• On survival – how to do basic threat modeling

    by  • August 9, 2011 • Everything Else • 1 Comment

    ((The Gupta State Failure Management Archive, 4.3gb of lectures and documents on managing state failure, is in the Public Domain and available for download.))

    The London Situation: Threat Modeling

    I was asked today to think about gear lists for the London situation, and about framing the risks of being in London period. I’m not sure if this will be popular, but it needs to be said:

    You are very likely in less danger staying at home in London than doing almost anything else, including driving out of the city.

    Now, let me justify that. The death toll from the riots so far appears to be zero. Although there are a ton of injuries, the vast majority of the have been sustained by rioters and police, the actual fighters. Ordinary citizens are therefore by-and-large very, very safe and likely to continue to be so, barring mitigating circumstances like being in a building which is set on fire and having to leave in a damn hurry. So let us consider an analytical framework, the Six Ways to Die.

    * too hot
    * too cold
    * hunger
    * thirst
    * illness
    * injury

    Now let’s remove the ones which don’t apply

    * injury

    If you are concerned that you are in danger in London, stay away from danger. If you are comfortable and safe at home and likely to remain so, stay at home. If not, please go and visit some friends out of town and wait for the danger to pass. You are safe.

    Now, that said, let us compare-and-contrast with a post I made a couple of days ago on the US news site, Reddit. Now, why am I advising them about a wide variety of serious health risks, including combat psychology, and only suggesting that people stay at home or head out of town for a few days in London? The difference is the threat model.

    The PostCollapse folks on Reddit are modeling something known as TEOTWAWKI – the end of the world as we know it. Instead of a single, coherent threat model like “there are riots all over London” they have an indistinct, constantly shifting universal existential threat framed by a combination of real-and-legitimate US risks and Mad Max movies. In that kind of mindset the issue isn’t as simple as assessing a risk and then making an educated guess about safe courses of action, rather the need is to peer into the nature of risk and learn how to make these educated guesses for one’s self and one’s family years, or often decades, in advance of their arrival. In short, the open-ended constantly-shifting nature of the Survivalist’s threat scenario is more a meditation on the nature of life than a realistic planning strategy.

    Yet as such a mediation, it has value.

    Conclusion: Stay at Home

    If you want to know how to prepare, it is very simple. In nearly all scenarios, the ability so sit at home and do nothing for a month will keep you safe. In the trade, this is called Shelter in Place. It applies to nearly all terrorist scenarios with the possible exception of dirty bombs. It manages a large class of acts of war. It addresses fatal disease, urban unrest and most political violence.

    Go home. Stay home. Wait for the coast to clear.

    What do you need to use this strategy?

    * Most importantly, a 3 month pre-order of any medications you might need, including birth control pills, insulin, antipsychotics etc. Even trivia like antihistamines. It’s only a few quid to do this in most cases, and you should do it while you can.

    * Then there is food. Even a half-assed food shopping run can sort you out the basics. Remember to buy things you can eat cold, in a pinch, or make backup plans for cooking like laying in a gas stove and gas (a small risk in its own right.)

    * Toilet paper. No, really.

    Things like water and a wind up or solar charger to charge your phone are the next level of crisis up, where basic services like water and the cell phone network go down. No we have moved from the simple question of “how to stay at home and wait for things to blow over” into “how to survive once essential services start to be affected.”

    This second question is where the bulk of my work lies – how do we approach a situation where the problem is not random rioters looting stores, but people using mortars on critical infrastructure and triballing opposing tribes power substations and electrical feeds. But we are a long, long way from there, and it’s not terrain that needs to be directly addressed at this juncture.

    If you are a Londoner, please get together what you need to spend a month at home. Put it in some boxes in a corner. Clearly label it. Then the next time riots happen, or if these riots go on off-and-on for ages, you won’t need to go outside when you don’t feel comfortable and safe, and you’ll have taken one less potential victim (or rioter!) off the streets. You may want to extend this advice to other parts of the country too.

    Getting Into More Depth

    If you are interested in the next level of failures, where critical infrastructure issues pile on top of civil disorder or passing shocks like a bad flu scare, you need to start using the full Six Ways To Die model, called Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps. You need to make the SCIM-INAM chart for your life, and fill in all the appropriate boxes, so you have a really clear understanding of your critical infrastructure related risk, and your potential responses to it. Get ready to make a serious investment in time, gear and training if you want to do a comprehensively good job at this level of concern. It’s not easy. You may have to move house. You may have to arm yourself. You may, indeed, have to become a survivalist.

    But that day is not today.

    Yes, there is a risk of Serious Difficulty, up-to-and-including the failure of the State itself, rule of law, governance at its most fundamental levels, and everything else. Even in that condition, however, I do not believe in a loss of civic order lasting more than weeks or very occasionally a few months is possible. There are very rare counter-examples, but they generally-speaking involve a war zone where the supply chains for both combatant sides come from well-funded nation states duking it out. In situations where somebody can gain the upper hand militarily, typically pretty soon they go back to creating order.

    Unexpected Travel

    Finally, let us consider that oldest of staples, the Bug Out Bag. Here I will admit to substantial geekery, and I’ll show you mine.

    LifeSystems survival whistle for being found.
    Adventure Medical Kits Heat Sheet an enormously superior, dirt cheap, double adult size reflective insulator.
    A generic foam camping mat for sitting and sleeping on.
    Generic polypropylene underwear often sold very cheaply in camping shops, tied in a carrier bag to keep them dry.
    Some kind of hat, preferably waterproof.
    A wind-up torch and usually a backup LED light too
    A lighter and a few sheets of newspaper, and perhaps some dry twigs.
    A bottle of tea tree oil.
    Food and water I’d take out of the kitchen on the way out, I don’t keep them packed. You should, though. A two liter soda bottle filled with water and some cans of tuna is just fine.
    I keep meaning to add some chlorine bleach for water purification in a small container to the kit.
    A roll of toilet paper.
    Two small bottles of hand sanitizer.
    Any special stuff you need, like baby food and nappies, or an epipen, or spare glasses. I can’t stress spare glasses strongly enough.

    If you’re particularly conscientious, stick spare picture ID in the bag, at least photocopies of your passport, drivers license etc.

    You can buy the lot in London for about fifty quid and it’ll see you right through the vast majority of circumstances which require spending unanticipated time out of your home. Note the distinct absence of a knife, a first aid kid, any kind of sophisticated equipment. I haven’t counted stout walking shoes or Suitable Clothing – that’s your stuff, you should have those anyway. This is just the odds-and-ends that you add to traveling clothes to make you comfortable in a wider range of places and times, from frozen train platforms without any news of a train through to a few days in the outdoors if you wind up in some unpleasant corner of history.

    There’s a whole complex art to this stuff, but these are the basics. That’s all you need. Even the sleeping bag is bonus. Consider again the Six Ways To Die.

    * too hot – reflective blanket, sunny side out
    * too cold – thermals, kept dry, the hat and the space blanket
    * hunger – the food you brought, but you won’t starve in a week, don’t worry
    * thirst – the water, and the chlorine bleach to purify more if you absolutely must
    * illness – the hand sanitizer, the chlorine bleach, the tea tree oil, the toilet paper
    * injury – nothing but the tea tree oil, for if you get a graze or toothache

    The main buffers are for the cold, exposure and the weather, because for us, in our climate, that’s about the only danger there really is. That and the riots!


    But let me say, as a final point, that fifty quids worth of odds-and-ends is much, much less warm, comfortable and likely to keep you safe than good old fashioned bricks and mortar.

    Stay at home. You’re safer there than anywhere else, particularly the mean, mean streets of London. The perception that one must march into the woods makes no sense at all: they are not hospitable places unless you are rather experienced, and even then it takes considerable equipment to simply wait in some rural place, bothering nobody, until the place has quietened down a bit. It’s not the way for most people, and it’s much, much higher risk, in almost all scenarios, than staying at home.

    So if you’re serious about your own safety, make the preparations for staying at home for a month. Think it through, do it right, and then if you have to have a weekend in because they’ve got riot police blockading your doors, at least you won’t run out of red wine.

    Stay in a safe place. If you have to travel to reach a genuinely safe place, travel carefully, be prepared, and verify your destination is safe before setting out.

    The psychological impulse to pick up and run at the first sign of danger, generally speaking, causes more danger than it averts. If you are going to be traveling during a crisis of any kind, ensure you are traveling towards a known-safe destination, not simply running.

    Stock up the house in case there’s more of this, and wait it out. That’s my advice.

    flattr this!


    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    One Response to On survival – how to do basic threat modeling

    1. August 16, 2011 at 6:54 am

      Thanks for sharing your bug out bag. I’d add chocolate – very calorie dense, keeps fairly well (as long as it’s safe from vermin) & easy to break off a bit to keep you going. Not a complete food replacement though -would get a bit nauseating. Tubes of that emergency malnutrition paste meant for African kids (Plumpy’nut) would be excellent, much better than chocolate, but we’d probably have to make & preserve our own.

      Re tea tree oil – great stuff, but two cautions: 1. Get the water soluble one (an emulsion) as I think the skin absorbs it better. 2. If you use it in your mouth, avoid swallowing it. I think a drop or two is fine, & it used to be suggested to use it that way, but the official line now is “poison, not for internal use.” I dabbed it on a difficult gum infection for a few days when I had wisdom teeth poking through – worked wonders, & I didn’t need the extraction that the centrist had said was inevitable. But I digress.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *