For years now, apocalypse culture has gained traction in the mainstream media. Whereas zombie movies were once easily filed away into the horror genre, they have since graduated into the realm of wish-fulfillment, depicting a world free from social obligations, credit scores, and cubicles. Sure, those things are replaced by hordes of flesh-eating monsters, but wouldn’t you rather shoot your un-dead supervisor in the face than listen to him tell you why you should be watching “Game of Thrones” again?

But as I’ve pointed out in previous articles, our modern civilized society has eliminated the need for most Americans to accumulate the skill sets really necessary to survive a zombie plague, national blackout, or heck, even if the rapture shuts down our incredibly complex infrastructure. Worse still, we’ve replaced those lessons with decades worth of bad habits as taught to us through pop culture, habits that are likely to get you killed if you attempt to actually put them to use in a survival setting. This time, instead of focusing on what you think you should do, I’m going to focus on misconceptions you’ll need to do away with immediately in order to place yourself in the best possible position to survive.

Communications won’t go down the way you think.

One night in the field, one of my younger Marines told me that he’d never seen the original “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” TV show. Now, I may have been a bit old for that first season of the Power Rangers, but my remembered passion for Voltron was enough to stick me to my seat each morning to watch the Megazord do battle with whatever giant monster Brian Cranston was playing that week (not kidding about Brian Cranston). Of course, before the deployment, we’d all stocked external hard drives full of TV shows and movies, so I decided to put on a Power Rangers movie night in the ALOC (Administration and Logistics Operations Center), which had a projector. The only problem was, we didn’t have any power.

As I low-crawled, extension cord in hand, past the entrance for the COC (where the command element and all of the high-tech gadgets they use to do their jobs are housed), it never crossed my mind that the big field generator parked next to the tent likely had a finite amount of power that it could produce. It also didn’t occur to me that if you exceed that level, the generator would shut down as a safety precaution. Five minutes into the first episode of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” the ALOC went dark, and so did every piece of electronics equipment inside the COC.

It didn’t take long to get the power running again, but the abrupt reboot made it necessary to re-establish all sorts of remote connections with satellites and the like, crippling our COC for hours and really, really pissing off our data guys. They never did catch whichever rascal overdrew the generator.

The point of that jaunt down memory lane is twofold: first, to demonstrate how easy it can be for one idiot (in this case, me) to cause serious problems with America’s power or communications grid. All it takes is a poorly trained local employee handling an emergency the wrong way, and we suddenly find ourselves without power, possibly forever, depending on the scale of the emergency.

The second point is that having power does not necessarily equate to being able to communicate. As people get sick, disappear, or turn feral, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain our digital infrastructure. We tend to fear losing power the most, but survival communications could become compromised even with the grid still up.

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The entire global internet, for instance, relies on a group of seven key holders to maintain the system that links domain names to IP addresses. These key holders are located in different countries around the globe to minimize risk, but it requires at least five of them to reset the system periodically and keep our internet tubes flowing smoothly. If three of them were to go down, it wouldn’t matter how much power you’ve got to your computer, or if your cable company was still up and running—there wouldn’t be any internet to access.

A fully charged cell phone does no good if the personnel maintaining the network stop coming to work, and television relies on thousands of people, from line workers to camera operators, to get a message to you. Although many movies depict an electrical blackout instantly severing our communication ties, it’s possible that we may lose many mediums of communication before the power grid, strangling our ability to transmit information to one another more slowly than one might expect, but granting you the opportunity to stay informed if you’re able to keep ahead of the trends as mediums begin to fail. As they do, you should start seeking other methods of gathering intel.

Listen to the rumors.

In the early days of a significant biological outbreak (regardless of whether or not those infected become monsters themselves), the mainstream media will report on it in ways not dissimilar to that of the ebola coverage we saw last year. This could cause some issues, because although the coverage made it seem as though ebola was the biggest threat facing mankind at the time, in reality, it was a fairly contained issue—particularly in developed nations like the United States. As a result, many Americans may be tempted to ignore the news or downplay the severity of the outbreak because so many other non-stories have been reported as though they really were the end of the world. Why would we believe it this time?

To compound that issue, government agencies often won’t release information as soon as they have it, choosing to wait for approval and for politics to dictate how it will be disseminated. This means there may be clearly apparent conclusions to be drawn regarding the situation, but ones that aren’t yet widely available to the public through official channels. It’s important to have an emergency radio on hand, but if the government’s appraisal of the situation isn’t unanimous and the media throws news stories at the wall in hopes of driving up web traffic instead of informing the public, there may not be the breadth of reliable information you can really rely on.

In the Marine Corps, there’s a common phrase we use for the rumor mill that runs just beneath the managerial levels of the command: the lance corporal underground. The lance corporal underground is jokingly composed of the low-ranking Marines who work alongside and beneath decision-makers, who then fill one another in about the events they’ve witnessed while brewing the sergeant major’s coffee. You can get some great “gouge” (hearsay) from the lance corporal underground, but it’s important to take that information (like any rumors) with a grain of salt, as you’re really playing a big game of telephone. That said, if big changes are heading for your shop, the lance corporal underground will be on top of it well before any paperwork reaches your desk.

In an apocalypse situation, you may find yourself needing to rely on the civilian equivalent of the “lance corporal underground.” Listen to the things said by friends, family, or other members of the community and assess them with a critical ear, but don’t dismiss them if they contradict the information reaching you through formal channels like the news media or government announcements. If your friend, Nurse Ratchet, comes home from work and tells you that things are getting “really bitey” at the hospital, don’t wait for the emergency broadcast system to make an announcement before taking her word for it. Instead, begin making moves to put yourself in a highly survivable position and apologize later for not attending Ratchet’s birthday party.

First responders will be the first to die.

If we ever find ourselves in a zombie apocalypse, Red Dawn-style invasion, or suffering from an untreatable viral outbreak, it goes without saying that those brave people we rely on to keep us safe will be directly in the line of fire, and will likely also be the first people lost in what could be mankind’s final battle.

Losing our first responders is a serious issue, regardless of the form humanity’s downfall comes in.  You may think losing police, firefighters, and EMTs makes perfect sense logically, because it does, but the real issue is how you’ll respond to emergencies as they’re presented to you after the fact. As I’ve also mentioned in previous articles, emergency situations tend to stress us out, and when we’re stressed, we usually revert to whatever the functioning lizard parts of our brains can come up with to keep us alive. Sometimes that means running, sometimes it means fighting, and in the United States, it often means calling 911 and just hoping someone else will come along to address the problem at hand.

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We’ve grown so accustomed to having law enforcement and emergency medical personnel on standby that the idea of owning a firearm is now marketed not as a replacement for law enforcement coming to save you, but as a faster means of protection than waiting out their arrival time. Again, that might seem totally normal for someone who hasn’t visited a Third-World country where there’s no one to call and no one interested in helping you when the going gets tough, but let me assure you, it’s downright crazy in the grand scheme of things that we’ve got a bunch of people on the payroll just waiting to help you out if you need it. We’ve grown up wrapped in a blanket of certainty that, in our darkest hours, we can call on our nation’s heroes to save us. After an infrastructure-collapsing attack by zombies, foreign militaries, or just the flu, there won’t be that blanket anymore.

That means a broken leg doesn’t result in six weeks of inconvenient crutching. A car accident won’t stick you with months of physical therapy. An allergic reaction won’t be a fun story to tell at your next birthday party. You’re just plain old dead. Worse, if something terrible were to befall a member of your family or survival party, the minutes you spend numbly fumbling with your phone out of shock (because you’ve never seen the inside of your friend’s chest cavity before) could cost them, or both of you, your lives.

It can be hard to break habits and training that has been ingrained in you for your entire life, and calling 911 is exactly such a habit. It will take a concerted effort to keep your head about you when things get crazy, and to avoid reverting to societal norms (like calling 911) when it becomes imperative you take immediate action to save your, or someone else’s, life.

Of course, the subject of disaster preparation is a fun one to consider through the scope of movies and TV, but it keeps coming up—not just because we all wish our weekends could be a little longer, but also because our world is dangling at the edge of chaos. Not just now, but always. If you believe the United States is too stable or too powerful to fall, I’d like to remind you that the Romans likely felt the same way.

But they didn’t have SOFREP to help keep their eyes on the ball.

Thinking about these misconceptions, and coming up with any others you feel may be necessary to overcome, can be all it takes to survive a real-world disaster. Or at least survive long enough to get eaten by zombies a few months later than your neighbors. I can’t do everything.

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