Anyone who has met me, ever, knows I am not a morning person. I'm also incredibly difficult to wake up. That being said, I have never jumped out of bed so fast as the first time the hostel fire alarm went off in the night. Before I could nearly comprehend what was happening, I was out my door, into the main hostel, and ready for whatever emergency awaited. I also realized as I quite literally ran into one of my staff that I hadn't grabbed my glasses and was fairly blind. Step 1 in an emergency: make sure you can see.
That particular emergency turned out to be a faulty smoke detector. My initial adrenaline from the first sounding was quickly turning into cranky irritation after it went off for the 3rd time in an hour, just begging me to smash it with a baseball bat. Luckily logic and reason took over, and I calmly removed it from the ceiling, lest an "I'm sorry, you did WHAT?" phone call from the boss man that would surely follow the next day.
After finally fixing the situation, my staff and I were reflecting on the events of the past hour. I thanked one of them for thinking quickly and passing out ear plugs to everyone, and we all laughed about another who had been in the shower and came out in a bright pink towel. As he joined the rest to go downstairs, he realized being in a towel wasn't going to work, and quickly threw on pants. However, one of the others simply saw the towel now laying on the floor, and said he had pictured him running through the hostel naked, throwing guests over his shoulder and running them to safety. Ridiculous, but hilarious. I was mostly just impressed that every single one of my staff jumped up as quickly as I did to respond to what could have been a true emergency.
So yes, all was well again, but I still had a hard time falling asleep. My mind started wandering, picturing real-life hostel emergencies and wondering if I'd really be prepared to handle them. I had been trained in emergency procedures; I knew where the fire extinguishers were, how to shut off the gas, and other 'You must know this should you ever (highly unlikely) need it' valuable pieces of information. But if push came to shove, would I remember it all? In the heat of the moment (literally), would I have known what to do had I found half the hostel on fire instead of 20 irritated guests awoken from their peaceful dorm slumber? Does such a thing as peaceful dorm slumber even exist? Wait, never mind. That's another blog...
This past week I came to Christchurch, New Zealand. A city pushed into the media after two horrible earthquakes destroyed almost everything. It's been nearly 2 and a half years since the second, more destructive one hit, and the city is still trying to fill in the gaps. I stayed at Around the World Backpackers and had the chance to speak with owners Lee and Geri about the earthquakes, the hostel, and how everything unfolded. They were extremely lucky that they had almost no damage and nobody got hurt. However, speaking with them made me realize just how many things you may not think about ahead of time, should a natural disaster happen in your area.
Neither of them were in the hostel when the earthquake struck, but were able to get there that day. This did not come easy, as the entire city was gridlocked with traffic, crumbling buildings, and a bit of chaos. Lee said after the first earthquake, he had a habit of always keeping his petrol tank at least half full. Naturally, this was the one day he hadn't done that, and was on empty. His boat did have petrol, but required him hand-pumping 70 liters of fuel into his car. Once he made it to the hostel, he was relieved to find everything and everyone ok, but there were still issues such as a lack of water. This caused problems not just for drinking, but sanitation.
Though they were able to stay open for the night, they were required to evacuate the next day. With some quick thinking, Lee stuck a note on the front door for the Urban Search & Rescue team on how to get ahold of him. He knew that they would be required to search the entire building. If they couldn't get in by legal means, they would simply smash a window in order to enter. My first thought was 'Oh, broken window. Bummer.' Unfortunately, looting had already begun and would have been a serious threat to a building appearing abandoned with a smashed window. Just one of the many things I never thought about in dealing with some sort of disaster.
Which leads me to the question: If a natural disaster or emergency of any sort happened, would you be ready? Something like an earthquake, tornado, or hurricane can strike suddenly, without warning, and be violent. It is essential to have a plan in place so that the manager and volunteer staff know what to do if a disaster strikes. For simplicity purposes, I am going to refer below to earthquakes, but the same type of precautions should be taken and adjusted for whatever situation or environment your hostel is in.
One step in preparing for an earthquake is identifying potential disasters and hazards. Fixing these ahead of time can reduce the risk of injury or death if an earthquake strikes. Some examples include fastening shelves to walls and storing pesticides, chemicals, and other flammable liquids securely and away from people. You may need to think outside the box a bit, such as considering your decor. Hang mirrors or heavy pictures away from beds, couches, or other places people sit, and choose lighter objects such as posters above these areas.
Identifying safe places for during and after an earthquake is also important. Doorways and stairwells are generally safest, but may not be reachable. Steal bunk beds also make very safe areas, as well as hiding under large, solid furniture such as a heavy wooden table. Generally inside walls, rooms, and anywhere away from glass and windows will keep you as safe as possible. Make sure you have extra supplies on hand as well. Flashlights with extra batteries, a portable battery-operated radio, a first aid kit, and emergency food and water.
A heavy wooden table, like this one at Around the World, could be used as an earthquake shelter
If you are the owner, educate yourself, your manager and your volunteer staff on responding to an emergency. Become trained in first aid and CPR. and consider paying for your manager to become trained in both of these as well. It is a valuable investment in your business, and though unlikely to be used, it could save lives. Especially if you are unlikely to be at the hostel when a disaster happens. Be sure your manager is trained in all emergency procedures, such as where to turn off the water, gas, and electricity. Train volunteer staff in the basic emergency procedures as well. They should at least know where items like fire extinguishers and emergency flashlights are, and how to call your local emergency number. Remember that many of your volunteers will be from other countries. They may never think to ask what the number is; be sure you have informed them during training.
Have an emergency communication plan. If you are the owner of the hostel and not currently there when a disaster hits, it may be difficult for you to get there or be able to contact your manager. This makes it extremely important to have a plan in place before anything happens, and the manager knows what to do in your absence. If you are the manager, consider having a copy of your current guest list and check ins for the day printed each morning. Without power, you will not be able to access your front desk system. In a very serious situation, this could help with locating missing people as well as deal with phone calls from parents abroad looking for their children.
Remember that as the owner or manager, your primary responsibility is your guests' safety. During any disaster it's important for you to stay calm to take authority over the situation. Having a solid understanding of what to do will help this. It is especially important that you take charge when a fire alarm goes off, as the majority of your guests may ignore it as a false alarm. If it is indeed an emergency, you will need to systematically check the entire building for guests. This can be quite a task for a larger hostel, so immediately make a plan with your staff to do this as quickly as possible.
The 'during' of a disaster is scary, but the immediate time after can be most dangerous. Many guests will be looking towards you and your volunteers for guidance, but some may panic. Taking control of the situation is in the best interest of everyone's safety. For instance, after an earthquake, many people want to get out of the building. This can actually be more dangerous, as structural damage to buildings can cause bricks, glass and other debris to be falling from overhead.
There are a lot of factors to think about with natural disasters and other emergencies. While you will never be able to prepare for everything, having training and plans in place can quite literally be the difference between life and death. It's easy to think 'that will never happen to us', but you just never know. A week before I came to Queenstown, one of the major iconic backpacker bars completely burned down. A new fryer installed in the restaurant below caught fire and the whole building went up. They were extremely lucky that no one was in either building when it happened, but it was just another reminder that potential emergencies are not something you should take lightly.
Listening to Lee and Geri talk about the earthquake and the city was eye-opening, sad, and also inspirational. They said they saw the worst of people, such as those looting, and the best of people, such as those going street to street checking on strangers and trying to help. However, I nearly had tears in my eyes listening to them talk about that first night after it struck. They looked outside and said it was like ants coming out of the woodwork with people everywhere. They were one of the few places near them with both no damage, and electricity. People began flooding towards them, including elderly guests from nearby hotels. Many of them shaken up and some injured, they were taken into the hostel. Lee and Geri said they basically told all of their backpackers "Ok, if you're under 60, you're sleeping in the lounge tonight", and put up these elderly, stranded hotel guests in their dorm beds for the night. If that doesn't show the true spirit of hosteling and community, I'm not sure what does. Many thanks to Lee & Geri for not only a lovely stay, but also an important reminder to our role as ambassadors of community.
Have any of you dealt with a natural disaster before? What about an emergency such as a fire breaking out? How did you handle it, or how well did your manager and staff handle it if you were not there? This is a very serious topic for all hostel owners and managers. If you have any tips or advice from experience, please do not hesitate to share. Sign in and comment below.
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