Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Risk Assessment

What is risk assessment?

Risk assessment is the process of determining the relative probability and consequence of taking an action in response to an event. In risk assessment we are looking at the probability of an event taking place, the actions we take in anticipation of the event, and the consequences of each action if the event does or does not take place.

It is important to include the action "do nothing" as one of the potential actions.

At the end of the risk assessment we will have the ability to look at all of the potential outcomes, the likelihood of each outcome, as well as how acceptable each outcome is.

For any event there is a probability of that event taking place. What is the probability of the power failing tonight for more than an hour? What is the probability of the power failing in the next 6 weeks for more than an hour? What is the probability of power failing sometime in the next 6 months for more than a day?

Each of the above named events has a probability. Where we live, the probability of losing power for more than 5 minutes sometime in the next 12 months is near 100%. The probability of losing power for more than 6 hours sometime in the next 12 months is closer to 40%. These are very rough numbers and are the result of looking at history of power failures in our area. It is also the result of looking at preventive maintenance by the power company in our area.

Identifying an event and assigning the probability of the event happening is the first step in risk assessment.

For each of the above events we can make a list of actions we can take in anticipation of these events. The following are some of the actions we can take in anticipation of a power failure event.

  • Do nothing
  • Buy and install a full building power backup system (UPS)
  • Buy and install a full building power system.
  • Buy a portable generator and install a generator feed with switching capability for the building.
  • Buy a portable generator and some extra extension cords
  • Set aside $500 to buy a portable generator and some extra extension cords if the event takes place.
  • Buy extra candles, some oil or Coleman lanterns and a camp stove along with some sleeping bags.

The next step is the hard step. Each of these actions needs to be evaluated in terms of what the consequences are of the event happening or the event not happening for each action.

To put it differently, the event will or will not take place. For each action you have identified, you have to identify the consequences of taking that action if the event does take place as well as if event does not take place.

Here's a simple example: A standing dead tree will fall on the house. The probability is low. One possible action: I will cut the tree down now so it will fall safely away from the house. The consequence of taking no action and the tree falling is that our house is damaged and maybe somebody is hurt. Also, the contents of our house are likely to be damaged. The consequence of taking no action and the tree NOT falling is that there is no change. The house is still at risk but nothing has happened. The consequence of cutting down the tree is that I have to buck it up and turn the tree into firewood. The consequence of cutting down the tree which would NOT have knocked it over is that I have to buck up the tree and turn it into firewood.

Of the four possible outcomes, 2 are good, 1 is very bad and 1 is no change in condition.

An approaching hurricane changes the probability of the event taking place which changes the risk assessment which led me to go out and cut down the tree.

In the following table we go back to our power outage event and list our actions and the consequences of taking that action if the event takes place and if the event does not take place.

Power Goes Out For 24 Hours
ActionHappensDoes Not Happen
Do nothingFrozen goods start to melt, no internet, no water pump, no electric heat, no electric fans, no hot water (and maybe more)Nothing
Install Full Building UPSNothing happens. Use up some fuel.$15,000-$25,000 gone
Install Full Building Backup PowerPower goes out to everything for 3 to 5 minutes$5,000-$6000 gone
Buy Portable GeneratorPower failure to house. Extension cords have to be run. Some items will not have power. All 220V (well pumps, furnace blowers, electric dryer will need special handling or might not work at all. Fuel use will have to be monitored$200-$1000 gone
Put aside $500Power goes out. You have to get to a store that still has a generator. Buy generator. Buy gas container. Buy gas. Get generator home and hooked up like above.Nothing
Get electric free equipmentComputers and internet go down. People gather around the wood fired stove for heat. People go to bed earlier because candles or oil light not bright enough. People talk to each other. Food is cooked over wood or propane stove.A few hundred dollars are spent on food, candles, an extra tank of propane for the grill.

Setting up a table like this helps us understand the different possible outcomes. We get to see the good side and the bad side of each and how we can evaluate which choices are best for us.

The Complexities

Unfortunately, risk assessment is not a simple process. In fact it is very complex due to interactions between different actions and events.

Let's consider an example of such an action. It is 9/11/2001 and then-President Bush is informed that four aircraft have been hijacked. He is told that there is actionable intelligence stating that the hijackers are going to fly the aircraft into the World Trade Center, the Capitol Building in DC and the White House.

He has two choices. He can let the events play out and the hijackers MIGHT actually do what is predicted, or he can push the destruct button on the aircraft, causing them to be destroyed instantly with loss of the lives of everybody onboard.

The risk assessment says that there is a 95% chance that 5,000 to 30,000 people will lose their lives if he lets the events unfold.

If he pushes the button there is a 100% chance that 200-400 people will die on those aircraft. Does he push the button? Would you push the button? Could you kill 400 people when nobody might die if you don't?

The consequences then cascade from there. We know the consequences of those aircraft destroying the World Trade Center buildings. We know the horrible cost in lives lost, in families ripped apart, and of health issues for those that were there. We know how even today we pay the price in freedoms lost when we go to board an aircraft.

What of the consequences if he had pushed the button? He would have gone down in history as a mass murder. "He killed 400 defenseless people!", "He didn't KNOW they would have crashed the aircraft into those buildings; everybody knows that hijackers always fly someplace and then demand something.", "It was all a government plot, there were never any hijackers, he lied and people died!" Those are some of the things that would have been said.

What would never have been said was, "He saved the lives of tens of thousands of people." Because we would never have known the results of him NOT pushing the button.

One of the real problems with risk assessment is that successful risk assessment means nothing happened. The only visible consequence of the assessment and choosing an action is that there was some cost that a bean counter can see.

Avoiding the "Dead Baby Story"

People react much more strongly to a good emotionally driven story than they do to numbers, logic or reason. A dead baby story is exactly that, a strong, emotionally driven story used get people to make a decision. The decision could be a good one or a poor one but it is impossible to judge due to the nature of it. A poor decision is one made with out regards to fact or logic.

Dead baby stories are used all the time to explain why something should be outlawed or forbidden. "I once heard that somebody put razor blades in apples so don't ever accept fresh fruit when trick or treating", "A friend of a friend drowned because she was wearing her seatbelt and couldn't get free when her car went in the river." These are examples of "dead baby" stories. In almost all of these stories, something terrible happened to somebody or something, which pulls on the heart strings. However, the probability of the event in question was very, very low.

The reason they are called "Dead Baby Stories" is often the story involves some child being hurt or killed. "You should never have a gun in your house. I read a story where a 2 year old got a hold of his father's pistol and accidentally killed himself with it."

One of the real problems with not getting caught up with a dead baby story is that sometimes they are real events with real consequences. There are babies that died because the bathwater was too hot. There are people that died because they couldn't get out of their seat belts when their car went into the water. These are real events and consequences.

Regardless of whether or not the stories are real, the risk assessment must take into account both the probability of the event taking place and the consequences of that event.

The stories of people dying because of seat belts trapping them in a situation where they had to escape are many. But the analysis has to take into account two different events. The first is, "My car goes into the water and my seat belt does not release." The probability of this happening is very low but the consequence is high. Total risk, LOW.

On the other hand, the probability of getting into an accident is relatively high. The probability of being injured in an accident if you are NOT wearing your seat belt is even higher. Therefore the risk from wearing your seat belt is much lower than the risk from NOT wearing your seat belt.

Part of the problem with dead baby stories is that sometimes we don't recognize them as dead baby stories. Sometimes the stories are presented in the news as a "did you know?" with lots of facts about how bad the consequences are. Or how awful the company is for letting this consequence happen.

Sometimes the information is presented in such a way that we want to believe, and our risk assessment goes out the window. BPA might be an example of this. There is some research that shows this chemical might leach into the contents and this leaching might cause issues. But the people that are pushing this research just happen to have been hired by a company which was selling BPA free bottles . . . before BPA was an issue.

So is this a dead baby story being used to sell a product or is it good research that was brought to view by a company who just happens to represent a client that sells BPA free items? Makes you wonder.

Here's an example from a few years ago. IUDs are one of the safest, most effective forms of birth control available. They have one of the lowest failure rates and one of the lowest side effect rates of any birth control method. For a long time, they were considered dangerous to use and were often ignored in the U.S. However, that is now changing.

Because the IUD has to be inserted and removed by a medical professional, a woman will not "forget" it. It is not going to have "pinprick" failures. A woman won't accidental stop taking her birth control pills. An IUD just works.

I've had multiple doctors tell me these facts and my research supports their opinions. (Personal contact with multiple obgyns - while the sample size is not large, having all report the same thing leads me to believe that these facts are true).

But then the dead baby stories started. They are based on fact. They really did happen. The Dalkon Shield had a design flaw. The flaw led to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). PID could cause scaring and adhesions which in turn lead to significant reproductive health issues.

Under the risk assessment, we have a consequence, "PID," and a probability. Given that there were millions of women using IUDs (160,000,000+ in 2002) but there were only 4,000,000 Dalkon Shields used. Math gives us a 2.5% chance of a woman having a Dalkon Shield if she choose to get an IUD. Of those, only 8% had issues, meaning that the probability of a negative outcome was 0.2%

Looking at the statistics for other birth control methods it is easy to see higher failure rates. But the stories were so horrible of some women being unable to have children after using "an IUD," or of birth defects "caused" by "a IUD," that many women stopped choosing IUDs as a form of birth control.

This example of a dead baby story shows a consequence with a horrible outcome (sterilization, birth defects) but a very low probability of occurrence, led women to chose a path with bad outcomes (getting pregnant, headaches, dizziness, spotting, decreased libido, mood swings, interactions with other medications and health conditions) with a much higher probability of one or more of these negative consequences.

I apologize for not having all the citations for this digression. Please feel free to use Google to double-check my information.

Other examples are the outlawing of DDT. There was a very small probability of health issues from DDT. But DDT controlled the mosquitoes which carried a wide range of diseases that killed many more people than DDT ever harmed. In fact there is some research which says outlawing DDT is one of the reasons for such serious health issues in third world countries. Just look at the advertisements asking for netting to protect people from mosquitoes.

Still another example is our airport security procedure. The facts say that the TSA is not preventing terrorists or others from getting weapons on aircraft. Note the "shoe bomber", "underwear bomber", and "toner cartridges" were all discovered or stopped by people other than the TSA. The hope that they might just stop one bad guy is worth it to the majority of people, and so they give up vast amounts of personal liberty in exchange for appearance personal protection.

To put a little perspective on dead baby stories affecting our choices, there are 43,600 injuries per year of just children in the bathroom or bath tub and around 140,000 per year over all vs. 165,000 ladder related falls. Yet ladders have all sorts of warnings on them and everybody talks about how dangerous they are. There are even rules that say that people have to use "fall arresting" gear when on ladders, yet almost as many people are hurt in bathroom related accidents every year.

Risk assessment requires separating the probability of an event, from the actions taken in response to that event, from the consequences of those actions in the face of the event happening or not happening. When these parts are not separated it becomes almost impossible to create a good risk assessment.

Just because there is a consequence that is horrific does not mean that avoiding that action is the correct path to choose.

How Event Probability and Consequences Affect the Risk

Risk is the combination of the probability of an event and the consequences of that event taking place in the face of preventative actions. The higher the probability of an event taking place, the higher the risk of from the event, and the higher the consequence from the event, the higher the risk.

When we are doing a risk assessment we are looking at actions we can take prior to the event in order to modify the total risk involved.

To better understand the interrelationship between probability and consequences in determining total risk, we are going to use a simple example of placing a bet. There are only two actions to be considered.

For the purposes of this example we are going to use an event of a coin toss. The coin and toss are "fair" which is to say the coin will land heads up 50% of the time.

Event: The coin will land heads up.

The action will be "placing a bet" on the outcome of the event. In other words we are betting on the coin landing heads up. The second action is "do nothing."

The consequence is the loss of the amount bet.

Flipping A Fair Coin
ActionEvent HappensEvent Does Not Happen
Do NothingNothingNothing
Place a BetWin Amount of BetLose Amount of Bet

From the table we can see that there are four potential consequences: two neutral, one good, one bad. If we choose not to bet, nothing bad will happen but nothing good will happen either.

If we set the amount of the bet low, say $1, then we can set a "value" to the consequence, "acceptable" and "unacceptable". If the bet value is low enough then all four outcomes are "acceptable".

If we raise the amount of the bet to $20, then things start to change. Now we have three results which are acceptable and one that is "unacceptable". With only two choices we can't tell how "unacceptable" the bad result is. What we do know is as the size of the bet increases the level of "unacceptable" becomes higher.

Using a scale from 0 to 10 with 0 being totally unacceptable and 10 being acceptable, anything less than 10 is unacceptable to some extent. So to use this in our example, if we are betting $1 then the consequence of losing the bet has a value of 9. On the other hand if we are betting our mortgage payment, the consequence of losing might be a 4. If we were betting our life it is likely that it will have a value of 0 or 1. (For most people the thought of losing the life of a loved one is a 0 while the loss of their own life is about a 1).

We can actually see how people are affected by risk assessments when we watch the same group of people play poker for cash and when they play for tokens with no physical value. People that have nothing to lose (the tokens don't have value) will bet heavier and on poorer hands than when they are using real cash.

One thing that has to be taken into consideration when these types of risk are calculated is the value assigned to each consequence is very personal. A person with a "fun" budget of a few thousand dollars will assign a consequence value to a $100 bet much differently than a person with a fun budget of only $500.

At this point you should be able to look at our simple example and see how the risk changes based on the consequences. But we can also modify the risk by modifying the probability of an event.

We modify the probability of an event by learning more about an event or by changing the circumstances in which the event might take place.

Taking an example of rock climbing, the probability of a "fall" happening is reduced by increasing the experience of the climber. We can also reduce the probability by changing equipment or conditions in which the climb is taking place.

Here is an example of a set of risk analyses that was performed in the mid 1980s. They bet wrong.

The event will be: A catastrophic failure with loss of lives because of a gasket failure. The probability of gasket failure is set at 0.1% when the temperature is above 32°F. We know the failure rate is higher if the temperature is lower but we don't know what the actual failure rate will be.

The actions we can take are: Refuse to perform the mission if the temperature is below 32°F. Test to determine the failure rate below 32°F. Perform the mission if the temperature is above 0°F. (The entity in charge had already decided that launch at sub-zero temperatures was unacceptable.)

Catastrophic Failure Of Seal
ActionEvent HappensEvent Does Not Happen
Do NothingPeople die, equipment lost, huge PR issueProcedure continues as is
Refuse MissionEvent can not happenPR issues, loss of revenue, loss of face, loss of management bonuses
Perform Extra TestsSame As Do NothingSame as Do Nothing

In this case we can see that one of these actions does not actually affect the risk analysis. So why include it? The answer becomes that performing the test gives us a better understanding of the probabilities of the event. Given a better probability, we can make better decisions.

This analysis was actually done for NASA. The actual event was hidden. The event that should have been analyzed was, "Is the probability of seal failure significantly higher at 32°F such that our risk analysis for a mission go decision should be modified?"

Do Tests show different probabilities?
ActionEvent HappensEvent Does Not Happen
Do NothingSame Probability feed to Primary analysis.Same probability feed to Primary analysis.
Test PerformedHigh cost of test, loss of face, potential delay in missions, new better probabilities leading to more mission delaysHigh cost of test, loss of face, potential delay in mission

In the analysis done it was decided that the cost of doing the testing to determine the probability of failure at low temperatures was prohibitive. Therefore the testing was not done. Therefore the risk assessment stated the same which was it was safe to launch the space shuttle when the temperature was at freezing the night before. Therefore the launch did take place. During the launch a gasket (O-Ring) failed leading to the catastrophic failure of the mission including loss of all lives aboard and the loss of the vehicle as well.

Please note an important aspect of risk analysis is having good information on consequences and probabilities. If you are working from bad data then your assessment is likely to be bad as well.

So far we've been modifying the consequences to show how that changes the risk assessment. We can also change the probability of an event taking place in order to increase or decrease the risk involved.

If the probability is modified, the risk is modified. Consider the standard movie leap (see The Day After Tomorrow) where our hero starts to run and then leaps over a chasm, narrowly avoiding falling to his certain death. Yeah, most of the time the leaps are long enough to make an Olympic gold medalist envious, but let's ignore that for the moment.

The consequence of the leap succeeding changes the risk. If we KNOW the probability of making the leap is 100% then there is nearly no risk. If on the other hand we know there is almost no chance of the hero making the leap then the risk is astronomical.

The movie Executive Decision is an example of the movie maker playing with the audience by presenting the standard, "It would take a super human effort to survive this," with the audience knowing the hero will survive because he does have top billing and it is very early in the film. Then the hero doesn't make it. The hero dies. Oh my, what is this movie about now?

The movie maker has taken our innate sense of risk assessment and told us, "yeah, this is impossible. You and I both know it is impossible but the hero can always do the impossible." In other words the real world probability is near 0% but in the movie world the probability of succeeding has always been 100% so the perceived risk is low. Then the movie maker breaks the rules: "Fooled you! I used real world probabilities. Now you can't assume that movie probabilities are in effect for this movie."

So rather than the three probabilities we've looked at so far, nearly 100%, 50% and nearly 0%, we can have probabilities anywhere in between. As the probabilities change the risk also changes.

Where you might be willing to "bet on the event" if the probability is "fair" and the consequences are "acceptable" you might decide the odds are against you too much and refuse to bet.

If you know that you are going to lose 100% of the time then it is highly unlikely you will place the bet. On the other hand people will bet on losing odds every single day of the week, knowing the odds are against them.

Would you bet $2 when the odds are 1.8% of winning even $4? Those are pretty bad odds. They say for every $110 you bet you will win $4. But you could do better, you could win $7 but the probability is 0.14% or you'd have to spend $1412 to make $7. Note, math-wise there is a point before you get to the $1412 where you are likely to win something but it is still fairly high and much higher than $7.

But we can really entice you! If you are willing to bet $2 with a probability of 0.013%, I'll pay you $200. Does that sound like good odds? Most people can look at that and see there is a very low chance of winning the $200 before you've spent well over $200.

And here is the kicker, I'll give you a 0.00002% chance of winning a million dollars or more! And all you have to do is give me your $2. Just remember, you can't win if you don't play.

The preceding odds are for "Power Ball Lotto".

In general, in a "game of luck" the "house" attempts to hide the fact that the game is rigged so over time the house will take in more money than they pay out. The game is not "fair". The fact that it is not fair is hidden in the payouts. As an example US roulette double zero wheels have a house advantage of 5.26%. Put another way for every $100 bet at roulette the house takes $5.26.

The player doesn't see that 5.26% house edge, instead they see a pay out of $35 for a dollar bet. If they only bet a single number a 100 times they'll win big! Unfortunately the house will still take $5.26 of that hundred. The probability of winning is 2.63% the pay out is 35 to 1. 100*35*0.0263=$92.05. The reason this is not exactly $94.74 is because when you win you get your original bet back.

I once read: Lotteries are taxes on people that don't understand math. What they are actually saying is that people do the risk assessment and are willing to lose $2 or $5 or what ever it is they bet per week.

As the probability changes so does the risk. Often times the actual risk is hidden by the feeling of potential profit. Risk assessment requires looking at both the probability and the consequences. Evaluating either in isolation can lead to serious errors in assessment.

Cascading Consequences

The problem with the simple risk assessment examples given is they do not take into account how a consequence could cascade.

Consider a person placing a $100 bet in order to win $1000. The odds are not good but if he wins then he can pay off his credit card. He has the $100 in his pocket. The consequence is he will lose the $100.

The cascading consequence could be he no longer has enough money to make his mortgage payment. Now instead of being behind on his credit card he is also going to be behind on his mortgage. This happens all the time in casinos. As a matter of fact casinos often are designed to make it easy for a gambler to bet more than they can really acceptably lose.

Cascading consequences occur when the first consequence causes some other consequence, which in turn causes more consequences.

Consider the power outage scenario. Losing power in our household is no big deal. Wood heat and propane grill gives us heat, food and water. But there are bad things that go along with extended loss of power. The largest is that our freezer will start to warm and we might lose some food.

On the other hand if you are on an O2 generator and the power fails there is no more Oxygen being generated. You need to get the power on or have a secondary source of oxygen.

We do have long power outages where I live. I had a telecommute job. The job required me to be at my desk at 0800 and be available through 1700 to take customer calls and to provide additional technical support to my team. For most people a power outage is not a huge thing. For me it could mean my job.

My risk assessment said that being with out internet access which included my phone service was an unacceptable risk. So we ended up rewiring parts of the house and installing a T1 (type of high speed internet connection). This meant that if there was a power failure in the area we could bring up the computers and the internet with a whole house generator.

But there was another thing that happened. Installing a T1 connection means that the phone company treats a "down connection" exactly the same as if an entire town lost phone service. This means that while my Comcast neighbors were still waiting for service to come back up we'd been up and running for two days. Mean time before repair was about 2 hours.

Of course there was a cost for all of this. We had to invest in the time to rewire the house and we had to pay a premium price for our T1 connection.

In this case the cascading consequence was that I might lose my job if we lost power. And that would be because we lost computers and internet.

Why Are People Concerned About Major Catastrophes?

Or: Why are people worried about what to do after the end of the world as we know it? Simple, because their risk assessment says that it is OK and reasonable to plan for it.

When doing a risk assessment we often find actions which are not bad, which reduce the likelihood of the event or which would mitigate the event if it takes place. By choosing to do the action we have an investment in resources (time and money) but it causes no harm and might prevent a bad consequence.

My daughter shows signs of dyslexia. My wife is a reading specialist. She thinks there is a 90% probability that my daughter has dyslexia. But we do not have a diagnosis of dyslexia.

Because of her training my wife does not want to flatly say my daughter is dyslexic. So we did the risk assessment.

Daughter might have dyslexia (90%)
ActionEvent is TrueEvent is false
Do nothingDaughter is slow to read, has frustration reading, will have spelling issues.Nothing
Teach her as if she has dyslexiaDaughter is given the tools to read is not significantly slowed, does not become frustrated, will have coping methods in place for spelling.Daughter will learn new reading tools, will likely read better and faster, will spell better

When we look at the risk assessment we have one negative consequence which is doing nothing and she is dyslexic. We have one neutral consequence and two positive consequences. Both positive consequences are the result of taking action. Therefore since there is no downside to taking the action we proceed by taking the action.

It does not matter if she does or does not have dyslexia because in either case taking action will cause no harm and will help regardless.

At the end of October 2012 there was a large hurricane which hit the north east states of the U.S. For some people it was a big deal. For others it was "no big deal." Why the difference?

My adult daughter in Maryland was asking me as the storm was coming ashore if she should stay where she was or evacuate? She was not prepared for either option.

For us, we stopped by the local store to fill up the spare propane tank and get an extra couple of gallons of fuel for the generator. My lady stopped at the store on her way home to pick up eggs.

It was no big deal. We have been preparing for a bad situation. As such this situation was just a minor test of the plans.

A friend of mine has lost her job a couple of times. One time it was for over six months. She was getting some unemployment but not enough to pay all her bills. She paid her bills with that money but they lived on the food she had put away for an emergency.

My parents gave me a hard time a couple of months ago about thinking and planing for major events. My father's statement was something along the lines of "When we go shopping we always do a check of our pantry first. If we are down to a couple of cans of something then we'll pick it up but it doesn't pay to buy more than you are going to need."

My parents have been preparing all their lives! They are so good at it that they don't even think about it. They have a few months of food at hand. They might not be happy about the choices but they won't go hungry if they get snowed in. Their toilet paper supply won't be exhausted if the snow keeps them home for a week. This is just the way they grew up.


Risk assessment allows us to make good decisions based on facts and logic, not emotion. These sorts of decisions might hurt people's feelings but are unlikely to get people harmed or killed.

Risk assessment is a process. It begins with identifying an event. Once an event is identified a set of actions are analyzed by determining the consequences of the event happening or not happening based on the action.

Each consequence or set of consequences for an event action intersection is given an acceptability level. The event is given a probability of happening. The risk of each intersection is the combination of the probability of the event happening or not happening and the acceptability of the consequence.

Consequences have to be evaluated at both the first level and as a sequence of cascading events. (For lack of a nail the shoe was lost, for lack of a shoe the horse was lost, for lack of...)

At times the correct response to a risk assessment is, "We have to have a better determination of the actual probabilities and conditions in which those probabilities hold true."

It is possible and actually probable that a single action can be used for multiple events. While the worst of those events might never take place, the action you choose to perform in case of that event might very well be the correct action for a multitude of other events whose combined probability is very high.

Monday, October 29, 2012



The Story of Prometheus1

Prometheus, who had saved [Deukalin and Pyrrha], looked upon the men and women of the Earth with compassion. Their labor was hard, and they wrought, much to gain little. They were chilled at night in their houses, and the winds that blew in the daytime made the old men and women bend double like a wheel. Prometheus thought to himself that if men and women had the element that only the Gods knew of -- the element of fire -- they could make for themselves implements for labor, and they could build houses that would keep out the chilling winds, and they could warm themselves at the blaze.

But the Gods had not willed that men should have fire, and to go against the will of the Gods would be impious. Prometheus went against the will of the Gods. He stole fire from the altar of Zeus, and he hid it in a hollow fennel stalk, and he brought it to men.

Men, possessing fire, were then able to hammer iron into tools; they were able to cut down forests with axes, and sow grain where the forests had been. They were able to make houses that the storms could not overthrow, and they were able to warm themselves at the hearth-fires. They had rest from their labor at times. They built cities; they became beings who no longer had their heads and backs bent, but were able to raise their faces even to the Gods.

Zeus spared the men who had now the sacred element of fire. But Prometheus he did not spare. He knew that Prometheus had stolen the fire even from his own altar. And he thought on how he might punish the great Titan for his impiety.


The history of fire goes back before recorded time. We see it in the oldest cave drawings found. We see it in the camps discovered in archaeological digs. Fire has always existed and man put it to use as one of his first tools.

Nobody really knows when humans started to use fire, but we do know some of the things they used fire for. They cooked with it. They used it to heat treat wood. The used it to help clear land. They used it for light and comfort.

Fire really is the oldest tool and it is something we should have with us at all times in some form or another.

What is Fire

Fire is a tool. It has been used by humans for thousands of years. It is used to heat our shelters, cook our food, make our water safe, create tools, make shelter, keep us safe at night, boost our spirits, signal from afar and tell us that all will be well with the world.

If you look at the Rule of Threes, fire has its place in each of the levels. Fire is used in a first aid capacity. It's used to help create shelter. It is one of the best tools for purifying water. It allows us to cook our food. It gives us hope and turns a camp site or tent into "home."

Most people think of fire in terms of the cozy campfire. A circle of rocks to keep the fire in bounds, cheery flames leaping and dancing, hot dogs and marshmallow on sticks, good friends talking about ghosts and goblins, all to the sound of crickets... A safe happy place.

Fire is also hidden in the depths of your car engine, or in the breech of a gun, expanding gases to cause the bullet to fire. Fire is in your furnace adding heat to your home. Fire is in the forge of the blacksmith, turning raw metal into tools and weapons. Fire turns rocks of ore into the metal of industry. Fire makes metal soft enough to bend or hard enough to hold an edge.

Fire is our friend, our compatriot, our partner in life. We need to tame it and hold it true to our needs. We must learn to create it, feed it, respect it, and in the end kill it.

Fire is an exothermic reaction which results from the combination of a fuel source, heat and oxygen. It can be as fast as black powder burning or as slow as a lazy campfire. Regardless of where it is and how it was created, fire is a simple process of heat being combined with oxygen and fuel which creates more heat than it consumes.

The process

Warning!! Minor science ahead -- but you should still read this.

While we think of wood burning, that isn't exactly what is happening. Instead, heat is causing the wood to "out-gas." Wood is made up of C (carbon), H (hydrogen) and O (oxygen) with a chemical formula of C10H15O7. When it is heated it gives off a gas which is flammable, CH2O. When this gas is combined with O2 it reacts to form H2O (water), CO2 (Carbon dioxide) and CO (carbon monoxide). 2CO will then combine with O2 to create still more CO2. There is a bit more going on but these are the primary reactions.

The reactions above are exothermic, which is to say they give off heat. They give off a LOT of heat. The amount of heat that they give off is enough to cause wood to break down and release still more gases which burn, giving off still more heat.

What this means is that we have to heat up our fuel (wood) to the point where it will out-gas, which in turn burns, which creates still more heat, which causes the reaction to continue. If the heat of the fuel/wood drops below 500°F the wood will stop creating gases which burn. If the temperature never reaches 500°F the wood will not burn at all.

Water is the enemy of fire. Why? Because turning water into steam takes vast amounts of heat. The heat that goes into turning water into steam can't be used to heat the wood to the point where it will out-gas. Water turns to steam at 212°F which means that most, if not all, of the water must be driven from your wood before it will burn.

If the wood is not dry then even if it is burning, much of the heat that should go to useful work is instead going into driving out the water in the wood near the flames, preparing that wood to burn.

Science here: You will often read the term "work". "The wood does work", "the gun powder burns doing work". "Work" is a technical term in this case and it means "Force applied over distance". In the case of the gunpowder, the powder burning causes a gas to form and expand (greatly). This causes an increase of pressure behind the bullet. This pressure applies a force to the bullet and causes the bullet to move down the barrel. This is work. This is "mechanical work" (there is also "electrical work" and "thermodynamic work").

Dry wood works much, much better, giving off a lot more heat than wet/green wood does.

Making Fire "Hotter"

A fire is made hotter by increasing the rate at which the fire burns. The more the wood/fuel out-gases and the faster those gases burn, the hotter the fire.

The means that we need to make sure the fire has all it needs in order to continue the combustion process. As we noted in the science section above, the process requires heat to cause the out-gassing, fuel to provide the gases which will burn, and oxygen to react with the gases.

If any part of those three requirements is missing or is in low supply, the fire will go out or at the very least react (burn) more slowly.

We increase the fuel by adding more. It is that simple. If the fuel is dry then so much the better, but if it is not dry we are lowering the heat of the fire. The more fuel in a given volume, the higher the temperature will be.

But even if we have a large fuel supply with plenty of heat, if there is not enough oxygen getting to the fire, the reaction will slow down and some of the gases will escape without burning. So the question becomes, "how do we add more oxygen to the fire?"

Simple: blow on it.

Normal air at sea level contains about 20% oxygen. The air we exhale contains about 16% oxygen. Therefore we take about 20% of the oxygen out of the air when we breath it in. When we blow on a flame we actually increase the total amount of oxygen that the fire gets as long as we provide more than 20% more "air".

A bellows does the same thing as blowing but with 20% oxygen instead of 16% oxygen. This makes a bellows better than blowing. A fan or other blower can do the same. As long as the amount of heat taken from the reaction does not cause the fire to die, the addition of air to the fire will cause it to burn hotter.

When I would start a fire in the wood stove in my work shop I would catch a spark in a bed of wood chips. Once the flame was partially established, I used my air compressor to provide air which gently blew into the fire via a blow gun attachment. This extra air was enough to quickly heat the fire to the point where the logs would start to burn. Once that happened there was no more need for the compressed gas. It made starting the wood stove so much faster and easier. You did have to make sure it was clean, though, so you didn't get a lot of ashes back in your face.

Another way to increase the air flow is to take advantage of the fact that heat rises. As heat rises it pulls air upwards. This creates a low pressure area near the fire. Putting a chimney above a fire increases this up draft and air flow. The better the chimney draws, the more air it pulls into the burn chamber.

If you create a system where the primary place where air enters the system is at the bottom or base of the fire, or even under the actual flames, this will increase the area in which combustion takes place as well as increasing the amount of air being pulled into the system.

If you look at most wood stoves there is a grate that the wood sits on. The fire burns just above the wood. The grate and design of the wood stove allows air to enter from under the wood and then flow upwards through the combustion zone, supplying more oxygen and increasing the speed of reaction.

A hobo stove or rocket stove is designed around this principle. A hobo stove has a series of holes around the bottom of the can. This is where air enters the stove. The fuel fills the bottom third of the stove (mostly twigs and such) and burns very hot. The can acts as a chimney to increase draft. As long as the chimney is not blocked, a hobo stove will burn very efficiently.

A rocket stove is similar to a hobo stove in that air enters through the bottom but it has one other advantage. Fuel is also added at the bottom. The thing that makes a rocket stove a rocket stove is that there are two openings at the base of the stove. A low opening which provides the air supply and a second opening just above which is where fuel is fed in. With the addition of a chimney to increase draw, you again have a very efficient fire.

Steps To Creating Fire

For we simple folk, creating a fire consists of a couple of steps: creating the original spark or ember, getting the spark to ignite the tinder, feeding the tinder into kindling to established a fire, building the fire until it is well established, and using the fire.

Most people will never have to just create the spark. Instead they'll flick a Bic or light a match or push a button for "electric ignition". All of these are the "sparks of life" for fire, even if they don't actually create a spark.

A Bic lighter works by having a liquid fuel under pressure. When a valve is opened the gas on top of the liquid (butane) flows out. Butane is a highly flammable gas. When a spark reaches this fuel, the fuel will ignite. As the gas is flowing out of the lighter, sparks from the flint and wheel flow into the gas stream causing that ignition.

A safety match consists of a temperature sensitive compound on the head of a stick of wood or paper. As the compound is moved across the strike surface the friction causes the strike surface to heat up, releasing red phosphorus which turns to white phosphorus which ignites. This ignition causes the compound of sulfur on the tip of the match to ignite. This in turn causes the match stick to ignite.2

A light-anywhere match just needs a bit of friction in order to create the heat required to ignite the compound on the head. In order to strike a safety match with out a strike surface try sliding it across a piece of glass.

When you don't have matches or a lighter it is time for something else. The two things most commonly used to create that original spark are either a "flint and steel" or a friction created ember.

Flint and steel have come a long way since they were originally designed, and are now created with a "fire steel," which is compound that creates very large, very hot sparks. Lots of them.

Embers are created by generating heat and focusing that heat into something that will start to smolder, holding the heat for an extended period of time. Fire bows and fire sticks work this way, as does a magnifying glass.

Once you've create the "spark" you will need to carefully transfer that spark to the tinder. The tinder's job is to catch a spark and create a small flame that can then be used to ignite more fuel.

For a sparking system, the idea is to throw the sparks directly into the tinder (if the tinder is flammable enough) or to throw the sparks into something that will then smolder into an ember.

Once you have an ember, it is transfered into a tinder bundle. The O2 to the ember is increased until the heat is high enough to cause the tinder to burst into flame. Tinder is chosen for its low flash point and not for long burn times. Therefore you have a very limited amount of time once the tinder bursts into life before the tinder dies out.

Once you have the tinder going, the open flame is either inserted into (normally under) kindling or small kindling is added directly over the tinder. The latter method is used if it would be difficult to get the burning tinder under the kindling.

Kindling is small fuel pieces that will burn easily and therefore rapidly but not as fast as tinder. For example a cotton ball makes good tinder. Take one cotton ball outside and apply a burning match to it. It will light very quickly and burn out in just a few seconds.

During the time that the tinder is burning it must catch the kindling. More fires die at this stage than any other.

Once the small kindling has caught, larger kindling is added until the fire is large enough to ignite your primary fuel source. Your primary fuel source could be small branches, buffalo chips, small or large logs, split logs or a dozen other options. It could even be wood pellets or coal/charcoal.

At this point you have your fire. Unless you do something to put it out, it should continue to burn until the fuel is exhausted. If you have transferred your fire to a stove then you should be able to cook or heat via your stove.

Some Uses of Fire

The two primary uses for fire in a survival situation would be warmth and cooking. Under cooking please include boiling water to make it safe to consume.

A stove is designed to concentrate heat where it will do the most good. An open fire (like a campfire) radiates heat in all directions with most of it going upwards. All the heat that goes up is "wasted".

A good stove will extract as much heat from the fire as possible. The heat thus extract can be used to cook with or heat with. Even if you don't have a stove, a campfire can be made more efficient by building a wall of rocks behind it to reflect heat.picture of tracy's camp fire here.

Always make sure your fire has a way of venting. While smoke is very unpleasant, it is normally obvious enough that people will avoid it. CO (carbon monoxide) is a colorless, odorless gas. If the CO builds up where you are breathing it can kill you.

A fire can also be used to make bowls, cups, pitchers, arrow and spear tips. While it is possible to carve or whittle a pitcher or cup it is very difficult. The time honored method is to place a glowing coal on a piece of wood. The hot coal then chars or might even start burning the wood where it touches.

You take the coal off and place it back in the fire. You then extinguish any flame on your wood and scrape out the charred wood. Repeat as required until you have a bowl or cup or whatever you want.

The term "fire hardened" means that something has been heated in the fire and then cooled rapidly. This is normally applied to metals but it also applies to working wood. If you take a stick and char the tip you can then scrape the char off on a rock or with a knife. Repeat until you have a very nice point. The point you end up with will be harder than what you would get by just whittling.

Place fire in a container that will concentrate the heat, blow air through it and you can heat metal hot enough to work. If you make charcoal or have access to coal you can make a fire that will actually melt metal.

If you can melt metal you can cast it. If you can cast it you can then form it into other tools. While it might not be pleasant you can make a hammer of stone and then heat metal in a forge to make a hammer so that you can then make tongs so you can then make...


We have three more articles on fire coming. The first covers creating the spark of life for a fire. It will show how to use fire steel, magnifying glass and a fire bow in order to create that first ember. It will also cover creating tinder or gathering it.

The second article will cover how to build the spark into a full fire, either in a stove or in an open fire pit.

Our final article on fire is on non-electric, non-gas stoves. This will cover everything from the simple but effective hobo stove up through a Coleman style camp stoves with stops in between for wood cooks stoves.


PROMETHEUS, Internet Sacred Text Archive
How Do Safety Matches Work?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

GOODI Bag Part 2

The lowly garbage bag

While it is always nice to have a tent, poncho, tarp and other gear, never look down on the lowly garbage bag. A heavy duty garbage bag can do much to create a working shelter.

In this case I used one heavy duty bag, and because this was just for a photo shoot I did not open the bag up. If I had, the area would have been twice as large. In this example you can see how the bag would give enough coverage to protect your head if you were hunkered down, and it would provide a wind stop as well. It would also act as a heat reflector if it was far enough from your fire to keep from melting.

This small example shelter started from 24 inches of paracord and a single 3mil heavy duty construction garbage bag.

The paracord was pulled apart to give seven strands of thread about two feet long plus the "shoelace" at 18 inches.

Next a small pebble was used to make the "button". A rounded pebble from a stream works best, but any small stone will do. Even an acorn will work. The threads from the paracord had a one-way slip knot put in to form a loop that would tighten but not easily loosen. The loop was slipped over the button and tightened. The end result was a two foot length of thread tied firmly to each corner. Because the plastic was not punctured, there was very little chance of ripping out the button.

This knot is an adjustable grip hitch. Its claim to fame is that it can be tightened or loosened by gripping the neck and sliding it up or down the line. Pulling on the line will not cause the knot to loosen or tighten, which is a good thing.

The goal is to have a knot that will slip forward and snug tight and then stay tight. A slip knot will slip forward but will not stay snug. The adjustable grip hitch is designed to slip when the neck is moved but to stay put when the standing end is pulled.

There is a problem when using thin nylon line which is that knots which should not slip will slip because of the lack of friction. This includes the adjustable grip knot. Fortunately there is an easy fix which is to add an extra wrap inside the loop.

Once the lines were attached to the corners, the bag was pulled out to form a shelter. This shelter was about 3.5 by 3.5 feet in size. This was enough to keep my head and gear dry.

Besides using a garbage bag to create a simple roof, you can use it as a rain poncho by putting arm and head holes at the seams. It can also be stuffed with dry leaves and other things to make a quick mattress to keep you up off the ground, or you use it to create a pillow.

For about 50 cents, this versatile survival item can be added to your ready bag.


Fire is a very important survival skill to hone. Please see the article on fire for a more thorough discussion on creating, starting and maintaining a fire. It is divided into three sections, the first of which covers fire in general. The second section discusses creating your first flame, and the third part goes into how to turn that first flame into a full fire.

You should have at least three different methods for making fire, and a backup for your primary method. For example, have a fire steel and striker, lighter, hand bow fire set, and matches as your primary methods, with a second lighter as backup.

You should have at least three types of tinder. You can buy tinder or you can use something as simple as cotton balls. My kit contains cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly. The cotton catches a spark easily, while the jelly provides fuel for a much longer burn time.

Summary of items for shelter

  • Emergency/Space blanket
  • Poncho
  • 2 or more heavy duty garbage bags
  • Fire starting gear
  • Poncho liner
  • clothing
    • wool socks
    • rugged shoes
    • pants
    • long john/thermal pants
    • underwear
    • long sleeve shirt
    • short sleeve shirt
    • (comfortable bra for hiking)
    • long john/thermal top
    • scarf
    • knit cap
    • long brimmed hat
    • balaclava
  • sleeping system or sleeping bag
  • tarp
  • tent
  • dehydrated house - just add water for full size home!


They say you can go three days without water but you'll be darn uncomfortable and barely functional at the end. You need water to function. You need water to perform work. You need water to flush poisons from your system. You need water to keep your brain working. Water is also used for cleaning, disinfecting and sterilizing.

You should start with carrying at least a liter of water with you. This is your "ready" water. Grab and go. The container should be reusable and sturdy. You don't want to have your container fail when you go to refill it.

Water pouches are great for emergency water, but they do nothing as a water container. If you use water pouches as your ready supply, make sure you add some sort of container for resupply purposes.

While a canteen is a great container for carrying water, I would augment my ready bag with a hydration bladder. A hydration bladder is a water bag with a fill cap at the top and a tube leading from the bottom. The bladder is held in a carrier which can go inside your bag or mount to the outside of it. Some hydration systems even have storage space in the carrier so it can act as a small backpack.

The advantage of the hydration bladder is that most will hold two to three liters of water which you can drink on the move. They are easy to refill and easy to carry.

The disadvantage of hydration bladders is that they are flexible, and some of the cheaper bladders have been known to "pop" when somebody falls or steps on them. In my 15 years of using hydration bladders I've never had a bladder pop.

With the standard recommendation being one liter of water per day per person, your 72 hour bag should have three liters of water in it. This is just shy of eight pounds and even this might not be enough. Remember, though, that those eight pounds will be depleted quickly. Too much water is always a self-correcting problem, as Robert Heinlein pointed out.

Hiking in the wind or heat -- or just hiking -- increases your required water consumption. This means that you are going to have to resupply your water at some point. When you resupply you will need to make sure that your water is safe to drink.

A good example of classic short-cut thinking, is considering water that comes out of a pipe as "safe to drink". Go into any town in Mexico and you are likely going to be told, "Don't drink the water." Why? Because the water coming from the taps is not as clean as what an American citizen is used to.

Resupply therefore comes down to two choices: collect contaminated water and then decontaminate it, or decontaminate your water as you collect it.

A filter is one of the best ways to go. A good pump-style filter is my preference because it allows me to take water from a contaminated or unknown source and put only clean, potable water into my containers. This means that I don't have to teach my family, "Sometimes it is safe to drink from a container and sometimes not." At the same time it makes it easier to have a supply at camp that is clean and ready to use for such simple things as washing the dishes or brushing your teeth

A personal filter straw is light, cheap, and gives you the ability to get drinking water when you need it. The problem is that it doesn't work for hydration packs. Once you transfer your contaminated water to your container, you have to treat that container as contaminated. This means you'll have to use your filter straw for all water you drink from that container. All in all, a filter straw is good choice but not a best choice.

To decontaminate water in a container you need to "purify" it. Purification is done by adding chemicals to the water or by boiling it. If you use a purification chemical, the chemical will decontaminate not only the water but also the inside of the container. This is why the instructions always call for getting some of the water with chemicals onto the screws of the cap and onto the cap itself. This is so the inside and outside of the container become purified as well as the water.

One drawback to chemical decontamination methods is the amount of time it takes to purify water. In general it takes 30 minutes from the time you start the process until the water is safe to drink. In addition you have to carry chemicals, some of which have a limited shelf life and an even shorter life once the bottle holding the chemicals is opened. Also, the amount of water that can be decontaminated is strictly limited to your supply of chemicals.

Water purification chemicals normally come in small bottles. The military issue version is intended to go in a small pouch on the side of a canteen holder. Most bottles hold enough to treat about 25 liters of water whereas most filters will treat hundreds of liters of water.

One method that works well is using pure bleach. Simply add five drops of pure household bleach to a liter of water. A gallon of household bleach will purify hundreds of gallons of water. Make sure you filter your water with something to take out particulates and also make sure you use a bleach that does not contain perfumes, dyes or other additives. See: Washington State Department of Health, Purifying Water During an Emergency.

MSR MIOX is a system that I've used. It creates a chlorine solution that can be used to purify water the same way a tablet does. It leaves a slight chlorine taste which most city dwellers are familiar with. It is small and light, and easy to use once you've read the instructions a few times. Practice.

On the plus side the MSR MIOX is light weight and small. On the downside it requires batteries and you are supposed to use test strips. My policy was to use too much and wait the full 30 minutes. This never failed to show clean water with test strips. I also found the device with dead batteries after it had been in storage for five years which was NOT something I was expecting. If you decide to go with the MSR MIOX make sure you have a backup set of batteries.

There is also a UV water purifier that can be used, that is said to create safe drinking water in as little as one minute. I have not tried it but it is a consideration. They claim it will purify 1000s of gallons of clear water. The product appears to be dependent upon electricity or batteries, and reviews, while good, mention that the UV light must be replaced each year at a cost of $70.00.

Most references actually state that the best way to purify water is to boil it. Bringing your water to a rolling boil for one minute will purify the water. Then you wait for the water to cool and you can drink.

The down side of boiling water is that you have to collect water, stop, create a heat source, bring your water to a boil, and transfer the boiled water to a clean, uncontaminated container. Then you must wait for it to cool before you can finally drink it. And then you are still not ready to go because you still have to break camp (put out your heat source). In a bad situation, having a fire might not be a good thing.


Have at least one liter of water in ready state. Have at least one container that can be easily refilled, preferably two. Have a method of purifying or filtering water. Pump-style first, straw style last, and chemical means in the middle. Have a container that you can boil water in.

Try and have two different methods of purifying your water. While I prefer my pump filter, our small bags also have water purification tablets.


We have two different types of food that we deal with. The first, and likely the only one of importance, is what you can carry with you. The second is what you can grow, gather or kill. As with the section on water, this process is called "resupply".

For your ready bag you need a minimum of 3000 calories. This can be met with two (2) MREs ( Meal, Ready to Eat) or an emergency ration plus a bit of extra. MREs are a bit heavier than other foods you can carry but they are truly ready to eat.

In almost all cases you should have one MRE in your bag. The 1500 calories that comes in an MRE is broken down into an entrée, a side dish, a dessert, and a flavored drink. In addition, it will contain a cracker with something you can spread on it (peanut butter for example.)

While some people swear at MREs, others swear by them. I happen to believe in them. Most taste okay. Some taste good and some taste bad but they are all edible. Most have lots and lots of chemicals and preservatives added to them but that is part of what gives them a 10+ year shelf life. The MRE has another major plus over other types of food for your ready bag: they can be heated without a fire. Each MRE comes with a heater that only takes a small amount of water to activate. The possibility of a hot meal during an emergency can go a long way to keeping your hope up.

Oh, MREs also come with a package of helpful things like salt, pepper, Tabasco, matches, wet wipe, spoon, tissue paper. All those little things that make for a happy soldier.

In addition to your MRE, add a ration bar. These are designed to give you three days of food at around 800 calories per day. You'll be hungry but it is better than nothing by a long stretch. These are small and light weight. See: Datrex Emergency Food Rations Bars

Add some comfort food as well. M&M peanut candy, trail mix or granola bars are all good additions. These comfort foods should also fall into the "everyday use" category. Expect to resupply as they are used.

In a ready bag you really don't need any more food than what you can carry, but if you are willing to, you should add some gear to catch fish, snare/trap wild animals, or gear to hunt them in some other way. If you do decide to kill an animal, you damn well better be prepared to eat whatever you take, and waste nothing of that animal.

Remember that most Americans are overweight and out of shape. This means that many of us watch what we eat. We pick foods that are low fat or low sugar or what ever it might be. We watch our diets.

In a survival situation you are going to need that FAT. You are going to need more calories than you ever expected. Don't worry about getting fat; worry about getting too skinny as you work harder than you have ever worked before.

Last, please note that you can go a long time without food: three weeks or so. Food is just not a priority in a 72 hour bag. You could have no food and still make it 72 hours. You would just be very unhappy and hungry. Hungry people make stupid mistakes, so don't let yourself get that hungry, but don't stress either.

A couple of years ago I watched a show about a group of modern day people trying to establish an 1800s style homestead. They had three different groups. One group was "wealthy" so they arrived as a Man and Wife with three children to a pre-built home with gear.

The second group had a mostly-finished home which they had to finish building, and the third group had to build their home from the ground up.

What was of most interest to me was one of the men who started out in fairly good condition physically. As the show progressed, he thinned down and got stronger. However, his wife was worried about his weight loss and he became concerned as well. They called in a doctor because of his aches, pains, and weight loss.

The doctor reported the reason he looked that way is because it was likely the first time in his life that he wasn't actually overweight!


Because you can go three or so weeks without food, food is not as important as air, shelter and water. You are going to want food just to keep you from making stupid mistakes because you are hungry. You are not really going to need hunting or fishing equipment if you have your prepared foods with you.

You should have 72 hours of easy-to-use food. Dehydrated foods are acceptable (if you are not worried about water) as well as ready-to-use food such as MREs, ration bars, Peanut M&M's, granola bars, dehydrated fruits, and trail mix.


Most of what we have discussed is the gear you should have in your ready bag. By following the Rule of Threes we prioritize what we put in our bag and make sure we don't miss anything important. One weakness of the Rule of Threes is that it doesn't tell you what to take with you, just how to prioritize your choices.

There are horror stories of the early- to mid-1900s of people starving while having access to hundreds of cans of food. Why? They had no way of opening the cans. They were missing a simple tool, a can opener.

One of the reasons the military went with the Mylar pouches of the MRE is because they need no tools to open and prepare. Every pouch can be opened by hand. You can heat them by just pouring water into the heater pouch. You can squeeze the food out directly into your mouth or use the included long handled spoon to eat your meal.

The MRE removed the need for tools to open or eat your meal. It truly READY to eat.

If you find yourself with access to canned food but without a can opener, there are ways to get around those pesky seals. For one very good (and quick) tutorial, check out How to open a can without a can opener. Don't forget that a good sized rock can stand in for a section of concrete.


One of the most important tasks you will run into is cutting things. This can be as simple as cutting a piece of cordage or as complex as cutting a roof rafter. A knife is a requirement for any ready bag and should go above and beyond your EDC (Every Day Carry).

As nice as a knife is for small jobs, larger tasks need different tools. Add a saw of some sort to your gear. It could be a four inch saw in your folding knife or a collapsing camp saw. For some it can be a bow saw blade, knowing they will make a bow saw if needed.

While it is possible to get along with just a knife and saw, being able to split wood or chop down a small tree can make things even better. Consider adding a hand ax or hatchet to your bag.

Holding and pulling

One of the best tools to add to your gear is a multi-tool. While it might not seem like much, a pair of pliers does so much for you. It can be used for everything from being able to pull that line just a little tighter to being able to straighten a bent piece of wire/metal, or for bending metal.

My EDC includes a leatherman and a cheapo key ring thing I found. My bag holds another and I wish I could justify tossing a Gerber or SOG Multi-tool in the bag as well.

Put a multi-tool in your EDC and add a second to your ready bag.


Cordage! More cordage! I recommend paracord for so many different reasons. A 15 foot length of paracord gives you seven 15-foot lengths of nylon thread plus another 15 foot length of shoelace-like outer sheath. You can leave it as is for tying your lean-to together. It can be strung between two uprights to drape a tarp or poncho over.

We make it a habit to carry paracord with us. This can be in a bracelet, the wrappings on a walking stick, the decorations on the outside of the bag, or just a hunk sitting inside the ready bag. Have some cordage with you.

Warning!!! Science, math, physics ahead.

Paracord has a static load rating of at least 550 pounds. That means you can hang 550 pounds from a single piece of cord and it will not break. If you were to take that same 550# load and just drop it a foot and try to catch it with the paracord, the cord will snap. This is the difference between static and dynamic loads.

To better understand a static load you need to have a little physics and math background. We work with two different things in determining load, mass and acceleration. To make this easier on me we are going to convert weight to mass in SI (metric) units. Paracord has a static load capability of 250Kg at 9.8m/s^2 or 2450N. You can think of N (newton) as weight.

Now consider an object falling 0.25m or about ten inches. It starts with a velocity of 0. At the end of its 0.25m fall it is traveling at 2.2m/s. If this load were to come to an abrupt stop, like at the end of a chain, the amount of time it takes to stop would be very short. For the sake of argument let's set that time to 0.1 seconds (This is not unreasonable given that it took only 0.22 seconds to get up to 2.2m/s).

Our acceleration for this is 22m/s^2. Gravity is still pulling down at 9.8m/s^2. Thus our total acceleration would be 31.8m/s^2. This is three times what our static load was! This gives our 250Kg static load the ability to support only 77Kg worth of load.

77Kg is 170 pounds, nowhere near the 550 pounds of our static load. And this is from only a ten inch drop. This small exercise shows dynamic loads are much higher than static loads.

Paracord and other ropes (and even chains) help reduce the effect of dynamic load by increasing the amount of time it takes to actually decelerate. In other words, they stretch. Chains don't stretch but they sort of untangle and untwist as a load is placed on them.

This means that you should NOT expect paracord to function as a safety line for a human.

In addition to cordage, add some wire ties. They are light-weight, fast, and easy to use. They come in all sorts of different sizes and can be used for many different attachment methods. As well, two (or more) can be attached together to form a slightly longer tie. Consider using them to hold branches together as you construct a shelter.


You can use your knife to build a nicely pointed stick, and you can use that stick to poke holes in the ground and then scoop out the loosened dirt with your hands. You can even spend some time to make a hollow in the end of a stick to use as a trowel. But wouldn't it just be easier to have a shovel or trowel with you?

The entrenching tool or E-Tool is light-weight and folds up into a small package. When you unfold it, you can create a short handled shovel about the right size for digging when on your knees, or you can leave it partially folded to create a hoe type tool. Sometimes you will switch back and forth depending on your needs and the ground you are digging into.

If you don't want to go for an e-tool, consider a folding camp trowel. Many campers use them to dig small pits for disposal of human waste.


Sometimes you don't want to be found and sometimes you do. Having a Signaling device can get you the attention you need. A combination whistle, Signaling mirror, and compass can be found in many places.

I come from the point of view of not being found. Of not being noticed. As such my gear has a signal whistle and a Signaling mirror but not much more than those two items for Signaling purposes.

A good whistle can be heard hundreds of yards away. On a cold winter day, sound will travel even farther. If you are hurt and need to attract somebody's attention, a whistle is a good tool to have.

A Signaling mirror is used to reflect the sun. Pilots have reported seeing signal flashes from as far away as 15 miles. If you have line of sight with somebody and you have sunlight a Signaling mirror can attract attention from miles away.

At night any light source will attract attention. A campfire will attract some attention but a blinking red or yellow beacon will attract attention even more attention. The flashlights my daughter picked out for her mother have multiple modes: Light, glow, light and glow and flashingglow.

There are many other methods for Signaling. Some are designed so that they are only visible from the air, some are only visible from the ground. Some are for clandestine signals. If there is enough interest I'll write an article on Signaling.

In the book "The House of Dies Drear" the author talks about a Signaling device from the days of the underground railroad. She explains that the conductors would place a piece that looked like 1/4 of a cross, A right angle, to tell the run-a-ways which way to go.

This was a secret method of Signaling because unless you knew the "code" you wouldn't understand the direction it was telling you to go. If you happened to find one it was intended that it look like a part of something that would only be meaningful when all the parts were collected.

Creating Fire

Have a lighter, some matches (your MRE has a book of matches in it), fire steel or other methods of starting a fire.


Most people navigate via road signs and land marks. In a serious situation you might not be able to depend on them. Get maps, both road maps and topographical maps. Trust your maps before you trust the road signs. Before the emergency hits, learn how to use the road and topographical maps. Practice!

Your GPS might or might not work. Having one with you is not a bad thing but don't depend on it.

Add a compass and learn how to use it. A compass will work in almost all situations. Your compass in addition to a topographical map can get you from point A to point B but only if you know how to use it.


The one thing I fail to carry with me is a light. For many years I carried a mini-maglight. Unfortunately it had a habit of turning itself on my pocket and would be dead when I really needed it.

Since my EDC is designed to be in my pockets I never was real big on holster for my flashlight. Add to this the fact my cell phone has a flash light option and my everyday need for a light source went way down. That is until I needed to actually do something at night.

You should have at least three light sources. A headlamp is very useful when you need both hands free to work. A hand light is also a useful tool. The mini-maglight has a mode where the top lens section unscrews and then the unit sits in that top as a base creating an electric candle.

A candle will often times be enough but it is much harder to keep going in bad weather and very difficult to light if you don't have working matches or lighter. In the same way an oil lamp will also meet the needs of light. For serious overkill consider a Coleman Gas or multi-fuel lantern

One thing to think about in terms of light sources. Batteries die rather quickly when you depend on them. They don't store as well as other energy sources. A duel fuel camp lantern will give you much more light, burn longer and the fuel will not go bad. It might not be the right answer for your ready bag but don't rule it out for you vehicle gear


This is just a list of some tools you should consider for your ready bag.

  • Knife
  • cordage/paracord
  • Saw
  • E-tool/shovel
  • Good quality multi-tool
  • Fire steel
  • Lighter
  • Water proof matches
  • tinder
  • whistle
  • Signaling mirror
  • maps
  • compass
  • Needle(s)
  • P-38 style can opener
  • optionally, a small hand held GPS with way points marked
  • Ax/hatchet
  • Flash light/head lamp

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


The GOODI bag is just another name for the 72 hour bag, otherwise known as the BOB. BOB stands for Bug Out Bag and GOODI stands for Get Out Of Dodge Immediately. What you call your ready bag really doesn't matter. The name doesn't change its purpose or function.The reason we use the term GOODI is it allows us to say, "Don't forget your GOODI bag!" in front of anybody and they will interpret it as goody/treat bag.

So what is a 72 hour bag? A 72 hour bag is designed to keep you going for 72 hours with no outside help or resupply. It might be good for more than 72 hours, but 72 hours is the minimum.

But what goes into the bag? We refer to the Rule of Threes in order to determine what exactly should go into our bag.


This rule says that we need to make first aid our primary consideration. For our ready bags we use a simple first aid kit called the the Nick Fixer. It handles most of the problems we would normally foresee in an emergency situation plus it handles those everyday things that happen. These kits are not "for emergency use only" but should instead be used on a regular basis. Things you use every day are more likely to be with you, and hence you are more likely to have your bag with you.

Make sure you refill your first aid kit if you use things from it. This is one of the reasons we choose to use the Nick Fixer. The people behind it sell everything that is in the first aid kit as refills or add on modules.

We augment our first aid kit with SAM Splints, sting sticks, epi-pens and other first aid gear that we've gathered over the years. Yet all of this is small enough to fit into a Utility/Canteen Pouch. You might want to add things like breathing masks for giving mouth to mouth without contaminating yourself, and your own prescription medications.

For those that don't know, an Epi-Pen is an auto-injector of epinephrine. This drug will reduce swelling (anaphylaxis, generally swelling of the throat and airway) and get people breathing again if they have a severe allergic reaction to things such as bee stings or eating shellfish. They are available by prescription only, but most family doctors are willing to prescribe them if you explain that they are for the family emergency first aid kit because your cousin, niece, aunt has allergic reactions to things like bee stings.


These are some of the things that should be in your ready bag.

  • First Aid Kit
  • Splints
  • CPR equimpent
  • Burn treatment
  • medications
  • mole skin
  • anti-itch creams and treatments


Now that we are breathing, no longer bleeding, and sprains and broken bones have been dealt with, it is time to get out of the elements as soon as possible.

There are a multitude of different weather conditions that require shelter. A rain storm on a cold day can kill you from heat loss, and if it doesn't you'll still be wet and unhappy. A blistery cold day will suck energy and life from you while a hot day will bake you. A mild spring day with a clear sky can cook your skin (sun burn).

What is acceptable in the day might not be survivable at night. One of the things that kills people in the desert is the extreme cold of night. There can be a 50°F or more drop in temperature between daytime and nighttime.

Rain, Wind and Snow

Getting out of the rain and wind is the first step in getting shelter, and one of the best ways of accomplishing this is with a good, high quality, rugged poncho. The poncho takes a lot of grief because it is ugly and doesn't seem like it should work as well as a rain suit or other rain gear. The truth is that a poncho will out-perform rain gear in many ways.

For the woman that needs to get into more appropriate clothing, tossing a poncho on and then changing under it gives not only shelter but privacy. The same goes for a man that needs to change out of work slacks and into jeans because it is snowing out.

I once worked in an office with very casual attire. Even during the coldest months of the winter some of the men came in wearing shorts. Why? Because they kept the office at around 72°. It isn't only the ladies wearing clothing that isn't appropriate for survival.

A poncho is MUCH faster to put on and doesn't require you to stand or move around to get it on. There are no pants to deal with. With snaps down the edges it will seal very well and if you hunker down it will trap heat.

The poncho sheds water, wind, and snow very well and should be an integral part of your bag. In addition to its use as outer wear, a poncho can be used to construct a lean-to, a tent, a simple roof, a sleeping roll, a ground cloth, and much more.

One other quick shelter that many forget is your car. Your car, for the most part, is rain, wind and snow proof. It might not feel like it but even in the cold it keeps heat inside the cabin. Don't walk away from such great shelter if you have it and can use it.

Digression into the science of why getting wet makes you cold(er)

Warning! Science ahead! This section is a discussion of the math of why getting out of the rain and out of wet clothing is so important. It also tells you that putting snow in your mouth to make water to drink is a bad idea.

Why is getting out of the rain and getting dry so important? The answer is "phase change". A phase change happens when a material changes state from gas to liquid to solid. The amount of heat required to change state is much more than than the amount of heat required to just change the temperature of something.

Consider that glass of ice water you have at hand. If there is ice in it, the water it is 32°F provided there is solid ice. You might have to stir it a little to get all the slightly warmer pockets of water to the same temperature but the water will be at 32°. This is the temperature at which pure water changes state from liquid to solid or from solid to liquid. You have to provide heat or take away heat in order to accomplish this change.

Heat is measured in Calories. The calories in your food and drink are measured in KiloCalories or 1000 Calories. It takes 1 Calorie of heat to raise 1g of matter 1°C. Since a liter is 1000 grams it would take 1 KCal to raise the temperature 1°C.

To take a liter of water from freezing (0°C) and raise itto boiling (100°C at sea level) would require 100 KCals. To take 1 liter worth of water from -1°C to 2°C takes a bit more because of the the phase change. It takes 80cal to convert 1g of water from a solid (ice) to a liquid (water). This means it would take 82Kcal to change a liter of ice into a liter of water.

Thus, using your own body heat to melt snow is going to take 80 food calories per liter of water converted. Emergency rations are generally in the 800 Kcal per day range.

As scary as that number might be, there is another number of interest: the amount of heat it takes to convert water into steam. To convert 1g of water to 1g of steam requires 540cal. To convert 1 liter of water would take 540Kcal or just about your entire day's Kcal allowance when on emergency rations.

You might be thinking, "But I don't boil water with my body," and you are right, you don't. Something else happens. Water on your body is first heated to around 54°C then as the wind or dry air moves past the liquid water it evaporates. Evaporation is a phase change, similar to boiling, though it happens at a much lower temperature.

When you are wet, some water is always evaporating and the process is cooling your body. As your hair gets soaked you can see it "steam" on a cold day and that is cooling you. This process is the reason why putting a damp cloth on the back of your neck works to cool you on a hot summer's day.

Get out of the rain as soon as you can. It can mean the difference between life and death.

Heat Retention

Once you are out of direct elements it is time to work on staying warm. A space blanket and a space bag are two low cost useful items for your bag. You can get them cheap or you can get good quality. A cheap space blanket can be had for as little as a dollar and the good ones for a bit more than five dollars.

A space blanket/bag is a Mylar sheet that is reflective in the infrared spectrum. What this means is it reflects heat back in (or out) if needed.

To explain why this works and why it is important you should know that heat is transferred in three different ways: convection, conduction and radiation.

Convection is heat transferring to a moving liquid or gas which then carries the heat away. In other words, a cool breeze on a summer's night is convection. Conduction is the transfer of heat via contact with something colder. Place an ice cube on the back of your neck and it transfers heat from your body to the ice. Radiation is the heat that leaves as radiant energy. The warmth you feel when you hold your hand over an electric burner is radiant heat.

A space blanket is designed to deal with radiant heat transfer. It blocks radiant heat from going through and reflects it back. Because it is a plastic sheet it also stops most convection heat loss as well. It provides some insulation from conductive heat loss but not as much as a good woolen blanket.

Due to the space blanket being thin coated plastic -- between 2 and 5 mils (0.002 and 0.005 inches -- it folds into a space just a little larger than a travel tissue package. They weigh very little so they are something that you can have with you all the time.

Your clothing is the next step in staying warm or cool. Though many people don't realize it, clothing can help keep you cool by providing circulation of air for convection cooling and evaporative cooling.

The first important thing about having clothing in your bag is that it allows you to get out of wet clothing and into dry clothing. Some fabrics do a better job of holding in heat when wet than others. Wool retains most of its insulating properties even when wet. Cotton does not. Silk is amazing for insulation purposes as well.

The second thing extra clothing in your bag allows to happen is it lets you start layering. Layering is the process of creating pockets of air to hold heat. The more layers, the warmer you will be. It isn't just about bulk; it is about the air spaces between layers.

A few years ago they found the body of a mountain climber from the late 1800s on the side of one of the better known mountains. The amazing thing was what he was wearing. He really did look like he was dressed in a suit and not a parka. He was wearing multiple layers of wool clothing and while he died on that mountain he did not die of exposure.

To test this, a couple of modern climbers tried the same climb in the same type of gear as this 1800s climber. They found that it was keeping them just as warm as modern gear but at the cost of extra weight and less mobility.

Layers WORK for heat retention.

Sleeping Bags and Systems

One of the best things to keep you warm and safe in an emergency is a good sleeping bag. The bag my parents bought me before I headed out to collage is still a part of my gear. I remember that they paid around $180 back in the '80s. It was light-weight yet good to 20°F.

Today you can buy a bag just as good for $30-$50 at your local WalMart or Target store. It is lighter, stuffs down smaller and is easier to clean and care for. Getting a real sleeping bag is likely to make your ready bag that much more useful for you.

The be-all and end-all of sleeping bags is the modern sleeping system.

A sleeping system is a combination of a bivy sack and two sleeping bags. These bags and the sack are designed to fit one inside the other, providing the user with multiple options as to what degree of protection from the elements they actually need.

In the simplest form a person might just use the bivy sack with a light blanket (poncho liner) inside. The bivy sack is designed as a water proof shelter for one. When inside, the sack zips up about 80% along the side, just like a sleeping bag. The top then continues up and over the head where a hook and loop fastener (Velcro) holds the top to the bottom.

Once inside it can rain cats and dogs and you'll be dry and snug inside.

On a recent camping trip my son took my sleep system to use. The tent he was sleeping in wasn't very good at keeping water out. But the bathtub floor was very good at keeping the water IN once it got inside.

My son slept in the bivy sack inside the sleeping bags. In the morning he climbed out dry and happy until he had to put his feet out to find a good inch of standing water! When the gear got home we wiped it down and that was all that was needed.

As the temperature drops you start adding sleeping bags to the bivy sack.

  1. Bevy sack alone
  2. medium bag alone
  3. medium bag in bevy
  4. heavy bag in bevy
  5. medium in heavy in bevy

This system is designed to cover everything from a rain storm in the tropics at 80+ °F to -30°F in the frozen tundra. When it gets to about 0°F you do need to have appropriate sleep wear (long johns)

Standing Shelter

While all the above is great for keeping you going, a tent will do so much for your spirit that it should not be forgotten. While it is nice to be able to snuggle into your bivy warm and dry, it does not give you the same creature comfort of crawling into a nice tent.

This is part of "hope" section of the Rule of Threes. While a one man tent or bivy sack will keep you warm and safe there is something delightful to be said about snuggling up with your spouse or child in a tent.

Even if you don't carry a tent, a cheap tarp and some cordage can be used to create a tent-like structure. Even a bit of paracord and some work can create a sheltered space out of things you find in the woods or urban environment.

After tent-like shelters, consider a shovel and ax to allow you to create your own building. While not something you are likely to do on a 72 hour march, it never hurts to know how to build your own home with simple hand tools.

Please see GOODI Bag part 2 for the next part. We will be finishing the section on shelter by talking a little bit about fire.