Defensible Space Isn’t Just for Wildfires: How to Protect Your Home in the Aftermath of a Disaster

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image by USFWS Headquarters
image by USFWS Headquarters

One lesson we have learned from major disasters all over the world is that we can’t count on the normal public safety services like police and fire to quickly come to our aid; overwhelmed by the needs caused by the disaster, it can take from days to weeks before response times to 911 calls are once again reasonable.

In the meantime, natural forces and the sins of man are unchecked and it is up to all of us to take care of ourselves and our families. In the wake of the 2010 Chile earthquake and tsunami, bakery owner Karen Espinoza told the Dow Jones Newswires,

“What the earthquake didn’t take away, the sea took away. And what the sea didn’t take, the looters did.”

Thieves and other human predators look for easy targets, and if you present the image of a difficult target to them, they will likely leave you alone. You don’t have to turn your home into a fortress or castle, but if your house is a harder nut to crack than your neighbors, your risk of attack is lower.

The concept of “Defensible Space” is normally used in the context of preventing a wildfire from burning down your home. The idea is to have a significant gap between woods or vegetation and your home to give firefighters a good chance of defending the structure in a serious fire. We can apply the concept of Defensible Space to our home protection strategy.

You can protect your home and belongings, even in the aftermath of a disaster.

Defensible space in action

Oh, you didn’t know you had to have a home protection strategy? Most people who prepare for disasters don’t, other than maybe to assume that if they have a firearm in the house, they are protected. Unfortunately, a protection strategy based only on a gun is inadequate.

In our day to day lives, a home burglary is not the end of the world. Losses can be insured, valuables replaced. But imagine losing your precious emergency stockpile in the midst of a Katrina-level disaster due to flooding or other natural elements.

Then imagine it being forcibly taken from you. Different scenario, isn’t it? So let’s talk about Defensible Space in the context of your home following a significant disaster of some sort.

Architects call this area “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design,” which breaks the issue down into:

  • Natural Surveillance
    • Refers to areas easily visible from within the home, and how to identify visual gaps that can be filled by video cameras or prevented by planting thorny plants there, etc.
    • What can you see from your windows and other vantage points, and, more importantly, what can’t you see?
  • Natural Access Control
    • Refers to those things that are obviously public, like sidewalks and roads, and those that are less-public or private like driveways and walkways.
    • Can you manage access to your home through a row of bushes or installing better bolts and locks on your doors and windows?
  • Territorial Reinforcement
    • Refers to landscaping and fencing to better define public and private areas. The bottom line goal is to put some thought into what your home looks like to someone driving by. Is this house a quick rip-off opportunity or too much trouble?
    • The effects are both psychological and physical, as in the use of fences and gates.
    • Fences, signs, lighting can all signal a sense of owned space, rather than property that might be neglected and an easy target.

While it sounds intimidating, the concepts will be familiar to everyone. The concept is mostly used in new building design, but the principles can be used as a guide to assess your existing home security situation. The idea is to look at your home as a bad guy would, and make your property less appealing to those that would do you harm, especially after a disaster when law enforcement may not be readily available.

Protect your home from attacks

Most home attacks can be divided into two categories, stealth and blitz. A stealth attack might come in darkness, testing windows and doors for one left open. In daytime, this might be an innocuous-looking man with a clipboard knocking at the front door. If there is no answer, the attack begins. Blitz attacks (sometimes called “home invasions”) are group efforts with doors kicked down and often with weapons displayed. The idea is to surprise and overwhelm any resistance quickly.

These tactics can be combined in various ways, i.e. with a stealth knock at the door turned into a blitz when the door is answered by someone who can be overwhelmed.

If an attack can’t be prevented, we at least want early warning and to delay entry into the home as long as possible. Early warning can be enhanced by a dog’s bark, some broken glass spread on the front walk (crunches), or loops of rope or wire in the lawn or across walkways (tripping hazard). (As a disclaimer, these suggestions are only for use after a major disaster.)

Elements of a successful home protection strategy

Successful home protection relies upon:

  • Psychological barriers (fences, gates, barking dogs) to discourage attack
  • Early warning (dog, broken glass, video camera, alarm system)
  • Strong physical barriers (security doors, deadbolt locks) to prevent or delay entry
  • A realistic defense or escape plan for all occupants (From grandma to school age kids)
  • Practicing the plan periodically to identify problems and improve the plan
  • Don’t forget to try 911 for help…just don’t make this your only plan

In truth, this subject is very complex and I was only able to cover the basics, and, of course, these are all smart strategies every day, not just when facing a disaster.

I hope this article prompts you to at least think about this important subject and at best to do some planning and reinforcement of your home castle and how you might defend it in multiple ways in the aftermath of a disaster.

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