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Preparing a Family Safety Plan for Emergency Situations

by Dawn Ramsburg



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No community is immune to the natural disasters and emergencies that can arise throughout the year. Already this year, there have been tornadoes in the South and Midwest, floods and landslides in California, and winter storms in the Northern regions of the United States. In addition to natural disasters, homes and communities can be affected by fires or radiological and hazardous materials accidents.

While such experiences are frightening and frustrating, it is possible to alleviate some of the stress and concerns by being prepared. Planning and preparation is especially important for families if children may be at school and parents at work when a disaster strikes. This means that family members will need to know how to link up again in the event of neighborhood evacuation or damage to the home. To help avoid injury and panic in your family in case of an emergency, it is important to create a family preparedness plan.

To help you create such a plan, the National Weather Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the American Red Cross have devised the following four-step process (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Federal Emergency Management Agency; & The American Red Cross, 1992).

1. Do Your Homework.

  • Find out what disasters could happen in your area. (Visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency and select your state to see what may occur in your area.)

  • Request information from your local Red Cross agency on how to prepare and respond to each potential disaster.

  • Learn about your community's warning signals (what they sound like, what they mean, and what actions you should take when they are activated).

  • Find out about the emergency response plan for your workplace, your children's school or day care center, and other places where your family spends time.

  • Ask about animal care since pets may not be allowed inside emergency shelters.

2. Create a Family Disaster Plan.

  • Meet with your family and discuss the need to prepare for a disaster.

  • Develop a plan to share responsibilities and work together as a team.

  • Establish meeting places inside and outside your home and outside the neighborhood. Make sure everyone knows when and how to contact each other if separated.

  • Decide on the best escape routes from your home. Find two ways out of each room.

  • Establish an out-of-state family contact (friend or relative). Call this person after the disaster to let them know where you are and if you are okay. Make sure everyone knows the contact's phone number.

  • Learn what to do in an evacuation and what you should and cannot take to a shelter.

3. Make a Checklist and Periodically Update It.

  • Post emergency telephone numbers by phones (fire, police, ambulance, etc.) and teach children how and when to call them.

  • Know how to turn off the water, gas, and electricity at the main switches.

  • Install smoke detectors on each level of your home, especially near bedrooms.

  • Stock emergency supplies and assemble a disaster survival kit (see below).

  • Learn basic first aid. Classes are often offered by various community organizations.

  • Keep important documents in a safe deposit box or fire proof container and mail copies of documents to a friend or family member out of the area for safekeeping.

4. Practice and Maintain Your Plan.

  • Test your children's knowledge of the plan every 6 months.

  • Conduct fire and emergency evacuation drills.

  • Replace stored water every 3 months and stored food every 6 months.

  • Test your smoke detectors monthly and change the batteries once a year.

One way to practice your safety plan is to actually put your plan into action when the emergency sirens in your area are tested each month. For example, at one local day care center, they have the children gather in the hall and put their heads down according to their safety plan when the sirens are tested on the first Tuesday of each month. The advantage of practicing in this way is that the children are learning what they will need to do in the event of a real emergency, but without the stress of the real situation. At home, you can plan a fire drill for your family a few times a year and similarly implement the family safety plan for meeting outside the home. This lets everyone in the family learn what they should be doing in case an emergency does arise.

Despite planning and preparation, it will not be possible to avoid all emergencies or disasters. Therefore, in addition to having a preparedness plan, it is also important to have a kit ready to help you survive in the first few days following a disaster.

A disaster supply kit should include:

  • A 3-day supply of water (one gallon per person per day) and food that won't spoil;

  • Change of clothing and footwear per person;

  • First-aid kit, including prescription medicines;

  • One blanket or sleeping bag per person;

  • Emergency tools including a battery-powered radio and flashlight and extra batteries;

  • An extra set of car keys and a credit card or cash; and

  • Special items for infants or other family members (formula, diapers, bottles, powdered milk, denture and contact lenses supplies, extra eye glasses).

While these supplies can help your family get by until they can return home or until they find other arrangements, reducing the long-term effects of a disaster on your family will take additional time and resources. Following a disaster, children may display fear, anger, loss, or become quiet and withdrawn (Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, 1995). It is important that children be encouraged to talk about their feelings and express their fears. Children’s fears may show in nightmares, increased crying or clinging, or becoming withdrawn. By discussing these fears, children can learn to cope with what occurred.

It is also important to continue to make time for your children in times of emergency. While this may sound unreasonable, your children just need a moment of reassurance to feel more secure and safe in this disruptive situation (Smith, 1987). Children will also be reassured by knowing what is happening, so it is important to speak honestly about what is going on. For example, if you must leave your house because of floods, be honest about the possibility of losing some belongings. Children can also be reassured by maintaining certain rituals such as hearing a bedtime story.

While no family ever wants to face an emergency, planning and preparation can reduce some of the potential harm of these events. Following a disaster, families can overcome the adversity of the situation by supporting each other and working together to overcome what may be lost. This support can strengthen the family in ways that will last long after the crisis is resolved.

For more information on preparing a family survival kit, please visit:

American Red Cross Disasters Supplies Kit

Family Disaster Kit

FEMA Disaster Supply Kit

Additional Resources

American Red Cross-Disaster Safety

FEMA Family Disaster Plan

Helping Children After a Disaster from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Illinois Cooperative Extension Service Disaster Resources

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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Federal Emergency Management Agency; & The American Red Cross. (1992). A preparedness guide, including safety information for schools [Online]. Available: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/tornado.htm#family [1998, April 2].

Illinois Cooperative Extension Service. (1995). Helping children cope with a disaster [Online]. Available: http://www.ag.uiuc.edu/~disaster/facts/kidcope.html [1998, April 15].

Smith, Charles. (1987). Helping children through the flood [Online]. Available: http://www.nncc.org/Guidance/help.flood.html [1998, April 6].

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May 1998

Published monthly by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Children's Research Center, 51 Gerty Drive, Champaign, IL 61820-7469. This publication was funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract no. DERR93002007. Opinions expressed in this magazine do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the Department of Education.

NPIN Coordinator and Parent News Editor: Anne Robertson
Production Editor: Emily S. Van Hyning

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