Are you a first aider or a last rites type of person?

January 16, 2004

Without petroleum jelly in your desk drawer, you're just not ready for that civil disaster at work, says Valerie Atkinson

Now that the possibility of apocalyptic war has been so radically diminished - or so we are told, this might be, conversely, an appropriate time to beef up university first aid procedures. Or do I mean last aid? Whichever, perusing the official US Guide to Emergency Preparedness for Citizens should be less daunting than it was a year ago.

For Britons, it was probably too incomprehensibly American or too unbelievably scary to contemplate when it seemed there was an imminent threat. Inviting disaster. Bad form. Like mentioning the war to a German.

Or an Iraqi. It contained advice on how to prepare for a big emergency, including contingency plans for pets. Saving them, as opposed to eating them (in the short term, anyway). The disaster supply kit alone was enough to make you want to go bury your head in the desert and pretend you had never heard the words "weapons of mass destruction".

Now that everything is so much safer, perhaps it's time to take a professional look at the recommended mini-survival kit for the workplace in case the worst were to happen and a teensy bit of terrorism survived.

Water, medicine, tinned food and a can opener top the list of essentials, inevitably, but also included are some recommendations that seem a tad eccentric. Not only do you have to be able to lay your trembling hands on sunscreen, a compass, latex gloves and petroleum jelly (do not pause for a second to consider what the last two might prepare you for); but also recommended are moist towelettes, lip balm and that well-known everyday household essential: a tongue-depressor blade.

So how would we fare were we to find ourselves trapped in our departments with biological, chemical or nuclear war raging outside? Would we imagine it was some sort of rag-week stunt? Would secretaries be asked to communicate final endearments to spouses? And then to set up a working party to discuss procedures?

Best to discount preparedness for the nuclear option: it would be over so soon there would be no time to prepare for anything to prolong the inevitable. And who would want to if it meant listening to academic opinions for the last few minutes of one's life? On the other hand, this must be an excellent place to deal with a biological or chemical attack.

Was it not our esteemed scientific colleagues who developed those handy devices in the first place? No doubt they have considered the consequences of their inventions and are poised with counteractive measures should the worst happen. Presumably, they would spring into collective action, rapidly pooling knowledge and resources, and leap to the defence of their more vulnerable colleagues. Just like they always do.

But since preparedness is not something for which academics are renowned, except in the sense of always being poised to repudiate other people's ideas and proselytise their own, here are some survival tips, should disaster occur in working hours.

  • Run to the library and grab the largest book on nuclear physics. The science won't help, but the book may come in useful as a weapon to fend off rats, rabid dogs or fellow academics who have survived but gone bonkers.

  • (Of course, they may have been bonkers anyway, so give them the benefit of the doubt.)

  • Head for the science faculty. You might find the odd chemical suit or, if not, an odd chemist who could fashion some recreational drugs to see you through the panic, or see you off to Armageddon in good spirits.

  • Prepare a list of all the things you never said to snooty colleagues who have always got up your nose.

  • Prepare to eat your list if the whole thing turns out to be nothing but government propaganda after all.

Valerie Atkinson is department administrator at the University of York.

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