If disaster struck and you had mere moments to flee your home, what would you do first? Our writer learned a major lesson about emergency preparedness and how to bridge the gap between saving your valuables and saving your own life.
If your home were on fire, how long would it take you to get out? Photo: Corbis
What is the first thing you should do if you're at home when an emergency strikes
? It's a question that anyone who has been in a routine school fire drill should be able to answer. Not only have I been through countless fire drills, but I was also an award-winning school safety patrol (yes, I won awards for it). Surely, I'd know just what to during a home emergency...right?
The other day, I was faced with just such a scenario. A unit in my apartment building had caught fire and firefighters were evacuating the building. Here's what I proceeded to do in the moments that followed:
1. Throw my laptop and computer accessories in a bag. (It's my lifeline.)
2. Grab my purse and wallet, and slowly contemplate if I need to bring my checkbook. (Some decisions take time to make.)
3. Scan the room for my gloves and hat. (Not a fan of freezing.)
4. Wonder if I should take Vasquez, my plant. (Yes, I've named my plant.)
5. Realize that I would most likely perish in an epic tragedy if this fire were in my own apartment. (Most likely? Let's be honest, certainly.)
Much to my embarrassment, I learned from this experience that I lack serious emergency preparedness skills. But it's not so easy to just walk away and leave everything you own behind. It brings up that classic question, "If your house were on fire and you could only grab one thing, what would it be?" So I called up a few experts to ask what I could have done differently, and what you
should do to prepare for an emergency situation that requires immediate evacuation.
I first contacted Christine Hansen, an American Red Cross spokeswoman in Washington. She stated what should have been obvious to me: that the first and most important thing to do is to "get out, stay out and call 911. Everything is replaceable except for you." I knew as much back when I was a school safety patrol. But as an adult, I'd lost lost sight of this basic survival skill.
Luckily, the emergency in my case was just a small grease fire that was nowhere near my actual apartment. While I wasn't in serious danger, I couldn't stop thinking about how I could have bridged the gap between saving my own life and wasting time while trying to save my valuables.
Whether your home emergency is a fire, a hurricane, a debilitating snowstorm, or even a flood, I've assembled some expert advice on what you need to take and where you need to keep it all in the event that you have to grab it and run. Hopefully you'll never find yourself in a situation that requires follow-through, but at least you can have some peace of mind knowing you'll be prepared, just in case.
Prepare an Emergency Kit
In most emergencies -- floods, earthquake, fire – you often need to flee the house with short notice. It's smart to have an emergency kit at home that you can easily access and carry out a moment's notice. Hansen recommends that the kit include first aid supplies, tools, flashlights, medication, photo copies of prescriptions, cash, sanitation items, clothing, blankets, formula, diapers and important family documents. "It's like planning a weekend trip," she says. "Pack whatever you'll need for a few days."
Hansen says to store the kit's contents in easy-to-carry containers, like backpacks or duffel bags, by your front door so that they're easy to grab and take with you on your way out. The best time to prepare a kit is in advance; that means now
. Check out the American Red Cross's website for a complete list
of items to include in your emergency kit.
Have Emergency Money
In an emergency, cash is king. ATMs may not be accessible, so make sure to pack small bills in your emergency kit.
Digitize Important Documents
Living in a digital state of mind
makes it easier to corral important documents and preserve sentimental items such as wedding photos. For your emergency kit, scan important documents
like insurance cards, photos IDs, tax returns and other vital items related to your finances and health. Also scan birth certificates, social security cards, house and car deeds, and passports so that you'll have digital copies in addition to the paper ones. Save these items on a flash drive. Keep the orignials and the flash drive in waterproof/fireproof packaging within your emergency kit.
It sounds crazy to scramble for family photos in the event of true disaster, but these items do mean a great deal to us. Preserve your photos by regularly scanning them and uploading them to online photo storage sites such as Kodak Gallery
. With pictures online, you can easily retrieve and reprint them after you've settled down post-emergency.
Thanks to the ubiquity of social media sites like Facebook
, many people are already in the habit storing and displaying photos online. Flickr, just one of a number of popular photo sites, has 130 million photos uploaded to the site each month
. Over 100 million photos are uploaded to Facebook daily. Take advantage of these valuable photo storage tools -- as well as their privacy settings.
Practice Emergency Exit Drills
Photo by Ktylerconk, Flickr
Although making a plan to save your valuables is important, it's even more crucial to create a plan to save your life and lives of your family members and pets. This plan should include an escape route, a meeting place where everyone will gather once they're out of the house (just in case you get separated from your kids, for instance), and how to coax pets to safety.
Remember that fire drills aren't just for shools and other public institutions; you should conduct them at home too. Practice your escape plan at least twice a year. Hansen says that drills should include all household members, including pets. "It's important to do drills and evacuation practice with your pets so that they will get used to getting out the door with you during emergencies."
FEMA strongly advises pet owners to never leave their pets behind during an evacuation
, as it's most likely they will not be able to survive on their own. If you have no alternative but to leave your pet at home, never leave them chained outside. Place them in a safe area inside with room to roam, food and plenty of water. Place a notice outside your home, noting that pets are inside the house.
Keep Your Purse and/or Wallet Handy
Get in the habit of storing your purse or wallet in the same place all the time when you're at home. This way you won't have to scramble for it in the event of an emergency evacuation or fire. "Keep it by the front door so that you can grab it on your way out," advises Hansen.
Take Inventory of Your Home
Obviously, you won't be able to store everything you own in your handy emergency kit. Save copies of your home inventory in your email storage, as well as include a copy in your kit. This will help you file a claim with your insurance company and get money to replace everything you lost.
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Check out this video for more on how to be prepared for an emergency!