Calling for Backup: How to Stack the Deck in Your Favor When a Disaster Strikes

disaster survivalFor many of us, it’s hard to ask for help. We pride ourselves in our preparedness for emergencies; in many cases we are the go-to people in our social circle for what to do in case of…fill in the blank. Or at least we know who to ask or where to look up the answer. But as strong as we are, there are many things in nature and in our industrialized world that are much stronger. In some cases, we need to call for help…for backup.

It’s OK to need some backup!

Remember that every day, police and fire departments send their people out to dangerous situations. In most cases, one unit (police car, fire truck, ambulance) can handle the situation by themselves with little problem. If you think you have a hard time asking for help, just imagine the egos needed by cops who respond to an armed robbery, or firefighters entering a burning building. In those lines of work, you only ask for help if you really need it: ask for it too often or unnecessarily, and you get a bad reputation.

But when they do really need it, calling for backup allows that first responding unit to stay at the scene and finish the job…with a little help (sometimes with a lot of help). In some cases, that first unit can anticipate trouble before it actually happens and ask for backup as a precaution. For instance, a cop might pull over the car of a known felon, on parole for assaulting a police officer. Common sense would be to call for backup, knowing this person is a high-risk contact.

In a different case, back in the day when I was a street cop I was driving through town on a two-lane road when an old El Camino heading toward me in the other direction suddenly lost its load of furniture into the road right as I passed them. I turned on my red and blue lights and did a U-turn, pulling in behind them where they had already pulled over on the shoulder. I called in the license plate and location to my dispatcher and got out of my car to talk to the occupants, a couple in their 30’s. Having moved many times in my life, I wasn’t in an enforcement frame of mind; I just wanted to make sure they could safely load their cargo back in the car. Our conversation was friendly and light.

Just about the time that I looked in the car and saw the screwdriver sticking out of the steering column, my dispatcher notified me that it was a stolen vehicle and sent another unit toward my location for backup. With a smile on my face, I quickly handcuffed the male and sat him on the curb about the time that the backup car arrived. In this case, a seemingly innocent contact unexpectedly became potentially dangerous, justifying the backup.

Not Just for Cops and Firefighters

Now that you understand what I mean by “backup,” let’s apply the concept to surviving disasters. Most preparedness advice treats each family as an individual unit, but the truth is that most of us have a network of neighbors, friends, and relatives that could potentially help us in various ways in a disaster. And each of us can make a real difference providing backup to our social circle when they are jeopardy.

RELATED ARTICLE: “Where Do You Start When Everything Has Been Lost?

In general, there are two categories of disasters:

  • No-notice disasters like earthquakes and train derailments
  • Prior-notice disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires

There are some calamities like floods that can fit in both categories (i.e. flash floods vs. slow-rise floods), but those tend to be location-specific. You generally have one or the other in a particular place.

Prior-notice Disasters

Let’s talk about prior-notice incidents first, because planning a backup strategy for them will yield an easy approach to no-notice backup. We want our backup to be able to provide help when we need:

  • Sandbagging to keep water out from a flood
  • Flammable items removed from around the house as a fire approaches
  • Hurricane shutters put up
  • Babysitting, so parents can do important tasks
  • Supplies or messages delivered when phone service is out
  • Water removed from a flooded basement

No-notice Disasters

The preparation that you put in place for prior-notice emergencies will really pay off for no-notice incidents. No-notice events will often cause communications difficulty when they suddenly occur, because the natural reaction of most people is to immediately call their kids or other loved ones. Cellular networks quickly become overloaded with voice traffic, but they can often still accommodate text messages. With a critical contacts list, your group should be able to gain awareness of everyone’s circumstances, and learn who needs help.


Before a disaster strikes, put a critical contacts list together.

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The Critical Contacts List

This contact list is simply a list of who you might want to call on to help in an emergency, but it’s not enough to just put these names and phone numbers on paper. It’s very important to have a conversation with each individual. Once you have a fairly solid list of people you think would be willing to help in a disaster, host a dinner party or potluck (at least with those within a reasonable distance) where you can not only continue the conversation with individuals, but foster connections among the group.

As a personal example, I had no idea that my second cousin was a fairly serious ham radio enthusiast. I found out by chance at a family get-together. Talk about a valuable skill set in a disaster! This would be a great resource to foster communications within the family during an emergency and to keep tabs on info from other hams. The point is that you won’t know if you never ask.

The Agenda, and the List

Before the main course is served at your dinner party, make sure you give each of your guests an agenda of what you hope to accomplish, and a list of contact info for all of your guests. It may seem over the top, but it will focus the group and show them what you want to do. Keep it short and to the point. You can joke with the group that you’re holding dinner hostage until the task is complete. The most important thing is to state your interest in helping organize your neighbors, family and friends to be able to help each other in emergencies.

The contact list is a critical part of your effort; even if an attendee doesn’t enthusiastically buy in to your suggestions, chances are they will hang on to the contact list. If you put forth a little more effort and make it into a laminated card, those odds go way up, as do the odds that the list will be available to each member of your group when it hits the fan. A laminated card, small enough to fit inside a wallet, helps insures that everyone has those important contacts no matter where they are.

One Last Thought

Just as my dispatcher sent backup to me whenever I was anticipating problems, you can anticipate many problems yourself (or even as a group). Most weather-related problems have some warning time, and with all of the warnings available from the National Weather Service and various phone apps, you should have time to alert your people. Think you’ll need backup? Time for a slumber party at your place. Get your crew together, make a plan, and you’ll be more ready than 99% of your neighbors.

A few more resources for disaster survival

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