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Survival Basics

By Brett C. Stoffel
Reprinted with permission from Brett Stoffel

The basics of survival are often misunderstood and that may lead to problems in an emergency. This article lays out the basic human needs in an emergency once it occurs, and perhaps more importantly how to prepare for emergencies ahead of time.

Is there a magic survival formula? We at ERI think so. Not so much “magic” but a reliable way to approach survival that ensures a survivor’s focus on what someone really needs to survive. Just remember the following: PMA + 98.6 = BCS. Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) plus 98.6 (the generic body’s ideal core temperature in Fahrenheit) equals the Best Chance for Survival (BCS). Or stated more plainly, the proper psychology plus the right focus on physiology gives us the best chance at making it through a tough ordeal. Notice that the formula does not guarantee survival, rather gives the best chances for it. Unfortunately, no guarantees exist for survival.

Before focusing on psychology and physiology, we need to define the term “survival.” Among the many definitions for survival, the one that I use originated from the efforts of Peter Kummerfeldt, a colleague, and founder of Outdoorsafe Inc. Peter defines survival as: the ability and the desire to keep one alive, all alone, under adverse conditions, until rescued. I like this definition because it encompasses all the elements of a survival scenario. Breaking the definition into its component parts we start with “the ability…” which implies several learned skills. “The desire” is an attitude but controllable by the survivor.  “To keep oneself alive” addresses maintaining the physiological needs of the body. “All alone” describes the worst case scenario of a solo emergency situation. “Under adverse conditions” tells us that emergencies rarely happen in ideal human environments or weather, but also includes medical issues, stress, and isolation. And finally “until rescued” illustrates the end of the emergency or a return to civilization either through the efforts of search and rescue or directly from the survivor.

Now let’s address what it takes to survive. The book The Essentials of Sea Survival by Frank Golden MD, PhD and Mike Tipton PhD, provides our underpinning for the body’s physiological requirements. Their book also confronts a number of myths perpetuated in the survival training community for decades. Their conclusions, among others: firstly, life and death in survival may depend on an understanding of the body’s needs; and secondly, to survive the body must remain in thermal, hydration, and energy balance.

Before discussing specifics, let’s explore the priorities and necessities, in order, for the body to maintain balance: Positive Mental Attitude, Air, Shelter, Rest, Water, and Food.

Positive Mental Attitude sits at the number one priority because the brain is the single most important survival tool for survivors. Maintaining a positive mental attitude involves a continuous focus on making positive decisions regarding the body’s needs and an eventual positive outcome. We all believe the will to survive exists within us; however, sometimes those who appear to show the right attitude may not survive. Why is unknown; though, a focus on the family and those left behind often accompanies survival successes. Overcoming fear also paves the way for PMA. Fear sharpens senses and prepares the body for “fight or flight,” but extreme fear also short-circuits rational behavior. Use the acronym S.T.O.P. to help deal with fear in any situation: Stop what you are doing; Think about what causes your fear; observe your surroundings objectively; and finally make a Plan to avoid danger and execute it. This technique prevents running blindly through the wilderness in a panic.

The other half of PMA, problem solving ability, stems from our list of necessities since they are all necessary to sustain mental function. The brain allows a survivor to analyze a situation and make decisions about what will kill him first. However, after an aircraft accident, a lack of oxygen or a problem with body temperature may prevent the brain from functioning normally. A medical problem or injury, altitude, a reduced or an elevated body core temperature also negatively impacts brain function.

The body needs air, or more accurately oxygen within minutes. High altitude presents a common reason for lack of oxygen. However, smoke and fumes from a fire, or a water filled cockpit after ditching also provide oxygen critical situations.

Shelter from wind, cold and rain, sun, or cold water immersion all rank as possible priorities. Clothing provides the first line of defense for shelter, followed by resources brought with you (including the remains of the aircraft), and finally anything found in the environment. Improvising a windproof and waterproof shelter out of purely natural materials is almost impossible. Carry immediate action, full body shelter when flying.

A survivor also needs to rest and conserve resources. While resting, the body processes wastes, converts stored fats into energy, and allows the brain to recover some of its mental freshness. This step is often overlooked, but eventually the body will sleep no matter what the situation or environment. Plan for it.

The amount of water used by a survivor depends upon conditions and survivor activity. This varies from 3 quarts a day for typical urban consumption to many gallons in extremely hot and arid environments. Conserve your water by avoiding sweating and minimizing activity, not rationing.

Food sits last on the list of survival priorities. I mention it here because popular media and perception seems to place this high on the survival priority list. Survival time for most of us is measured in months with no calories consumed. The energy expended, and the risk involved in most food gathering activities far outweigh any benefit gained from consuming wild animals and plants. Consuming strange foods may even reduce chances for survival since vomiting and diarrhea both rapidly diminish the body’s stored food and water resources.

True preparation for survival starts with the realization that emergencies happen without regard to demographics. After an incident you may actually have to sustain life, all alone, under adverse conditions until rescued. After you acknowledge this reality, you may take definitive steps to prepare on every flight. Dress for the environment you fly over and stock a survival kit designed to maintain the priorities and necessities of life. Do some homework about available fabrics in clothing and how they behave in extremes rather than looking only at fashion. A good survival kit covers six basic categories: Shelter; Fire; Signaling; Personal Medical; Water disinfection/storage; and Tools.

After clothing and equipment comes training on how to use them. I recommend a focus on the following areas for training: Explore medical education courses for wilderness environments; Learn to create shelter from materials you bring with you, the environment and aircraft remains; Practice making a fire using what you carry in your kit; Learn to improvise signals with simple materials; and Study what it takes to properly disinfect and find water. Ask yourself: “Can I do it when it’s raining, snowing, or blowing.” Now ask yourself: “Can I do it when I’m injured (i.e. with one hand)?” Practice these skills at home or under controlled conditions where failure means a trip inside for a hot shower rather than a struggle for your life. And finally get to and maintain some level of physical fitness to help the body take physical and mental stresses.

 We all have to make choices about preparation. Get the skills you need, practice with your equipment and give yourself the best chance for survival…or you can rely on untested improvisation, your will to survive, and finally just plain luck.

Brett C. Stoffel is vice president and general counsel of Emergency Response International, Inc., which specializes in global survival, search and rescue, and emergency preparedness training.
Written permission from the author is required to reprint this copyrighted article.

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