In recent times, events both man-made and natural have necessitated a review of personal safety action plans for authorities, organisations as well as individuals.

Media coverage of incidents at two famous malls in Pakistan, one in Islamabad and the other in Karachi, suggests that panic sets in among people at these malls as well as on social media, fearing for people’s lives.

The Islamabad mall situation arose due to a sudden thunder storm, while the Karachi incident revolved around a fire that rapidly caused smoke build up. Thankfully, no one was harmed in either incident, yet it could just have easily gone horribly wrong.

The Lahore park terror incident exposed frailty of a different kind.

What to do during an incident?

— If you are yourself impacted then foremost is to adhere to the guidance of professionals (fire wardens, security guards, police, ambulance services, etc)

— When an area has been impacted, move away quickly and safely. Remember that standing near a building which has been struck by disaster is as unsafe as standing within it; move as far away to avoid being struck by loose objects (metal panels, concrete, glass windows, etc).

— If you’ve been separated from someone then reach a pre-determined assembly point. This is a critical step in your safety plan, especially when children or senior citizens are involved.

  • If there are several people in your group then one of them can stay at the safety point to wait for others, while other can look for the missing. But that individual then should be aware of who is carrying out a search effort as well.

— Post to social media your own safety status or that of someone you may be looking for only when it’s safe to do so. However, if you’ve been trapped then a social media posting is an effective way of communicating a request for help.

— Always inform an official about the missing person (law enforcement, building management, guard, etc).

  • Tell them where the person was last known to be (exact location as much as possible).
  • Describe what they are wearing (the more details you can give to aid a visual distinction from afar the better).
  • Name, age, height, gender, even language they speak.
  • Show them a picture if you have one (most people have smart phones and store family pictures).
  • If the person was carrying a cell phone, the obvious is to call them but at times mobile networks are overwhelmed, therefore always send a text message, even smart messaging tools such as Whatsapp, instant messenger are good to use. Remember, while the message may not instantly go through they do tend to get through quicker than calls.

It’s human instinct to help others in distress but it is also important to realise that you could be placing yourself in harm’s way, too. Therefore, always consider your personal safety too.

— If there is no one else to aide you on the spot:

  • Inform someone who may not be in the area via call / SMS / chat that you are carrying out a search on your own and that if they hear back from the missing individual then you should be immediately informed.

— If there is someone to assist you:

  • Look to organising the search and rescue effort. Know who will do what and fix a time frame. Fixing the time helps you address any concerns about the search team’s long absence.

Remember, if you lose track of time and experience communications blackout you may inadvertently be adding to the numbers of missing persons.

Post incident:

— Check your own as well as the well-being of others who may have been impacted.

  • Physical health concerns are easier to diagnose than mental health concerns that arise post trauma. Consult a professional and keep an eye out for those signs as they may occur over an extended period.

— Inform family, friends, and even your organisation, who may be concerned about your safety that you are OK and unharmed. A quick social media update could be extremely useful. Many large organisations are now opening up their social media platforms for employee safety postings during major disasters.

— Review what went wrong and what worked for you. Things as basic as:

  • Do you have a disaster plan for your family? Does everyone know the plan?
  • You left home with a phone battery that was about to die on you because you didn’t expect to be out more than a couple of minutes. Is it wise to leave home / office / school with a phone less than half charge? Should you get a battery-pack?
  • You didn’t carry ID documents on your person as you were only heading around the corner from your home / office.
  • Someone didn’t know how to take shelter (in case of earthquakes), stop-drop-roll (if you’re on fire).
  • Were you able to quickly communicate about what happened with yourself or someone in your care via social media, call, SMS, Whatsapp group? (Remember, you don’t have to call your family to inform them; you can message anyone in your phonebook and ask them to notify your family, your colleague or office, etc)
  • Everyone knew where to gather as soon as they got separated and safely made their way to that spot. Maybe the spot itself was compromised and you had no alternate planned, therefore consider that for the future.
  • Do you have a disaster plan for yourself and your family?

TIP: Social media, despite the chaos it may initially spread, is an effective means to communicate with people of all ages. Use it wisely and in time of distress. There are numerous examples of where it has helped search and rescue efforts in tracking people.This article was first published in Dawn Magazine on 12th June 2016

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