Practical Survival Skills 101 - Understanding Emergencies (Updated)

[Note: This WSID Article is an updated version of an article Aaron previously submitted in March 2011 (see original). There will be additional follow-on articles that will compliment this one on Understanding Emergencies. This article still complements Aaron's earlier "Practical Survival Skills 101" posts on fire, water, and shelter.]

Preface: What is an emergency? 

There is an awful lot of academic banter in which we try to “identify” emergencies before they happen. Pedantic issues are categorized and specifics are assigned to them as potential resolutions. This is not a “flawed” approach, but it’s endemic in the American mindset, which is obsessed with micromanagement.

In order to distance ourselves from the details, which are too stochastic and specific, we can generally state that an emergency is a shortage of resources.

Resources can be defined as:

  1. Air
  2. Shelter
  3. Water
  4. Food
  5. Security

It’s important to examine the relationship between these emergencies, as they directly relate to how we categorize emergencies. For example, air, while in the greatest supply of the above, gives rise to the most pressing emergency when in short supply. This continues as we descend the list.

This lack of resources can be adapted to define everything from a local snowstorm, to Hurricane Katrina, or the well-orchestrated, disastrous attack launched in Mumbai, India. In each of these events, there was a breakdown of modern civil structure: EMS, police, food and water, energy and transportation were compromised, and emergencies ensued. In other words, an emergency can be said to occur when there is a shortage of anything required to sustain life.

So the question still lingers, “How do we categorize emergencies?”

Duration and Intensity

Over the years, my understanding of emergencies has evolved to reflect not the specifics, but the protraction of the emergency and the urgency the lack of resources presents. In any case of shortage, be it breathable air or the ability to defend yourself, four key elements are always present and can be expressed as a balance between each pair of concepts:

Intensity Duration and Probability Proximity

Even a very survivable situation can be deadly when coupled with a protracted duration, because with duration, we see the emergence of secondary and tertiary emergencies as a result of lack of resources.

What are these? Things like dehydration, infections, starvation, blood loss, thermal injury, and so forth.

These things in and of themselves are negative and become more severe the longer they go untreated.

So to put it in “direct” terms: The longer you take fire, the lower your odds of survival.

Because of this, our immediate emphasis is always on preventing secondary and tertiary emergencies, and the way we can do this is by managing the primary situation to shorten its duration as quickly as possible.

Part I: Emergency Assessment


Intensity can be a very difficult thing to define. Each and every individual has their own set of skills, experiences, strengths, and weaknesses that define how they react to emergencies, but in general, we can still define the following as events that would be commonly regarded as emergencies.

Type 1. High Intensity - Short Duration

A high-intensity situation would be a situation in which you and/or others have minimal time to escape imminent harm. However, as a rule, high-intensity situations are limited by environmental factors and are accompanied by very brief durations. Because of this, things like eating, communication with loved ones, and other similar concerns need not be considered -- they can wait. These emergencies represent situations where “immediate action” is required (whether it’s fight or flight) and typically last between one second and twenty four hours.

The equipment necessary to solve these problems is your EDC ("Every Day Carry," discussed later) -- first line. For that reason, keep these things on your person whenever you’re dressed (discussed later).

Incidences of “high intensity” are:

  • Drowning event
  • House fire
  • Being stranded in the wilderness
  • Violent attacks, such as a robbery
  • Violent attacks such as an “active shooter” scenario in which you’re amongst the targeted
  • Violent contact with gangs or gang members
  • Abrupt natural disasters, such as earthquakes or tornados
  • Sudden traumatic injuries, such as auto accidents, equipment accidents, or events that could result in a more protracted emergency, such as a plane crash

Type 2. Moderate Intensity - Short/Moderate Duration

Moderate-intensity situations include scenarios that carry a very real threat of violence or injury, but injury to you either is unintended or would be incidental. In other words, you’re not the target, but you could become one by happenstance. As a corollary, you may have to consider providing services for yourself, including medical, security, food, water, and sanitation. While you’re not actively being targeted, you may be pressed into defending or providing for yourself.

In contrast with the ‘Short Duration’ emergency figure (1 second - 24 hours), moderate-intensity events generally affect their victims for “moderate” durations. These could last between two days and one week. It’s important to note that while these situations may seem very intense, they differ from immediate, high-intensity emergencies in that you’re not being actively targeted or directly affronted by the emergency. In other words, food may become scarce, but it’s not because someone is taking it from you.

The equipment to negotiate these problem sets is a combination of your 1st and 2nd Line Equipment, discussed later.

Incidences of “moderate intensity - short/medium duration” are:

  • Riots
  • Blackouts
  • Large-scale infrastructure damage, such as that which accompanies hurricanes/earthquakes
  • Temporary weather emergencies, such as significant winter weather events or flooding
  • Invasion by a military (first week)
  • The ‘event’ of an economic collapse (first week)
  • Breakdown of law/gang violence

Type 3. Low Intensity - Protracted Duration

These events represent the most varied and dangerous situations because they occur along a very long timeline. Low-intensity events also be understood as the vectors for many of the “worst case” scenarios, as they’re typically created by a more traumatic, short-term, moderate-intensity situation; as such, the challenges they present are often the “secondary” or “tertiary” concerns discussed earlier. While these events do not affect you on a ‘person to person’ level, they fundamentally change the dynamics of your interactions for their duration, which is indefinite. These problem will require all the skills, mindset, and equipment of all three lines of gear, plus anything you can scavenge using your skills/equipment. More on this in the “Gear Concepts and Lines” below.

Perhaps most important when considering Low Intensity - Protracted Duration events is that within these events, the probability of Type One and Two events increases drastically. That is to say, in an economic collapse, for instance, you’re far more likely to face a situation in which you’re facing a resource shortage or are being targeted directly. 

Examples of “low-moderate intensity - protracted duration” incidents are:

  • Occupation by military
  • Depression
  • Economic collapse
  • Pandemic outbreak of a deadly disease
  • Nuclear war
  • Revolution
  • Being shipwrecked

With the above grim prospects to consider, we would be awash in fears, it would be almost impossible to nail down any way to provide a sound “solution” to the problems, and perhaps most importantly, we would be wondering how to take the first step.

Enter Probability and Proximity. While no one can foresee the future, most can clearly see that the position we find our global community in is laden with economic, socio-political, and military encumbrances that cannot be reconciled. Each of us individually must scrutinize for ourselves what we believe to be the most likely situations and how our local area will be impacted. The needs of someone in Detroit, Michigan will be significantly different than someone living in the countryside of Belgium. Again, we apply the idea of “consistency across categories” -- a concept from martial artist Marc Denny -- which means that we take steps to prepare for any emergency by using a combination of skill-set, mindset, and tactics that are generic rather than specific.

The general approach is to work from the outside in -- that is, from the longest, most unlikely situations first. The reasoning behind that is this: Most of the situations that are of shorter duration and intensity are precursory to the larger event, and therefore you can eliminate the least likely emergencies and focus on the most plausible ones.

It’s important to re-evaluate these considerations every so often, especially when you move to a new location or have a change in life such as a marriage, birth of a child, death in the family, etc.

For example, I believe nuclear war to be a very remote possibility at this time, but an economic collapse is very likely within the next few years; from this, we can say that the more immediate concerns would be things like riots, delays in shipments/deliveries, loss of purchasing power, and (even more ‘close to home’) increased petty crime, such as theft, assault, robbery, home invasions, and perhaps more violent crimes as well.

This allows us to “funnel” the possibilities into a simple package that we can then begin to assess.

Part II: Emergency Plan of Action

Practicality vs. Wishful Thinking

This is where planning meets a critical juncture -– the crossroads of actionability and impracticality. During this portion, we’ll discuss how to plan, and what steps to take to get yourself in the best position possible, without digressing into time-wasting distractions based on what you’d like, rather than what is realistic for your situation. For this component, we’ll break this into three subsections, one for each of our “types” of emergency. It’s an important first step to properly identify what type of emergency you’re facing, but as a part of your plan, we’ll start building from the base (Type 1) and discuss ways to increase your preparedness as we ascend through the categories.

Type 1. High Intensity - Short Duration

This class of emergency requires the highest degree of vigilance and relies most on personal preparedness. Type 1 emergencies happen fast, carry great risk, and leave very little room for error.

Immediate accessibility and skill set are going to be the prime influences on how you handle these emergencies, so when it comes to planning your training, these are some of the most actionable and accessible skills.

We’ll further break these skills down into three categories and what you can do about them:

1. Survival Skills
2. Self Defense Considerations
3. Emergency Management

Survival Skills

These skills are all about balancing our environmental resources, and can be extremely simple (such as not producing carbon monoxide in confined spaces) or require years of experience to master (such as trapping game). While the “core” three have been briefly covered, please see below for more.

ShelterWater | Fire

These skills are for the direst of circumstances, and we can look closer to home for some practical solutions for a crisis.

The most obvious topics are food preparation and storage, and drinking water, but take this time to think about ways you’ll heat and cool your home, how you’ll cook your food and purify your water, and how much energy those tasks require. Because these are the kind of emergencies that do not last for days, we’re not as concerned with things like navigation, curing meat, or trapping/fishing for food.

Some common actions for a “shelter in place” type of emergency:

  • Develop a plan to purchase and store enough food for three months (and beyond, once you’ve reached the 3-month goal)
  • Fill all tubs and snks immediately (and any buckets or containers once the tubs are full, if possible)
  • Begin rationing water and food at the first sign of an emergency
  • Double check batteries, flashlights, food stocks, and communications equipment
  • Use the most perishable frozen items first (if you still have power, slice meats thin and cook them as long as possible at about 120°F)
  • Prepare meals that can be reheated with ease, can have new ingredients added, and can be shared (soups, stews, etc).
  • Keep fire extinguishers handy, and keep a fire-watch for a few hours after any fires have been extinguished.
  •  Be sure to dispose of waste appropriately, and have a plan that doesn’t attract disease or dangerous scavengers.
Self-Defense Considerations

Self-defense is, much like medical and first aid skills, a long process that you can quit, but never finish. The common steps here are things like taking martial arts classes, double-checking physical security (see THC0655’s excellent thread here: and establishing some protocols about how you travel, when, where, with whom (discussed in “Practical Preparation”). Ideally, you should give some thought to how and when you leave your home, who you take with you, and who stays behind. You should also consider ways of communicating (including how to discreetly pass messages, such as knock-codes, duress words, and so forth) that handle communications on the “immediate” time-frame. At this stage, you should be making sure your EDC (Every Day Carry Equipment; discussed later) is on you at all times, and focus on preventing assaults, invasions and robberies, both in your home, about town and in your vehicle – in short, make sure your family is prepared to react with you if there is a Type 1 emergency.

  • Make sure you have an accountability plan (meeting spot, buddy system, etc.) for your family in case there’s an incident.
  • Ensure that everyone is aware of the status of anyone leaving, where they’re going, and an estimate of how long they’ll be gone.
  • Determine, based on your skill and comfort level, what you should carry on you, and spend time refreshing yourself on its use.
  • Discuss with your family where things like the fire extinguishers, first aid kits, firearms, and communications equipment are, how to use them, and the appropriate safety requirements.
  • Have a plan in case you or a loved one is seriously injured. This is unpleasant to think about, but it is a reality of a lower-functioning society. Don’t wait until the last minute to think about the difficult possibilities.
  • Consider early warning systems, such as cameras or noise/light producing devices around your property and home. It may also be prudent to consider a dog, as suggested by user TicTac1.
Emergency Management Skills

These are what are generally considered “after-action” skills, still defined within our Type 1 emergencies. They may sneak into Type 2 and Type 3 (such as an injury which becomes infected, or a broken bone which requires several weeks to heal, or a house fire that displaces your family) but without immediate action, they can certainly be mortal, and thus, we address them with our Type 1 skill-set. As with the other two tool-sets, we want to sharpen these skills and keep them as rust-free as possible, have a cogent plan based on our experience and knowledge well in advance, and have the equipment necessary to deal with problems that could arise.

At this time, it’s important to differentiate that there are some critical differences between how we plan to mitigate emergencies in a comfortable, first-world setting (flat tires, lacerations, and the sniffles) and what we can expect in a third-world environment (starvation, gunshot wounds, pellagra, and dysentery are big in Afghanistan and most of the third world).

As such, we’re going to start considering skills and equipment that might be outside the purview of someone with CPR and a Wal-Mart First Aid Kit (though both are good to have). Your ability to get gritty without much warning might save lives.

  • Have a first aid kit stocked with antibiotics, enough 4x4 gauze to make a hospital proud, and plenty of surgical tape.
  • Make an EDC pack (Every Day Carry) for basic injuries (I carry gauze, Band-Aids, Bacitracin, and an Israeli dressing/bandage as part of my EDC kit, with more in my 2nd line equipment. A tourniquet is next.
  • Take a wilderness medicine course. Many can be had at very little cost, and many hospitals sponsor them. This should help you handle:
    • Breaks, sprains, splints, and litters
    • Thermal injuries, and how to treat and prevent them
    • Controlling bleeding, and bleeding types
    • CPR and the ABC’s of rescue medicine
  • Learn the Fire Triad and how to extinguish a fire

This is a very general overview of the skills you might need for common, Type 1 emergencies.

The steps we take from this point forward will depend on your location, level of preparedness and what you are personally comfortable with. It’s important to continue to keep your skills and tangible preps up to date.

Type 2. Moderate Intensity - Short/Moderate Duration

These emergencies begin to take on a different tone and pitch than the Type 1 emergency in which you’re literally addressing threats to your life and security. Here we begin discussing things that will ‘ease’ the event of a social emergency, be it a significant weather event, civil unrest (a euphemism for riots), or the first few weeks of what could potentially become a prolonged emergency, such as a currency collapse, banking holiday, or massive-scale infrastructural catastrophe, such as a Carrington Event, war, or something outlandish like a meteor strike. In short, while the Type 1 skill-set addresses threats to *our* individual lives, the Type 2emergency threatens our communities or perhaps even regions. As we work through these problems, we will incorporate our Type 1 emergency preps to maximize our successes here, and likewise, these steps will be used to build a foundation for more profound and damaging emergencies.

Survival Skills

Once we move from the “immediate threat” situations to the Type 2 Emergency, we can still rely on our stocks, but replenishing becomes critically important in order to stretch our resources as long as possible. Like the Type 1 emergencies, we’re going to have to look to both skill-set and equipment in order to maximize success. In addition to some simple things like planting a few fruit-producing trees, investing in old world skills like canning and building a rain barrel/cistern can significantly increase your stock, freeing you up to focus on other projects. These situations are generally easiest for those who are not on the move, so we can start looking at more advanced skills and specialized equipment.

Here are a few simple things to do:

  • Learn to can, and get the equipment to do so. A pressure canner/water bath setup, Mason jars, rings, and lids in a 1/1/5 ratio.
  • Learn how to keep (and build) a coop for chickens or cornish hens.
  • Learn how to fish, and how to trap small game – there’s no easy way to learn these things; you just have to try them.
  • Build a rainwater catchment system.
  • Work with the community in a community garden/co-op.
  • Establish or install alternative energy setups.

Reference the following for some more ideas on preparation for the Type 2 Emergency:

Self-Defense Considerations

At this stage, we start considering “self defense” in a more macro-scale light. We can best defend ourselves by having strong communities, so taking the initiative to establish or join a community watch is a good starting point to get people banded together and thinking about how to prevent little problems from growing into big problems. The very fact you’re reading this says that you’re giving thought to potential threats. Your knowledge will be an asset to your community, so scrutinize the potential situations, and be ready to lend a hand to your community!

- Start or attend community watch
- Start and/or maintain a physical fitness regimen
- Train for, plan, and practice emergency plans
- Start thinking about a longarm for property/community defense
- Continue to use Type 2 considerations

Emergency Management skills

Managing emergencies on this level is going to require one of two things, both equally important but certainly not equal in level of expertise. The kinds of situations faced in Type 2 emergencies are the infant versions of the more complexity-shattering Type 3 emergencies. In these situations, there will be lots of work necessary that is predominately menial, along with very specific requirements for specialists like engineers, physicians and nurses, teachers, and police. Having the following skills can certainly help, but cleaning up debris, laboring, and agriculture will quickly replace jobs that are less necessary.

Type 3. Low Intensity - Protracted Duration

The Type 3 emergency has many names. SHTF, WROL, TEOTWAWKI, and countless other acronyms and euphemisms – but the often-spread concepts are filled with oversimplifications that are dismissive. It’s important that we keep in perspective that these situations have played out before and should be given the appropriate level of attention, without the obsessive scheming that many so called ‘survivalists’ use in lieu of real planning and emotional toughening.

The difference between Type 2 and Type 3 emergencies is largely based on duration; the intensity of the event is all caught up in its Type 1 origins. For example, an economic collapse might begin with you trapped in your office building in the midst of a riot or protest. For this reason, when we address the Type 3 crisis we see the same needs and concerns as in Type 2, but with the imposition of two very dire circumstantial differences: duration, and impact on social productivity.

Because of this, the requirements are the same as a Type 2 emergency, but they will no longer be a matter of comfort or peace of mind. They’ll become (once again) very real, energy intensive requirements that dominate most of our time. Because of this, it’s imperative that we build the skills, mindset, and resiliency now to see us through any potential disaster.

The Third World already lives in these conditions. It’s a world where things we fear like ghosts live and walk amongst the citizens, everyday. Starvation/malnourishment, lack of clean water, rampant crime and violence, lack of hygiene, dearth of educational opportunities, no gainful employment...all of these things that impact only a tiny fraction of the population in the First World impact all but a tiny fraction of the Third World every day.

It could be said that we’re fortunate, and we are. But we’re also innovative, and we owe it to ourselves, and to the rest of the world, to see to it that we do not lose all the momentum we’ve gained in terms of science, art, and culture. Our best way to preserve these things is by being able to Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome the problems we’ll face in the next several decades and quite possibly centuries.

I sincerely hope that this updated primer serves as a useful guide to understanding the potential impacts in a very generic way – a way that will help us all build the flexibility to sustain through hardship. Please join me as I continue this work next, in “Everyday Emergencies”.

Aaron Moyer

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Rock on, AM!  This is a fine framework upon which we can hang additional planning and information.  It’s a little intimidating to really dig into and deeply consider all the possibilities, but no matter how deep the rabbit hole, it’s a task we should all undertake.  Thanks for this.  This is one to print out, makes notes on, and prepare plans.  As a fella that’s got most of the basic preparations and resiliencies in place (apart from a sustainable/resilient home, which I’m laboring mightily towards but which remains all-too-distant for the time being), this sort of head-work is something I haven’t done enough of as yet and this Winter I have some time to get cracking on it.
Again, thanks!

Viva – Sager


I had to look that one up on the acronym finder:


It means "Without Rule of Law"


I agree that WROL is an emergency situation.  Also wondering if we still have our own CM-specific list of acronyms.

Think this thought frequently. "I will die." Every effort to save yourself is an act of procrastination. Suffering is the issue. Learn that if you suffer, you are experiencing an illusion.
I hope it was an act of diplomacy on Aaron’s part not to mention the grinding inevitability of the climate catastrophe and suffering caused by worldwide famine. The famine will be caused by biomes moving and the 10 to 1 oil/food ratio.

Times get very rugged. The manna from heaven in the Bible is thought to have been a plague of locusts.  The evidince is that cannibilism is found throughout the phyla. From protozoa to chimpanzees to, yes dear Gladys, us.

Have a nice day.


Aaron wrote:

The Third World already lives in these conditions… it’s a world where things we fear like ghosts live and walk amongst the citizens, everyday. Starvation/Malnourishment, lack of clean water, rampant crime and violence, lack of hygiene, educational opportunities, gainful employment – all these things that impact only a tiny fraction of the population in the first world impact all but a tiny fraction of the third world every day.

Very true.  I got to see this (or a milder form of this) for myself recently in Mongolia.  The country's fortunes may be improving, but it still possesses a plethora of 3rd world problems like lack of clean water, high crime, dirtier environment, and poverty.  It's one of those things that you can know in your head but it still manages to surprise you when you live there for yourself.  And yes, even if you have access to more money than the average person, these things will still impact you or occupy some of your time and planning (for us, guarding against theft and dealing with the night-time winter air pollution were the biggies).  So money (or gold) won't be quite the magic talisman keeping these hardships at bay; it can help, but often not as much as you might think.  But the thing is people generally manage to get by and find ways to adapt, if not prosper.  Eventually the new ways of doing things or supportive infrastructures get established; they may not (and usually are not) up to the previous standards, but they keep things moving along in some fashion.  The biggest trouble I see for Americans is not the ability to adapt to the future, but the willingness to adapt.  I can't even convince some of my friends to store extra food and money for emergencies, much less reduce their consumption or make other long-term lifestyle changes.

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome can be seen all around there.  High property crime?  Most apartment complexes have a resident caretaker (often living in a tiny house near the parking lot) that doubles as night watchman and security for the vehicles parked outside.  Job pays too little and can’t make ends meet?  Share a car with your neighbors where you each use your free time working as an unofficial taxi charging 500 Tugriks a kilometer ("official" taxis are actually the minority there).  Want to own some livestock for eating or selling for extra income but live in an apartment?  Make a deal with relatives or friends in the country, so that they tend to and care for the livestock you buy in exchange for half of the offspring of said livestock, and every so often picking up and bringing supplies for them when you visit.  Local economy experiencing supply shortages?  Pool some money together with family and take the train to a neighboring country and buy as many consumer items that can fit in your suitcases and bring them back to sell at the market.

Great revision Aaron.  I found particularly the low-intensity protracted-duration section good to re-read and very applicable for me with my recent relocation.  I think that area will be the one most relevant to the most people, but seems to be the area given less overall attention.

  • Nick

The organization of this is wonderful! Very well-written!
Something to add:  A little known fact is that people with allergies to Sulfa drugs, may also react poorly to Bacitracin - which is in EVERY first aid kit I've ever seen, also present in the generic triple antibiotic oinments. The reaction can range from a moderately uncomfortable allergic dermatitis, to anaphylaxis. Know your allergies, and the folks you're treating. 


Aaron, this is great, thank you for sending the link! 

With the recent cascade of international calamity, I thought it may be of some relevance to look again at the types of emergencies going on right now, and how understanding them can lead to more efficient management of crisis. 
To begin, I want to share the link provided by Oldvanman, which is a presentation of Eleanor Learmonth's studies that led to the book she published "No Mercy: Real stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality":
Within her examples, we can easily identify the types of emergencies that were faced, and examine how each type was influenced by leadership.
There are two main reasons I'd like to see this revisited:

  1. Learmonth's book gives us die-hard and concrete examples of savagery across the "Types", and all three are covered.
  2. The world's current disposition is anything but stable.

I think that this is the place to take the gloves off, and recognize just how bad it can get - and how bad it is, right now, in other places around the world.

So, would anyone care to open up a contemporary emergency for discussion?