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Saturday, March 19, 2011

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What it means to be 'prepared'


Japan has repeatedly been referred to as the "most prepared nation in the world" for an earthquake or tsunami disaster. The government has been praised for its readiness via earthquake/tsunami drills, for the prompt organization of the Self-Defense Forces, and for its preparedness to send in doctors and volunteers.

But "being prepared" means even more than that.

Japan is what I call the "Boy Scout Nation of the World," because it also does a stellar job of preparing the individual for a crisis. In Japan, every person knows exactly what to do in an emergency.

As a resident of Japan since 1994, I can tell you that Japan is so adamant about preparation for disaster that sometimes it seems a bit over the top. But when disaster strikes, it becomes all too apparent that you cannot over-prepare.

Most of the fire drills and tornado drills I remember practicing in the U.S. were performed while I was a child in school. As adults, we are seldom versed in what to do in any emergency; we're expected to already know. Yet seldom do we act instinctively in an emergency.

Instead, we often look back and say, "I should have done . . ." Like CPR, a refresher course in what to do in an emergency can never hurt. The purpose of drills in Japan is not just to introduce emergency procedures to people, but to practice until the actions become second nature.

Here are just some of the ways Japan has prepared the average citizen for a disaster:

Evacuation points with signs

Earthquake and tsunami evacuation points are well-established in every neighborhood. Not only are there signs on the streets pointing to designated evacuation centers, but detailed maps of escape routes are distributed to each household.

These maps, which in my area are topographical, also provide emergency phone numbers and contacts. With a designated evacuation area for each neighborhood, every resident can be accounted for quickly. Remember the "buddy system?"

Cell-phone alerts

Earthquake and tsunami alerts are distributed via cell phone text messages by the local government for those who sign up to receive them.

Survival kits

All citizens are encouraged to have a survival kit kept near the genkan (doorway) to their house. Not just your average first aid kit, survival kits have several days worth of water, vacuum-packed food and matches so you can build a fire (for cooking, washing, bathing).

Water reserves

Japanese housewives are famous around the world for recycling bath water. You can even buy washing machines in Japan that have an extra hose to draw the leftover bathwater into the machine for the wash or rinse cycle. The daily bathing ritual of the Japanese requires a full bathtub of hot water to soak in after their shower. This is a nightly habit performed before going to sleep. Most households will not drain this fairly clean tub water until the following day. If there is an earthquake overnight and the water supply is cut off, you'll have at least 250 liters of water on standby. It's just common sense.

Good sleeping habits

Few people in Tokyo sleep without a flashlight nearby. It's a precautionary measure people take in case an earthquake occurs during the night and disrupts power. I have a flashlight that stays under my bed, within close reach should I feel the tremors of an earthquake. If you need to escape quickly, you need to be able to see where you are going.

Emergency information — in multiple languages

The local governments distribute booklets telling people what to expect and what to do in the case of an earthquake. In my area, these pamphlets are available in Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean and Portuguese.

The books are full of good advice for emergencies such as: Grab your footwear before rushing out of your house. In an earthquake, there will be rubble, broken glass, etc. that you'll need to protect your feet from. If you are getting out of bed and putting on clothes, choose clothes with long sleeves and long pants so you'll be protected from falling debris and flying glass. Expect that you might have to escape through a broken window. Find gloves to wear if you have time.

You are also instructed to walk to the evacuation center. Do not drive. Too many cars will clog the streets and prevent rescue vehicles from moving in and out of the affected area. If you are already in your car during an emergency, you are to park your car on the side of the road, leave the keys inside and don't lock it. That way emergency personnel can move your car should it be in the way of rescue operations.

Preparedness not only saves lives, but it teaches people how to act during a crisis. That's why when you see live coverage of disasters in Japan, the Japanese people rarely panic. They are prepared.

How prepared are you for the next crisis?



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