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Anywhere, anytime - that's the way of emergencies. They arrive in many forms and are rarely predictable. If the source is natural, the weather bureau may give out warnings, even to the extent of hinting at the severity and offering suggestions on how best to prepare. Occasionally, the problem could be the result of human error such as a toxic spill close by, a leaking gas main; or perhaps a deliberate act of terrorism causing any number of dire consequences. The effect of an emergency can be wide-ranging - national, state, localised, or maybe just close to home. Hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, explosions: quite often they just happen, and nobody's immune. Despite knowing there is a distinct possibility of being caught napping, very few are ready to act at a moment's notice; and after the fact, most will regret not doing something that could have made a difference to the way they came out of it.

To get an idea of the risks we all may have to face one day, look back on some of the disasters that have occurred; and please don't be complacent: just because you don't live in Tornado Alley doesn't mean you won't get hit by one; and those massive super-storms which the experts failed to forecast can pop up anywhere out of the blue. If your home is well inland, you will be safe from a Tsunami, but what about flash-flooding after a prolonged deluge of rain? Bushfires are terrifying to face and, given the right conditions, can destroy entire communities in minutes. How many instances do you know of when the family home went up in flames due to an electrical fault, or because a candle was left burning? In all of these examples, there was little warning for the victims; and because it happened so quickly, the majority who managed to escape with their lives had only the clothes they stood up in. They had nothing to sustain them, even for a limited time - no water or food, no shelter, no first-aid; the list could go on. The fact is, they never imagined being in that predicament, so they had made no allowances for dealing with it.

Without doubt, the most important thing to preserve is life itself. This is one of the reasons for high security, to protect the inhabitants of a building from criminal acts by fitting deadlocks on doors and windows, plus bars and steel-mesh security screens as a first line of defence. These are intended to keep intruders out, but they are also extremely effective in trapping the occupants inside. Imagine waking in the middle of the night to find the place filled with smoke. Very few have ever experienced such an event and, as with most surprise encounters, there is a tendency to go blank for a few moments while trying to gather thoughts. Once the problem hits home, a course of action is necessary to deal with it and human instinct has the perfect answer - panic! People living alone only have themselves to look after, so their first thought will probably be to simply get out, not an easy task when choking fumes make breathing difficult and they can't see a hand in front of their face. A flashlight might have been handy, had they thought to keep one on the bedside cabinet. Stumbling and groping, maybe even crawling because they remember from somewhere that there is more oxygen close to the floor, they make their way to the exit, at least to where they thought it was; but in their confusion, this takes more than one attempt and precious seconds are wasted. They eventually find the door, only to discover it is securely locked - they always make sure of that before going to bed. So, where's the key? On a ring with the car key, of course, which is in a dish on the buffet in the family room - somewhere behind the blanket of smoke! What happens next doesn't bear thinking about; how to avoid making similar mistakes does.

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