How to Create a Family Emergency Plan

Are you prepared for a natural disaster? Don't feel bad if the answer's no — most Americans aren't. But the process isn't as daunting as you might think. A pediatrician mom walks you through the steps of creating a family emergency plan. 

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Photo: Lucas Zarebinksi

I've finally done it. I've made a disaster kit and created a communication plan for my family in case of an emergency. Until recently, every time I started to prepare for a disaster, I got so rattled just by the thought of one that I gave up. But as a pediatrician who has cared for children after tragedies and as a mom of two young sons, I should know better. So I faced my fears and forged ahead, and I'm here to help you do the same.

A staggering 69% of Americans haven't made a family emergency plan, according to the Ad Council. Since September is National Preparedness Month and marks the 17th anniversary of September 11 — and with the recent hurricanes and wildfires still fresh in our mind — it's time for all of us to take this task seriously. "Although disasters are rare, prepping for them is one of those crucial 'just in case' precautions, like having smoke detectors," explains Parents advisor Irwin Redlener, M.D., director of the Center for National Preparedness at Columbia University. Planning for a catastrophe also makes you ready for a less severe event like a fire or a local power outage.

So don't freak out. You can do this. As you start this journey, expect that a family preparedness plan is going to cost you some cash. I spent roughly $350 getting my home and family prepared. (Ouch, I know. Consider saving up for a few months.) I also devoted about 15 hours to this project; try taking a day off to make some real progress. You might make your kit with a friend -- I did, and we encouraged each other along the way.

Trust me: You'll always be glad you took the time to improve your family's safety. You'll feel more secure and better able to function in any unexpected event.

Step One: Create a Communication Plan

  • Teach your child one parent's cell-phone number or a good contact number. Starting at around age 5, kids are developmentally ready to memorize a 7- or 10-digit number. Practice with your child and turn the phone number into a song, like a modified version of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."
  • Designate an out-of-state contact. This will be a resource and point person for your family to call.
  • Choose a location other than your home where your family can meet. You'll need to go there in case of a fire or an earthquake, for example. Your meeting place might be a local park, school, or shelter. Walk to the site with your child so he knows exactly how to get there. Also, if you live in an area prone to natural disasters, such as hurricanes, make sure your family knows the evacuation routes and zones.
  • Designate a trusted friend or family member who can pick up your kid at child care or school if you are unable to get there in a disaster situation. Be sure that you give official permission to release your child to that person.
  • Make a card with your plan for each adult's wallet. Include contact names, your emergency location, and the out-of-state contact number. Put a copy in your school-age child's backpack, and discuss the plan with your kids.
  • Inform caregivers and nearby relatives of your family emergency plan. Be sure to give a copy of your plan to your child's teacher too.
  • Write a letter for your child to have in case of an emergency and leave it with child care or school. I found this to be especially difficult, but I did it and you can too. If you're ever separated from your child, you'll both be comforted. (See "A Letter to Our Son" below)
  • If you're not good at texting, improve your skills. When cell- phone signal strength goes down, texting often still works because it uses less bandwidth and network capacity.

Step Two: Assemble a Kit

  • If you can afford a premade three-day emergency kit, buy it. Order online from the American Red Cross (from $65; Kits have food, water, light sticks, a poncho, a breathing mask, and other supplies. It's only enough for one person, and it won't contain everything I suggest below, but it's a good start.
  • Gather the rest of your supplies. See "What Goes in Your Emergency Kit" below.
  • Purchase 20-gallon plastic containers with lids to store all your emergency gear. If you have limited space, consider buying containers that fit under your bed.
  • Make some "refresh" cards. That is, keep a list taped to the top of each box in your emergency kit that details which items need to be replenished, or which info needs updating, and when. For example, some of the food I bought expires in a few years. It's all on my refresh card. Put a reminder in your phone or on your family calendar that tells you to check your refresh card and revise your kit as needed.
  • Stash some cash. I suggest you have $150 or more ready in case of emergency (but any amount is better than nothing). And no "borrowing" from the emergency kit when you're short of cash! Leave it alone so it's available if you ever need it.
  • Determine where to keep the kit. A garage or a lower level near a door is ideal. If you live in an apartment, maybe there's a common area with storage that you can use.
  • Learn some skills. Learn CPR, first aid, and other lifesaving skills. When faced with an emergency, you'll know how to properly use the items in your kit.

Step Three: Know Your Neighborhood

Look into how at-risk your own area may be, suggests Jeffrey Upperman, M.D., a pediatric surgeon who heads the trauma center at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Contact your local fire department and school to inquire about specific threats to your neighborhood such as unstable trees, streets prone to flooding, or transportation challenges.

After gathering that info, it's essential to figure out how your neighbors can work together in the event of an emergency, says Dr. Upperman. For example, if you're a nurse or a teacher, you may have a comprehensive first-aid kit available, and if a carpenter lives on your street, he might have tools or equipment that would be useful in an emergency. Pool your expertise and resources! It will ultimately save lives. This is one part of my family emergency plan that I still need to improve; we recently moved and I don't know many of my neighbors yet, so I'm right there with you working on it.

Also consider signing up for your community's warning system, if they have one. Other important sources include the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio, which alert residents in case of emergency.

Two Ways to Protect Your Home Right Now

1. If you have natural gas, learn how to turn off the gas where it enters your home. If there's any disruption or damage to the gas line due to an earthquake or severe damage to your home, this will reduce the risk of fire. It's easier than I ever imagined, and so necessary. Purchase a 12-inch adjustable wrench or pliers that allow you to turn the valve. Then leave the tool at the site of the gas valve on the outside of your house, and add another to your emergency kit.

2. Familiarize yourself with the main water shut-off valve in your home. Practice turning it off so that if your water safety cannot be assured or if there's a leak in your pipes, you'll be able to quickly turn off all the water flowing into your home.

What Goes in Your Family Emergency Plan Kit

Gather enough supplies to get your family through three days.

Emergency kit
Lucas Zarebinksi
  • Water. Be sure to have 3 gallons per person and per animal in your home. For example, for my family (Mom, Dad, two boys, and dog) we have 15 gallons. If you're breastfeeding you'll need more for hydration.
  • Food. Buy canned, mostly high-calorie foods. Good choices are chili, tuna, veggies, and soup, as well as peanut butter, crackers, granola bars, cereal bars, and comfort foods like chocolate or candy. Buy foods with similar expiration dates to make it easier to refresh your kit. You'll also want powdered formula for babies and boxed milk for toddlers, and food for your pet.
  • A "refresh" card that lists the contents of your kit and the dates that medication and perishables will expire
  • First-aid kit. Standard kits usually cost around $25. You may need to add a couple pairs of gloves, and gauze, tape, and antibiotic ointment. First-aid kits typically don't include over-the-counter medications, especially for children.
  • Respirator/surgical masks to reduce exposure to airborne particles
  • Diapers and wipes. Refresh your diaper size!
  • Clothing. Have one complete outfit for each person, including sturdy shoes, a hat, and gloves. Remember to change this out as your kids grow. Put that on your refresh card.
  • Children's acetaminophen and a card with your infant or young child's current dose (often the bottle doesn't include it for kids under age 2). After each well visit, update your card with your child's new dosing info.
  • Medication. Get a seven-day supply of any prescription you or your child is taking. If your child is on an important daily med, ask your doctor for a one-week-supply prescription to fill for your kit. Add the expiration date of meds to your refresh card.
  • Sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher)
  • Manual can opener. What good is the food if you can't get to it?
  • Waterproof matches
  • Fire extinguisher
  • One large flashlight for each adult; one small flashlight for each child able to work it
  • Batteries. Have enough for flashlights and a radio. Include a full set of replacements.
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank radio
  • Utility knife
  • 12-inch adjustable wrench for turning off your gas line
  • Whistles with lanyards so you can find each other in the dark
  • A corded phone, which will still work when power is down. (Check Target or Wal-Mart.)
  • Cash
  • Chlorine bleach as a cleaner and sanitizer
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Tampons/pads
  • Garbage bags
  • Blankets. Have one for each person.
  • Duct tape and plastic sheeting to keep out airborne chemicals. The tape should be at least 10 mil thick; the sheeting, at least 4 mil.
  • Documents. Fill a waterproof bag with one copy of important documents including passports, bank-account and credit-card numbers, birth certificates, Social Security cards, and wills. You'll want to protect them or take them with you if evacuation is necessary. You might add memorabilia, such as irreplaceable photos, in your family emergency plan kit.
  • Fun stuff. Comfort your family or pass the time with a deck of cards, coloring books, stuffed animals, and puzzles or board games.
Mom and Son
Jonathan Swanson

A Letter to Our Son

My son's preschool asked each family for water, a light stick, a blanket, and a letter for their child in case of an emergency. It was very hard for me to write that letter, but I eventually did it. If your child care or school doesn't ask for one, try talking with the teacher. Maybe you can lead the way.

Dear F,

When you were just learning to talk, you used to say "kokay" instead of "okay." I really liked it. That extra k at the beginning of the word was all yours. You came up with it and continued it until you were almost 2? years old. It was funny and adorable; you were the only little boy in the world I know who said it like that. In a whole school of children, I could have heard your "kokay" from across the room.

Today you say "okay." Say it now, F. You're okay.

Today is a funny day, but we are with you. Next to you, holding your hand, whispering into your ear and squeezing your fingertips. Nose to nose. You may not see me right now, but I'm with you. Just like the Llama Llama book says, even when I feel far from you, Mama is always near.

Mommy and Daddy will be with you soon. We'll smile, hug you, and squeeze you tight. You and O and Daddy and Mommy will have so many more journeys. You're going to have to hold on tight!

Be a brave boy until we see you. Help your friends. Listen to your teachers. Give big hugs. Be kind and sweet.

I know you'll be kokay.

We love you more than the moon, the sun, and all the water in the ocean. See you soon, Lovie.

Love, love, love,

Mommy and Daddy

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