and if roads are impassible due to an earthquake or flood, store shelves cannot be easily replenished.

Think about this: A stomach bug is a very uncomfortable illness with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, pain and weakness, but in daily life a stomach bug is typically not a serious problem. Simply drink plenty of water to replace the fluids that you are losing, and get sleep and usually you are feeling better within 24 to 48 hours.

But, what happens in an emergency situation when the water you are drinking is what made you sick in the first place? If you are not able to replace the fluids that you are losing you could quickly find yourself in a very dangerous or even deadly situation.

Imagine that your spouse and children are in this situation. This is a situation that you must avoid and you avoid it by being prepared and ensuring the safety of your water supply.

3. Know the Red Cross recommendations for treating water in an emergency

Everyone should have a copy of the Red Cross/FEMA "Water and Food in an Emergency" Pamphlet, which can be found here.

In addition, I have written a free e-book that is a supplement to the Red Cross recommendations. Individuals can download this book at waterinanemergency.com. The free e-book also includes a copy of the Red Cross recommendations.

Both of these resources should be printed out and stored in a safe place because in an emergency the power would most likely be out. The Red Cross recommendations are scientifically-based and are very good. They are not perfect, however, and in fact, sometimes the Red Cross recommendations are exactly the wrong thing to do in an emergency, which leads us to our next point.

4. Understand why the Red Cross recommends what they do

The Red Cross recommends three methods for treating questionable water: Boiling, chlorination and distillation. Why do they recommend these three methods? Because of their concern over biological contaminants. Biological contaminants are the biggest threat in an emergency (remember the example of the stomach bug), and there is no room for error with biological contamination.

It’s important to realize, however, that there are different types of contaminants that can be in water, and they need to be treated differently. For example, if your water is contaminated with dangerous bacteria you should not rely on a filter alone, but rather should always use one of the Red Cross recommended methods.

On the other hand, while boiling the water is very effective for killing bacteria, it actually concentrates most chemicals. So, after the West Virginia chemical spill, for example, boiling the water would have been exactly the wrong thing to do.

By having a deeper understanding of why the Red Cross recommends what they do, you gain an understanding of what not to do, which is often just as important as knowing what to do.

5. Priorities change in an emergency

In an emergency, your priorities need to change with your situation. In daily life you have plenty of options. If something is wrong with your water you can buy bottled water. If you get sick you can go to the doctor, or an ambulance can come get you. If you need to leave town, simply drive away.

In an emergency, however, your options may be very limited. You may not have alternate sources of water. You may not be able to go to a doctor, or rely upon emergency response. You likely won’t be able to hop in a car and leave.

This means that you have to be very careful with ensuring the safety of the water that you do have.


Breakout list

Here’s a quick list to be prepared for a water emergency:

  • Have the proper knowledge
  • Have a supply of bottled water
  • Have a bottle of unopened, basic bleach so you can chlorinate the water in accordance with Red Cross recommendations
  • Have a portable, non-electric stove and fuel that will allow you to boil or distill the water
  • Have a non-electric water distiller
  • Have an emergency filter
  • Prepare your loved ones.

6. Distillation is the best process

The most effective method for treating dangerous water is distillation. Distillation provides excellent protection against biological contaminants, while providing a high level of protection against other types of contaminants. It produces consistent results for as long as needed, and it can turn ocean water into clean drinking water. The next best way to treat water in an emergency is to filter the water and then boil it. While this won’t provide the level of protection that a distiller provides, it can still be good. The third method is to filter the water and then chlorinate it with a solution of regular, basic bleach in accordance with the instructions provided by the Red Cross.

7. Have a supply of bottled water

The Red Cross recommends having at least a three-day supply of bottled water at all times. Store one gallon per day per person, of which a half of a gallon should be used for consumption and a half of a gallon for washing and hygiene.

You should also store extra water for people who will be depending upon you (your children, loved ones, neighbors, etc.). The three-day recommendation is a minimum, however. Ideally, a household should have a two-week supply if possible.

8. There are hidden water emergencies as well, so have a good water purifier in your house for day-to-day use

The chemical spill that happened in West Virginia earlier this year received a lot of publicity, but that chemical spill could have easily gone unnoticed. "The West Virginia chemical spill might seem like a rare catastrophe, but this type of thing happens every day in the U.S.," says Eric Chemic, head of research for Businessweek and Bloomberg TV.

In 2013, there were 3,885 self-reported chemical accidents from 76 publicly traded American companies. For this reason, it’s important to have a professionally installed water filtration or distillation system for everyday use.

9. Spread the word

Getting yourself prepared is the first step, but also get your family, friends and neighbors prepared. Do you remember the story of the ant (who was prepared for winter) and the grasshopper (who lived carefree and didn’t worry about preparing)? The ant was the wise one, but did he do everything he could to inspire the grasshopper to prepare? Be a leader and inspire people to care about this issue because winter is coming.

Glenn Meder is a leading expert on water in an emergency, and is the designer of the Survival Still emergency water distiller. You can check out his website at www.SurvivalStill.com.

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