While surviving a disaster is never easy, for many it's actually the aftermath that can be the most challenging. After a crisis, you may find yourself among a large group of people under some very difficult conditions. It might be in a private residence, a public school being used as a makeshift shelter, or maybe it's the worse of the worst — thousands of people packed like cattle into a large public structure.

Think the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where hordes of tired, hungry, thirsty, highly stressed-out people were shoehorned into tight quarters for extended periods of time without adequate resources. Add in the sweat, the smells, the crying, the collective desperation, and you can understand how the situation can quickly get very ugly.

What is Close-Quarter Etiquette?

Many of us have heard the phrase close-quarter battle, or CQB. It's a term used to describe combat in tight spaces — say, in a house or aboard a United Airlines flight — that severely limit movement and visibility which forces a change of tactics. In many respects, close-quarter etiquette (CQE) is similar.

We use the term CQE to describe interactions between people in small areas where movement is so limited that the everyday standard of interpersonal behavior may no longer be practical.

Think of it as a code of behavior, a series of common-sense guidelines for situations where groups of people are forced to coexist within a confined area for an extended period of time. CQE requires establishing and respecting boundaries, observing proper sanitation/hygiene and safety procedures, employing stress-management skills, and showing consideration and respect for others.

The Basics

Being cooped up with a bunch of people after a crisis can be nerve-racking, extremely uncomfortable, and even contentious at times. People generally have every intention of remaining calm and level-headed in the face of adversity, but after just a few days tempers can flare and folks may not be as agreeable as they were in the early stages of the crisis.

Just about now some of you reading this article may be thinking, “Who cares about being nice to one another when we're all trying our best just to survive?”

CQE, however, isn't about being nice — although being nice doesn't hurt. Rather, it's about finding ways to maximize cohesion within a group while minimizing the disputes, animosity, and conflicts that can distract from and erode the group's chances for survival.



Keeping a positive attitude and cooperating with those around you will goes a long way toward reducing stress, anxiety, and establishing an optimistic atmosphere. It sounds simple enough, but during postcrisis conditions, staying upbeat will be anything but easy.

Here are some tips to help you maintain a positive tone even under the most difficult circumstances:

Empathize: Understand and accept that the people will not be at their best; adjust your expectations accordingly. This may be their first experience with a full-blown disaster, and many will be overcome with panic, shock, fear, desperation, and anger. Others will be operating at their physical and emotional limits, and the slightest provocation can potentially push them over the edge.

Encourage: Reassure those around you that the situation will improve and that working together and staying positive are in their best interest.

Keep Calm: Although survival will always be the first order of business, try to keep your cool. Someone has to bring in buckets of water, but there's no need to bark orders to get it done.

Speak Softly: The more you amp up the volume, the less people will hear your message. Effective communications require that you choose your words carefully and that you deliver them with respect. Be brief, be specific, and be positive.

Avoid Conflicts: Pick your priorities carefully. Any energy expended in disagreement can be better employed to ensure the group's survival.


Setting and respecting personal boundaries is always important; however, after a disaster it becomes a top priority. During normal times it might be considered rude to overstep boundaries; in a disaster aftermath such an oversight can easily escalate into a heated argument or worse. Avoid these potential conflicts by establishing and clearly communicating all personal boundaries.

Start by agreeing on a realistic set of basic personal boundaries with those around you. For maximum cooperation, make sure everyone understands where these lines are drawn.

To be effective, boundaries should be appropriate to the circumstances and the limitations facing the group. In a temporary survival situation, establishing unrealistic expectations will only set up the group for failure. For example, asking someone not to snore when they fall asleep isn't realistic; asking someone to keep their voice down while others are sleeping is.


Personal Space

Respecting personal space, that invisible bubble that surrounds us all, is a big deal for many of us and one of the most important rules of social behavior. Although every situation is different, in general, most consider personal space to be between 1.5 to 4 feet. Any closer and the reaction can be anything from discomfort to violence. In a crisis situation, this distance extends further, since many people will likely be on high alert.

A good rule of thumb is to keep extra distance between you and other people and to always ask for permission before moving in closer, especially when nerves are frayed. Even a simple bedsheet hung on a string between sleeping areas represents an important personal boundary and shouldn't be disregarded.

Here are some additional tips:

Hands Off: Never touch anyone you don't know well without consent. No matter how honorable, your intentions can easily be misinterpreted.

Announce It: When walking up to someone, always announce yourself from a reasonable distance to avoid surprising them. Don't approach a person without their consent.

Daily Duties

Once the power fails and the clean, fresh water is in short supply, daily life will become significantly more difficult. Chores that were once easily performed by pushing a few buttons or turning a knob will now require a good deal of effort. Not everyone will be up to the task — the frail, elderly, or very young, for example, may be limited in what they can do, but everyone should pitch in within the limits of their abilities.

The goal is to spread out the responsibilities so that all members contribute to the group's survival and no one is left out.

This distribution of responsibilities not only helps everyone feel useful, but it also keeps resentment to a minimum. Chores should be kept simple, nothing too complicated or elaborate, just what's needed to keep the wheels of survival turning. Make a list of who's in the group and detail the skills they bring to the table. Matching people and their skills with the right job ensures you get the best possible person for the job.


Sharing Resources

You may find yourself among family and close friends, but there may also be other people present whom you don't know so well. In an ideal world, everybody contributes resources and sharing supplies only makes the group stronger.

In the real world, however, you can expect people will show up with empty hands and maybe even with a few extra mouths to feed. This is where advanced planning and preparation can make a huge difference.

When turning people away isn't an option, and in many instances it's not, you'll need extra supplies, food, and water. When the moment passes, you can privately curse and complain about how your lazy cousin should have listened to you when you told him to store some basic food preps, but during a crisis isn't the best time to call him out. Resources should be shared in equal portions, and meals should be eaten together as a group, but don't force the issue. Set reasonable rules for food distribution and rationing, especially if food, water, and other supplies are in short supply.

Sanitation & Hygiene

After a disaster, clean water may be severely limited and largely reserved for drinking and food preparation. Lack of proper hygiene will not only have serious effects on your health, but it can also make being around you very undesirable. Everybody understands that during survival situations grooming will take a hit, but hygiene can't be abandoned altogether. Illness and disease can quickly spread among a group confined to tight quarters.

With some planning and preparation you can still maintain a good level of hygiene and sanitation without compromising your water supplies. Here are some common sense CQE tips:

Prioritize: Make personal hygiene a daily priority, same as eating food and drinking water.

Conserve Water: Wash key body parts with a small amount of water or disposable wipes. A spray bottle can be used to minimize water use.

Be Considerate: Be mindful of all sanitation procedures and think of others. If there's an area for relieving yourself, use it and clean up after you've done your business.

Separate Zones: Dispose of all human waste in a safe, well-marked area to avoid contaminating your living area, food, or water supplies.


Just because you find yourself in cramped and uncomfortable conditions doesn't mean you shouldn't do your very best to find balance and make the best of the situation. By establishing and respecting boundaries, employing people's skills, showing consideration and respect for others, and maintaining proper sanitation/hygiene procedures, we can all improve our chances of surviving. Stay safe, be prepared, and be considerate.

About The Author

Richard is a practicing attorney, an urban survival consultant, a writer, and a firearms enthusiast. He's the author of Surviving Doomsday: A Guide for Surviving an Urban Disaster and The Quick Start Guide for Urban Preparedness. For more, go to www.quickstartsurvival.com.

Cleanliness is Key

Most of us follow a set of unspoken rules that keep society functioning smoothly. When a disaster occurs, however, it seems that all sense of civility tends to disappear almost immediately. A fail here can seriously compromise your survival. Here is list of some of the worse CQE violations:

Poor Personal Hygiene: Body odor is just the start. An unwashed body is a breeding ground for bacteria that can cause all sorts of health problems. Improper hygiene can lead to illness, infection, and create a welcoming environment for all sorts of disgusting, disease-causing critters. In close quarters, illness and disease can quickly spread and affect all you come in contact with.

Unclean Hands: Hand washing is probably the single most important factor for preventing the spread of infection and disease, including the common cold, influenza, E. coli, hepatitis A, and a variety of other life-threatening nasties. Proper hand washing can significantly reduce the spread of germs and bacteria and can be easily done in under a minute with minimum amounts of clean water or anti-bacterial products. Prepare a wash station and make it as easy as possible for all to comply.

Uncovered Coughing and Sneezing: Cover your mouth with a tissue, use your sleeve, or cover your mouth with the upper portion of your shirt. Don't cover your mouth/nose with your hands when you cough or sneeze, this will just help spread the germs even faster every time you touch something. Regardless of what you use to cover up, make sure to wash your hands as soon as possible.

Wash Station

Nothing you can do will ever be 100-percent effective, but taking some simple precautions will minimize the chances of spreading contamination among your survival group. A simple hand wash station can be easily set up with minimal supplies and effort. Here's how:

  1. Prepare a solution of three parts clean disinfected water with one part household bleach, and put the mixture in a spray bottle for sanitizing hands with minimal water.
  2. Have another person spray your hands while you rub them together; use just enough of the solution to wet your hands.
  3. Lather up with a small amount of liquid soap and scrub well.
  4. Spray hands one last time to rinse. Air dry or use a paper towel.
  5. Never use the spray bottle to spray your own hands since that might contaminate the outside of the spray bottle.

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