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You are awakened by a sound that rumbles through the house. In the pre-dawn hour, you climb out of bed and look out the window, only to see that the streetlights are flashing oddly. They then go out completely. A few neighbors step outside with flashlights to see what happened. You throw on the nightclothes you keep ready at the bedside and step outside to hear your neighbors speculating about the situation.

Your initial thought is that this is just another summer blackout, but the rumbling you felt nags at the back of your mind. While the street begins to fill with sleepy neighbors, you decide it might be wise to turn on your battery-powered radio for the news. You all gather around the faint glow of the radio’s LED, while in the distance, sirens wail ever closer. The news is full of rumors of impending doom that ripples fear and panic through your neighbors, but no useful information filters through the airwaves.

Your neighbors turn to you for answers, and much like the look on their faces, you think, “What now? You’ve been thrust into the leadership of a group of people all desperate for answers, direction, hope, and protection. What now, indeed.

Increased Resources

Group survival is very similar to individual survival, but it requires increased resources to support everyone in the group for the duration of the event. To make a group operate more smoothly, it is wise to determine ahead of time how the decisions will be made, who will make them, how the decisions will be communicated to the group, and who will make sure those decisions turn into actions.

However, if you are caught with people with whom you are unfamiliar, it will be important to take stock of who seems to be the leader (probably you) and if following that person is in your best interest. Don’t underestimate your ability to make the right choices for your own survival.

When people are thrown together in crisis, you will not necessarily be able to operate very effectively: You might not know their personalities and abilities, so you will need to lessen your expectations regarding getting things accomplished. Emergency-created groups usually only have to survive long enough to get out of immediate danger and home to the family. Decision-making in stressful situations will be made easier when you have essentially preloaded the questions and answers before the event strikes.

There are certain priorities to be addressed in any emergency or disaster event. There will be variables, but knowing the basics will reduce their impact on the group. The following are the priorities you will want to begin with when working through an unclear emergency event.

Overarching priorities in an emergency or severe disruptive event:

  • Immediate life safety of all members
  • Understanding and accepting the current situation
  • Security of people, property and equipment
  • Establishing immediate goals and getting started
  • Establishing roles and responsibilities for all members
  • Trying to predict what could happen next and how you can reduce the impact to the group
  • Managing the changing situation and adapting as necessary
  • Providing for the health and safety of the group
  • Continuing to work the existing plan or establishing a new plan as needed
  • Adapting to the duration of events; adjusting priorities
  • Being aware of upcoming shortages and addressing them early
  • Being ready to relocate on short notice
  • Establishing a routine when possible—but watching for complacency
  • Making sure not to shortcut the accepted way of doing things, except in emergency
  • Insisting on regular communication and accountability of members
  • Maintaining teamwork and morale

When planning for survival, the same categories apply for the individual as well as the group, for short term as well as the long term. The difference will be the methods and equipment needed to support the duration and to support the number of people involved.

Remember to consider all eight areas of survival:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Shelter
  • Safety and health
  • Security
  • Energy
  • Communication
  • Transportation

Prepare a Plan

Not all emergencies are obvious at first, and most people will choose to wait and see what happens next to decide on a course of action. However, there are certain things you can do before such a situation to reduce the fog of uncertainty and also make yourself more flexible in case things change for the worse.

Luckily, you had the foresight to prepare a plan of priorities and supplies based on where you live and what could go wrong in your area long before this blackout event. As a result, you have reduced your need for outside information. When it becomes obvious that this is no normal power outage, you locate your “family contingency binder,” which has all the critical household documents. From it, you remove the included checklist of things to do in the event of a community emergency. Even though “temporary blackout” isn’t specifically on your list of scenarios, most emergencies require similar responses, so it is not too difficult to review your plans for all potentially necessary supplies and skills.

When you initially decided that putting a group together was a good idea, it became obvious that the most important thing you could do is find the right people for your group. They might be the people you entrust to care for your families, so choose wisely. Any shortcuts when picking group friends will come back to haunt you.

When you began planning for your group, the first thing you should have done was determine how decisions would be made. This is often one of the reasons groups fall apart. Without a way to make effective decisions, things cannot get done in an efficient way. It is not a good idea to try to wing it or fight for authority when time is of the essence and danger is clouding your thinking.

“ … there are certain things you can do before such a situation to reduce the fog of uncertainty and also make yourself more flexible in case things change for the worse.”

What Are the Threats?

The next thing you did was to identify all the likely hazards that could befall you, your family, and your group. It’s a good idea to begin locally and then reach out farther geographically. Once you have an idea of what can go wrong, you can begin to prepare plans for reducing the impact on your group. As was mentioned earlier, there are many similarities in disasters and other destructive events.

As you become aware of the dangers to your family or group, try to list them by how likely they are to actually happen. In other words, create a list of priorities and work the list with the most likely threats first. As you create your plans, focus first and foremost on life-saving measures; then, start thinking about the longer term. For example, it won’t matter how much food you have stored if you don’t survive to eat it.

Returning to the blackout scenario, it is time to get your neighbors together and initiate the emergency plan. Because everyone agrees the situation might get worse due to the increasing smoke and no official guidance from the local government, the group decides it might be wise to prepare to evacuate or bug out, just in case.

In the meantime, a number of decisions need to be made and questions answered:

  • Is everyone accounted for?
  • What is the security situation right now, and what might it evolve into?
  • Because there are no working communication systems, how will we gather our other members together?
  • What will we do if we cannot make contact with the others?
  • What will trigger the decision to evacuate?
  • When specifically will we leave?
  • Do we have somewhere to go?
  • How long might we be gone?
  • Could this situation cause us to never return home?
  • Do we have what we need by way of supplies for a bug-out?

Stay or Go?

Knowing when to leave is as important as being able to leave. We get a lot of questions regarding which is better: bugging out or bugging in? The answer is that neither is better than the other until the situation presents itself.

My recommendation is to be ready to leave, because you can survive anywhere, even at home. But if you can only stay, you are at the mercy of the location. Once you have prepared to leave, you should begin preparing your home to shelter in place.

In this story, let’s work with the plan that the group has decided to leave to an alternate location. There is a set location, but it is some distance away. The group has decided it would be wise to all leave at the same time to support each other along the way; it also agreed on the secondary evacuation route, because the first choice seems to head in the direction of the expanding black cloud of smoke.

As the group prepares for evacuation, everyone should be looking at the timing. In some instances, it may be wise to leave as early as possible; in others, you may be driving right into chaos. This is why you should have at least three different evac routes in different directions.

Even if your desired direction is east, you may need to go west initially to circumvent trouble. Part of your decision process should include the method of mobility. For instance, do you have enough fuel to go the long way in a car? If you are on foot, and because you won’t be able to carry much water with you, do you have water resupply points identified along the way?

It’s important that everyone in the group knows and understands all the possible courses of action. In our blackout scenario, it would be imperative that members knew, in a no-contact situation, whether they were supposed to self-deploy or whether someone would be assigned to retrieve them.

A benefit of early planning is that it reduces the number of decisions the group needs to struggle with on the fly. This, in turn, keeps the group focused and in control. Fewer decisions mean less potential for conflict with each other. Everyone knows the plan and has something productive to do.

What happens when the group members arrive at the final destination? The group should have already prepared a course of action to occupy, protect, and reside at the location as the situation requires. At this point, the group might not be sure how long it will be at this location, so it would be wise to default to the basic plan of “set up and secure” for the short term.

The next decision to be made is how to get more information about the situation and the immediate surroundings. Although members of the group might already be familiar with the area, something might have changed, or others might be near. A patrol would be a good idea to reveal any new information. This could include making contact with people nearby or setting up a radio to listen for broadcasts.

Five Leadership Skills to Master
  1. Communication—Understanding how to communicate tasks to people is as important as the tasks, themselves. Keep people well informed when changes happen, and do so in a manner everyone can understand. When in a stressful situation, one of the first things to suffer is one’s ability to process new information. You have to make everyone understand what is happening and what they all need to do about it.
  1. Decisiveness—One thing that can ruin a group dynamic in an emergency situation is vacillation—a wavering from one direction or choice to another. Plan for the unexpected, and nothing will surprise you. When you display an inability to make a decision, people will quickly lose faith, not only in you as a leader, but in the whole enterprise, as well. Employ the “Q-CAT” system: Be Quick, Committed, Analytical, and Thoughtful when making decisions. 
  1. Team-Building—You didn’t pick this group of people you need to work with, but helping them to work together will result in higher productivity and better morale. Avoid personal conflicts between individuals by channeling any anger or frustration on tasks that are good for the whole group.
  1. Confidence—Know who you are and what you want, what your weaknesses are, and how you’ve compensated for them in a positive way. You don’t have to be the best at everything to be a leader; you just have to surround yourself with people who are competent and know how to get them to produce results.
  1. Motivational Skills—High morale is one of the most important mental states a person needs to be in to remain positive, productive, and supportive. Encourage people when they need energy to keep going. Celebrate success, and be quick with praise, even for the smallest of tasks. Never criticize or place blame, and always pitch in first with a task.

Changing Situation?

Let’s say the situation changes, and the group, through its amateur radio network, discovers that the situation is worse than originally understood. What if the group must move from short-term survival mode to long-term survival mode? In this case, the group will have to adjust its plans to provide for the immediate needs—with the expectation of transitioning into sustainable survival.

This means that group members will have to realize the bug-out supplies will be consumed in short order and that additional supplies will need to be acquired or be produced. Keep in mind that the group should try not to exhaust the bug-out supplies immediately, because it could be forced to evacuate again and might be on the road for some time until it can settle down somewhere else.

Although the group has decided to stay in this location, something could happen at any time that would necessitate needing to leave in a hurry. If this is the case, decisions will need to be made regarding how to shift the priorities without letting the group’s guard down. This could be difficult if the manpower is limited. One way to plan for this type of situation is to place supply caches and some resources near the retreat location to get the group started.

The Future

The best way to facilitate decisions in bad conditions is to try to predict what decisions will need to be made and plan ahead. By reducing the decisions that need to be made, you will reduce all the potential problems that come with decision-making. You can make any decisions that do come up along the way easier by having a clear understanding of what you are trying to do and what you have to work with. Information is key, and knowing how that information relates to your plan is just as important.

The takeaway here is: Be aware of what you are trying to do and do things that support that goal. Everything else might just be a distraction.

“ … the most important thing you [can] do is find the right people for your group.”

Survival: Team up or Go Alone?

There is a huge ongoing debate among survival enthusiasts regarding whether or not to stick with a group or head out alone if a survival situation rears its head. There is a romantic notion (thanks to Hollywood) of the lone survivor, the rogue loner, or the singular hero tackling insurmountable odds all by himself.

But what is the best way—going it alone or with a group? Alone, you can move faster over open terrain, but with a group, the extra muscle will help you overcome obstacles. Groups can carry heavier loads; alone, you’re limited. With a group, you’ll need more supplies, such as food and water, for everyone; alone, you only need enough food and water to take care of yourself. When foraging for supplies, a group can cover a wider area than can one person; one person will expend a lot more energy covering the same ground.

A single person is quieter and can hide easier, leaving a smaller footprint on the trail and less trash/debris behind when leaving an area. On the other hand, more people means more security and less of a need to hide in the first place.

Groups have as many ideas as there are people in it. This can lead to disagreements about plans. On the other hand, with more people in your group, you get a better mix of ideas and solutions, a wider range of expertise, a greater mix of gear, more people to carry supplies and weapons, and more general equipment than a single person would ever be able to handle.

Loneliness can be a killer as much as anything. We need encouragement to motivate us to the next goal and keep up our spirits up when times are tough. In addition, there’s no one to take turns on watch—you are vulnerable to attack 24/7.

Is there a good middle ground between a group and a single person? Of course. Consider your family or a group of close relatives. For one, you’re probably already the leader, and you probably all get along for the most part.

A six-person group of survivors is optimal in most situations. For instance, one or two people can be used to watch the camp while a four-person foraging group can make a resources run. This strategy can be further broken down into two groups: watchers and gatherers. The two watchmen keep an eye on the exit route while the other two gather supplies from an abandoned store, for example. If a threat emerges, there’s cover for escape and warning available for everyone else. For someone on their own, danger of capture or attack is much higher.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.