“Failure to plan is planning to fail” – Winston Churchill
When I first sat down and started writing this post, I was watching news footage of the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. The destruction and devastation that took place there was a reminder that natural and man-made disasters can happen anywhere. Having a plan of action for what to do in the event of an emergency or disaster is important to increase not only the odds of surviving but in reducing the chaos during the event and in its aftermath.
One of the three most important aspects of getting started on your emergency preparedness journey is to make a plan. There’s no one-size fits all plan for your family. You may live in a city, a suburban area, or in the countryside.
You may live in an apartment in the city, a house in a subdivision, or in a house on acreage.
You may live in an area that is prone to floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, or something else.
Emergency planning for each family and disaster scenario needs careful thought and consideration to come up with the best plan for your situation. Even though there’s no one-size-fits-all plan for every family in every scenario, planning will help bring some order and clarity to situations that are often described as tumultuous and chaotic.
In this post I’ll walk you through how to start making an emergency plan for your family. After you read and work through the steps in this post, you should be able to complete a thorough emergency plan for your family or household. There are many good templates out there for creating your own emergency plan. The American Red Cross has a great basic template that you can download here.
I started with the American Red Cross emergency plan template when I made the first emergency plan for my family. While working through the scenarios, I realized that I wanted to get more specific and in-depth in many areas of planning, so I started working on my own plan which I’ve turned into a template. You can download my family emergency plan template for free by signing up for my mailing list below. Once you do, I’ll send you an email with a link for downloading the template. The template is in word document (.docx) format, enabling you to add, delete, copy, cut, past, edit, etc. to your heart’s content, and so that you can tailor the plan for your unique situation. So read on to what steps you absolutely must take to begin creating your family’s plan!
Write down basic information for each member of your household
In addition to basic information like name, date-of-birth, and phone number(s) for each member of your household, having a list of the places where each individual spends a considerable amount of time can help bring some order and guidance if you’re not all together when an emergency occurs. Having information like the address, phone number, and email address of your children’s’ schools or daycare readily available can help stave off panic that might ensue if say a major earthquake occurs while you’re at work and your kids are at school. In a high-anxiety situation, you don’t want to be left searching through your phone and trying to connect to the internet to try to find phone numbers for your children’s schools.
You may already plan on including information for your pets in your list of household member information. If not, you can include the names, descriptions, pet license/registration numbers, microchip numbers, pet daycare information, and any other information regarding your pets that might be needed in an emergency.
After you have the basic information for each household member written down, you can begin considering what specific disasters and emergencies are more likely to occur in the area in which you live.
What disasters and emergencies are possible where you live?
What kinds of natural or man-made disasters are most likely to occur where you live? Earthquakes are a continuous threat in some parts of the United States like the West coast but aren’t as likely in places like the Midwest. On the other hand, hurricanes tend to only affect other regions of the United States.
Another key scenario that I like to look at is what kind of adverse weather-related difficulties might you encounter? Are there severe winter storms in your area that could knock out power for days or weeks? Is your area prone to flooding after heavy rains?
Further down on the list you may want to consider lower probability events such as pandemics, nuclear power plant meltdowns, chemical or biological attacks, or electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks. You might not take many specific steps to prepare for these scenarios, but it might be worthwhile to at least consider what the effects might be. For some of these, the things you do to prepare for an earthquake or hurricane might overlap with what you might do to prepare for an EMP attack.
If you need help getting started, here’s a list of natural and man-made disasters to consider:
This isn’t an exhaustive list but, hopefully, it’ll get you started.
Once you’ve made your list, it’s helpful to use your imagination to visualize what these scenarios might look like for you and your family members. The visualization exercise can help guide you in working out the details of your plan.
Establish a communication plan
If one or more household members are at separate locations at the time a disaster strikes, communication will likely be difficult because of degraded or disabled communication infrastructure or from phone lines getting overloaded when everyone is trying to call their loved ones. Having a well-thought-out communication plan that is written down will help to reduce the chaos significantly.
Perhaps the number one thing to identify in a communication plan is an outside-of-the-area contact. It is typically easier to get a call through to someone outside of the geographical area where a disaster has occurred, as their phone lines are less likely to be inundated with calls. Someone like a relative or close family friend who lives far enough away not to be affected by a localized disaster makes a great choice for this contact. My wife and I have one of her aunts who lives in California identified as our contact because we live in Washington State. In an emergency, household members can check in with your contact and provide them status and relay messages to other household members.
Next, develop and write down a communication protocol that outlines the steps to take and priorities of communication methods for contacting one another. Just because phone lines are likely to get jammed up doesn’t mean they won’t be entirely unusable. The first option for many, even before calling an outside-of-the-area contact will be to try to call each other directly. If you can’t make a call, the next thing to try is to send text messages. Text messages are divided up into discrete bundles of information conveniently called “packets” that don’t require a continuous connection in order to be sent and, therefore, have a much better chance at getting through.
There are also services like www.SafeandWell.org that can be used to check-in with each other either by phone or over the internet. What’s more, social media services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. can also be used to send direct messages or broadcast your status to all of your followers.
You may also want to include the use of portable two-way radios (“walkie talkies”) in your communication plan. If you choose to include walkie talkies, you should become familiar with how to use them ahead of time, define the channels you’ll communicate on in an actual emergency, and identify call signs for each family member. When planning on using walkie talkies, you should consider that public radio channels will likely experience heavy traffic and the theoretical maximum range of the radios can be limited by terrain, vegetation, and buildings.
The following snippet from my emergency plan template shows an example of a communication protocol.
Some of these steps may seem obvious but having it written down can help everyone get on the same page and communicating as effectively as possible in the aftermath of a disaster.
For convenience, it’s also wise to include some additional contact information in our plan. The following list highlights some additional contact information that I like to include in my personal communication plan:
- Emergency services like police, fire department, ambulance, and poison control
- Homeowner’s insurance
- Friends and extended family
Plan for an immediate emergency evacuation from your home
The classic example of a scenario that requires an immediate evacuation from your home is the house fire. There are other events that may require swift action but for most of us, this is number one on the list. It’s essential to have one or more evacuation routes defined and written down for your home. Some of these evacuation routes (e.g. running out the front or back doors) are obvious. Other options (e.g. escaping through a bedroom window) are less obvious, especially if there are children in your home. If your home has more than one story, you might consider getting fire escape ladders to store in the closets of upstairs bedrooms and then review and practice how to use them.
You may have household members who have decreased mobility and would need assistance during an immediate evacuation. Identifying who will help them out could mean the difference between life and death.
After evacuation routes are identified, define a place near your home but far enough away from danger where everyone can meet once they’ve safely exited the house. This may be somewhere as simple as the neighbor’s driveway and it’s especially important for children to be aware of this since they can get scared and become unpredictable in a situation like a house fire. My family has identified the playground in the apartment complex across the street from our townhome as our meeting location.
Identify locations to meet if you’re separated during an emergency and unable to return home
When you go through your list of disaster scenarios that your family might encounter, you may have identified a few in which you might be forced from your home or may be unable to return home due to safety concerns. In these cases, you’ll need a place for all of the members of your household to meet so that you can regroup and then figure out what to do next. One meeting place is good but it’s an even better idea to have at least two meeting places identified in case you’re unable to go to your primary meeting location. The different meeting locations should be at varying distances from your home so that you can start by trying to meet at the closest location and then work your way outwards if that location is not safe or accessible.
Identify a meeting location INSIDE your neighborhood
Meeting as close to home as possible is usually the best option since you’re likely to be most familiar with the area nearest your home. For this reason, a meeting location inside your neighborhood is preferred for your primary meeting location. This location might be the same meeting place that you already identified for immediate emergency evacuations. For my family, our meeting location inside our neighborhood is the same place we’d meet at in an immediate emergency evacuation – the playground at the apartment complex across the street from our townhome.
Identify a meeting location OUTSIDE your neighborhood
If destruction or the threat of destruction covers an area larger than your neighborhood, then you should have a meeting location outside of your neighborhood identified.
My family’s primary meeting location outside our neighborhood is the local high school which is a little more than a half mile walk from our home.
Define evacuation locations and routes from your home
Just a couple of months ago, Mount Kilauea in Hawaii started erupting again and the lava flows forced hundreds of people from their homes. It’s tragic that for many families, their homes were completely destroyed, and lives altered forever. If you put yourself in their shoes for a minute, you can imagine the decisions they had to make about where to take their families while they figure out longer-term living arrangements. Fortunately, many families were able to stay with friends and relatives while they figured these details out. Having a plan for where to go and what to take with you can help ease some of the burdens if you have to make the tough decision or are forced to evacuate from your home.
Once you have meeting locations identified, you can start thinking of what actual evacuations from your home might look like. There may be immediate danger and authorities might order an evacuation. Or there might not be a mandatory evacuation but you determine the threat to your family’s safety is so high that it is best to evacuate. Furthermore, a disaster might be on a large enough scale that the authorities are unable to provide adequate direction or assistance, forcing you to evacuate on your own.
To further complicate matters, you may be separated from some of the members of your household when the decision to evacuate is made and you’ll have to plan for these scenarios. In these cases, the first step is to identify where you’ll go. I like to have two locations identified, a primary and a secondary location based on geographical distance from my home. The idea is that the wider spread the damage or threat of damage or erosion of safety, the farther away you may have to evacuate.
Identify a PRIMARY evacuation location OUTSIDE your neighborhood
Where could my family go if we’re forced to evacuate from our home?
This is likely the first question to ask yourself when trying to figure out a primary evacuation location. Do you have friends or family nearby that you can stay with for a few days or a few weeks if needed? These will be the preferred options for most of us as opposed to a large, ad-hoc, local or state-run relief shelter. The familiarity and probable higher degree of safety when staying with people you already know will be preferable for most of us. If you identify friends and family whose whom you can evacuate to in an emergency, it’s best to have the conversation with them ahead of time instead of showing up at their doorstep. It might be an awkward conversation to get started but most people will be flattered to know that you trust them that much and the awkwardness will likely subside quickly. You can also describe what supplies you’ll be bringing with you, which I’ll get to later, to help lower any apprehension or concern.
Side note: your primary evacuation location might be the same location as your primary meeting location outside of your neighborhood.
Identify a SECONDARY evacuation location OUTSIDE your neighborhood (optional but recommended)
If destruction or danger is widespread in the area surrounding your home and your primary evacuation location is affected, you’ll need to get even farther away from home. This scenario can be addressed by identifying a secondary evacuation location that is outside of your neighborhood.
As with your primary evacuation location, friends and family are often the best people/places to consider for your secondary evacuation location. Some of us may also have a secondary residence like a vacation home that would serve as a good evacuation location if you’re able to reach it after a disaster. This also has the advantage of allowing you to stockpile supplies there instead of having to take them all with you when evacuating.
Find out where your kids will be evacuated if they’re at school or day-care
If you have kids, your thoughts will probably immediately focus on them during an emergency. If they’re away from you at the time, then you’ll want to know ahead of time where they’d be headed if they’re forced to evacuate. Most schools and day cares should have this planned ahead of time and administrators can provide you with that information if asked.
You’ll also want to plan on how to get to them in an emergency which might require defining who in your household would pick up each child. This might involve having mom or dad picking up all children or dividing up the responsibilities.
One of the things that might give you a little more peace when thinking about this is that schools typically plan for these types of situations better than most of us so they’re likely to have an idea of what to do in the event of a disaster.
Once evacuation locations are identified, it’s recommended to include directions with a map if possible from your home to your evacuation locations. I just go to Google Maps and use their directions, which allows you to map out both driving and walking routes between locations.
Make an evacuation checklist
You may have a few days, a few hours, or just a few minutes to plan to evacuate. In a planned evacuation scenario, you should have at least a few minutes to grab some critical supplies to take with you when you go. Regardless of how much time you have before you evacuate, having a plan that includes at least a small checklist of what to do before you leave will help ensure you leave in an orderly manner and be able to bring as many supplies with you as possible.
Survival experts recommend that each person have a 72 Hour Bag or Bug Out Bag with the basic supplies to take with them in the event of an evacuation. If you’re evacuating by car, you should plan to take your home emergency kit with you too, as well as any other supplies you can that might help you.
If you must evacuate on foot, then your 72 Hour Bags should be sufficiently supplied so that you don’t need anything else for at least 72 hours. The primary time-limiting factor for 72 Hour Bags is the amount of food and water included. For this reason, water purification tablets or reusable water filters that can treat tens or even hundreds of gallons of water are a must for any 72 Hour Bag. Food is more challenging to supply for longer periods due to the fact that of the length of time it will last is highly dependent on the weight and volume of the food. You’ll want to pack as much food as you can if you have to evacuate.
The second part of this post will be continued next week, in which I’ll cover specific scenarios including shelter-in-place, hunkering down at home after a disaster, and some additional considerations to take when creating your emergency plan. Stay tuned!
The content provided in this post is intended for informational, educational, and entertainment purposes only. I am not a professional and the information provided does not constitute professional advice. If you choose to use any of the information or recommended products, you do so at your own risk. For more information, read the full disclaimer here.
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