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The Real Risks of Fire

By Jay Whimpey, PE, TACDA Board Member

firemen at housefire

Fire Safety and Survival

There are over 360,000 house fires in the United States every year with a substantial number of injuries and deaths. Eighty percent of the deaths and injuries occur in residential structures, with most of those fatalities occurring while those people are asleep. We can reduce the risk of death or injuries by fire through understanding how and where fires start and how to prevent the fires and ensure prompt notification if a fire occurs.

Studies of fires during emergency situations show a substantial increased risk because of the frequency and severity of fires when individuals and families are using cooking and heating methods that are less familiar and more hazardous than they normally use. The principles and methods for preventing fires and protecting ourselves apply both in our everyday lives and emergency situations.

Asphyxiation, or lack of oxygen, causes most fatalities in fires. A fire is dangerous because of the direct exposure to heat and flames that can burn us, super-heated air that can damage the lungs and breathing passages, inhalation of toxic smoke and gases, and simple lack of oxygen. Calculations show that a typical house with 2000 square feet of living space with 8-foot ceilings has 16,000 cubic feet of air and 20.8% of that air by weight is oxygen. At normal conditions, there is roughly one pound of air in 13 cubic feet. So, there are about 1,230 pounds of total air and about 260 pounds of oxygen in the house. If a fire starts and begins to use that oxygen to support the combustion, it only has to use about half of the oxygen before a human would be largely incapacitated and incapable of escape due to lack of oxygen. A human will lose consciousness and die when an additional 5% of the oxygen is gone. When most materials or fuels burn, they use roughly two pounds of oxygen for each pound of fuel. This includes most carpets, plastics, and wood furniture. So, a fire only has to burn 65 pounds of fuel before it is impossible for people in the house to save themselves from the advancing fire. That corresponds to the weight of a single piece of relatively small furniture or a moderate section of carpet.

In an underground shelter that is 10-feet in diameter and 50-feet long there is only 4000 cubic feet of air and it would only take 16 pounds of fuel burning to make the entire shelter deadly to any occupants.

Studies have indicated the average house today can overwhelm the inhabitants by asphyxiation in roughly two minutes once a fire starts because of the fast burning nature of many of the materials that we use for making carpets, furniture, and electrical appliances. The cotton, wood, and wool that we formerly used to make carpet and furniture have been replaced by nylons, polyesters, and other plastics that burn much more readily. The solid wood that was formerly used in furniture has been replaced by plywood and particle board which contain a substantial amount of highly combustible glue or resins. Prompt notification of a fire, especially when we are asleep, is critical to survival.

Fire Prevention and Elimination

The most common type of fire in the home is caused by cooking on a stove top. Of course, most of the fires are small and can be contained quite easily. The fire inside a pan can be snuffed immediately but we should remember to keep a pan lid within easy reach while cooking. A small fire blanket is another option for fires that have spread beyond the pan but are still contained on the cook top. The use of salt or baking soda is also useful but we should be careful not to spread the flaming materials while applying the salt or baking soda. Other combustible powders such as wheat flour or sugar will feed and spread the fire. A fire extinguisher is also useful but can possibly spread the fire if not used properly. The cook top should always be attended to prevent small fires from growing.

Electrical appliances can also be the source of a fire. A loose electrical connection where the resistance at a connection can generate heat and start a fire on the wiring insulation and surrounding combustibles. A short in the power supply or transformer can also create heat and start a fire. The fires that may have been largely contained in the steel case of the appliances in the past are now able to spread to the plastic on circuit boards and electrical leads and then on to the plastic housing. It reduces risk to unplug appliances when not in use and reducing the overall number of appliances that we use. For example, we should carefully consider whether we need an electric can opener. Such appliances have started fires before.

The use of candles, lanterns, and heaters with a live flame should be minimized and such devices should never be left unattended. Fuel should be stored in a separate area and the fuel should not be added to the devices when they are hot. Fueling should preferably be done outside.

Electrical outlets should not be overloaded and the connections on power strips and other electrical distribution equipment should be cleaned regularly. The dust buildup behind cabinets and entertainment centers where there are electrical connections should be cleaned to control dust buildup. Inspect electrical connectors for signs of heat or poor connections.

The storage of fuels and other chemicals in the garage or utility areas of the house should be minimized. The dryer vent and dryer itself should be cleaned regularly to clear lint and other combustibles. The storage of combustible materials in the laundry and utility areas of the house should be minimized.

Bathroom fans should periodically be cleaned and inspected.

Fire Response

It should be emphasized that the primary responsibility of everyone in the house is to get out of the house as quickly as possible if there is a fire. To that end, an escape plan should be prepared that includes designating multiple escape routes for every room in the house, a single meeting area outside the home, and plan to notify the emergency response personnel. It is important to discuss and demonstrate the plan for younger members of the family and make sure they can actually open windows and exit the window openings if that is part of the plan.

Proper equipment should be stationed at appropriate areas such as fire extinguishers near the doors. Fire blankets should be provided near the kitchen for smothering kitchen fires and other fires where appropriate. A wooden bat or similar tool should be provided to help open windows where appropriate. A fire can create a significant vacuum draft in a home when it finds a place to vent and that can put a negative pressure on widows, making them difficult to open. Thus, a wooden bat for breaking the windows, if necessary, should be stationed near the windows designated for escape. A step stool near the window can help to egress the window and a flexible ladder for the outside of the window, if the window is on the second story of the structure, are also advisable. Special locator stickers should be placed on bedroom windows to notify emergency responders or even neighbors where people in the house normally sleep. The stickers can save time in rescuing the people in the house by directing the response to the right rooms.

Fire Alarm Equipment

The most important pieces of fire equipment for protecting the people in the house are the smoke, heat, and carbon monoxide detectors. The people in the house must rely almost entirely on the detectors while they sleep. As stated earlier in this article, the lack of oxygen kills or incapacitates most victims in their sleep and they die in their beds with no chance to escape.

The most disturbing information about the common smoke detectors in most homes is that they do not work in a timely fashion in many actual fires. The documentation that accompanies most ionizing smoke detectors indicate that they will not work in up to 35% of all fires. There is also a substantial amount of information enumerating the situations and types of fires where the detectors would not be expected to work that seem designed to limit the amount of liability for the manufacturers.

Actual studies have found that the ionizing smoke detectors do not work in roughly 55% of actual fires. They do work many times when the toaster burns a piece of toast or when food is broiled leading to a false sense of security, but when it comes to a real fire burning the actual furnishings or carpets in a house that produce fewer larger particles than when the toast burns, they do not warn the occupants in the structure in time to allow them to escape. Please refer to a short video on YouTube called “When Seconds Count” for some additional information and accounts of testing and actual fires where the smoke detectors failed to provide adequate warning.

To corroborate the findings of several other studies, I conducted some testing on available fire alarms from three different manufacturers. Two ionizing smoke detectors and one combination ionizing smoke detector and CO detector were subjected to some informal testing. Fires with various fuels such as wood, particle board, carpet, and electrical cords with vinyl insulation were established in a portable fire pit about 30 inches in diameter. All three detectors were placed in the smoke plume about 36” above the fire for a period of up to two minutes. The results varied but there were several instances where the detectors failed to trigger when placed directly in the smoke plumes. Even the newest smoke and CO detector failed to trigger after a full two minutes in the electrical cord fire that had the most noticeable black smoke. All the detectors triggered in at least some of the tests after being in the smoke for only 10 seconds which added some validity to the test method, but the findings confirmed that the results were varied and the smoke detectors were not entirely reliable.

There are optical smoke detectors on the market today that are substantially more reliable than the ionizing smoke detectors in most homes. They have been manufactured since the 1970’s and there has never been a fatality from a fire where they have been employed. Applied Fire Technologies of Coppell, Texas manufactures a line of smoke, carbon monoxide, and heat sensors that network together so that every alarm on the local network sounds when one alarm is triggered, thus alerting everywhere in the home. The units have permanent batteries that last for up to 20 years and they run internal diagnostics continuously to ensure that they are operating correctly. They are normally installed by a company representative after an on-site review of each home. You can contact the company and find your local dealer by going to http://www.crossfirealarms.com and going to the “contact us” tab.

Fire extinguishers can be very useful once you have been alerted to a fire but they must be kept in good working order. They are normally fitted with a pressure gauge but they should also be checked to ensure that the powdered fire-retardant material has not solidified. The condition of the fire retardant can be checked by testing the weight balance when the fire extinguisher is gently turned on the side and most of the retardant should be at the bottom. Then the extinguisher can be pushed on its side from a vertical position on a soft carpeted surface. If the horizontal weight balance changes substantially after the “fall” on its side then it can be assumed that the retardant is still loose inside and the fire extinguisher has a high probability of working appropriately when required.

Summary

The images we see on television and in the movies with bright flames of a house on fire with people moving around inside the house and trying to rescue someone are very misleading. Most actual house fires create an environment with thick smoke so that you cannot see anything and acrid and toxic smoke, where an individual cannot maintain consciousness for more than a few seconds. We need to prepare to survive by minimizing the risk of a fire starting with installing the appropriate alarm equipment in place to ensure that we can escape during the early stages while it is possible.

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Let There Be Truth.

Washington DC
Government, the military and industry have sunk billions into special protective measures for leadership, staff and critical systems in case of nuclear war. But for John Doe, the taxpayer who foots the bill – and his family? . . . Read on.

By Frank Williams (Journal of Civil Defense, Jan-Feb 1978)

Silent steel doors – like a scene from science fiction – lead into an outsize buried complex. They shut behind you. Deeper silence. The sleek subdivided space spread before you is encased in a heavy jacket of reinforced concrete. Utilities, clocks, furnishings are shock-mounted. Systems are redundant. Special valves protect ventilation shafts and pipes. Supplied with its own food, its own water, its own power, its own accommodations, its own fuel – completely independent of outside help – it can be a sealed-off “home” to a select group for two to four weeks. This in a brutal, close-in nuclear attack environment.

Is this protective shelter that government has built for people?

No. It is shelter that government has built for government. One of many.

Well, you might ask, where are the shelters government has built for people?

And the answer is simply that government does not build shelters like this for people. Not in the United States. Government builds them for government. For emergency operations. Some are highly sophisticated. Some are less so. Over 4,000 such shelters exist for officialdom, for the military.

But not for the people. Why? What’s to happen to the people?

Authorities in Washington have for years – with dignity, conviction and persuasion – pointed out compelling reasons for a “low-key” civil defense: It would be useless, because protection is not possible. It would be provocative, because the security afforded would cause the Soviets to take offense. “Overkill” proves that everyone would be killed many times over. It would cost billions to protect the public. We must maintain our people in a “hostage” status and exposed to annihilation to show good faith. Destruction is more effective than protection. It is pessimistic to think of nuclear attack. The whole thing is “unthinkable.” Therefore unamerican. And unimportant. It might interfere with weekends.

You might also ask – If protection is such a low priority for people then why is it such a high priority for government?

And this would be a good question. Perhaps an embarrassing one.

President Carter might well ponder it. He might ask why in a nuclear crisis carefully, laid plans exist to spirit him and his advisors quickly out of Washington and airborne where they will be out of reach of incoming nuclear weapons, why key military and government crews will fan out to buried bunkers that circle Washington? And why most of his neighbors – the children, the women, the people of Washington, D. C. – will be left to fry, sizzle and pop under the attack?

Is this the “American way”? A part of Potomac dogma?

Perhaps the most dramatic of the government’s shelters – one which illustrates best the attention given to protecting “the vital few” – is the military North American Air Defense Command in Colorado. Buried under millions of tons of granite, tunneled over 1,000 feet into Cheyenne Mountain,’ it consists of windowless multi-story stainless steel buildings mounted on mammoth coil springs. It boasts many other special features.

It is superb protection – built obviously by those, who believe that such protection is necessary and effective and well worth the cost.

But outside Cheyenne Mountain churches, schools, homes and commercial buildings – eggshell structures– stretch across Colorado, across the United States. Those in target areas would crumble under the direct effects of nuclear explosions. Those in locations remote from explosions would for the most part offer pitifully inadequate protection against fallout. No more than “nuclear traps.” This deplorable pattern of neglect is why serious scenarios have for years predicted 100,000,000 initial deaths for the United States in an all-out nuclear attack.

What is the rationale that permits government to take taxpayer money to protect itself and to ignore the taxpayer? What moral code allows leadership to condone this protection for itself and exposure to death for those whom it serves?

Industry also gives us examples of survival preparedness. AT&T, for instance, has during the past twelve years constructed vast underground communications lines with buried, reinforced two-story control centers to serve them. These lines crisscross America, carefully avoiding cities and military installations (except for spur lines), and are built to withstand the shock of nearby nuclear detonations. Well over $1 billion has so far been spent on these lines –a good deal more on this one project alone (for cables) than the United States Government has spent during this same period to provide a civil defense agency for its 217,000,000 human charges.

Do Americans really want protection?

A recent American Security Council nationwide poll report shows that 91 % of the people queried (of a total of 135,841) wanted ABM protection against nuclear attack. 1% said “No.” The rest were undecided. An accompanying poll report showed that 89% of the respondents thought an agreement between Russia and the United States not to protect their peoples (which reportedly took place in 1972) was objectionable. Such responses are not really new. They show that a great majority of Americans think that government has provided for their protection. In the light of proud American heritage this is a logical assumption.

The Russian, too, assumes such protection and has it. The Chinaman assumes it and has it. The Swiss. The Swede. The Finn. The American is fooled, deceived. He is a deliberate “hostage.”

In this way, in a land where leaders preach human rights without letup, the citizen himself is deprived of his most basic and most precious human right – the right to survive. While our leadership worries and frets about the rights of people in other nations around the world, and at home rights for Blacks, Indians, women, the poor, the handicapped, the aged, the young, the sick, gays, old soldiers, prisoners and whatever, has it forgotten the right of the working citizen to have his tax money applied to making his life safer?

Apparently.

A goodly number of Washington studies are now in progress to respond to the recent surge of interest in civil defense. One of them, the White House civil defense review by Greg Schneider’s “Reorganization Project,” is scheduled to wind up by the end of February. It is in all probability the pivotal study. As an “in-house” effort its conclusions may well be influenced by Administration policy, which appears not to favor any meaningful upgrading of civil defense. It should be recalled that other White House civil defense studies such as the Gaither and the Lincoln reports (both of which strongly recommended a greatly improved civil defense posture) were in effect ignored. Pentagon studies which showed the tremendous life-saving potential of a proper civil defense have also been ignored. Today’s Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, feels that American opinion would not support an upgraded civil defense program and discounts the Russian effort. His answer to the pleas for planning protection for the people (similar to that which he enjoys as the Pentagon chief) is to say that we must not be led to “replicate” Russian civil defense.

So, can we count on current studies being taken seriously in Washington?

Congress has indicated that if by March no Administration action has been taken to correct the tragic civil defense imbalance then Congress will act on its own.

In reviewing the Schneider’s report when it goes to him on February 28th, President Carter would do well to keep a few salient points in mind, among them:

(1) That protection for government, the military and industry is taken very seriously and that a tremendous investment has been made in it.

(2) That protection for himself and his advisors is taken even more seriously and that his move to an airborne command post is ready to be implemented on a moment’s notice at any time.

(3) That the American taxpayer pays handsomely to buy this protection.

(4) That the American taxpayer has no such protection, is himself – with his family – left exposed, at the mercy of an attack.

(5) That the myths and excuses for maintaining his exposure are effete platitudes, credits only to aggressor propagandists.

(6) That Pentagon studies (as well as others) show that good civil defense measures would bring survival expectancy up from less than 50% to around 95% – near that of the Soviet Union.

(7) That human rights – in addition to faith, food and freedom – include the No. 1 right of the people to be considered for survival in nuclear warfare.

(8) That a tough home defense would make aggression against the United States unwise, unrewarding, a long-shot gamble, and much less likely. With such a development we would truly be opting for the highest possible peace odds.

President Carter has said to the country: “I’ll never lie to you.” He is certainly very serious about living up to his promise. He rules out the lie. But neglect to face an issue squarely, neglect to cover a question fully and failure to speak out frankly and accurately can be tantamount to the lie. Silence can be a lie. Mark Twain called the “silent lie” the worst kind. That it is. And it is a highly developed art in our national capital.

We hope Mr. Carter remembers his Georgia roots. On civil defense we need a lot of common sense, a lot of candor, a lot of courage. Mr. Carter needs to give the taxpayer back some of what the taxpayer has given him: protection. It’s that simple.

Let there be truth.

Roadblocks to Civil Defense

Eugene Wigner

By Eugene P. Wigner

A renowned physicist and civil defense analyst probes behind the mask of apathy in the United States. (Originally printed in the first Journal of Civil Defense, May-June 1968, Vol. 1 No. 1)

I have often tried to explain the need for a vigorous civil defense effort, why and how such an effort would go far in preserving peace and how it could save many millions of lives if war should come nevertheless. “Why Civil Defense?” would be an apt title for this subject because we want the civil defense effort to be strong and vigorous. But my subject is also the opposite: “Why No Civil Defense?”. What are the roadblocks? Why isn’t the civil defense effort as strong and effective as we would like it to be? Why is there not a popular demand for it? There are, it seems to me, three principal reasons for this.

The first reason is the power of the anti-civil defense establishment. What provides this strength? What are the motives of the establishment?

There are, of course, those who would like to see our country become a second or third-rate power, the nakedness and vulnerability of its people forcing its government to accede to the demands of those governments whose people are better protected or who care less for human life. Persons who have these desires are, however, small in number, and they contribute but very little to the undeniably very great strength of the anti-civil defense establishment. Can this establishment muster valid arguments against civil defense? I think it can, and this is the reason for citing this cause for our lagging civil defense efforts as the first of my “principal reasons”.

If we install shelters, store food and other supplies, we make preparations against an attack on our country. Such preparations naturally set us apart from those against whose attack we protect ourselves and render it more difficult to develop a true friendship between the governments of communist countries and ourselves. This is the theory of Festinger, often derided by social scientists, but I do think there is something to it even if not in the extreme form propounded by Festinger. It is, of course, true that the hate propaganda of the other side also interferes with the development of the true friendship, and it is sad – very sad – that this is never criticized by the anti-civil defense establishment.

The second reason why the civil defense effort is not more vigorous and why there is not more public demand for it is that it is unpleasant to think about disasters, particularly disasters as severe as nuclear war. Let us note that insurance policies offering compensation in case of fire are called fire insurance policies, but that the policies protecting our families in case of our death are called life insurance policies. No similarly euphemistic name has been invented for civil defense, and it would not help much if one were invented. Building shelters would remind us in any case of a great and terrible calamity that could befall us, and we all are reluctant to think about such calamities. Why dig a hole in the ground where one may have to live for weeks if one can, instead, walk in the sunshine? We have a tradition for work, and many of us enjoy it, but we do not have a tradition of thinking about disasters which may strike us. However, whereas our reluctance to face the temporary nature of our sojourn in this world does not, as a rule, shorten our lives, our reluctance to protect ourselves may bring war nearer.

The third reason that we do not take civil defense very seriously is that we are all too conceited. Sure, other people have been stricken by disasters, other nations have been wiped out or subjugated. But this cannot happen to us, we say. It is not even decent to think about it. I once went to see the now deceased Albert Thomas, who prevented a good deal of civil defense legislation from being enacted in the House of Representatives. He listened to me for a few minutes and then said: “Take it easy, young man, take it easy. This country is so strong it does not need any civil defense.” Most of us would express this self-defeating doctrine less clearly and less bluntly than did Mr. Thomas. But what he said is present in the minds of all of us. On a peaceful day like today, when we are absorbed by so many more pleasant thoughts, is it not unreasonable to think about some country attacking us with nuclear weapons?

In a very real sense, I believe, it will be a test of the democratic ideal whether our people can resist burying their heads in sand or not, whether or not they, can muster the foresight and maturity to carry out the unpleasant and unpopular task of protecting themselves, their country, and their freedom against dangers which seem far away. Nothing but illusory comfort can be gained by closing our eyes to these dangers.

 

  • Eugene P. Wigner – 1963, Nobel Prize in Physics won for contribution to theory of the atomic nucleus and elementary particles specifically the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles.

Check out these Water Bricks!

When You Know the Storm is Coming.

iStock_stormseason

We know there are all kinds of great lists out there, especially pertaining to emergency preparedness.  We love this one by blogger, Mike Smith, and wanted to share …

Get them done immediately!

  • Get prescriptions refilled now, especially if your doctor must approve the refill.
  • If you have a relative at home that requires electricity for life-assistance purposes, you will want to move he or she outside of the higher wind zone.
  • If you can get an electrician to install a generator, get it done. Do not try to install a generator yourself. 
  • If you don’t have a generator, get a power inverter or two. Radio Shack and similar stores sell them. They are a “poor man’s generator” and will keep your cell phone, laptop, and similar items charged. Tell the person in the store what you want to run off it so you get one of the right size. Do not try to run the inverter for hours at a time as that is tough on your car’s battery. Charge the cell phone (for example) and let the charge run all the way down, then use the inverter to recharge.
  • Keep your car’s gas tank full.
  • If you live in a 250-year flood plain (you can check at city hall or your library) or on the coast figure out your evacuation strategy now. Make your list of things you will take with you. Be prepared to leave at short notice.
  • Bring in outdoor furniture and other items that could become airborne.
  • Fill a few gas cans (the type you would use for your mower) to have extra in the event of power failures.
  • Purchase extra food staples. Without power, stores will be closed. Things that require less preparation are better. Bottled water is especially important. Get a Coleman stove.
  • Purchase extra batteries for your cell phone and other essential equipment.
  • If you need insulin or other medicine that must be kept chilled make plans now.
  • Consider what you would do if you were without electricity for a two weeks. If you have an invalid living with you that requires electricity, there will be areas that will be without for weeks. Be proactive.
  • If you live in a heavily wooded area, does someone in your vicinity have a gasoline-powered chain saw? Does it have fuel and a reasonably good chain/blade? Test it, now.
  • Get to an ATM. Without power, credit card readers and ATMs will not be working. In a disaster, cash is king.
  • If you are in the high wind or flood area, thoroughly photograph your home and possessions now. You will need it for insurance purposes. This includes trees, shrubs, etc. Then, if using a digital camera, upload to internet so it will be there after the storm in case the worse happens. Be nice to insurance adjusters!

Whether you evacuate or not, stockpile some good books, magazines, board games and keep a good attitude. Look at this as one of life’s adventures.

There is nothing wrong with a few prayers!

(found on http://www.mikesmithenterprisesblog.com/ )

The Military: making a difference

A not so well known story from the Pentagon on 9-11-2011 (Author Unknown)

Military Man Hugs Daughter

During a visit with a fellow chaplain, who happened to be assigned to the Pentagon, I had a chance to hear a first-hand account of an incident that happened right after Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. The chaplain told me what happened at a day care center near where the impact occurred.

This day care had many children, including infants who were in heavy cribs. The day care supervisor, looking at all the children they needed to evacuate, was in a panic over what they could do. There were many children, mostly toddlers, as well as the infants that would need to be taken out with the cribs. There was no time to try to bundle them into carriers and strollers. Just then a young Marine came running into the center and asked what they needed. After hearing what the center director was trying to do, he ran back out into the hallway and disappeared. The director thought, ‘well, there we are—on our own.’

About two minutes later, that Marine returned with 40 other Marines in tow. Each of them grabbed a crib with a child, and the rest started gathering up toddlers. The director and her staff then helped them take all the children out of the center and down toward the park near the Potomac and the Pentagon. Once they got about 3/4 of a mile outside the building, the Marines stopped in the park, and then did a fabulous thing – they formed a circle with the cribs, which were quite sturdy and heavy, like the covered wagons in the Old West. Inside this circle of cribs, they put the toddlers, to keep them from wandering off. Outside this circle were the 40 Marines, forming a perimeter around the children and waiting for instructions. There they remained until the parents could be notified and come get their children.

The chaplain then said, “I don’t think any of us saw nor heard of this on any of the news stories of the day. It was an incredible story of our men there. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. The thought of those Marines and what they did and how fast they reacted; could we expect any less from them? It was one of the most touching stories from the Pentagon.

Remember Ronald Reagan’s great compliment: “Most of us wonder if our lives made any difference. Marines don’t have that problem.” God Bless the USA, our troops, and you. It’s the Military, not the reporter who has given us the freedom of the press. It’s the Military, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It’s the Military, not the politicians that ensures our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the Military who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag.

If you care to offer the smallest token of recognition and appreciation for the military, please re-tell this story, and pray for our men and women who have served and are currently serving our country, and pray for those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.

Paper, Plastic … or Cloth?

dreamstime_diapers

By Jim Rawles

We’re sharing an article from our Journal of Civil Defense a few years back – originally found on Survivalblog.com

A couple of years ago I was watching a commercial on television that showed two young men as they stood in a check-out line at a grocery store with a 6 pack of beer, a bag of chips and a package of toilet paper…when the young men found that they had only enough money for two of the three items, they chose the 6 pack of beer and the chips. When asked by checker “Paper or plastic?” the decision was unanimous, “Paper!”

This stark reality of such a simple decision led me on a journey that would involve many years and begin my search for the answer to the question of how much is enough toilet paper and where do I store it. I never really understood just how important TP was and the impact that it could have on our daily lives until that commercial was played out. Oh sure, like many deer hunters and fishermen or any outdoor type, we all have had our moment where our lack of preparedness has caused us great concern and given us an opportunity to experience the humility of mother nature without TP and all that it encompasses.

The necessity of toilet paper and the amount of storage room necessary for a one to two years supply and the quest to keep it dry, even in our homes, is sometimes a task that has caused me great concern and some sleepless nights to say the least. With a family of seven (who will most probably come home in an emergency) and no way to transport two years of their own TP supply plus their family and their gear, I had to find a way to simplify this dilemma. The one thing that I have learned in the past 28 years is that the simplest ideas most always end up being the best…with that being said, I find myself writing about one of the simplest ideas that my wife has produced for our family, and has ended my search for the perfect ending to the mystery.

Just a short piece of history, first: About five years ago, we were on a two-week camp out when a sudden and unforeseen four days of rain descended upon our group of 18 families, who were camped in a narrow canyon with restroom facilities about ½ mile from our camp. Even though we have our own toilet facilities, we decided to use the restroom facilities provided even though we knew we would have to plan our walks for the sake of nature very carefully. We found that in this situation of being away from these very useful luxuries (our portable outhouses), the trek of ½ mile in wet and cold conditions early in the morning or late at night, with a roll of TP tucked under our jackets was sometimes a daring adventure. I lost count of the times a roll of TP was dropped onto the wet ground or in a puddle of water making it completely useless, and of the nature walks that ended half way to the desired destination. And of the rolls of TP that were found early in the morning, standing silently alone atop the picnic table, dripping wet, after someone forgot that TP and rain don’t mix.

The use of toilet paper in very damp conditions led many of our group to wonder out loud about ways to solve this problem. The storage of large amounts of TP seemed to be a major concern for the whole group.  Keeping it dry usually came up as well – the room necessary to store such was vast, to say the least, when you consider a one or two year supply of this basic luxury. I know that many folks on other blogs and survival sites are stacking phone books to use, or they are storing boxes and boxes of TP and to be quite honest, a phone book or a catalog is not quite the best choice of clean wipe tissue if you have ever tried it, and as my wife discovered, the cost of baby wipes was out of the question and our tries at making our own baby wipes (with environmentally safe soap) were discouraging simply because we knew that eventually we would run out of paper towels. We needed a solution to a problem that everyone will face someday – paper, plastic, a leaf, or well … let’s just say any port in the storm, whatever it came to, we still had a choice: find a solution or suffer someday.

They say that every problem is nothing more than a solution in waiting.  Being born in the 1950s, I remembered what many of you may not – it was called the diaper pal and was as common as toothpaste for families with babies. A closed plastic container would hold about 10-15 dirty diapers and, if kept clean (which my mother and other moms demanded), would wait patiently until Saturday morning when the pal was drained into the toilet and the cotton diapers were placed in the washing machine, to be cleaned with bleach and Tide and hung on the clothes line to be sun dried and returned to the diaper basket where, once again, the cycle would continue.

The solution to my problem was as simple as looking to the past for an answer to the future. Why not use cotton diaper material, cut into 4 x 9 inch sections, and then sown around the edges of the material with a zig-zag stitch to prevent the edges from unraveling? My wife and some of her friends chose a Saturday afternoon, had the men load their sewing machines into the truck and carted them over to a local church where an assembly line soon formed; men setting up sewing machines, women cutting material, and other women sewing the edges, after which we men would then package them in bundles of 50 – a finished product that every man and women took special care not to lose. We all enjoyed the Saturday, we have a product that we are comfortable with now, and we have no fear of it being destroyed by rain or muddy puddles, left outside in the morning dew, or blown off of a table top. We can store 5,000 reusable sheets in a medium cardboard box.

My cost in time and material was around 20 cents per sheet if we figured $10 per man-hour to complete the task. Then again this was five years ago, but the benefits have outweighed our investment ten to one! The material was purchased at a local box store but as many of our women discovered, their mothers had a lot of diaper material stored in boxes in their basements and were grateful to have it put to good use. We have found that it took a few times to get use to not depositing the wipes into the toilet facility, but with practice and a few reminders the system works.

The results of our efforts became a very useful item that we now carry in all of our backpacks or bug out packs, stored in freezer bags (but we don’t care if they get wet, as they are still usable) and stacked neatly in our portable toilet’s cabinets in plastic containers right next to our regular TP that we still use while we can.

I have been able to find diaper pails at yard sales and in some stores, and I have found some that would have really made my mom sit up and take notice; they have two-way entries and are very insect proof. We have found that this cotton TP also serves as a wound dressing when two are sown together with a famine napkin in between, as a washcloth, a sweat rag, as a feminine pad (also when sown together with a sponge material in between) in an emergency situation, and other ways that we are finding each and every trip into the wilderness and around our home. As a student of outdoor survival and family preparedness for 28 years, I have found that each and every bit of information received, is another thread of the tapestry that will assist us in the days of uncertainty that lie ahead, and that will greatly add to our chances of survival in the world in which we will soon find ourselves.

Note from TACDA:  Microfiber material may be an option to cotton.  It dries quickly, and is very absorbent.