Preparing for an emergency

If your power went out in the next five minutes, would you be able to get by for three days? If you had to evacuate, could grab your bag and go? Officials issued widespread warnings ahead of Hurricane Sandy, but “Frankenstorms” aren’t the only threat we might face. Earthquakes, tornadoes, forest fires, severe thunderstorms and extended blackouts can put our health and safety at risk. Experts warn we should be prepared to look after ourselves for at least 72 hours.

Whether you’re creating a new emergency preparedness plan, or updating your current one, experts recommend starting with these three steps.

Be informed about the risks

What are you preparing for? That will depend on a number of factors — including any special needs your family has and what disasters could occur in your area. In general, everyone should prepare for some potential disasters that could strike anywhere, like power outages, severe storms, earthquakes, infectious disease outbreaks, wildfires and hazardous materials spills.

Some hazards are specific to certain regions, such as storm surges, hurricanes, avalanches, landslides, floods, tornadoes and even tsunamis. The trick is to know what you could be up against based on where you live.

Where can you find more information? A good place to start is the Government of Canada’s website which has a list of hazards by province and links to hazard-specific information sheets. Your province or territory’s government will also have a website dedicated to emergency management and preparedness. Look to your municipality’s website to find out what your community plans to do during a disaster, and what mechanisms it has to alert you.

Why look now? Knowing what disasters to prepare for can help you determine what supplies you should have on hand and what plans you need to make. You can also print off the information sheets and include them with your emergency supplies so you’ll know what to do when the time comes.

Create an emergency plan

Once you know what you’re planning for, it’s time to get down to the details. There are a few contingencies you should plan for, including

1) You have to leave your home suddenly (if there’s a fire, for example).

2) You have to evacuate your neighbourhood (e.g. in the case of a wildfire or flood).

3) You have to stay in your home, potentially without power or access to outside supplies and services (in the event of severe weather or a blackout, for instance).

Experts warn that you should expect to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours (three days). That’s how long it might take for emergency help to reach you.

So what should your emergency plan include? Experts recommend keeping these steps in mind:

– Identify safe ways to leave your home and your neighbourhood (including back-up plans).

– Decide on a meeting place for members of your household. Choose one in your neighbourhood and one outside of it too.

– Figure out ahead of time how to keep in touch with members of your household, and how to get in touch with family and friends to let them know what’s happening. (Some sources recommend having a contact person who is outside of your area too).

– Plan for children. Who will pick them up from school, if needed? Who would look after them if you are indisposed?

– Plan for pets. Find a pet-friendly place to take your pets if you have to evacuate your home. Make sure you have any necessarily medications and supplies (like blankets, food and a kennel or crate).

– Address special health concerns. Make a note of any allergies, health conditions, medical history, recent vaccinations and emergency contact information (like your doctor and insurance company). Also document what medications and special equipment is needed. You may need to share this information with emergency workers, so it’s a good idea to keep a master list on hand.

– Record all relevant contact information. This includes emergency numbers for your region, non-emergency contacts like doctors, veterinarian, local health clinic, police and insurance company. Also add to your list family and friends whom you may need to contact.

– Create a list of safe home instructions. Where can you find your emergency kit or fire extinguisher? How can you shut off the water, gas, electricity and any systems that draw air into your home? Take time to document these instructions and include the name and phone number of your utility providers.

– Make sure everyone can communicate. Figure out how to work with friends or family who have hearing impairments or disabilities, or who do not speak English. (Many emergency numbers in large cities have operators who cover a variety of languages, but important information and instructions may need to be translated so it can be shared).

– Identify information channels to keep you informed. How will you keep up to date on what’s going on — TV, internet, radio, neighbours? Find a few ways to keep your family in the loop.

Many disaster preparedness websites also advise assigning specific responsibilities to each member of the household so everyone knows what to do in an emergency and all steps are covered.

If you’re looking to make these steps easier, try the step-by-step process outlined on the website. When you’re done, you can print out your plan or export it to a MS Word or Excel file.

Get a kit

You know what to do… but do you have the resources and supplies you need? The third step to being ready is assembling (or buying) an emergency kit. Your basic emergency kit should items like:

– Water: Plan on two litres of water per person per day, but avoid relying only on water cooler jugs or large containers. Experts recommend that some of the water should be in small bottles so it’s easy to carry during an evacuation. Some sources recommend an addition two litres per person each day for cooking and washing.

– Food: You should have foods that won’t go bad — like canned foods, energy bars and dried foods. Many dried goods like lentils and beans are inexpensive and have a long shelf life, but they’ll take extra water and energy to prepare.

– Manual can opener.

– Radio (either battery-powered or wind-up).

– Flashlight (include batteries if needed, or opt for wind-up).

– First aid kit. (See the Red Cross’s Anatomy of a First Aid Kit for a list of items).

– A spare set of keys to your house and car.

– Cash: Experts recommend including some small bills (like tens and twenties) and change for payphones. Some sources also recommend travellers cheques for larger amounts.

– A copy of your emergency plan.

In addition to the basic kit, you may want to have these additional emergency items on hand:

– Candles and matches (or a lighter).

– Change of clothing and footwear for everybody (but beware of old clothes than no longer fit).

– Toiletries, hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

– Household chlorine bleach or water purifying tablets,

– Tools such as hammer, pliers, wrench, pocket knife, screwdrivers and gloves.

– Small fuel-operated stove (and the fuel to run it).

– Whistle

– Duct tape (to seal windows, doors and air leaks)

And don’t forget your pets: They’ll need items like food and water too, and you’ll also want to have some garbage bags and newspapers handy for waste if they have to stay indoors.

Chances are you already have some of these items, but it’s essential to know where they are — preferably in one place so you can easily find them or take them with you. Experts recommend packing your emergency kit in something that is easy to transport — like a suitcase on wheels or a backpack. You may also want to divvy up the load by making a separate kit for each person in the household.

In some cases, you may be instructed to “shelter in place” in an emergency — meaning taking immediate shelter at home, school or work. In the case of a chemical contaminant or the environment, you may need to plan for a longer stay at home and purchase supplies accordingly. In the case of an infectious disease outbreak, you and your family may need to stay home for as long as two or three weeks — and you’ll want to have stomach remedies and other over-the-counter medications on hand. (See 15 essential items for your medicine cabinet for details).

Where can you find more information?

The details involved in preparing for a disaster — not to mention the potential consequences — can be a little intimidating and overwhelming. Look for checklists and guides you can download, print and keep on hand, and tackle your planning a little at a time. Remember, the goal is to be prepared now to prevent adding unnecessary panic to an already stressful situation.

To find more information about preparing for a disaster, check out some of the sources we used for this article:
Government of Canada:
Red Cross: Prepare Your Home and Family
Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Emergency Preparedness and You
U.S. Department of Homeland Security:
FEMA: Plan Ahead