Are You Prepared?

By John Gilstrap

Last week, I had the honor of spending an hour or so with David Temple on his excellent podcast, The Thriller Zone. We talked about everything from the proper structure of a Martini to my approach to researching an writing my books. The timing of the interview had everything to do with the impending release of Blue Fire, the second entry in my new Victoria Emerson thriller series. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, this is a significant departure from other books I’ve written. It’s set in the aftermath of a nuclear war that lasted only eight hours and destroyed everything that we recognize as modern civilization. While hundreds of million people died in the holocaust, hundreds of millions survived. Among them is Victoria Emerson and her family. Victoria is a natural leader who unwittingly and unknowingly becomes the leader of people turn to in order to stitch society back together.

Like its predecessor in the series, Crimson Phoenix, Blue Fire imagines a world where precious few are prepared to last even a few days without supermarkets, gasoline, or electricity. As panic blooms, those who are even moderately prepared will sooner or later have to interact with those who are not. One needn’t think past the furious fight over hand sanitizer and paper products in the early days of the pandemic to imagine what would happen if life-saving medications and drinking water became scarce.

During the podcast, David Temple asked me how much my research for the series affected my own worldview on matters of survival. As we discussed this, I realized that I had stumbled upon the topic for my next Killzone post.

A Plan is the Antidote to Panic

My research didn’t change my outlook as much as it did reinforce it. I have always believed in preparedness, from filled and charged fire extinguishers and operable smoke detectors to proper flammable liquid storage to really good locks on the doors. My freezers hold weeks’ worth of food, and the emergency generator should ensure that it doesn’t crap out when I need it most. I carry a trauma kit in my car–two of them, actually, but that’s a long story–and I’m blessed to know how to use it. (Alas, if I’m the one who needs the treatment, things get a little complicated.)

Being prepared at home is easy. It just requires a little forethought and some inexpensive purchases. The real exposures we face every day are focused outside of the home. As crime soars and police departments contract, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the potential for bad things happening to us good people.

Now, I’m not gong to suggest that everyone wander around packing heat (though I don’t think it’s a bad idea if you can do so legally), but I do recommend that everybody focus on being aware of their surroundings and to work with their loved ones on some basic universally-applicable planning. Whether it’s an active shooter or an earthquake, a plan goes a long way toward staving off panic.

Trust Your Instincts

It’s unsettling how many victims of crime and even natural disasters testify after the fact that they kinda knew something was going to happen before it did, but for any number of reasons didn’t act on their instincts. That group on the corner that makes you nervous? Avoid them. If your decision hurts their feelings, that’s their problem, not yours.

When you walk into a café or a theater or any other place that feels like a firetrap it most likely feels that way because it is, indeed, a firetrap. Turn around and go somewhere else.

When a crowd feels wrong–people are yelling at each other, or people start pushing each other–leave. Don’t check it out, don’t play peacemaker. It ain’t your problem (yet) and you don’t want that to change. Every fight you walk away from before it starts is a victory.

Know Where Two Exits Are

This one has been instinctive for me for decades. I always know the way out of a place before I settle into it. When I stay at a hotel, not only do I know where the exits are, but I know how many doorways there are between my room and it, because zero visibility is a given in a structure fire.

In a restaurant or a movie theater or other public spaces, not only do I know where the exits are, but I also have a plan for which one to use. As a general rule, the main entrance is a mistake. If a fire breaks out, or some asshat opens up with a firearm, that’s where everyone else is going to go. People get crushed in the panic, and the logjam at the door presents a bad guy with the mother of all target opportunities. Back doors can be problematic, too, because of the ridiculous security locks that don’t open right away. While I understand the desire to not have customers sneak away without paying, I’m shocked that they are legal. Even fifteen seconds is an eternity when fire is banking down on you.

Remember: In a pinch, glass breaks and drywall is frangible. “Exit” doesn’t necessarily equate to “door”.

Take The Buds Out Of Your Ears And Keep Your Head Up

Whether it’s a lion in the Serengeti or a mugger in a mall parking lot, predators like easy prey. Security experts all agree that one of the best ways to keep the focus off of you is to remain fully in the moment and aware of your surroundings. Instead of reading texts while you walk, or instead of listening to a podcast, walk with your head up and notice things. That simple action alone may be enough to make a potential attacker turn his attention to a different victim–probably one who’s reading texts while listening to a podcast.

A couple of Christmases ago, I was leaving a mall store on my way to my car. It was nighttime, and there weren’t many people around except for a young lady walking ahead of me. It was cold, and I wanted to get to my car, so I was walking faster than she and the distance between us closed. I was still probably ten yards behind her when she whirled and said quite loudly, “You’re making me nervous. Would you mind not passing me?”

A bit stunned, I saw right away that she had every reason to be unnerved. I apologized and did my best to reassure her that I was not a threat–but of course that’s exactly what a bad guy would say. I stood still and let her get a ten-second head start and then walked on more slowly. Good for her!

That scene–or one very similar to it–made into one of my books.

Better to Die On The Street Than Get Shoved Into The Car

That dismal bit of advice is exactly what I taught my son when he was little, during the stranger-danger years. Kick, scream, bite, throw elbows and tear out eyes when someone grabs you. Once someone places hands on you, they have declared their intent to commit a capital crime against you. Make them pay. The worst they can do is kill you, and that’s what they’re likely intending to do anyway.

Your single goal in that moment should be to end the fight. If you can do it by running away, that’s a win. You don’t have to render the attacker unconscious, you just have get enough distance between you to either get to safety or to make him change his mind.

Oh, Yeah. This Is A Blog About Writing . . .

I’m not sure if this really long post did anything to help people develop their writing skills, but I’m hoping there is some relevance to character development. Your fictional creations don’t have to have exceptional skills to survive in a crisis. They don’t need to have freezers full of food (though it’s not a bad idea), and they don’t have to learn ground fighting skills (again, not a bad idea). All they need to do is keep their head about them.


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

36 thoughts on “Are You Prepared?

  1. Awesome post for various reasons, Sir…

    If I might add to the list – while keeping your wits about you on the street, don’t make direct eye contact with folks who give you the bad-actor-vibe… use the peripheral vision to keep an eye on their actions and movements.

    My day job is with the big safety-net hospital here in Atlanta, and one morning on the way in from the parking deck, right outside the ER walk-in entry, I noticed a guy with a clear plastic bag walking in my general direction. As I turned to head to the main entry, he began “drifting” more towards my intended path of travel, and when he assumed I would be pinned against a planter along the sidewalk, reached back and started to swing – all of this caught from the “corner of my eye.”

    Remembering that the best defense can be a hasty withdrawal, and that a bruised ego heals quicker than broken bones, I beat-feat up the street, but still received a glancing blow across the shoulders…

    Naturally, I reported this to the Security Team, and as I filled out the report a few minutes later, in came someone else who’d “met” this guy, and was bloodied from the encounter.

    They eventually found, arrested, and convicted this assailant.

    The old adage “Keep your head on a swivel” is an old adage for a reason…

    Thanks for letting me jump in here…

    • I’m glad they got the guy. Those random punch-and-run attacks are more common than we’d like to believe. I’m not sure I agree about not making eye contact. You don’t want to give the stink eye, but a friendly good-morning nod let’s him know that you’re ware of his presence.

      • Yes that’s 2 interesting view points–because I thought when I’ve taken safety/security classes that they tell you when you’re walking in the parking lot toward your car, etc. to MAKE eye contact with people to let them know you are aware of your surroundings & not an easy target.

  2. You bet this is a blog about writing. Seeing things others miss is the writer’s perpetual quest. Training ourselves to be alert to threats gives that quest urgency and significance.

  3. Terrific advice, John. I raised my children (and now my grandchild) on those same points, which should be taught in schools. I add only one thing: if for some reason you are unable to walk (or run) away from a situation, get your retaliation in first.

    Re: the young lady you were “overtaking”…an alternative for her might have been to boldly reverse course, walk back towards the mall and say something like “Oops! Forgot to buy ammunition!” (or something like that) as she passed you.

    I need to get up to speed on your new series. I’m usually not much for dystopian settings which seem to always devolve into some sort of woke sludge, but yours sounds very true to life. I can’t wait to jump in. Thanks!

  4. Interesting timing, Brother G. Just yesterday we purchased a heavy-duty, dual-fuel generator (the ground has been known to shake a bit out here, and power grids take a nap from time to time). So ready on that score.

    As for awareness when on the outside, the Marines call it being ”left of bang”, something you’ve got to be now in any metropolitan area.

  5. 30 years of living in Florida teaches you to be prepared–or it should. Amazing how many people crowded (and depleted) the stores two days before a hurricane was predicted. Up here in the mountains, power outages are common enough to warrant taking those same precautions year-round. (Although no hurricane shutters.)

  6. Good advice, John. If anything, I may swing into the over-prepared camp. I’ve researched too many horror stories to let some scumbag get the jump on me. We’ve even planned what to do in case of home invasion. Sharing the plan publicly would be foolish. 😉

    Last November, I’d been a panelist at a writers’ conference. The hotel stuck me in a desolate wing on ground level. Outside the back door of my room was a dark dirt alleyway and swamp — perfect place for a murder. And the back door was made of glass with a flimsy lock. It wouldn’t take much to gain entry. On the second night of my stay, I was telling a friend about this car idling outside my room at 2 a.m. and she said the hotel told her they never put women staying alone in that wing. I was alone! Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much.

  7. Great advice, John. After I was approached numerous times by people asking for money, my husband asked me to stop taking a purse when I went out. I just carry a credit card and my phone in a pocket and my keys on a lanyard around my neck.

    I still listen to podcasts or audiobooks when I’m out running, but I almost always go to a well-attended park where there are lots of walkers and joggers. I no longer run on the trails through the woods. It can get a little lonely back there.

  8. Excellent post. Not to mention I had no idea about this new series, and it sounds awesome. Immediately bought Crimson Phoenix. Excited to read it.

  9. Wow. I finally get to add some expert advise on the blog today. Hope it’s about writing in future.

    I see a lot of advice I give out, in my OH&S career. Reminds me, that I find myself talking more in our “Safety Moments” about the hazards outside of work. COVID, besides other things, has taken a toll on the workforce and progress. I manage safety in a high-hazard industrial setting – but the risk of getting hurt on the job is now far lower than off-duty.

    People need to remain calm – that’s my suggestion for everyone. Even if you’re not grounded in a disaster, you must try to keep your head on straight. Yes, preparation is key, but cooler heads will prevail when given the chance. Too often panic and excite adds to the injury tolls.

    • I agree about remaining calm. To that I will add “and decisive.” Commit to a path and follow it. As I used to teach people, “Walk, don’t run to the nearest exit, but for your own safety, if I’m behind you, walk faster than me.”

  10. If I remember right, John, “Always Be Prepared” is the Boy Scout motto. Not that I was ever a Boy Scout, but I was a police officer and still practice things learned early in that game. Always back into a parking stall. Never stand in front of a door when knocking. Keep your hands free when talking to someone and use the quarter-point fighting stance. Oh, and trust your gut.

  11. Great post, John, filled with lots of important information. I always try to have good situational awareness. Definitely trust your instincts and be ready to cross the street, turn around, etc. Also, I always make sure to take my smart phone and ID if I’m out on a walk, in case there’s a problem and I need to call 911 in the event of an emergency I encounter while out.

  12. Great post.
    Trust Your Instincts – I am a part time pizza driver after being a long time, full time driver in what “Game Piece Pizza” calls “high risk neighborhoods.” One of the things I teach the newbies. Trust your instincts. If it feels wrong, it is. Get out and find out another day. That is your fear/flight response. Several million years ago the fear/flight response told your distant relative not to pet the big toother kitty. You are here today because of that.

  13. Eldest daughter, now a college student. Certified in advanced first aid, rescue oxygen, and as a life guard. Graduate from ‘Armed intruder response for religious and educational institutions.’ Sadly, she has had to take the lead in an active shooter situation. She carries a first aid kit in her book bag and has one, maybe two in her car. She will be getting a copy of today’s post.

  14. Amen, Brother Grisham, amen. I live alone with family members over an hour away by car. One thing people like me don’t think of is giving your family permission not to rescue you. (A favorite plot in dystopian fiction.) If the world falls apart, I doubt my BIL or brother could reach me, but I’m giving them a guilt-free pass not to even try. I know you love me, but let me go and take care of your own family. That’s my wish if this happens.

    And in less depressing news, I have a blog article I reprint every few years on writer emergency preparedness including a bug-out bag for your profession. If anyone sees a suggestion or change I missed, please let me know. It’s about time for a rewrite and reprint since it’s been several years.

  15. Great post, John!

    We are involved with a group of folks who are getting some incident and personal defense training. Our trainer has military experience, worked for the DHS as a federal officer, and has medical/trauma experience. He can take a bad guy down just by grabbing his thumb. 🙂 His training includes much of what’s in this post.

    One thing I’ve been guilty of in the past (but no more) is not paying attention to my surroundings. Also, of trying to be too nice to strangers instead of keeping an eye on them.

    I do not agree with “no eye contact”. I want the person who’s making me nervous to know that I am watching, not afraid, and can describe him/her to the police.

    My husband and I both carry concealed, and we are in the process of making a list of survival stuff we think we might need “someday”. So, all this to say, this post is going to my “keep” file.

  16.! The firearms training I attend regularly teaches the five color codes of mental awareness. The number of people in code white (think texting while walking down the street) is incredible now that I know to watch for them… and not be one of them. The best way to avoid danger is to be constantly aware there could be danger. Thank you!

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