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Emergency Preparedness 101: Talking Duct Tape, Water, And Safety Pins With Unalaska First Responders

Maggie Nelson/KUCB


In the wake of recent tsunami warnings across Coastal Alaska, and especially here in Unalaska, where over half of the city's tsunami sirens aren't functioning, emergency preparedness has been on the minds of many Alaskans.

And while many people became amateur preppers—hoarding rolls of toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, and rice—as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, much of that "prep" work appears trivial when juxtaposed to losing running water, electricity, and shelter.

Sarah Spelsberg, a physician assistant at Iliuliuk Family and Health Services and a fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine said just having a few of the right items on hand during an emergency or natural disaster can be a game changer. 

"If I was running out of my house and I could take three things, I would take duct tape, my LifeStraw, and a safety pin," said Spelsberg. "Duct tape is my pride and joy."

Spelsberg has seen some pretty unforgiving natural disasters. After years of work with the San Miguel County Search and Rescue Team out of Colorado, and surviving two weeks without power or water in a condo high-rise in Florida after a hurricane, Spelsberg said, when it comes to emergency preparedness, it's best to stick to the basics, to consider your specific needs, and to focus on longevity.

"You have to think about what the needs are of everyone in your evacuation group," explained Spelsberg. "Do you have an elderly person? Do you have a baby? You need to have enough to at least make it two weeks in your kit." 

Spelsberg said she's got a hurricane kit back at home, in Florida. But in Unalaska, she keeps a smaller bag, one she can easily grab if she needs to evacuate her home in the case of a tsunami or earthquake.

Spelsberg's emergency pack is the size of a small hiking bag— that might be good for a day trip—but it's got everything from waterproof matches and a LifeStraw, to things as basic as emergency contact numbers in a plastic bag.

Patrick Shipp, Unalaska's fire chief and a former responder with a Texas emergency response team, says even the most simple of reactions and plans can go amiss during emergencies—when our minds and bodies go into shock. 

"One thing I've learned throughout my 30 years of this is every well-thought-out plan is good until the first shot is fired, and then it's going back to memory," said Shipp. "It's just flashcards that spin in your head: okay, I've seen this situation before, flip, flip, flip, I find that card and this is what we did—did that work? And then I flip it. Did that work, and what did we do to make that better? And it just happens in a split second." 

For Shipp, a plan is one of the most important parts of being prepared for an emergency, but without practice, he said, it's essentially useless.

"You need to have a plan that encompasses [if] we're not all together, where are we going to meet? How are we going to communicate?" said Shipp. "How do I know you're okay? How do you know I'm okay? And those plans need to be in place and you need to practice the plans. If you don't practice them, you just wasted your time."

When asked what three things he would grab if he had to run out of the door in an emergency, Shipp said his top three categories would be communication—like a radio or even a simple plan to call someone off island, dry clothing, and a food source. 

Spelsberg echoed his sentiments about communication and dry clothing--but for her, it all comes down to water, duct tape, and safety pins.

And Spelsberg has good reason to advocate for something as simple as a safety pin. She said, with a safety pin,  you can easily turn any clothing item into a sling or splint, which can create a much more comfortable situation, if not a life-saving one.

Spelsberg and Shipp both have a lot of faith in the community of Unalaska when it comes to prepping for emergencies—many people go camping and hiking regularly, and know how to navigate back country on the island. And as Shipp noted, the locals are well-versed in tsunami warnings and precautions.

Despite that, Shipp said it's best not to wait in the event of an emergency. If you see the signs of an approaching tsunami or the like, act, get your pack and head to higher ground as soon as you recognize the signs of danger.

Similarly, while the idea of packing for a natural disaster can be daunting, Spelsberg said not to be intimidated. She suggested looking online to find guides for packing your emergency bag, but also to reach out to her or other professionals versed in emergency preparedness for advice. 


Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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