Essential Survival Tools You Already Have

Phyllis Nissila


public domain photo plane into towerMany in the United States who read this can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when the twin World Trade Center towers in New York were hit by terrorists on September 11, 2001.

I was getting ready for work and listening to the morning news on television. I heard the alert, turned my attention to the set, and my world tunneled to an airplane piercing the second tower, flames and smoke billowing in the wake of the plane that had already crashed into the first.

For a few minutes all other thought ceased as replay after replay wedged that plane deeper into my emerging awareness of the unspeakable.

As the numb of immediate shock began to wear off, other thoughts crowded in: was this an attack? Was anybody I knew visiting Manhattan?  What was going to happen next?

I pictured the people on the plane in stunned disbelief as the plane descended and aligned with the skyscraper.

I pictured what it must have been like to be on the inside of the first tower looking up suddenly to the noise of—an airplane taking up half the sky rumbling straight toward the window on the other side of my desk, building shaking, the coffee in my cup spilling over…

As I continued to watch the events of that terrible day unfold, I wondered how I would react. I wondered if I would crack into action like the first responders I watched on the film footage running to immediate aid; if I would stand as if frozen in the middle of the street staring up at the mushrooming smoke and ash as others all around ran for their lives; or if I would panic, as did a few who crumpled on the sidewalk, screaming, appearing to fight off those trying to help them even though all were out of immediate danger.

How could I know? Could I learn? Prepare?


Survival specialist John Leach has come up with what he calls “The Theory of 10-80-10.” After studying numerous catastrophes and the response of the people in those catastrophes, Leach noticed that about 10 percent of us will handle a crisis “in a relatively calm and rational state of mind.” These are the survivors. Such people set aside emotions, assess the situation, prioritize, plan, and act.

The next group, about 80 percent, will “quite simply be stunned and bewildered,” Leach says (a lot like me, at first, that fateful morning). Thinking becomes difficult, we may behave in a mechanical nature, become numb or lethargic, stare straight ahead, and barely hear the people around us. The 80 percent will turn into “statues,” as he puts it, at least for the first moments of a crisis. The key to survival for this group, he says, is to recover quickly from “brainlock or analysis paralysis.” Fortunately, most of us do.

The remaining 10 percent, however, do not fare well at all. According to Leach, they “lose control […] freak out and can’t pull themselves together.” They might become hysterical and in the end perish though they might be very close to surviving. [1]

Not very good odds as danger ramps up in a darkening world.


After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, I decided, like many Americans, I’m sure, to enact a new view of my world. Not in a bad or paranoid sense, but in a more cautious sense.

For one, I decided to simply be more aware of my surroundings. A few days after the tragedy, for example, I attended a teacher’s workshop in an area hotel conference room. I chose a seat near the back exit but to the far side. Just in case. I also decided it was time to take all the common sense advice I’d heard about safety in cars and in parking lots, and I picked up a few books about survival and how to prepare for and respond to crises.

But I also determined that I would resist the temptation to panic. Life as I knew it would continue as much as possible, if I could affect this, because a state of panic or true paranoia is a very vulnerable “place” to be in, mentally and emotionally. We become more like the endangered 10 percent, more apt to perish than to plan. It’s bad for us personally but also as a populace.

Succumbing to mass panic puts us in another sort of danger: we are much easier to exploit by those who never let a good crisis go to waste and who would otherwise not have the power to enact their own plans, and not necessarily good plans.

And I made another resolve. Perhaps I could somehow help others under my influence, my students in particular, to be more aware. I decided to infuse survival information, perspectives, and techniques into the classes I teach, where applicable. My favorite application is a terms-end wrap up activity I teach in my Effective Learning (EL115) classes. I call it “Survival in Bloom’s Desert.”

One of the last articles we study in EL115, a class that covers study and test-taking skills, theories of learning and memory, and a dozen other topics, is a description of the process of thinking from first observations to critical analysis called “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” [2]

desertMy students, in teams, are given this scenario: their tourist van has conked out in the middle of a desert in the middle of nowhere. All electronic gadgetry has fried (perhaps because of a solar flare). Using the “key words” of Bloom’s Taxonomy at each “level” of thought from level 1, recalling known information (“identifies,” “describes,” and “labels”) to level 6, evaluative thinking (“explains,” “justifies,” and “appraises”), students must plan their survival and then critique it. I throw in a creative challenge: they must devise a survival tool of some sort from the contents of their backpacks, pockets, purses, etc.

Invariably, several students in these community college classes are ex-military, and others have experience in first responder type jobs or in volunteer activities, so they have some expertise already. But all of the students usually come up with good survival methods and techniques; some even surprise themselves with what they know or can devise.

Although all of us, teacher included, learn some tried, some new, and some highly creative ways to survive such a crisis, my take-away lesson for the students is not so much about the methods and materials as it is about the mind.

What I want my students to remember about the Survival in Bloom’s Desert activity and to take into the rest of their lives is the power of the brain as our first and best tool in any crisis situation.

Few of us are survival experts but all of us possess valuable and useful information from our previous education, experience, and training in whatever realm in which we live and work. And we have the power of systematic thought, or as systematic as we can be in a crisis situation.

And now, according to the research of at least one survival expert, we have the additional knowledge of three choices when the unthinkable occurs: we can freeze (like me, at first, on 9-11), ‘flee” (panic and perish), or figure it out (survive), to paraphrase Leach’s 10-80-10 theory unless, of course, we are incapacitated in some way.

And then I tell my students I hope they will never have to use this information; I hope the world turns in a kinder, gentler direction…


9937863-palms-lifted-up-praying-against-black-backgroundBut there is one more “tool” always available to us.

I love to read those Reader’s Digest survival stories in which an individual faces incredible odds and survives either alone or with the help of others. Invariably, I notice that in some form or fashion, in most of the stories, the person in crisis utters some variation of the following: “God, help me!”

No other mention of spiritual response may occur in the story. It may arise from past, current, or even a suddenly-found faith in a Higher Power Who might DO something! But there it is. And, invariably, I notice the plea comes right before some key breakthrough in thought, word, action, circumstance, or “coincidence” that provides the turning point in the survival tale turning it from a tragedy to a triumph.

At the very least, turning to God, too, can’t hurt.


crash-landing-63011_640But when I first read the book from which I quoted the Leach research, The Survivor’s Club, by Ben Sherwood, I was tempted to be depressed. The demographic least likely to survive situations such as a plane crash, or other situations requiring youth, maleness, agility, fitness and the like (read: most crises), is basically my demographic: “older women” with, shall we put it, extra poundage. And Sherwood didn’t even mention the occasional “arthritic knee,” the need for bifocals to read all those “Danger,” “Warning,” and “What to do in Case of an Emergency” signs and brochures, and, ah, other issues which we’ll just leave at that.

As I kept reading, I gleaned, chapter after chapter, that it is really advisable, in the survivor trade, if at all possible, to be a buff young dude.

However, and this is where I hope I have given YOU hope—you of the “older, larger woman” group, or the “younger but infirm in some way group,” or the “mom with two little kids in tow group,” or the “pregnant mom group,” or even the “young, fit male whose expertise is not necessarily in the survival arena group”—that surviving  a crisis may be more of a possibility than you think because each of us is equipped with brains, more resources than we might realize, and faith in God, if not firmly entrenched, available.

And besides, you would be surprised what you can fish out of your pockets, purse, wallet, or backpack that would be mighty useful in a variety of crisis situations.

Any sort of obvious items such as drinks, food, or actual tools are, of course, valuable. However, on the more creative side, a tube of lipstick is a good writing, marking, or “greasing” tool. Paper money, if nothing else, can help start a fire. Any type of cloth if big enough can shield one from the sun or fallout of some kind. Credit and debit cards are good scrapers, mini shovels, markers, and wedging devices. Gum is an adhesive. Even a copy of Mr. Sherwood’s book (or that math or literature textbook) is useful as a head cover, additional fire starter, or part of a “step stool” of stackable texts if you have several.

And, of course, if someone possesses and actually understands the multiple uses forSwiss Army penknife something like a Swiss Army penknife, simply follow him/her and do whatever he/she says. (Just a little Swiss Army penknife humor, there.)

Oh. And one more thing: keep that sense of humor on standby. It does wonders to raise the spirits.


[1] Leach, John. Survival Psychology, as quoted in Sherwood, Ben, The Survivor’s Club, Grand Central Publishing, 2009. 47-48.

[2] “Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains,” Benjamin Bloom

Images from the public domain

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4 Responses to Essential Survival Tools You Already Have

  1. Carl Gordon says:

    It was the very first day of preschool for my young daughter and we were getting ready for school. Ex husband called saying to hurry up and turn on the T.V. all stations were showing the same surreal footage. His older brother is NYPD, sister a Long Island nurse, friends who work “in the city”. he had not yet been able to reach anyone. We discussed keeping our daughter home, were we under attack? Was the west coast affected? We didn’t know. I stopped to pray and felt the distinct peace of the Holy Spirit and felt it was ok to take daughter to school, so I did.

    If the U.S. was under attack, where would we have gone? the Bible says there is only safety in the Lord, (Psalm 4:8) Since that time have had persistent ideas to store up practical things: first aid supplies, water purification, etc. Live simply and live prepared, Spirit, soul and body,

    Loved reading these great ideas and practical reminders, especially the idea that “All who call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved.” Shalom in Jesus.


  2. pnissila says:

    Wow, Cathy! As it turned out, although one of my brothers did occasionally conduct seminars for his company in one of the towers, he wasn’t there at that time. Several colleagues spent a very nervous day awaiting news of their families in NY and NJ who, fortunately, turned out be be okay.

    Yes, I imagine Italy, specifically, Rome, Italy, is a very interesting place to be these days for ex-Catholics ;).


  3. Cathy says:

    Good New! For the”Old Fat Dames”……we have a CHANCE! HaHa

    9-11 that Infamous Day!
    My brother was completing his weekly commute from Ohio to Manhattan. He landed in New Jersey and rented a car and drove back to Ohio. Used his brain!
    My husband deboarded his plane on the Tarmack, in the Mid West, then saw what was happening on the Airport TV!
    My cousin, was living in a Highrise in Manhattan, that was damaged, all the Emergency Lights went off. She fell on the staircase and broke her back and a Janitor rescued her and got her to a hospital! She had to see s Phyciatrist for PTSS after the event and when healed moved to Venice, Italy!

    Now me moving to Italy…..NO WAY…..not an excatholic!
    Now that I have been given the Spiritual Rebirth, I can now receive Christs Promises.
    He will Not Leave me or Forsake me! Amen

    Sister in Christ,


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