What's that all about, then?

In the summer of 2004, the UK government printed a 22-page booklet called "Preparing for Emergencies (What You Need to Know)", and sent a copy to every household in Britain, at a total cost of £8.3 million. According to the government, this was an attempt to get the general public to be more prepared in the event of an emergency (terror act, fire, locusts, new Celine Dion single, etc). Much like the publicity stunt of sending tanks to Heathrow Airport in February 2003, it seems designed to remind people that (a) there is a very serious terror threat right now, (b) we, the government, are doing what we can to keep you safe, and (c) you should trust us and vote for us, as we are the only thing standing between you and hordes of scary terrorists with bombs.

What's in it?

"You might think it is very unlikely that you will ever be affected by, for example, a fire, terrorist attack or natural disaster. But to help people make sensible plans, just in case, we have worked closely with experts to bring together sensible, commonsense advice. There are cynics who believe they know it all and therefore poke fun at the idea of giving practical and down to earth advice. I make no apology for that. It has to be down to earth, common sense and practical." - David Blunkett.

Yes, I'm a cynic, but I'm all for practical and down to earth advice. Sadly, this booklet is incredibly patronising, overly simplistic, and contains nothing that you wouldn't be able to figure out given a few seconds' thought. Let's take a look at some of the advice:

  • What do you do if your house catches fire? "Get out, stay out, and call 999" - as opposed to leaping into the flames and calling the Gay Xchange hotline
  • What if there is a chemical, biological, or radiological incident/attack? "Move away from the immediate source of danger" - and not, say, towards it
  • What about terrorists? How do we spot them? "Terrorists need... a place to live. Are you suspicious of any tenants or guests?" - definitely, my downstairs neighbours make a lot of noise - maybe they're covering the sounds of bomb-making activity?
  • Any general emergency advice? "Go inside a safe building" - fair enough, that makes sense - "Of course, there are always particular occasions when you should not "go in" to a building, for example if there is a fire" - unless this conflicts with the First or Second Law

We should not "go in" to a building? Why does "go in" get quotation marks? Is it some slang term, some strange new usage of the words "go" and "in"? If we don't "go in" to a "building", should "we" stay "outside" or "go in" to a "different" "building"? What's the difference between a building and a "building"? The booklet says nothing about this. It does, however, use the catchy "GO IN, STAY IN, TUNE IN" slogan which is apparently "recognised and used around the world". The main thrust of this is - and I hope I'm not making this too difficult for you - in the event of a general emergency, go in (to a safe place, like your house, unless it's on fire, or there are terrorists inside, or you are a terrorist), stay in (until the nice man tells you it's safe again, or if it catches fire, or if terrorists come in, or if you feel like becoming a terrorist), and tune in (to any TV station, unless the TV is on fire, or has been taken over by terrorists broadcasting propaganda, or if you think you might be using it in a terroristic fashion). Go in, stay in, tune in - well, I guess everything's okay now... To be fair, there are also 2 pages on (extremely) simple first aid, but it's nothing you shouldn't already know.

One section of the booklet advises that it is always useful to have supplies of bottled water and tinned food, just in case. Luckily, the good people at Cambridge Water are now offering bottled water for sale (with a shelf life of 2 years) to any panicking customers, at a very reasonable £2.44 for 12 litres (plus £10 delivery). As yet, there is no word from any tinned food companies offering a similar deal, so they obviously want us all to starve to death when the apocalypse comes.

You can find the full text of the booklet at www.preparingforemergencies.gov.uk, or www.pfe.gov.uk, where you can also order your own copy if you didn't get one in the post. The website has a really good page of links to further information at www.pfe.gov.uk/furtherinfo/index.htm, including phone numbers, health and first aid information, and lots of other advice links. If you need to know anything, you'd be much better off going there.

The site also has information on the production of the booklet - apparently, it has been "developed in response to the public demand for more information", and their focus group research shows that "this is what people want to know". Very noble, although sadly it fails to provide anything approaching information, and will largely leave the public no better informed than they were before. It's all simple and vague enough to not cause any specific panic, but filled with enough words like "terrorist", "emergency", "bomb", "attack", and "contaminate" so as to instill general unease in anyone who reads it. I think if most people were near a bomb explosion or chemical attack, they would move away of their own accord, without having to be told by a booklet. Similarly, if your house catches fire, your first instinct is going to be "I think I will leave this burning building". But I suppose that's just the way it works now, in these times of vague security alerts, and dire warnings of impending attacks that we must watch out for, while remembering to stay calm and carry on as normal (otherwise the terrorists have blah blah blah). And don't forget, "the Government has a comprehensive programme of work to improve the response to a range of disruptive emergencies that might affect the UK, not only terrorism." So that's all right, then. Be frightened. But not too frightened. We are looking after you. We love you. Vote for us, and show that you love us too.

Let the spoofing begin

In yet another example of the government's ability to mess up even the simplest IT project, they somehow neglected to register the www.preparingforemergencies.co.uk domain. A York University student snapped it up, and put up a (very) mildly amusing parody site, ostensibly from the "Department of Vague Paranoia", explaining what to do in the event of an attack by zombies, zombie pirates, aliens, killer robots, and so on. Within 12 hours, the student received a "firmly worded" email from the Cabinet Office, asking that he remove the site immediately, in case - get this - the public were "confused". You couldn't make it up, could you?

At the time of writing, the spoof site is still up. Reports that thousands of people have become confused and are even now removing the heads of suspected zombies are, sadly, completely false.

It can't be all bad, surely?

No, it's not. The 2 pages of first aid advice might be useful if you know absolutely nothing about first aid, particularly the bits about bleeding and burns. There is a page of phone numbers at the back, although you have to fill them in yourself - they've done 4 for you already including, helpfully, 999. The website is actually useful, though that still doesn't make the booklet better.

Other good points are: it's free, you can get it in many languages, braille, audio tape (tape? what the hell is a tape?), and large print. It's printed on recycled paper. Er... did I mention that it's free?

The best thing about it is that it's nowhere near as terrifying as the "Protect and Survive" booklet showing you what to do in the event of a nuclear attack (go to www.cybertrn.demon.co.uk/atomic/main.htm to read it), or the television adverts on the same subject. They just made me want to kill myself. Possibly as a reaction to the absolute paranoia that swept the nation when that booklet was released, this one is completely toothless and unthreatening (while still reminding you that Bad Things could still happen, but don't worry, we'll sort it out for you). At least "Protect and Survive" gave you tangible things to do, like building a fallout shelter in your house - although they admitted that even that was fairly pointless, and that the best way to survive a nuclear attack was to be in a different country when it happens.

However, this new, vague, £8.3 million piece of fluff is completely useless, unless of course you are caught in the middle of a terrorist attack without any toilet paper. But remember to take the staples out first.