Emergency Preparation: Self-Sufficiency vs Government Solutions

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably taken steps to prepare yourself and your loved ones for an emergency. This step is far from easy and can ultimately be an unnecessary expenditure of time and resources. Meanwhile, considering all the possible scenarios can be scary and overwhelming. While the odds of a disaster are low in the short term, they increase to near certainty over a few decades. For example, high-probability emergencies like sudden, severe weather events can require preparatory supplies and knowledge.

Historically, a disconnect has occurred between information from governmental agencies, what the public wants to hear, and what the media and politicians focus on. For instance, the executive branch spends a large amount of time focused on potential military threats. The President receives a daily brief containing reports from the CIA, Defense Department, NSA, FBI, Homeland Security, and others.

Remarkably, news coverage gives little attention to such issues compared to political squabbles, daily disasters, or celebrities. For example, the media focused more on Taylor Swift’s relationship during the 2024 Super Bowl than reporting on the deployment location of our U.S. fleets. Ultimately, our fleet locations have a far greater impact on your life than Taylor Swift. It’s easy to blame the media and wider conspiracies, but these stories are also driven by what people want to read. Most people just don’t interact with stories revolving around potential space-born threats, non-domestic terrorist attacks, and the current disposition of U.S. military forces.

Chemical and biological protection gear in an emergency
The list of possible threats seems to increase each year. Chemical and biological threats have been at the forefront for over a decade now. Photo credit: Wikimedia

When such stories make it to the front page, they tend not to do as well as a politically charged disaster or a celebrity scoop. While easy to blame politicians for making the situation worse, they represent their voters. Doesn’t it make sense for them to focus on the same issues as their voters? I don’t agree with this situation, but it’s easy to grasp without the need for purpose or conspiracy. Though perhaps more noticeable in the current digital age of instant information, it’s nothing new. Starting in the 1980s, I tracked our fleet’s (primarily our super aircraft carriers) current deployment locations as a reliable indicator of world trouble spots.

Individual Responsibility vs Governmental Reliance

Attitudes towards an emergency are largely divided into two categories along political or geographical lines: individual responsibility versus governmental dependence. Self-sufficiency expects individual readiness for disasters, while governmental solutions expect the government to prevent or provide support. Unfortunately for the latter, the U.S. Government historically expected personal responsibility during an emergency regardless of where you live or how you vote. As we can see, this often becomes an issue in public discourse. However, every administration has included such preparedness expectations in their official plans.

Having briefly tried to understand why this happens, let us make the issue more concrete. The disconnect between the two attitudes often becomes most visible in some specific scenarios. For example, the public and political response toward government agencies charged with quantifying threats when they deliver information that most in the public don’t want to hear. Let’s start with a few case studies.

T. K. Jones — 1982

T. K. Jones served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan. At the start of the Reagan presidency, the Cold War hovered at the forefront of many American’s minds. As the threat of potential nuclear war loomed, President Reagan commissioned the Department of Defense to update civil preparation plans. In 1982, T. K. Jones presented these findings at a televised Congressional hearing.

As a civil defense expert, his report focused on individual preparations for Americans to prepare for a potential nuclear war. His testimony focused on the country’s survival in the aftermath in contrast to the prevailing belief that the aftermath included a 100% fatality rate. His quote on surviving a nuclear attack became the lynchpin in a political firestorm: “Dig a hole, cover it with a few doors, and then throw three feet of dirt on top. It’s the dirt that does it.”

Though one can argue the politics, Reagan’s political opponents, the press, and many U.S. citizens grabbed onto this quote as a crazy statement. However, the problem lies in its accuracy. If outside the initial blast zone, sheltering below ground significantly increases survival from the heat and shockwave while greatly reducing initial radiation exposure. Though said flippantly, getting below ground (as little as three feet of dirt) is the best plan for surviving a nuclear explosion. Ultimately, the Reagan administration pulled T.K. Jones from further committee hearings and he soon retired quietly to private industry.

Tom Ridge — 2003

Let’s flash forward 20 years to the first Homeland Security Secretary, Tom Ridge. In 2003, Ridge provided Americans guidance on how to individually prepare for potential biological or chemical attacks, especially in urban areas. His comments created a similar political and media firestorm as T. K. Jones’ accurate but poorly delivered statement. Secretary Ridge offered, “We will not be afraid. We will be ready…civilians should have a kit of three days of food and water as well as enough duct tape and plastic to seal a safe room.”

Again, the public and press roasted Ridge for his statement about personal responsibility (three days of food and water). Of course, he provided accurate advice for individual survival from an urban biological or chemical attack. For example, 10 people can survive for just under a day on the air in a sealed standard-sized room. With three people under the same circumstances, survival increases to over three days. Ultimately, three days’ worth of uncontaminated food, water, and air allows the majority of chemical or biological agents to diffuse to non-lethal levels. Despite the attacks on Ridge’s comments, his comments remain sound advice for survival during such an attack. Unfortunately, a large portion of the U.S. population wants the government to provide prevention and support. Subsequently, they react poorly to governmental recommendations of personal responsibility.

Current Department of Homeland Security Recommendations

Since the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002, the party controlling the executive branch has changed multiple times. However, the overall recommendations to Americans have hardly changed, following historical examples like the victory gardens of World War II. These recommendations largely read as a how-to guide for emergency preparation.

The list of items to keep on hand includes several days of non-perishable food, one gallon of water per day per person, flashlights, extra batteries, a first aid kit, tools, a can opener, local maps, and a cell phone with a backup charger. The list also includes dust masks, whistles and non-electronic signaling devices, garbage bags, plastic sheeting, and duct tape. Though some may want to add to this list, these recommendations stand as a solid indication that individual survival starts with individual responsibility. After all, in the event of an emergency, it’s not like the U.S. Government will send an Amazon package with this inventory to your house. So, how will you get it? You acquire it ahead of time.

Sign for the Department of Homeland Security
The Department of Homeland Security’s recommendations for what every U.S citizen should store away for an emergency reads as if drawn directly from any modern emergency preparation book. Photo credit: Wikimedia

The U.S. has a history of high-ranking government officials giving solid emergency solutions only to be publicly mocked. Our own government knows prevention only goes so far, and survival starts with individual emergency preparations. While our government has done much to reduce the likelihood of such situations, there is only so much a government can do to prevent—and even less to prepare for—large-scale interruptions.


The simple fact is that to be truly prepared for a massive event on a governmental level (food for three days for a city the size of New York, medical burn units for a single nuclear attack, filters, and suits for a large urban area) would require costs and bureaucracy that no politician would attach their name to. Thus, resources (tax dollars) focus on prevention, not intervention. The U.S. Government has repeatedly made it clear that the responsibility for preparedness falls on individual citizens if prevention fails.

Nuclear blast
Though nuclear war seems to be back on the current list of worries, additional possible threats range from natural to manmade. Photo credit: Public Domain

Thus, regardless of your political ideals or geographical location, the less-political part of your own government recommends preparing for, at a minimum, short-term interruption of services (generally, 3-7 days minimum). It really doesn’t matter if you prepare for an uncontrollable weather event, terrorist attack, war, or infrastructure issues. Ultimately, the agencies charged with preventing such events are telling you to be individually prepared. Are you?

Joel Nadler is the Training Director at Indy Arms Company in Indianapolis and co-owner of Tactical Training Associates.  He writes for several gun-focused publications and is an avid supporter of the right to self-sufficiency, including self-defense. Formerly a full professor, he has a Ph.D. in Psychology and now works as a senior consultant living on a horse ranch in rural Indiana.  Feel free to follow him on Instagram @TacticalPhD.

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