Family Emergency Preparedness: Plan to Succeed

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Benjamin Franklin 

A few months ago, I had an experience I don’t care to repeat ever again. I was running late for work (Don’t all good stories start that way?), and I threw my work bag together in a rush, tossed on some work clothes, and flew out the door to make my twenty-minute commute. After I was already on my way, I realized I had forgotten change for the parking meter at work. I crossed my fingers I would get lucky and not get a ticket. Then, as I got on the freeway, I quickly realized another thing I had forgotten: that weekend we had used the truck to transport some sand to our backyard. There was sand in the back of the truck, and, of course, the back window was open. Instantly, I was in the middle of a sand storm. Sand blew in through window and covered every inch of my body. I was already sweaty from my rushing around getting ready, and the sand stuck to the sweat like it was magnetic. Once the sand had made a nice thick cover over the interior of the truck and every inch of me, the sandstorm settled down. Just then I looked down at the gas meter to realize that I was driving on empty. And guess who had forgotten her wallet that day as well? That’s right.

I made that drive to work willing every piece of good luck I had ever earned in my life to come together and work for me. Needless to say, it was hands-down the worst commute of my life. And every step of that slowly-unfolding crisis could have been avoided had I simply thought ahead. Thinking ahead does not require much time—what would it have taken, three minutes?—and when we do take time beforehand to plan, everything runs more smoothly. Although my lack of planning in this instance simply made for an unpleasant and not very safe ride to work, lack of planning for emergencies can mean the difference between life and death.

If you and your family have not made a plan for emergencies, now is the time to do so. Set aside a little time each week for a family meeting to make some important decisions and establish protocols that your family will follow in the event of an emergency. A good place to start is to plan for how you will communicate with one another and how you will reunite if you are apart when the emergency happens, and then talk about steps to take in an emergency if you are at home.

Plan for Communication

If an emergency occurs, chances are the family will likely not be together. Power outages may make charging cell phones hard to do, as we saw in Hurricane Sandy. Even if cell phones work, there may be congestion in the area of the disaster that makes calling locally a challenge. Here are some ideas, mostly courtesy of FEMA’s website, to ensure your family can communicate with each other in an emergency:

*Put a contact card that lists all parents’ contact numbers on it in your child’s backpack or diaper bag.

*As a family choose a contact person who lives in a different state from you. Make a plan that all family members will contact that out-of-state person to let him/her know they are safe should an emergency occur.

*It’s ideal if every family member has a cell phone, and if not a cell phone, then a prepaid phone card or coins to make a call. Also know that sometimes you can send text messages even when you can’t make phone calls.

*Something my own family did when I was young: Put a tin can in a place you all know (we hung ours from the tree in our front yard). Put a piece of paper and pencil in it. If there is no phone service, you can leave a note in the can that says where you will be. Then other family members who arrive home can know where everyone else is.

*Encourage family members to use social media like Facebook to post their status if they have access to a computer and the Internet.

*Look into the Red Cross’s Safe and Well website.

You might also consider purchasing a solar-powered or hand-crank charger for your phone. A car charger can also be good. Hand-crank or battery-powered radio or TV can be good to have as well to keep informed about what’s going on.

Plan for Reunification

In addition to planning for communication, it’s important to plan how your family will get back together if an emergency occurs while you are in separate places. Make a plan about where to meet in different situations. Choose a place right outside your home, like the mailbox, to meet in case of a fire. Also choose a place that is close by and easy to get to, like the neighborhood grocery store parking lot; an out-of-the-neighborhood place; and an out-of-town place. Then be clear about the circumstances that would require meeting at each spot.

Schools and workplaces should have emergency response plans in place. Find out about what is in place at your family’s schools and workplaces. Schools should have a plan for how they will communicate with families during a crisis and whether they will shelter in place or move to another location to keep safe in an emergency. Ask your children’s school about this so that you know where your children will be.

Other Planning Considerations

Sometimes emergency situations occur when the family members are at home. If this is the case, there are important steps to take. Immediately following a disaster, the first thing you should do is to shut off your utilities to prevent leaks and explosions. Have a family meeting that teaches everyone in the family how to do this. For the natural gas, contact your gas company to find out the procedure for turning off your gas. For the water, show all family members how to shut off water at the main house valve. For the electricity, show family members how to shut off all individual circuits and then shut off the main circuit. This knowledge could be lifesaving for whoever is at home during an emergency.

Additional family emergency preparedness meetings could discuss basic first aid and CPR, how to use a fire extinguisher, and how to call 911.

Getting your family prepared for an emergency doesn’t take as much time as you might initially expect. If you set aside the time right now to make some simple decisions about what family members will do in specific emergency situations, you will make a terrible experience much easier to get through.

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