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The visions of people leaping from the Twin Towers on 9/11 will forever haunt us. Are we really safe in these modern steel-and-concrete constructions, or are we merely lingering in steel-and-concrete coffins? Many of us work or live in high-rise buildings in the cities, and one of our worst nightmares revolves around the disasters that might impact us. The common thread in all survival success stories is preparedness—and, of course, a little bit of luck.


Preparedness for a disaster is more mental and psychological than expensive gear. Situation awareness is key to survival. Surviving a life-threatening situation is 90 percent psychological; it is mental preparation and 10 percent equipment preparedness.

Apart from yearly fire drills—if they happen at all—you are unlikely to ever be able to practice for life-threatening scenarios in the building in which you work. Nevertheless, thinking and planning for them so they become familiar is the psychological preparedness we can mentally prepare for and is part of a survivalist’s credo.
Emergency exits: The first thing everyone who works or lives in a high-rise building needs to know is where the emergency exits are and how to get to them.

“Are we really safe in the modern steel-and-concrete constructions, or are we merely lingering in steel-and-concrete coffins?”

Every high-rise building has a floor map with emergency routes and exits marked clearly right next to the elevators. Every hotel has one behind the door of your room. Even if you are just visiting, glance at them and remember them, just as you would count the seats from the exit to your seat in an airplane. Fire  extinguishers: Do you know where the closest one is, and do you know how to use it? Although most fire extinguishers in buildings are the combination A-C type (ordinary combustibles plus electrical equipment), you might be in a situation in which there are other types of fire extinguishers. Only use a fire extinguisher when a fire is small and can be controlled. We don’t often get to practice using fire extinguishers, so remember “PASS”:
P Pull the pin. There is a pin at the top of the extinguisher. This releases the lock.
A Aim the nozzle at the back of the fire.
S Squeeze the handle.
S Sweep the nozzle from side to side.


First aid: Do you know where the office first aid kit is? Is it adequately stocked? Many are not. Make it your responsibility to see it always well stocked.

Office snacks: Go healthy, and go long-term. A jar of nuts and dried fruit will go further than a candy bar, should you need it. Make sure it will last awhile, too. An earthquake won’t likely happen tomorrow, so make sure your emergency snacks can be stored for a while.


Hazardous materials: Does your office store flammable or hazardous materials? Be aware of what and where they are.

Disabled colleagues: Depending on the situation and the disability, your only choice may be to place any  disabled co-workers somewhere safe for rescuers who have specialized equipment. Many modern buildings have refuge areas that might be stand-alone, protected compartments or rooms on the floor or might consist of oversized landings in stairwells with fire doors on either side. Know those spots, and make sure they have  something to catch someone’s attention, such as a flashlight and/or a whistle.

Following, we cover several specific scenarios and provide survival tips and commonsense advice.

What 9/11 taught us is that not even tall buildings can be safe. Take steps to prepare for any eventuality.


During an earthquake, a high-rise building sways side to side due to the lateral movement of the earth. Keep low. Most earthquake victims are injured when they fall as the ground shifts beneath their feet or are hurt when furniture and building fixtures fall on them. Get yourself into the interior of the building, and keep away from windows. The glass is likely to shatter as the window frames buckle. Get under a desk or a sturdy table, such as a conference room table.

Historic brick-clad buildings can go up as high as 32 stories (one example is San Francisco’s famed Russ Building). Many were built in the 1920s and have an added problem: The wall cladding is not anchored to the floors in such a way that they behave as one entity during the movements of an earthquake. Unless some retrofitting has taken place, the walls will buckle and separate from the floors, causing collapse.

Still, your safest bet is to get to the middle of the building and wait out the quake before attempting to leave the building.

“Most earthquake victims are injured when they fall as the ground shifts beneath their feet or are hurt when furniture and building fixtures fall on them.”

When the building finally stops moving, assess the situation first before rushing out from under the table to get out of the building. Remember that there can be aftershocks. Find the closest exit, and leave quickly. Be aware of your surroundings when you exit the building, because there might be falling masonry or glass. If the building is collapsing, your best bet might be to stay in place and find a sturdy piece of furniture, such as a heavy desk, and stay by it—not underneath it, because it could trap you.

Position yourself by it with your head protected by your arms. The furniture will be able to support a piece of collapsing wall or ceiling and create a space adjacent to it. You might be hurt, but chances are that you will survive and rescuers might be able to extract you alive.


According to the National Fire Protection Association, more than 15,000 fires occur annually in high-rise buildings in the United States. Most of these fires start in the lower floors—the sixth floor or below. High-rise buildings are equipped with heavy fire doors in the stairwells and sprinkler systems to contain fires, and their fire alarm systems are required to have emergency voice communication capability.

The survivalist assesses the situation: Is the fire above or below you? Are the hallways filled with smoke? Is the stairwell filled with smoke? Do you know the location of the other stairwell? Conventional wisdom tells you to get out of the building. The only question is, how? Situational awareness is key. Listen for instructions from  emergency response personnel, who will instruct the floor that is on fire, the floors above and below to evacuate down to several floors below.

“More than 15,000 fires occur in high-rise buildings annually in the United States.”

There are two appropriate reactions to a building fire: Go down the stairs to exit the building, or, if that is not possible, stay put. Rooftop rescues with helicopters are a dramatic Hollywood device. Roof rescues are not standard fire safety procedure. If the fire is severe, the heat will generate large thermal currents that will  buffet a rescue chopper, making it hard to control. Also, downward thrust from the helicopter rotors can force smoke and super-heated air onto rescue personnel below. If you are trapped, evacuate yourself to several floors above the fire, and stay put. Call the fire department to let it know your location and, if possible, also signal your location by putting something light-colored on a window—a whiteboard or even your shirt, for example.

Breaking a window is inadvisable, because it cannot be closed to prevent smoke from coming in; it could also create a chimney effect, drawing smoke and flames up the building. If you are already on the move and smoke is thick, drop to your hands and knees and crawl. Hot air rises, and the air will be clearer nearer the ground. Test doors with the back of your hand (it is more sensitive to heat/cold) before attempting to open them.

Additionally, and although it is not recommended, the survivalist might look to external devices such as a convenient window-cleaning rig or by keeping repelling devices in his office.

“The survivalist is often a leader, and leaders will be prepared.”


The survivalist is often a leader, and leaders will be prepared. Leaders know where the roof access for the building is and if the building has exterior fire escapes. Leaders remember when, and on which side of the building, they last saw the window-cleaning rig. Leaders will also make the determination regarding whether to shelter in place or evacuate and then communicate it to others. You remember to keep to the right while heading down the stairs so rescue workers may head up unimpeded. You can’t save everyone, but you can try.


The advice from public safety officials in shooter situations is to get out of the building: Get out however you can, as fast as you can—if you can do it without attracting the attention of the shooter (i.e., if you think it is safe to do so). If you are unable to escape, hide or barricade yourself. Use heavy office furniture, such as desks. In addition, tables, chairs and trashcans are all usable debris to impede the advance of a gunman or gunmen.

The lunchroom or conference room might not be the best place of refuge, because the shooter might be seeking more victims. In a shooter situation, it is better to spread out than to remain huddled together in a bunch. Safety here is not in numbers, but it helps to have a buddy, so get your colleagues to pair up and find a safe spot to hide. As a last resort, engage. Seek the best weapons you can—be it a chair or heavy flashlight—sneak up behind the shooter, if possible, and finally, don’t stop once you’ve engaged. The moment you stop, you have made yourself a target, and basically, you are entering a gunfight with your bare hands.

Note for Women

Women should always have one extra piece of survival gear that most men won’t require: flat shoes. The last thing you want to have to do is walk down 20 stories in high heels. If your daily dress is a suit, hose and heels, keep a pair of walking shoes in a desk drawer.

Comfortable running shoes should be stored near or at your desk if you wear high heels everyday. In an emergency, you don’t want to be the one in heels when evacuating from a high-rise building.

Are you there with a trusted buddy? There’s more power attacking as a pair than singly, and you can watch each other’s back. If you are behind a locked door when police arrive, ask for identification or call dispatch to verify the officer’s identity before opening the door. Cooperate fully. If instructed, lie down on the floor with your hands  behind your head. The police do not know if you are friend or foe until the situation is sorted out.

If taken hostage, your plan is to survive. Unless you are a trained hostage negotiator, don’t try to talk to or argue with the gunman. Most are unbalanced. The most difficult part of being a hostage is being patient. Be vigilant and observant. You might be released or have a chance to escape. Then, the safety of others might depend upon your memory.


While hurricanes build up, tornadoes can spawn so rapidly that little warning is possible. As with any disaster preparation, the savvy survivalist is alert to the weather situation. There are several telltale signs that conditions are ripe for a tornado to spawn:

  • Dark, often greenish sky
  • Large hail
  • Low-lying, dark, swirling clouds
  • Loud roar akin to a freight train

Keep away from the windows. If the forces of the winds do not shatter the glass, the movement of the building or debris carried by the winds probably will. Most injuries suffered during a tornado are caused by flying debris. Make your way to an interior room, stairwell or hallway on the lowest floor possible, but keep away from large, clear-span areas such as sales floors. If you are trapped suddenly, find an interior room, and hunker down beside a sturdy piece of furniture, your arms over your head.

Most high-rise buildings in hurricane- and tornado-prone areas have designated refuge areas in the building. Know where they are. According to the National Weather Service, “As with any waterspout or tornado, the best
advice is to be in an interior part of the lowest floor of a sturdy building—and not outside, whether sharks are raining down or not.”


The situation: Working late on a project, you’ve not paid attention to the weather outside. The lights and your computer suddenly go off. A quick check on your phone, and you realize that it’s 8 p.m., the winter storm watch has become a blizzard, and you are trapped inside your building. Is it going to be coffee and candy bars for the weekend while you wait out the storm?

Is your smart phone charged? Do you have your external battery in your backpack? Are you in a modern high-rise with emergency backup systems or an older one with boilers in the basement and radiator heat? If the backup systems have not kicked on, your best bet is to call maintenance or building management. Often, you won’t be alone in a high-rise building. There are cleaners, maintenance and/or security personnel who might be in the building with you. Round them all up, and pool your resources. Someone might have keys to upper and/or warmer floors—such as the basement, where the boilers are situated in an older building—or you might be able to gain entrance to other offices, where you can raid their fridges or stashes of snacks in their lunchrooms. This isn’t the time to be embarrassed about stealing someone’s lunch from the fridge. (Do leave a note to be polite, if you do.)

Take stock of your situation. After alerting emergency personnel, loved ones, and probably your boss, the main thing you need to do is keep yourself warm, fed and hydrated. If you are a commuter, you will have a heavy coat, scarf, hat, and gloves. If you drive, go down to your car and grab your survival kit—the one with the emergency thermal blanket every driver in a state that experiences cold seasons should have. Unprotected heads, necks and wrists lose the most heat when left exposed to cold air. So, if you have a scarf and hat, put them on.

Do you have those large coffee thermoses in your office lunchroom? Fill them up with hot water while it is still available. Collect your food and water, hole up in a small office, and block any drafts. Do what you can do to keep heat from escaping by closing blinds and curtains. Conserve your smart phone battery, and remember to keep that warm, as well. If there are others with you, do not overlook the sharing of body heat. Several people in a small office will be warmer (even if you are not snuggling).


No book or website will provide you with a complete guide for disaster preparedness and survival. This article hits only on the key commonsense points, and the savvy survivalist will continue their own study and adjust for their own specific circumstances and needs. Remember the words of survival instructor Cody Lundin: “Survival supplies don’t mean diddly if you are too scared stupid to use them.”

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

author: Carolyn Koh