accessibility & help

Decide in a crisis

In a crisis, someone has to decide what to do. Even if you’re scared, you still have to decide. Even if you have no reliable information, you still have to decide. You may also have to reassure others that your decisions are sound.

Explore options for making decisions under pressure, with a range of activities based around dramatic wildfire evacuations from Alberta, Canada.


Learning objectives

By the end of this activity young people will be able to:

  • Describe how they might reassure a young child or older relative during the uncertainties of an emergency.
  • Assess and rank techniques designed to help someone stay relatively calm while making decisions in a crisis.
  • Discuss ways of being prepared for, coping with, or staying safe in a crisis.

Age range: 11–19
Curriculum links: PSHE

Photo activity

Say to the group that they are about to see a photograph of a family getting ready for a journey. What is the first word that comes to mind when they see the photo?

Justin Anderson packs his three children and dog into his truck as he prepares to leave the Christina Lake Lodge campground in Conklin Alberta© Info

Discuss the responses. Were they words like tense, focused, unhappy or worried? It’s unlikely to be words like happy, excited or carefree. Why? Look again and say what elements contribute to the feeling of the picture.

During discussion, explain where the picture was taken. The man, Justin Anderson, is packing his three children and their dog into a vehicle ready to leave a camping lodge in Conklin, Alberta, Canada. They moved there after evacuating their home because of wildfires.

Discuss what young people have heard of the wildfires around the Fort McMurray area in Canada. Explain that in Fort McMurray 80,000 people – the entire population of the city – were evacuated.

Look again at the photograph. The adult has lots of practical tasks to do. He’ll also be wanting to keep his children happy and occupied and limit their worries about the drama happening around them. List practical things he might do to keep the children content.

Note the dog. It needs looking after but might be a useful distraction or comfort for the children. Ask young people — “for a family evacuating, would having a pet to consider be a good or bad thing and why?”

Encourage them to consider the question for different scenarios e.g. evacuating because of a flood or fire and discuss how the different contexts might cause them to change their answers.

"What are we going to do?"

Another man, Jason Blair, who also evacuated with his family, was interviewed about his experience by a journalist with CBC News Ottawa.

The journalist suggested that Jason must have been terrified during the evacuation. “I was trying not to be terrified”, he replied.

What personal techniques for trying not to be terrified or upset do young people have. Share ideas.

The journalist went on to ask about emotions.

Play CBC news extract: Jason Blair stressed (36 seconds)

  • Journalist: How are you processing all of this, Jason? I can hear in your voice that you’re absolutely exhausted, and no wonder.
  • Jason Blair: I’m stressed, I’m really trying not to cry. I dunno, I mean, we were standing there in Fort McKay and my wife’s rocking a 14-day-old little girl crying, and my two year old doesn’t understand what’s going on. And she looks at you and says, “what are we going to do?” What do we do?

How would young people have answered the two year old? How easy is it to give reassurance if you don’t feel very confident yourself? What might help?

Discuss exhaustion. Have young people ever been so tired that they just wanted to cry? What can you tell yourself to help you cope at that point? What might help to reduce stress?

If you were the journalist, what would be your next question? How easy is it to talk to – or interview – someone who is close to tears? What might you say to Jason to support him at this point?

Calm in a crisis

Later, Jason explained what it was like to pack in an emergency, while looking after two small children.

Play CBC news extract: Jason Blair shoebox (52 Seconds)

  • I’m telling you, go home right now. It’s going to take you twenty minutes but feel like you have three minutes to pack anything - a picture? My mum passed away 11 years ago and I have one shoebox. And now, do you think I could find that shoebox? That’s the only thing I wanted to take. I found the shoebox. But for that period of time when I couldn’t find it… And then, like I said, I mean, instinct and survival kicks in and I’ve got to look after these two young kids.

Talk about the difficulty of acting calmly and quickly in a crisis. You might forget things, you might act irrationally. Or your mind goes blank. You could forget what you’re doing. It might be hard to prioritise. All these things are not personal failings. They’re direct physical and physiological effects of the responses to the emergency you’re in.

Explore how much the group knows about their own reactions by asking them to rank the following responses. Which do they think would be most and least useful to them personally in carrying out a task to deadline in a tense situation? It can be a diamond ranking exercise.

  • Have a nap
  • Use a prepared checklist
  • Calm down by reading a book
  • Calm down by listening to music
  • Spend a few moments steadily breathing
  • Tell yourself a joke
  • Get absorbed in a useful task
  • Do some physical exercise
  • Count to ten

Encourage young people to think about the emotions they might go through during an evacuation. What techniques would they use to stay calm during an emergency? What skills or qualities do they have that might help them support others?

What would you take?

The UK doesn’t generally have massive wildfires that cause large-scale evacuations. But there are other reasons why people are asked to leave their homes at very short notice.

Encourage the group to think through which of their possessions are important to them, practically and emotionally. If you had just thirty seconds to grab what you could from your home, what would you take?

What if you had an hour? Work in pairs or small groups to suggest ideas and challenge each other’s thinking with constructive questions.

Some people take unusual things. A BBC-compiled list included dog poop bags, a glue gun and a tin of shoe polish. Ask young people to say in their own words why someone might have ended up taking such items.

Evacuation routes

Jason Blair told the reporter: “It was a long day. We went north. We tried to go south, but we couldn’t get out of the city, they closed the highway. We had to make a u-turn and head north.”

In the event of an emergency, UK emergency services and local government will communicate risks to the public and provide information on what to do and where to go.

How many routes out of your home village, town or city are there? If the obvious road to your destination is blocked with traffic, what is the best alternative?

Take a vote—is it better to be stuck in traffic going in the right direction or take a longer route that might be clearer? If you have a local map, young people could look at all the potential routes out of the area.

Reassurance and truth

Jason Blair’s two year old daughter asked him, “what are we going to do?”

In this scenario, if you were asked this question by a younger sibling, how would you respond? What would be your priority — to reassure or tell the honest truth?

How would it be different if the anxious child was older, say eight years old? Or what if the concerned person was an elderly grandparent?

Role-play some possible questions and answers and develop the conversations in different scenarios.

Consider the balance between practical suggestions, details of what is happening and reassurance.

Design a grab app

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to design an app for smart phones that can be used in a crisis such as an evacuation.

You don’t need to do the coding to build it. This is just the concept stage — where you come up with the ideas and functions that, in an ideal world, such an app might have.

What would be in a brilliant “ready for anything” app?

  • What alerts and early warnings would it have?
  • What information about roads, routes, weather, power outages and safe places would it supply for users?
  • What about lists of things to take, reminders of what to do or check?
  • What other functions - music and entertainment for children - might it include?
  • What advice might it give on staying safe, keeping calm and helping others?
  • How could people customise it for themselves?

Late home

During the wildfire evacuations, the government of Alberta issued an emergency update:

Residents of Fort McMurray should not expect to return home for an extended period of time. Public safety is our number-one priority, and residents won’t be able to return home until it is safe to do so.

Evacuating often involves more than one move. You don’t go straight from your home to a place you’ll be settled in for weeks or months. How would you cope with life on the move? What might bother you about sharing unfamiliar living space with other people? What would you miss about where you normally live?

What opportunities might there be to make new friends, learn about other areas, or gain a new sense of community amongst those who have been evacuated?

Search online to find stories of how others have coped with extended periods away from home.


This resource was written by PJ White of Alt62 and published in May 2016.

The sound extracts in this resource are used for educational reference only. Both sound extracts are the copyright of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.