In 2008 I left Oregon to attend college in Southern California. Two months later, I was A College Student’s Guide to Prepping, by Connie E. placed into one of the very situations I had been prepared for all my life: a natural disaster. In mid-November a wildfire started less than a mile from my campus that is nestled in the foothills of Santa Barbara. The fire started a few minutes after 5pm in the evening. Less than twenty minutes later the fire alarms went off. I was recovering from a knee injury at the time and was on crutches. As I limped out of my dorm, I was frustrated that someone had, once again, burned popcorn or some such item causing the alarms to sound. Because it didn’t even enter my head that there might be a real threat, I grabbed only my cell phone and keys. As I slowly hobbled down the stairs and turned to look behind the dorm, I saw the flames. Already twenty feet high, they looked as if they were right behind my dorm. All of a sudden, I realized that I had practically nothing with me. Dressed in the clothes I had worn to my chemistry lab that afternoon, I had no ID, no money, none of my prescription medications, no plan beyond following the directions of the college to go to the gym in the event of wildfire, and no time to go back to my room for anything else.
When I arrived in the gym there was mass panic. Students were frightened, annoyed, and hungry. Many had been about to eat dinner after a long day of classes, when the fire alarms sounded. Quickly, the school accounted for all the students, and tried to calm us down. Over the next hours, the gym filled with smoke so thick that we all had to lay down on the floor to breathe. Members of the Santa Barbara community were sheltering in place with us. A six week old infant was among those that sat in the smoke filled gym. The fire department decided it would be too dangerous to move the 800+ people out of the gym and decided to have us shelter in place. Surprisingly, after the initial panic everyone was calm. Groups of students formed prayer circles, or talked quietly. When I got up to use the bathroom, I could see ten foot flames just outside the gym windows. As the hours passed, news slowly trickled in that campus buildings, including dorms, had burned down. By the early hours of the morning the fire department had things under control enough to let the Red Cross bring hundreds of blankets, food, and water to the gym for us. I slept on a blanket on the gym floor between two friends for a few hours.
The next morning we were allowed outside for the first time. The campus was still smoldering. Many buildings were still intact, but the physics department, the math department, the psychology building, dorm housing for over sixty students, and some campus storage space was destroyed. Sadly, sixteen houses in the faculty housing development next to the school also burned down. Because I needed a prescription medication, I was able to go back to my dorm. I was also able to grab my ID and wallet at the same time. After that I went to stay with the family friend of a girl in my dorm. The next day my parents arranged for me to get on a plane back to Oregon. I returned home grateful to be alive and very thankful that no one on the campus had been injured.
By the time I arrived home, I had already had time to reflect on the things that I should have done differently. Most of the students at my college had never heard of a bug-out-bag, but I had. I should have known better. I, of all people shouldn’t have been caught off guard, but I was. When taken out of the relative safety of my prepping family, I had no idea how to be prepared as a college student. I had left my dorm room without ID, food, water, or any plan to get to safety.
Being prepared as a college student seems like a difficult task. You don’t have a permanent space to store supplies. You have to explain just about every item you own to your roommate. You are likely living in an urban environment, and money is much too tight to buy anything extra. Following the wildfire on campus, I was faced with these problems, but I was unwilling to be caught unprepared again. I went to the traditional prepper web sites and forums, but found they lacked any information about prepping as a college student. Because of the limitations of being a student living on a college campus, and the general lack of interesting of the college age group, it seemed hardly anyone had written on the subject. What follows is the preparations I made after the fire. They are especially tailored to a college lifestyle, and are meant for Get-out-of-dodge and short term local emergencies, not end of the world as we know it scenarios.
Have a basic bug-out-bag
My bag is just an extra backpack I had lying around. I filled it with a box of energy bars (remember I wasn’t planning for a long term emergency, just enough to get out of dodge of a natural disaster or to get me back home). I also included two liters of water in disposable water bottles. This is also where I stored my hiking emergency and first-aid kit when not hiking. I know doubling up like this is not ideal, but I already had about seventy dollars invested in this hiking kit, and I didn’t want to purchase all new supplies for a bug-out-bag. In this kit, was a basic first-aid kit, plus an emergency blanket, fire starter, and duct tape. I also had a pair of warm gloves, a hat, a rain poncho, an extra jacket, a change of underwear, and two extra pairs of socks. (I also made sure to include some feminine care products as well.) Basic hygiene items are important as well. I also kept a couple of twenty dollar bills in my bag. Most of these things I already had on hand, making putting this bag together not only quick, but also inexpensive.
Have a plan
If you had to evacuate your college dorm today, where would you go? Do you have family in the area? Do you have a close friend to stay with? If your family is far from you school would you have a plan to get home quickly? If you own a car, would you plan to drive home? Are you dependent on public transportation? These questions and more are something you need to have an answer for in the event of an emergency. When my school was evacuated I stayed with a friend of one of my dorm-mates. The next year when I had a car on campus, my plan became to drive home in the event of TEOTWAWKI scenario. This would have been a thousand mile trip, meaning getting out quickly would have been crucial to it working. As a college student your plan depends on many factors, but the key idea is: you need a plan!
Have a charged cell phone
I can not overstate how important this is. I have been guilty of having a poorly charged phone at times. One of those times was the night of the fire on my campus. I can’t tell you how many times I have let a friend borrow my cell phone after they failed to charge there’s. But this is probably one of the easiest things you can to do be prepared as a college student. All it will cost you is a little awareness. There is, of course, no guarantee that your cell phone will work in an emergency, however, that is something that is out of your control. What you can control is if your cell phone is fully charged.
Have a full gas tank
This may be the most expensive of all my recommendations, and know that it just might not be feasible for some students. However, if you are serious about the possibility of needing to get out of dodge, then the last thing you are going to want to do is find a gas station to stop at on the way out of town. Even if you are just getting out of the way of a wildfire you want to have a few hours of driving time before you need to stop for gas.
Take advantage of no cost/low cost training
After the fire my college started offering earthquake disaster training to students and staff. I learned how to identify unsafe buildings, how to clear a building, and how to use basic mechanical levers to move heavy debris off people. The next year I took a lifeguarding class for Physical Education credit, which not only taught me valuable first aid skills, but also gave me a professional-CPR certification, at no cost beyond my normal tuition. Many other colleges offer similar classes and training, at no cost to students.
Know what the potential hazards are
If you are like me, you may have gone to college in a very different location from where you were raised. Up until there was an actual wildfire on my campus, I never considered wildfires to be a threat, because of where I had grown up. Do a little research about the area you are moving to, that includes the crime rates, socioeconomic trends, the potential natural disasters.
If you are prepared, help your friends
Most people of college age think they are invincible. If you know better and have taken steps to be prepared, then talk to your friends about it. You will only help yourself in the event of emergency if you are surrounded by a group of people that also prepared. If you are having to take precious time and resources to help your friends then you are putting yourself at risk.