Mother Nature is cold and heartless (not very maternal of her). She doesn’t care that you didn’t get enough sleep last night, have a deadline at work, sat in traffic on the way home or have a splitting headache. She chooses to send weather, shift tectonic plates or ignite fires when she wants to, your convenience be damned. If the emergency is initiated by a terrorist attack, you can almost always expect them to initiate it when it hurts the most. A family disaster plan, even a simple one, to get your family focused and working together on safety and survival is not just critical, it’s the only thing standing between you, them and the indifferent violence of chaos.
Simple, Clear, Rehearsed
Military historians tell us that prior to a major offensive, Napoleon Bonaparte would grab his simplest soldier and brief his battle plan. If the soldier understood the plan, it was ready. If not, the general went back to further refine and simplify it. To be successful, a family disaster plan has to be clear, short and specific. So start with the four W’s and an H — who, what, where, how and why. “Who” is clearly your family and “why” is the avoidance of death or injury, but the “where, what and how” are the key variables.
If you currently have a plan, is it so complex that only you and your spouse know all the details? If so, redo it. It’s perfectly appropriate to have parts delegated to a family member, but everyone involved needs to know their role and how they fit into the larger plan. The least convenient but probably the most important element is to rehearse the plan. Not only will rehearsals help tune the kinks out of the process, but the repetition will both help family members learn their respective roles and find solutions to problems the original planners might not have considered.
Building the Plan — One to Stay, One to Go
A family disaster emergency plan must have two parts. The first is for staying in place, the second is for evacuation. Should your family choose to stay in place during or after a disaster, or if it occurs too quickly to avoid, your family will need a plan. The stationary plan should reflect the considerations discussed previously, but will require more in terms of certain supplies and less where mobility and transportation are concerned. If you are staying in place during and after a disaster, do you know where you need to be in your home? An interior room or a basement is always a good choice, but are there elements specific to your location, surroundings and construction of your home that would compel you to choose otherwise?
If you are staying in place, how long do you expect to be without normal services such as power, water, food, medical care and physical security? FEMA recommends three days, but recent events show that having at least a month’s supply on hand is a good idea. Have you provisioned for the special needs you identified in your self-assessment? This means baby food and diapers, essential medicines for those with life- or health-threatening illnesses, and emergency power if medical devices require power to function. Do you have the items necessary to prepare the food you have stored? There’s nothing more pathetic than a box of canned food and no can opener, but this also applies to the ability to boil water and prepare most varieties of emergency food. Do you have the ability to purify your water in the event it becomes contaminated? Keep in mind water is for drinking, hygiene and cooking —there is little else more important to the long-term survival of you and your family.
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Does your dwelling effectively protect you from the elements if the power is out? If it is slightly damaged, do you have the ability to adapt or use only a portion of the property? Can you defend it from looting by those less prepared? Do you know how to defend yourself and your family? These and many other factors are critical if you decide to “ride it out” on your own.
If you have decided to evacuate, which is probably the best idea if you have adequate advanced warning, do you own a vehicle capable of carrying people, pets and supplies? Where are you going? The most obvious route out of town will attract the most evacuees and potentially the most traffic. Are there any major chokepoints along the way, such as bridges, ferries or mountains? Can you avoid them? How far can your vehicle go fully loaded, and is it reliable enough to get to your designated location in all seasons? When was the last time you checked your tires or changed your oil? Do you keep the fuel tank filled regularly? What if your primary evacuation location is also within the danger zone you are trying to avoid? Can you make it to your secondary location? Do you even know what and where the secondary location is?
Finalizing the Plan — Putting the Realities on Paper
Before you and your family can execute a family disaster plan, you must first assemble as a family. Finding one another is important not just to have everyone pulling together, but because the psychological distraction of locating a loved one can spell disaster to the cohesiveness necessary to survive a life-threatening emergency. The first step is to establish a family communications plan. Fundamental to this step is a document with the names, home and cell phone numbers, and the email addresses of the members of your family, as well as an out-of-state contact name through whom communications can be routed should typical methods of communications not work. Each member of the family should have a memorized, if not written, record of these names and numbers, especially children. The out-of-state contact allows responsible adult members to give instructions to gather family members should the circumstances prevent normal assembly at home.
The communications plan should also include a specific location close to but outside the home, as well as a neighborhood meeting place where the family will gather in the event home is not reachable. The key here is to limit the places where family members have to look to find one another. Should family members be outside of the typical home area when disaster strikes, the American Red Cross also maintains a “Safe and Well” service where separated family members can log their location and status so the rest of the family can at least have the peace of mind knowing they are safe.
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Do not plan on cell phones working, as in most major emergencies the towers may be damaged or clogged with traffic. Texting (SMS), which uses less bandwidth and typically a separate system from cell phones, is less likely to fail in the event of diminished system capabilities and leaves a semi-permanent message where a voicemail requires a consistent cell signal to function properly. The second element to the actual plan is a list and location of supplies staged or stored for an emergency. If the family chooses to evacuate, each should know the designated vehicle, the driver, where each will sit and where each will stow their gear, as well as their primary and secondary responsibilities in regard to packing essentials and loading them into the vehicle. Choices need to be made by the responsible adults as to which, where and how supplies are stored. Are they in backpacks for a hasty departure or in tubs for easy access but otherwise stored in the corner of a basement? Each family will have to contemplate the costs and benefits of these considerations and make decisions based upon their family’s needs and capabilities.
Finally, a specific route plan should be researched and mapped both on paper and GPS that contemplates alternatives for infrastructure capacity, geographic challenges and considerations for the navigational impacts of different disasters. This route plan should also include the criteria for departure, even if everyone isn’t together. Before departing the home, a clear message should be left for friends and family reflecting who departed, when they departed, and what route and destination they have in mind. It will be each family member’s choice what supplies to leave behind.
Ultimately, the average family cannot predict or control a serious emergency. However, they can greatly increase their chance of survival by asking tough questions, answering honestly and preparing accordingly.
This article was originally published in BALLISTIC™ Summer 2015 magazine. Print Subscriptions are available here.