September is National Preparedness Month, and with the way 2020 has been going, some renewed emphasis on preparedness is undoubtedly a good idea.
As operators and guardians of critical infrastructure, we routinely develop emergency and continuity plans, procure needed emergency equipment and supplies, train to handle emergencies, and conduct drills and exercises to ensure our readiness to counter the wide variety of threats to our facilities, personnel, and processes.
But there is one area of planning and preparedness that is frequently overlooked – individual/family preparedness.
In gatherings of emergency management, business continuity, and critical infrastructure personnel, I often ask for a show of hands of people who have real family emergency kits and plans. This usually elicits a somewhat hesitant and embarrassed half-raising of hands from the people present. The truth is that when it comes to family emergency preparedness, the cobbler’s kids often have no shoes.
Why Should We Care About Family Preparedness?
Lack of family preparedness is a huge vulnerability for our critical infrastructure. You can’t protect critical infrastructure well during a disaster or other major emergency if you and your family are not adequately prepared.
The reason is simple – if a disaster or other emergency happens, your attention will be focused on your family, not your job, if you are not sure that they are safe. Further, if you are not individually well-prepared, it may not be possible for you to get to work to perform your duties.
Depending on the situation, you may not be able to leave work (either because there are critical activities that need to be carried out, weather/road conditions may not permit travel, or it may be unsafe because of a hazardous materials/WMD release or a security situation). If this happens, you may not be able to work (or be comfortable at work) if you are stuck there for several days, unable to return home – unless you’ve taken measures to ensure your individual preparedness at work.
Answer this question honestly – how many of you reading this right now have a three-day supply of your daily medications stored at work? Would you be able to work comfortably, effectively – or at all – if you could not take your prescriptions, brush your teeth, have a snack, or change your clothes?
Taking time to prepare yourself and your family for emergencies that may force you to be separated from each other offers several important benefits. First (and most importantly), knowing that your family is prepared will allow you the peace of mind you need to focus on what you need to do during what is likely to be a pretty stressful time. Second, preparation will ensure that you and your family have access adequate to essential needs – shelter, food, medications, etc. Finally, preparing to stay are work for multiple days at a time will make things infinitely more comfortable for you should the need arise.
How Should One Prepare?
The unavoidable truth is that being prepared takes time and effort before an emergency happens. Waiting until a disaster hits most assuredly will not work. The theme of this year’s National Preparedness Month is “Disasters don’t wait. Make your plan today.” There are four weeks in September, each with its own goal.
Week 1: Make a Plan
Start by learning what threats are most realistic in your region. In the National Capital Region (NCR), for example, earthquakes and tornadoes are rare (although not unheard of). Conversely, the NCR is subject to hurricanes, winter weather, and heat waves. Additionally, by virtue of the large federal presence and iconic buildings and monuments, the NCR is a potentially attractive target for terrorists. Check with your local or state emergency management office to learn the true range and comparative likelihood of threats. Then think about what you can/should do to counter those threats (be realistic).
Next, write a plan (individual and/or family) that addresses those threats. Your plan should address topics such as:
Under what circumstances will you shelter-in-place or evacuate?
Where will you go/meet and how will you get there?
How will you communicate?
How will you get reliable information?
What will you do with pets?
What supplies do you have/need?
Where are vital documents stored?
What special considerations are there for people with functional or access needs (i.e., people with disabilities)?
What needs to be communicated to caregivers and others (e.g., extended family, housekeepers, or home healthcare workers)?
What utilities need to be shut down and how can that be done safely?
Week 2: Build a Kit
I recommend that people put together two emergency kits – a “Go Kit” for home that can be grabbed in a hurry if you need to evacuate and a “Stay Kit” for work that can be kept in a desk, locker, or closet. You may never need a kit, but if you do, you’ll be glad that you spent the time to assemble it. Kit contents should be stored in a waterproof container such as a large “dry bag” (available at most outdoor recreation stores).
Kits should include the following (items marked with an asterisk are appropriate for both types of kits):
Toiletries (including an extra roll of toilet paper)*
Medications/prescription eyewear* (be sure to replace old medications with fresh ones regularly)
Shelf-stable food and water*
Hardcopies of vital documents, prescriptions, and phone numbers/email addresses*
Crank-operated radio and crank-operated flashlight*
Batteries/chargers for cell phones, hearing aids, medical equipment, and other devices*
Extra house and car keys
First aid kit*
Twine and small tool kit
Age-appropriate books, small toys, or games if you have children (please, trust me on this)
Week 3: Prepare for Disasters
It’s much easier to survive a disaster if you’ve taken steps to lessen the potential impacts. Don’t stop at making a plan or building a kit. During the third week, undertake steps that will lessen the likelihood that an event will be life-threatening or excessively disruptive.
Probably the most important thing you can do to mitigate the effects of an event is to ensure that you have adequate homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. My volunteer fire department recently fought a huge fire in the home of a family that had just moved in. They didn’t have any renter’s insurance, and the home and their possessions were a total loss. Don’t let this happen to you. Your insurance company will be happy to review your policy to ensure adequate protection. Do not be fooled into thinking that your home cannot flood because recent studies have shown that existing flood maps underestimate the likelihood and severity of possible flooding. Because most insurance policies do not cover flood damage, you should explore getting flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (https://www.fema.gov/flood-insurance). Flood insurance is a relatively inexpensive addition but can make a huge difference should a home be flooded. It is important to know that the average payout from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is $4,300 – barely enough to replace carpeting even if the applicant for disaster funds is lucky enough to be approved.
Consider buying a portable generator. A number of commercially available generators can be configured to provide partial (or even full) power to a home. Although a somewhat expensive mitigation option, a generator could meet critical power needs for climate control, lighting, internet, refrigeration (to prevent food spoilage), or electric-powered medical devices. If you have a generator, be sure to run it and top off the fuel on a regular basis, as fuel that sits too long can foul generator engines.
Make sure you have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in your home. Hard-wired/battery-backup detectors are the best. Have them installed by a professional and in accordance with local fire/life safety codes. Then test them at least twice a year. Replace missing or inoperable detectors.
Consider purchasing a programmable NOAA Weather Alert Radio which will activate and provide instructions when a severe weather warning or watch is issued by the National Weather Service (the ability to receive such alerts is also built into most modern mobile phones). Having even a few moments of warning can save lives – especially in the event of a tornado.
Since hurricanes can hit the Mid-Atlantic area, consider installing hurricane straps and/or getting pre-cut plywood for your windows if you have a home near the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic Ocean.
Keep your gas tank filled to at least a half a tank. If you have to evacuate by car, it may be hard to refill your tank if you are still in the area of immediate danger. There are always long lines at gas stations during evacuations and gas stations may run out of gas or be unable to pump gas if electric power is lost.
Set up automatic bill payments and direct deposit of paychecks, annuities, or other income streams so you have one less thing to worry about. But remember, “cash is king” during a disaster, so it is best to keep some on hand in your “Go-Kit.”
Finally, rehearse/drill on your family plan throughout the year. Knowledge is perishable. Taking time to refresh everyone on the emergency plan will help ensure that the most important people in your life will know what to do when the situation is rough and they really need to perform.
Week 4: Teach Youth (and Others) About Preparedness
In reality, most kids can probably teach adults a thing or two about preparedness, but don’t assume that everyone knows what to do. Talk with all family members to ensure that everybody understands the emergency plan, how to protect themselves during an event, and what to do afterwards (especially if anyone becomes separated).
Taking the time to prepare yourself, your family, and your loved ones (including pets) to weather a disaster or other emergency will better enable you to perform your vital mission operating and protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure. Being prepared will take some thought, effort, and a modest amount of money, but these investments will seem minor should you ever need to evacuate or shelter-in-place for a while. With luck, you will never need to use your plans or your kits, but you’ll be very glad that you made the effort to prepare if your luck doesn’t hold.
For additional information about National Preparedness Month, go to https://www.ready.gov/september