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8 Survival Tips That Could Save Your Life

Experts provide advice on how to prepare for almost any emergency

spinner image a house on fire at night time as seen from outside
Brent Humphreys

For many of us, the past few months have been a crash course in facing difficulties and dangers. Handymen and caregivers became isolated and unavailable. Emergency services were overwhelmed. Even the little pleasures in life — from those buttery eggs at the diner to the nooks and crannies of your favorite museum — were suddenly out of reach.

Chances are, you took this opportunity to teach yourself some skills — from trimming your spouse's hair to mastering a new recipe to making your own art. Deprived of your community, you took matters into your own hands, and you survived. But as the future continues to look uncertain, now's a good time to ramp up your general survival skills — to become a true master of self-sufficiency in any dangerous situation. Because when emergency care doesn't arrive, we need to feel confident that we can provide it ourselves.

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"Fear is your worst enemy in any bad situation,” says Mykel Hawke, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces captain and author of Hawke's Green Beret Survival Manual. “Most fear is a result of ignorance; it's fear of the unknown. But by sitting down in ‘Fort Living Room’ right now, learning what to do and gaining confidence in your knowledge, you are putting yourself in a better position when you're in a real hurt box."

So pull up a stool. Be prepared, as the Scouts say, by learning some useful lessons — for life.

CRISIS: You definitely, seriously smell smoke.

Surviving a house fire hinges on your ability to escape quickly. People who are frail and over 65 are at greatest risk in house fires, according to one study. So after installing smoke alarms on every floor as well as in and near every sleeping area, the most critical survival step is to make a plan of escape. “Once the smoke alarm sounds, you probably only have one to two minutes to get out,” says Meredith Hawes of the National Fire Protection Association.

spinner image illustration of a ceiling sprinkler that is activated

Be prepared

Sprinklers reduce the risk of dying in a fire by 80 percent, Hawes says. Also, check with your fire department about installing a rapid-entry system, which allows first responders access to a lockbox containing a key to the front door.

Save yourself

  • Do the drill. Just as you did in elementary school so many years ago, plan an escape route and practice escaping. “Know two routes of escape from each room, in case one is blocked by fire,” Hawes says. Practice opening bedroom windows; if they have bars, make sure there is an emergency release device so they can be opened easily
  • Equip your bedroom. Sleep in a ground-floor bedroom if possible. Use interconnected alarms in your home so that all of them are triggered when one detects smoke. If you have trouble hearing, get an alarm system that emits low-frequency sounds and has a strobe light, or one connected to a bed shaker to wake you. Keep needed items — such as eyeglasses, a cellphone, a cane or walker, a flashlight, and a whistle — near your bed.

  • Get low. “The cleanest air is nearest the floor in a smoke-filled room,” Hawes says. Get as low to the ground as possible. If you can't escape, stuff wet towels or bedding around cracks of doors. Call 911 and signal rescuers from a window.

CRISIS: Car Crash

spinner image back of man running towards the scene of a vehicle accident on a country road with a car flipped over and on fire
Brent Humphreys

No one is emerging from that car crash, and help is miles away.

If you come upon an auto accident and decide to help out, think personal safety first.

Save yourself (and others)

spinner image illustration of a one handed tourniquet

Be Prepared

Keep a one-handed tourniquet in your car and at home. Widely available from several makers, they tighten down with one hand, so they're easy to use on yourself.

"I teach the S-MARCH protocol for any trauma situation,” says Shane Kerwin, a former medical sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces and founder of Personal Survivor Solutions.

  • Survey the scene for safety. Is the environment safe for you to enter? Is the car on fire? “Normally, you don't want to move a victim, but you don't want the victim engulfed in flames.”

  • Massive bleeding. Look for bright red squirting blood. That suggests arterial bleeding. “You want to kink off the hose by compressing the blood vessel against the bone with direct pressure or a tourniquet,” Kerwin says. Get a strip of T-shirt and something rigid like a pen, flashlight or stick; this will act as a windlass to tighten the tourniquet sufficiently.
  • Airway. Check to see that the victim is breathing. “If they're screaming, you know they have an airway,” Kerwin says. “If the victim is semiconscious, roll him on his side so his tongue won't fall back into the throat."

  • Respiration. "We want air going in and out of the holes that God gave us, and no other ones,” Kerwin says, “so check to see if there's anything that impaled the chest. Use a plastic baggie and duct tape, anything to cover up those holes to keep air from coming in."
  • Circulation. Address any other bleeding, like a venous bleed of oozing blood. “Once I've taken care of the major things people will die from, I survey from head to toes to make sure I didn't miss anything,” Kerwin says.

  • Hypothermia. With any trauma, core temperature drops. Cover the body with coats to keep body heat in.
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CRISIS: Your dog just ate a whole bar of chocolate

spinner image dog lying on floor in front of empty chocolate bar wrapper with owner crouched above calling emergency help

That's the number one concern Ahna Brutlag hears as the director of veterinary services at the Pet Poison Helpline in Minneapolis. “The darker the chocolate, the more dangerous it is, because of higher amounts of theobromine. It's a cousin chemical to caffeine and can make the heart race and blood pressure go up.” Even more toxic to dogs is xylitol, the sugar substitute in many sugarless gums. When dogs eat it, the substance is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, resulting in a potent release of insulin from the pancreas and dramatic decrease in blood sugar level.

Save your pet

If you suspect your dog ate something toxic, contact your vet or call the Pet Poison Helpline (800-213-6680). They know exactly what's dangerous and what to do.

  • Don't induce vomiting. Sometimes it's not necessary; other times it can do more damage. Oven and toilet bowl cleaners, for example, are caustic and can damage the esophagus on the way back up.

  • ... Unless you're told to induce vomiting. If instructed by a vet, or if you are certain that your dog ate xylitol or chocolate within the last 10 to 20 minutes, Brutlag recommends inducing vomiting with hydrogen peroxide (the helpline will tell you the right dose), which will irritate the stomach and cause your pooch to hurl.

    “Use a syringe and squirt it in back of the cheek pouch, or pour peroxide on some bread or in some milk,” Brutlag says. “Sneaking it in with food usually works only once; then they get smart to it."

CRISIS: Creepy people approaching you from behind

Walk with your head up, showing that you're confident and aware of your surroundings. “If you have a cane, give it a fast little twirl and keep walking,” says Mark “Cane Master” Shuey, 73, a martial arts champion who teaches “cane fu” to seniors through his site, “Anyone trying to figure out if you're a good target or not will walk away.”

spinner image hand and forearm holding a cane up in the air

Be prepared

You can carry a cane anywhere, even on an airplane.

It's an approved medical device so it'll always be there.

Save yourself

Learn the figure eight and holster. Swing the crook of the cane around one hand and then trace a series of figure eights in front of you with your arm. Then swing the shaft of the cane under your armpit to stop it, an impressive move Shuey calls “the holster."

"One of my guys, he's 75 years old. Three punks come at him saying, ‘Hey, old man, got any money?’ Well, he steps away from the car, does his figure eight and holsters his cane, and those punks take off running.”

Go for the groin. “If a guy is coming at you, just lift the cane up and hit him between his legs. Very simple,” Shuey says. “Stops ‘em every time.”

CRISIS: Your temperature is … 102.8!

spinner image woman lying sick in bed is checking her temperature

In a pandemic, an elevated temperature needs to be taken seriously, right away.

Save yourself (and others)

Even if you think it's just the flu and not COVID-19, here's what to do.

Call your doctor or the emergency department at your local hospital.

"Anyone over 50 who has a fever of 102 or higher should get it checked out,” advises emergency department doctor Leigh Vinocur, national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians. If you're over 65, take it even more seriously: Average temperature in younger people is 98.2, but over age 65 it's a full degree lower — 97.2. There are many reasons, including reduced lung function and less fat under the skin.

Know the emergency symptoms. Flu-like symptoms vary, but some call for emergency action even if they're not caused by COVID-19: trouble breathing, pain or pressure in the chest, lethargy and confusion, and bluish lips or face. If any of these are present, call 911 right away. Describe your symptoms and explain that you might have COVID-19. Don a mask before the EMTs arrive. Separate yourself from others.

If the doctor sends you home, plant yourself in a sickroom and use a separate bathroom. Even then, wear a face mask if you have one — and if it doesn't hamper your breathing — to lower the chance of germs spreading. Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze, and wash your hands frequently with soap and water.

CRISIS: You're alone with food lodged in your throat

spinner image man in his kitchen bending over and choking on food, there is a broken plate of food at his feet

Roughly 5,000 people die from choking each year, and more than half are older than 74, according to the National Safety Council.

Save yourself

  • Don't panic. If you can, take slow breaths and call 911. Even if you cannot speak, the dispatcher should be able to recognize an emergency and send EMTs to your location.

  • Cough forcefully. If something is lodged in your throat, continue to cough vigorously to clear the object.

  • Perform the Heimlich maneuver on yourself. If you can't cough it out and you can't breathe, make a fist, press it under your rib cage above your navel, grasp it with the other hand and pull sharply in and upward, Vinocur says. Do it six or 10 times quickly. Not working? “Fall onto the edge of a lower chair or couch to give it a good force to expel the food,” Vinocur says. “There are risks to that, like breaking a rib, but if you're really turning blue, you've got to do whatever you can to dislodge the obstruction."

CRISIS: Your husband collapsed while working in the sun!

spinner image lllustration of a man who has fallen down on the walkway leading up to his home and his wife running out to assist

As we age, our bodies become less efficient at regulating temperature. We don't sweat as much, and we tend to drink less water than younger people. That puts us at greater risk of heat illness in summertime. Drink plenty of water before going outside, and eat a banana — it's rich in potassium, which helps regulate body fluid.

Save your loved ones

Heat illness can be a life-threatening problem that arrives in stages. If you detect heat stroke, call 911.

  • Heat cramps. Muscle cramps suggest dehydration. Move the victim into the shade and give him some water, even if he's not thirsty, Kerwin says. “Cramps mean their electrolytes are down, so give them Gatorade cut with water, since sports drinks tend to be high in sugar,” he says.

  • Heat exhaustion. "Profuse sweating is a big indicator of heat exhaustion, and this is serious,” Kerwin warns. Get him into a cooler place and take his hat off, then untuck and unbutton his shirt and sleeves to allow cool air to push his temperature down. “Have him sip water, not guzzle it; you want to avoid vomiting.”

  • Heatstroke. A lack of sweating, bright red skin, a flushed face, lethargy and slurring are all symptoms of heatstroke. This is a serious emergency. Call 911. “Apply cool compresses to the groin and armpits to lower core temp,” Kerwin says. “Don't immerse the body in cold water, which can shock the heart out of rhythm."

CRISIS: I've lost the trail and it's getting dark.

Losing your way, even on a day hike, is pretty common: There are an average of 11 search-and-rescue situations every day, according to the National Park Service.

Save yourself

If you find yourself lost in the woods, follow the STOP guidelines:

  • Stop. As soon as you realize you may be lost, stop, stay calm, stay put. Do not walk aimlessly.

  • Think. Go over in your mind how you got to where you are. What trail markers should you be able to see?

  • Observe. Get out your compass (you should have one loaded on your smartphone) and determine the directions based on where you are standing. Don't plod aimlessly ahead. Consider backtracking, but only if you have a specific reason to take a step.

  • Plan: “Most of the time the best move is to stay put, because searchers will more likely find you,” Hawke says. Moving just a mile increases the search area to three square miles.

"Your priorities for survival are shelter, water, food, fire.” If you already have enough water or if you're cold and wet, shelter and then fire may be more immediately important. People can succumb to hypothermia even at temperatures over 60 degrees in wet, windy conditions. The body loses heat 25 times faster in cold water.

Be prepared

Even if going on a day hike, leave a plan with someone that includes:

  • Start and return date and time.
  • Location of trailhead and names of trails, turnaround points and GPS coordinates.
  • Names of people in your party.
  • Gear you are bringing and the amount of food and water you have with you.
  • Description of clothing individuals are wearing.
  • Photo of the bottom of your hiking boot for footprint pattern.
  • Your “in an emergency” plan.

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