SHTF Rehearsal: Applying Prepping Strategies in Urban Life

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Urban life presents many opportunities to test, adjust and improve our prepping strategies. Grid failures and near-SHTF situations can benefit us if used as training for a future SHTF. In this article, I return to my concepts, philosophies, and practices of urban survival training as proposed in my book.

I stress the importance of building situational awareness, being flexible, and capable of blending in. Area recon and constant neighborhood watch are good exercises – and not only in preparation for a big SHTF, as I’ll show. These strategies are the core of my street survival training program. Despite addressing the subject thoroughly in my books, people consistently ask for examples of how this works in practice. 

Here I present two real stories to illustrate and explain how things happen so others can relate and apply them to their contexts. Be forewarned that these are not full-SHTF tales. Just examples showing out-of-ordinary situations can happen anytime, anywhere, even before it hits the fan – and how we can build our preparedness and quiver of solutions.

Story #1: How “area recon” (a.k.a. “knowing your backyard well”) and constant neighborhood monitoring can help mitigate the effects of a small-scale SHTF

The following story is in the closing chapter of my street survival training book precisely to highlight the importance of being constantly aware (and acting on it) and how it can save us a lot of trouble or minimize the consequences. 

A few years ago, I was returning from a training walk. As I came close to my street, I noticed some “X” marks sprayed in regular intervals on the pavement. It wasn’t there the week before, so it drew my attention. A couple of days later, I saw annotations in blue paint, numbers, and letters right next to each “X.” 

I knew then what it was: markings for underground utilities. Blue is usually code for water, but what mattered, in this case, was that some service would be done there in the utility system anytime soon. Asking around the next day, someone told me that the water company had been doing surveys in the neighborhood. 

But no further information was available from the streets. Quick online research revealed an overhaul in the piping network scheduled for the next week. Back in the day, providers would distribute pamphlets to inform residents about impending services in the systems. Nowadays, it’s just a generic post on their website as a disclaimer to save a few bucks and dodge liabilities.

According to the notice, the service was minor, and supply would not be interrupted. Being an engineer, the extension of measurements and markings didn’t seem that small, sprawling many blocks. Being a prepper, I filled the water bob, the kitchen sink, and a couple of buckets the night prior, “just in case.” Water never gets wasted anyway, so why not.

The service wasn’t “minor,” as the workers reassured when they started breaking the asphalt the following day. Then, a complication during execution demanded the closing of the water mains. In the end, a total of 20 or more blocks remained without water for an entire week, affecting hundreds of families and some businesses in the area. 

At home, we made it through with just mild rationing and still had a little left when the water returned. A minor inconvenience when compared to perhaps 99% of households in the area, hundreds of families who had to alter routine completely, increase spending and find extra time to go out and get water for cleaning, hygiene, sanitation, laundry, even drinking and cooking.

Lessons Learned

It was indeed a relatively small and limited SHTF, but it could have been worse. Situations vary, but the dynamics are almost always the same. 

Stuff like that happens, and frequently, even in regular times. This year was crazy and unstable at all levels due to the pandemic and lockdowns. These things will always bring direct consequences to our everyday life, and thus they’re worth being on our radar. Not only when it comes to utilities and public services, though these are very important, but also the supply chain. Mostly in regards to items and materials that are suffering shortages and can affect the availability of essential items. 

  • Regardless of the situation, the main takeaway is that being aware and prepared is always better than tuned out and complacent. Sounds obvious, but if it’s something small, it can still be alleviated or worsened depending on how we act beforehand. And if it’s something big, it may turn into a matter of survival.
  • Another lesson: Governments, authorities, and private corporations never tell the truth about things big or small. Politicians don’t want us to think critically and make decisions based on facts. The machine wants to go about its business unbothered by the populace. It’s up to us to keep ourselves, our families, and communities minimally informed, safe, and provide for them. Even during normal times, and more so when challenges arise.
  • Yet another lesson: Just by constantly walking around our neighborhood with intent and attention, we can gather a lot: about the people, resources, everything. As shown in the story above, it helped me go through a small-scale SHTF with minor consequences. 

That happened in other instances and with other services. Also, during the near-SHTFs, we had here in the past decade: from the protests and riots of 2013-2016 presidential impeachment to the 2018 truckers strike that caused shortages and disruptions, protests, roadblocks, stores, and banks boarded up and fights at gas stations. 

Just a quick addendum: Why walking? Because walking hits the trifecta: it’s slow and allows us to pay attention to things, think more clearly, and notice and store much more information. It is also the “official rhythm” of SHTF. Finally, walking is good for health and fitness. Biking is OK too, but it’s not the same. Driving isolates us from everything and demands focus in driving. 

  • Final lesson: The word of the street is usually quick and accurate, but we must know who to talk to, how, and what to ask. At times we may also have to dig a little deeper to get the information from various sources to connect the dots.

That leads into the following story, which is a bit more serious.

Story #2: There’s always a lot more happening in the background than visible on the surface. We must have some access to this world.

Just a little context before I start: I currently live in a relatively decent and safe region of town. But as explained in my last article about crime, violence sometimes pays a visit exactly because some areas are deemed safe. A community becoming complacent can favor illegal behavior.

Many streets here have private security. Or I should say, private watchmen who “just keep an eye on the place” and monitor the movement. They get paid for that and do minor services such as walking the dogs, receiving mail when people are out, and stuff like that. It’s a tradition around here. They carry no guns, and in the era of smartphones, not even radios most of the time. 

Late last year, one of the houses got invaded and robbed. The residents were terrified. No one around here remembers when the last time something like this happened. One, two decades ago? Police were everywhere, and they still do the rounds day and night months after it happened. 

Very little was said in the open about the robbery. It was a big blow for the watchers, a failure. What happened? How did it happen? It was hard to know more. To avoid drawing criticism, they tried to shrug the whole thing off. But it wasn’t just them. Everyone mumbled something along the lines of “well, y’know…” and quickly diverted the conversation. “Shit happens, let’s put this behind us and get going with life” was the attitude from all parts, even the residents and the victims themselves. 

Lessons Learned

  • Lesson number one: In some circumstances, people resort to politics and Omertà to deal with specific issues and events: everyone has a stake, no one talks much to avoid friction. These events get buried quickly because there’s always pressure from all sides for normalcy to return a.s.a.p. In other words, the system changes so things can remain the same (until they don’t). 

It is very common in big cities and places with a weak sense of community for people to remain quiet. A lot of people live next to each other but in isolation, with few or weak connections between the households, individuals, families, and workers, which also facilitates criminal action (“conquer the divided”).

I watched as an army of contractors began building, replacing, or improving security systems in almost every house in the area. There were higher fences, new cameras, updated alarms. In other words, people were isolating themselves further. But the significant change was the arrival of the new private guards hired by some residents to monitor the street. These are the real deal: off-duty policemen with tactical uniforms, CCWs, radios, and direct connection with the police. 

They are friendly and educated too. But you can tell the guards are trained and mean business. They send a message to both criminals and the community: now someone’s taking care of shit. And it works: crime is a “business,” so when risk becomes more significant than the potential reward, it moves elsewhere. As specialists say, “crime migrates.” 

For the past few months, my street is perhaps the most well-guarded in the entire city: the watchers, the private guards, and the police doing rounds. I’m exaggerating, of course (and that doesn’t mean it’s the safest, either). But you get my point. 

  • That leads to Lesson number two: Now, the community can’t live without this protection anymore. People feel safe again, but I can tell the temperature just went up a notch: divisiveness and isolation increased.

It’s SHTF of sorts, a relatively mild one (to developing country standards, that is). But still a “new normal” to deal with: once something like that gets in place, the only way to revert to the “old normal” is the entire situation also returning to a “real normal.” The level of criminality in the whole country to drop and public safety improve significantly. 

That is unlikely to happen with this raging pandemic and economic meltdown, with criminality rising, government impaired, and people isolated and divided. So if something, it’s bound to get worse. Unfortunately.

The prepping way: sometimes we must improvise to access other levels of the community

Life goes on, and we do what we can. Once the new guards “took office,” I made contact. Now, this is not about forcefully engaging in random chatter with an ulterior objective. It must be natural and genuine. From the perspective of prepping, though, it sure works to learn more about our surroundings, our community, form alliances, and specifically in the streets, to gather intel.

The new guys established a network connecting the streets in the surrounding blocks and the police. (Which they are affiliated with.) Unlike the cops, though, they use standard ham radios without scrambling or encoding. Figuring I could monitor the comms, I sought to get the frequency they were using.

Not that it’s anything classified or a big secret: the channels are open, and they know it, of course. But asking would be too intrusive and quite possibly a dead giveaway that I’m at the very least somewhat tuned to these things (prepping and survivalism are still incipient around here, though cops and military are in the know). The idea is to remain distant and let things run their course without interference. 

How I gained access to unfiltered information

One day I was walking the dogs and casually asked them about the radios. “My niece wants a more capable replacement for the flimsy walkie-talkie she uses to communicate with her friends during the lockdowns.”  (This is entirely true, by the way: she asked for the radios for her birthday. I only hid the fact that I’m a licensed ham operator.)

He took me for a newbie (which is usually good) and even let me hold and play with the HT a little. It was enough to peek at the frequencies and memorize them without raising red flags, and since then, I’m in the loop.

From occasionally tuning in (very infrequently, actually), I’m slightly better informed about the overall quotidian in my area, and that’s enough for now. It’s incredible what we can pick this way. I figure if something happens, maybe I’ll be able to get unfiltered information directly from the sources. 

I’m also learning and improving a bit on something I always wanted to be more effective with: police communication and tactics/acting patterns. Cops know a lot about people, situational awareness, and criminal behavior. Being more knowledgeable about these things may come in handy if the SHTF is seriously here.

Conclusion

I want to end by highlighting the importance of being proactive in our small circles, gathering information, forming alliances, knowing people around us even if a little better, and becoming more aware of how things run in our area. 

Most people around me just come and go every day without even thinking about these things. They get stunned when something out of the ordinary happens. I concede that even with all that, I can still get caught by surprise, of course. I’m just actively trying to close the gaps however I can.

After a while, this turns into more than an exercise and becomes internalized: the mindset of increased awareness and knowledge, built block by block, a little every day. It may bode well for the times we’re living and the future ahead.

What about you?

Do you do this kind of recon on a regular basis? How’s your observance? What are some ways you can improve your connections within your area? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

About Fabian

Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.

Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City, is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. 

You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor

SHTF Rehearsal: Applying Prepping Strategies in Urban Life
Fabian Ommar

Fabian Ommar

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  • Nice article, Fabian. Because of an illness, I could not drive after giving birth to my second child, so I’d take the double stroller and accomplish my errands by walking all over the place. It is amazing how much more you see when you travel at a slower pace. You are right– walking is the right speed for observation.

    Also, the story about getting the Ham frequency…that was social engineering, which would be a good topic for another article.

    • Thanks @Fina, and thanks for the suggestion too it’s a good idea I’ll start working on something like that.

  • Walking: ““official rhythm” of SHTF.”
    Now that is just funny.

    One thing about bicycling, not many people see some guy on a road bike, clad in spandex (a la Tour de France style) as a threat or conducting recon. I might be past some places in a few seconds, but I can still make observations.

  • The thing is that there is no ” little” SHTF event. Either it is or it isn’t and that water construction event, was definitely not one.
    SHTF means a breakdown of Civil society, no current style ROL, a condition that will continue for a long time, not just a minor problem with the local infrastructure.
    Why does this matter?
    It matters because, once you change the proper definition or change how it is applied, it clouds its meaning and it’s ” doom” factor.
    what you faced was a minor inconvenience of the failure of infrastructure.

    What occurs in Portland Ore, and other places with the riots, are closer to “little SHTF’ than that. Dragging people from their cars, shooting at cars, beating people up or murdering them, doing acts of Arson, violence, etc.. Yet they are not nearly of a scope, to even truly qualify as a ” little” SHTF either.

    Because of the “watering down” of the concept of SHTF, (it being very close to Teotwawki). most people are not properly prepping for it.
    It is so over used, it has dulled it’s impact of how traumatic, it will be.

    Secondly, at least here in the US, the news only reports about one tenth or less of the crime that occurs on a daily basis. Let that sink in….
    So most people are lulled into a false sense of security. What you think you know about your neighborhood is far less than what is actually occurring there. Most drug and gang activity never makes the news or even the neighborhood gossip circle.

    If it was reported, you would think every day was a ” little SHTF”, ( by the current usage of that term) or maybe just another SHTF day !
    There are far more day to day activities of; sexual kidnap and exploitation, drug running, illegal immigration, slave labor and a whole lot more, than any of us really know of, on a daily basis, just here in the US.

    These things will get a lot worse and very noticeable, when SHTF.
    Chances are that some of them will be coming to you or your loved ones, especially if you live in a city or the suburbs, after a real SHTF event. Especially Slavery and Sexual exploitations.

    Gangs and other groups will need lots of “manpower” to get things done , when the machinery stops working. They will need water, food and “Entertainment”. So they will be rounding up other people to do the hard labor for them or provide for their other ” needs”.

    Most neighborhoods will give in to these groups and refuse to fight them. Most would not be able to hold out very long against them anyway.

    So unless you plan to be a victim, you better get a grasp on what SHTF really means and make a good plan to avoid the worst of it.

    • @Mic, I said this wasn’t about full-SHTF. Yes, it was local and a minor inconvenience. But not everything in prepping is big, that’s just my humble opinion.

      Or else nothing matters much, because unless we become Jason Bourne-tough and get fully prepared to either fight marauders and psychopath warlords or become slaves, and see the horrors that await us, then we’re not doing our best. Is that it?

      Either way my apologies for taking your time with unimportant things and thanks for all the advice dished in your comment. Don’t worry I’ll do my best to be more careful with semantics and the use of SHTF, too.

  • “Unlike the cops, though, they use standard ham radios” amazing ! Not only are they cops they are hams to ! want them on my side. Was this a goof ? Last time I checked (Amateur Extra) you cannot use the ham bands for commercial activities.. let me know.

    • @John,

      No goof, it’s true. They use simplex, basically BAOs functioning as WTs (as you may know HTs can talk with GMRSs and vice versa).

      They are working yes but I’m not sure this is considered commercial use. They’re sure not broadcasting with commercial intent. In theory you can use ham for neighborhood monitoring and other similar purposes, as long as you’re licensed and there’s no pecuniary interest.

      Not sure if they are though, I’d guess not. And yes, this could be done with other types or radio (GMRS) so it’s not really legal. It’s not common, but this happens. I pick up unlicensed chatter frequently when I’m scanning the bands. It’s wrong, it’s bad, but it is what it is.

    • John, your comment got me thinking. Yes, the amateur bands are used commercially regularly, at least around here. Even by the local ham club. However, these are not every day commercial activities, unless weather reporting is considered a commercial activity. So maybe that’s how locals get around the no commercial activity. Further they use C4FM on the 2 meter or 70 cm bands, to limit how far the radios can be picked up.

      But then enforcement there may be laxer than here in the States.

      • @R.O. yes, it’s not super enforced here but then it’s not like bands are crowded with unlicensed illegal transmissions or anything like that. It’s actually minor in the context of things, most amateurs are licensed and so they focus oversight on illegal commercial broadcasting mostly.

        In this case it might be shocking because these are supposedly LEAs so they should be the first to abide. That’s something to consider, I agree.

        But then again it’s not that they’re abusing the bands with endless chatter, it’s quite discreet in fact. I wanted in because it crackles when something happens, so maybe I’ll pick something up in case of an emergency that’s all.

        Have a nice week.

  • Omar, good article. Yes, these low-grade emergencies can indicate holes in our preparations.

    A week without water sounds like a level two emergency that Daisy mentioned a few days ago. That you had to do what was basically an emergency supplying at the last minute, does that not indicate that you have not done enough on that front? What if there had been a water main break suddenly, without warning? What would you have done then?

    These relatively small emergencies also prepare one mentally. They make it easier to adapt to a new reality when something serious happens. For example, it the electricity, water and gas were all turned off at the same time, and stayed off for a month, could you deal with that? It’s easier if you’re already mentally prepared.

    • Thanks R.O.

      I get it that doom and gloom makes a lot more success than the small prepping and survival stuff. I’m fine with that, I do have a lot of nasty and ugly SHTF shit to talk about too, but sometimes I like to focus on the little things. Especially when it helps with the mentality of prepping, as you said well. It’s always supposed to be small until something happens and we’re overwhelmed.

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