It's always a good idea to make sure you're ready for whatever life throws your way. Emergency preparedness isn't about doomsday prepping, though, it's about being ready for the realistic events that can disrupt life at any time. Here are some lesser-known things you should do as you establish you and your family's emergency plan. Illustration by Sam Woolley. Photos by Aaron Parecki, he who would be lost, Rex Roof and Frédérique Voisin-Demery.
Set Yourself Up to Receive Warning Messages In Your Area
You don't have to keep your eyes glued to the news to stay up to date. Emergency Alert makes it easy for officials to send important messages through both landlines and text messages.
Authorities can send text messages to mobile devices within range of any mobile towers in an affected area. You don't have to sign up to receive Emergency Alerts, but you should check to make sure that the registered service address of your phone is current. You should also check that your phone — and backup phone if you have one — is able to receive these Emergency Alerts.
Emergency Alert notes that you may not receive an SMS if:
your text message inbox was full the emergency services chose other ways to warn people who may be in the affected area at the time of the emergency your mobile telephone was switched off or was not in a mobile telephone coverage area the last known location of your handset was not within the warning area at the time of the emergency you have not updated your registered service address.
It's also a good idea to check if your prepaid or "burner" phone is able to receive them as well before you throw it in your emergency kit.
To double up on your warning coverage, check with your local area to see if they have their own opt-in public alert system. Most of these systems send warnings by text and/or email, and let you choose the types of alerts and the device you receive them on. Every area is different, though, so do an internet search like this: "[town or city name] + emergency alerts" to see if and how you can sign up. You should also check with your local emergency management office. And make sure everyone in the family is able to get warnings and alerts, not just you.
Establish Multiple Family Meeting Spots
OK, let's all meet at the street sign on the corner.
It's important to stick together in an emergency, so establish a few places where your family can reunite if you've been separated and stay safe. You need to pick four places in total:
- An indoor meeting spot: In the event of natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes and other storms, set a dedicated place in your home everyone can go to. A small, windowless room like a closet or bathroom, a safe room or a basement are good examples.
- A neighbourhood meeting spot: In case you and your family have to leave your home, or you all get separated in the commotion, pick a spot in the neighbourhood everyone knows to meet at. A big tree, mailbox, the end of a driveway or a neighbour's house will do.
- A regional meeting spot: Say you and your partner are at work when disaster strikes and your kids are at school. In that case, you should have a non-residential meeting spot somewhere in the area where everyone can meet up. It can be a library, place of worship, community centre or even a relative's house.
- An out of town meeting spot: Some disasters call for an evacuation, so it's a good idea to have a safe meeting place out of the region. The homes of relatives or family friends are perfect, but you could also choose an easy-to-get-to hotel or other landmark that everyone is familiar with.
Make sure all of these places are accessible by everyone in your family, including people with pets and those with disabilities. If you live in the city and don't have a car, make sure you take time to establish train routes, and backup routes, to your meeting spots. FEMA has a Commuter Emergency Plan form you can fill out and give to everyone who needs it. (It's targeted at Americans, but only the links aren't relevant to Australians.)
Have a Family Communication Plan In Place
When disaster strikes, communication is everything. Emergency personnel will be stretched thin trying to mitigate damage and help those who are truly in need, so they won't have time to help you find or reach out to people. However, with a family communication plan in place, you can make things easier and safer for those you care about.
- The name, date of birth, phone number and important medical information for each family member
- Insurance information
- Medical contacts
- Work and school information for each family member
- An out-of-town contact
- All of your planned meeting places
You can make your own, or print this blank one and fill it out. Make copies and keep them in your emergency kit, car, purse, wallet and backpack. There's even a foldable, wallet-sized one you can fill out and carry with you at all times. Keep one posted or stashed in an easy-to-access place in your home too. It's also not a bad idea to put some of this information in a phone or other device, but don't rely on it.
Once everyone has the information they need, set up a phone tree so people know who to call when something happens. Everyone's might be different, so find a free template (like the one above) or draw up your own and get everyone in your family to fill it out together. Ideally, everyone should have two people they always contact in an emergency. Then those two people each have two people to contact, and so on.
Make Sure Everyone In Your Family Carries an 'ICE' Card
An "ICE" card, or "in case of emergency" card, is a small piece of paper that lists important information about you and your health in case you're incapacitated. At minimum, your ICE card should list your name, sex, blood type, vital medical information (like prescriptions you take or any allergies you have) and emergency contact information for at least two people. You can make your own or use a free web tool like the one at geticecard.com to create and print one (you can leave the info blank and click "create card" for a blank template).
It's not a bad idea to make a couple and keep one in each of your bags, and there should definitely be one in your car. AAA has a free template you can use to make one to stick in your glove box. Additionally, you should fill out the health and medical information on your smartphone if possible. For example, the iPhone's Health app lets you list allergies, reactions, blood type and emergency contacts that first responders can view by swiping the lock screen and tapping "Emergency". At the very least, list one contact in every family member's phone as "In Case of Emergency" or "ICE", so someone can instantly identify who your emergency contact is.
Make a Go-Bag for Everyone In Your Household
You're probably familiar with the concept of the go-bag or "bug-out bag", and you may even have one already. But one bag for an entire family is not ideal. Every member of your family, including kids, seniors and especially the disabled, should have their own that's tailored to their individual needs. That way if people get separated they still have everything they need to survive.
For a basic go-bag or emergency kit, FEMA recommends you include bottled water, non-perishable food, a battery-powered or hand crank radio and weather radio, a torch, extra batteries, first aid kit, whistle, dust mask, moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties (for personal sanitation), a wrench or pair of pliers, can opener, local maps and mobile phone charger. A prepaid mobile phone is also a great addition. After that, take each person's individual needs into consideration.
If someone needs medication, try to have at least three-days to a week's worth stowed away, as well as a copy of their prescriptions. You may need to let your doctor know you're doing this, just so they will write you a prescription (or a refill) for the extras, or provide sample packs you can stash away. Make sure you pack formula and nappies for babies. Pack food and extra water for pets (or pack their own go-bag) since shelters will be overwhelmed and may not be able to take them in. If someone wears contacts or glasses, have an extra pair of glasses and contacts plus solution in their bag. An old pair or prescription is fine — it's better to kind-of see than not see at all.
Write down credit and debit card numbers and security codes on a piece of paper to keep in your bag, and make sure every bag has a little cash in it. Card systems might go down, so have notes in small denominations ($5 and $10) and some change. And, if you can help it, try to keep your go-bag from looking like a go-bag. If your bag looks like it contains survival equipment, it can make you a target to those who weren't prepared and have grown desperate.
Lastly, let each family member add something personal to each of their bags that makes them feel comfortable. It could be a favourite lolly, some tea, a toy or game or even a book. Personal toiletries like lotion, deodorant, extra wet wipes, extra socks and extra underwear are a good idea too. A little comfort goes a long way in tough times, so make sure everyone has something that helps them relieve stress and feel a little normal.
Keep Important Documents Ready to Grab and Go
Many disasters have the potential to wipe away all of your belongings, including all of your vital documents and records if you're not careful. They should be stored away safely, like in a waterproof, fireproof safe, but they also need to be packaged together in a way that lets you grab them all in an instant. Include vital identification records like birth certificates and passports, medical information and financial and legal documents you can't easily replace. If you're not sure what documents you should have stowed and ready to grab, we've got you covered.
You can also store electronic copies of all your important documents encrypted on hard drives you keep in your safe and go-bag. You should also consider keeping a regularly backed up flash drive loaded with other important files (photos, work documents and so on). Of course, you should also have everything stored with a secure, encrypted cloud-based service as well just in case your physical backups fail you.
Plan an Emergency Outfit
Emergencies can happen at any time, including when you're relaxing or sleeping at home. But chances are, your pyjamas aren't the best thing to leave the house in, especially if there's nasty weather. It's a good idea to lay out some clothes and accessories on top of your go-bag, or just inside it if there's room. Same for everyone in your family.
Your emergency outfit should include a good pair of shoes or boots that provide good traction in all weather types, pants (not shorts), a long-sleeved T-shirt, a jacket, a hat and a pair of gloves. Make sure everything is made out of cotton or wool so they breathe well and will burn off without melting in case of fire. It's also a good idea to keep a cotton handkerchief or bandanna (or a few) to cover your face, and goggles to protect your eyes in case of smoke or dust. Now you can hop right out of bed and switch to survival mode almost instantly.
For more useful emergency preparedness tips and information, be sure to check out ready.gov (it's available in 13 different languages). They cover disaster preparedness for everything from hurricanes to cyber attacks.