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5 Ways You’re Wrong About Surviving Disasters

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shipWomen and children first

Everybody remembers the kind captain in Titanic, drowning in his own guilt when he realises he has comprised safety regulations for fame, and his decision to go down with the ship. Before meeting his demise, he first makes sure the women and children make it off the ship.  Surely this is the proper thing to do in such situations – women and children first- right? Research suggests otherwise.

 To be fair, among the survivors of the Titanic were mostly women and children, so its captain seems to have favored the women and children during the ship’s evacuation. But most other maritime disasters that have been studied and compared showed different results.

 Researchers studied 18 different maritime disasters, including 16 previously unstudied shipwrecks, between 1850 and 2011. The data included 15,000 passengers and crew members of more than 30 different nationalities.

 They found that in most other disasters, men on board had a higher survival rate than women, and children had the worst chance of getting off the boat alive. In addition, crew members tended to look out for their own safety above all. Nine of 16 captains went down with their ships. “It seems as if it is the policy of the captain, rather than the moral sentiments of men, that determines whether women are given preferential treatment in shipwrecks,” the authors explained.

So if age or gender don’t get you in that lifeboat, what will? Not surprisingly, having money doesn’t hurt. On the Titanic, passengers travelling first class had a more than 40 percent higher chance, and those in second  class about a 16 percent higher chance to be saved than those in third class. Those of a higher social status were better informed about important details like the locations of available lifeboats. Also, the authors note that first class passengers were better doorwayable  to bargain—even offering financial rewards. So when the corrupt officer Murdoch in Titanic bitterly tells a passenger: “Your money can’t save you any more than it can save me” – well, it actually can.


During an earthquake, you’re safe in the doorway

This advice might have been helpful 70 years ago living in homes with poorly constructed brick walls– today it isn’t. In modern houses, doorways are no stronger than any other structures in the house. Also, in the doorway you are not protected from falling or flying objects around you. According to a 2009 study,  more than half of all earthquake injuries are caused by non-structural objects, i.e. heavy or sharp falling objects,  pieces of broken glass, or people running into each other.

So what is a smart move when an earth quake hits? These days, you’re better off following the ‘Drop, Cover and Hold’ routine: pick a sturdy piece of furniture, such as a desk or diner table, drop to the floor and stay put underneath it. If you happen to be inside of a high-rise building, there are other things to consider too. Taking the elevator, for one, is never a good idea.  Also, the building’s shape might influence your safety. According to Structural Engineer Issac Gaetz, buildings that are regular in shape, such as square or rectangular, are generally safer than the more complicated shapes. This is for two reasons, he explains, “First, simple square and rectangular buildings are especially easy to design, analyze and build. This decreases the chances of human error in any of these steps. And second, having re-entrant corners (internal corners; usually used to describe angles less than 90°) in the shape of a building can lead to stress concentrations that may cause localized failure in the building structure.”


riverAll streams lead back to civilization

So let’s say you’re hiking somewhere in the Amazon (being the world traveller you are) and you lose track of your group. You don’t own a compass, have no idea which star leads to what, but you do know that all streams lead back to civilization, right? Wrong.

Research by Kenneth Hill, a psychologist and member of the Halifax search and rescue team, shows otherwise.  Hill writes that if you follow this principle in Nova Scotia, you will more than likely end up in a remote and bug-infested swamp.

Also, do not always trust your sense of direction. In his 2010 book “Why People Get Lost: the Psychology and Neuroscience of Spatial Cognition”, University of Stirling psychologist Paul Dudchenko suggests that people have an internal sense of direction or a “mental compass”. “It is not a magnetic compass,” he said (there is no consistent evidence that humans have a magnetic sense) ,”but an internal compass that anchors itself to the outside world. It usually is very good because we walk around familiar landmarks by which we can orient ourselves, but if we are someplace where there is no ability to correct it, our compass starts to drift.”

Many studies have demonstrated this. “The simplest experiment is having people close their eyes and walk in a straight line,” said Dudchenko. “People can’t do it. You can only do it for a couple of meters and then you start to drift either to one direction or the other, even though you think you are going straight.”

Studies with rats and rhesus monkeys suggest that the neurons underlying our mental compass are so-called “head direction cells”. Dudchenko admits that the presence of these cells has not yet been recorded in humans but he argues that we are likely to have them because we share the brain structures containing these cells with the studied animals.

snakeThe best survival strategy when lost– even if it seems somewhat passive – is staying put, so long as you can reasonably expect a search to be organized on your behalf in the very near future.

When bitten, suck out the snake venom

Every Kung-Fu movie buff recognizes the scenario: when a snake bites you, first thing you do is cut open the wound, after which you suck out the venom with your mouth. If possible, spit the venom back in your opponent’s face.

Envenoming resulting from snake bites does not just happen in movies, though. According to a study that was published in 2008,at least 421,000 poisonings and 20,000 deaths from snakebites occur each year, especially in South Asia, South East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. What first aid policy should be followed in case of snake bite, is not quite as clear.

It was only a few decades ago that incision and mouth suction were recommended snakebite first aid. When it became apparent that this method made matters worse – the wound became infected, or the venom actually spread into the bloodstream due to cuts in the lips or gums – mechanical devices, with exciting names such as “Cutter’s Snakebit Kit” and “The Sawyer Extractor Pump”,  were created to do the job instead. “The Sawyer Extractor Pump is the most powerful extractor on the market today”, an ad promises. This might be true, but only because other devices suck even worse – literally. According to a 2009 paper reviewing three different studies, the extractor does not live up to its promise. In one study it became clear that the extractor removed only 0.04% to 2.0% of the venom, while another study found that the amount of venom in the fluid that spontaneously oozed from the wound was greater than the amount of venom in the extractor aspirate.  Is there anything we can do ourselves to knifeincrease our chances of survival? Not really -  besides getting your hands on the antidote as soon as possible. Or, as the author of this paper puts it:
“The best first aid for snakebite is a cell phone and a helicopter”.


When stabbed, pull out the knife

In the summer of 2010, 16-year old Yasser Lopez went out fishing and somehow ended up with a fishing spear in his forehead. The spear, which was almost one meter long (3 feet), went all the way through Lopez’s head at an angle that just missed his eye and dodged all major blood vessels in his brain – luckily for him.  And more importantly, he was smart enough to leave it in. “The temptation if you don’t have experience with these things is, Oh well, pull it out,” said Dr. Ross Bullock, an American neurosurgeon working at Jackson Memorial. “If you do that, most of the time it’s uniformly fatal.”

What damage occurs when pulling out an impaled object? According to a 2006 study, there are a few things to consider. First, there the risk of major blood loss. When a body is penetrated by some object, that object can potentially stem and stop the flow of blood. Removing a knife basically means pulling out a cork – with the risk that you will bleed out.

 Second, there is the risk the wound becomes infected.  It is only since the end of the 19th century that hospital instruments and environments are sterilized, which is why for example, during the American Civil War, the major cause of death for wounded soldiers was infection.  Currently all emergency rooms are sterile, obviously, yet traumatic wound infections still occur despite the best management and clinical judgment. Knife wounds are relatively clean, whereas wounds from jagged instruments can result in necrosis – premature death of cells in living tissue.

 Is there anything you can do before arriving at the hospital? Yes, you may apply pressure to the wound. The best way to do this is to press some kind of bandaging material, such as a cloth, towel, or article of clothing firmly against the wound. If the bandage bleeds through, do not remove it. Instead, apply more padding on top of it, and wait for the ambulance.

Bruno S. Frey, David A. Savage, and Benno Torgler (2010). Behavior under Extreme Conditions:
The Titanic Disaster Journal of Economic Perspective

M.R. Mahdavifar, Y.O. Izadkhah, and V. Heshmati (2009). Appropriate and Correct Reactions during
Earthquakes: “Drop, Cover and Hold on”
or “Triangle of Life” JSEE

Kenneth Hill (1998). The Psychology of Lost Lost Person Behavior
Bush SP (2004). Snakebite suction devices don’t remove venom: they just suck. Annals of emergency medicine, 43 (2), 187-8 PMID: 14747806

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  • Filip Galetic

    Excellent article, thanks!