You’re sound asleep when it happens: the fire alarm in the upstairs hall starts sounding, and you awake to the pungent smell of fire and the cacophony of the alarm. You stumble out of bed, a thousand thoughts whirling through your head: get the kids out, call 911, don’t forget the cat, why me? What happens next?
It’s a scenario that every homeowner and renter has imagined more than once. And there’s good reason for that. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, there are more than a million home fires each year, which resulted in 3,704 deaths in 2019, and 16,600 injuries. The damage from those fires? A cool $14.8 billion — a 74% increase from 2010.
We all want to believe it could never happen to us, but home fires are on the rise, especially in areas prone to climate-change-induced wildfires. Other disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, can also strike, depending on where you live.
The takeaway is that it is more important than ever to plan and prepare for the worst, so that if it happens, you and your loved ones will be safe and damage will be minimized. Developing a disaster plan, and keeping the tools for safety available, can go a long way toward keeping you safe and saving precious time when responding to an emergency.
Before You Start Planning
When planning, start out by defining the enemy: what emergencies are likely to strike in your part of the world? In the Pacific Northwest, for example, forest fires may be common, but you’re unlikely to face a tornado. Residents of North Carolina’s coastal island, on the other hand, don’t worry about earthquakes but need to prep for summer hurricanes.
A large state like New York or Texas may have multiple threats to prepare for. Texas, for example, experiences an average of nearly 900 wildfires a year — second only to California. Regions of the state are also prone to flooding, though, and hurricanes may strike Gulf communities. Knowing the risks you face is the first step to dealing with them.
So how do you find out this information? Here are a few resources that can tell you what to be aware of — and be wary of — in your hometown.
|Risks To Your Home||Assess the Risks in your Region|
|Housefire / Wildfire||https://wildfirerisk.org/explore/https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/peteraldhous/wildfire-risk-maps-search-your-home|
|Earthquakes||https://www.usgs.gov/natural-hazards/earthquake-hazards/hazardshttps://cusec.org/ — for earthquake risk in the central UShttps://crew.org/ — tracks earthquake activity in the Pacific Northwest|
|Hurricanes||National Hurricane Center Storm Surge Hazard MapsHurricane Readiness Website|
|Floods||FEMA Flood Map Service Center: Flood Zone Maphttps://floodfactor.com/|
|Extended Electrical Outages||Power Outage Readiness WebsiteCDC Natural Disaster and Severe Weather Site|
|Tornados||National Severe Storms LaboratoryNortheast States Emergency ConsortiumNOAA Weather Radios-All Hazards|
|Burglary / Home Invasion||ADT Crime MapsFBI Property Crime Statistics|
How To Make Your Bedroom Emergency Ready
Making your bedroom emergency-ready takes a bit of preparation, but it is well worth the effort. First, prepare a go-bag, sometimes called a “bug-out bag,” with essential items that are vital if you need to leave in a hurry. Although research is ongoing regarding the effectiveness of go bags, many experts in emergency preparation recommend them.
“Having a go-bag is the best place to start with prepping your living space for emergencies,” says Chaz Wyland, founder of snowmobilehow.com and a wilderness first responder. “You’ll want a smaller/portable backpack filled with all the essential emergency supplies: A first aid kit, water purification, a flashlight, a few days worth of food, duck tape, and anything else.”
You can customize your go-bag to meet the specific needs of your family, including any medicines or health equipment needed as well as food for your pets. Think about what you would need to manage for 72 hours, And add those items. If you are caring for children or elders, take their needs into consideration as well.
Ready.gov, an initiative of FEMA, the White House, and other government entities, has a good list of items you may want to add to your bag. Once assembled, keep your go bag where it can be quickly grabbed when needed — under the bed or in a closet are two possibilities.
Bedroom Fire Prevention and Safety
A go-bag can be vital if an external risk heads for your home, such as a tornado or hurricane, but it’s important to pay attention to internal risks, as well, which brings us to the big one: fire. A fire can strike your home at any time of day or night, unexpected and quickly. Assess your bedroom to make sure you’re not making it easier for a fire to take hold:
- Avoid space heaters if possible: if you do feel you need a heater in your bedroom, keep it at least three feet away from flammable curtains or other burnable items, and leave it on only long enough to warm the room; turn it off before going to sleep.
- Electrical outlets: check all cords for fraying or exposed wires; make sure outlets are solidly affixed to the wall. Avoid extension cords if possible, and don’t load multiple cords onto a single outlet.
- Never smoke in bed: this should go without saying, but according to the CDC, smoking is the leading cause of home fire deaths in the U.S., with an annual average of 18,100 fires caused by smoking each year between 2012-2016.
- Invest in a mattress that meets federal flammability standards. This can save you precious moments if you are escaping from a burning room. There are plenty of good mattress options available from which to choose, and you can also find flame retardant curtains, sheets, and blankets.
- Use fire/smoke alarms throughout the house: Place a smoke alarm on each floor of your house and in hallways outside of bedrooms. Be sure to switch out the batteries every six months and test them regularly.
- Keep escape tools handy: For second-floor bedrooms, that means a rope or metal collapsing ladder that can be hung from a window. Make sure that windows in all bedrooms can open easily and aren’t painted shut. It’s also a good idea to have fire extinguishers available throughout the house.
Preparing For Disasters:
Natural disasters from tornadoes to tsunamis did $210 billion dollars of damage globally in 2020, according to the Insurance Information Institute, and caused untold deaths and injuries. To protect yourself, your loved ones, and your belongings and property, it’s worth spending time in preparation for the worst that could possibly happen, even if it’s not fun to think about.
Preparing for a wildfire
You may think you’ve seen more news stories about wildfires lately — and you’d be right. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions states that, largely due to climate change, the number of large fires has doubled between 1984 and 2015, mainly in the western U.S. If you live in an area that experiences wildfires, keep your go bag close and, if you live in a rural or forested area, add a pair of hiking boots to it.
To minimize the danger, keep flammable vegetation like leaves or dead limbs away from your house and thin out the trees surrounding your home. Prune tree branches and shrubs so that they are 15 feet away from chimneys, stovepipes, and grills or firepits. Don’t leave large piles of rubbish or yard waste anywhere near your home, and stack firewood 100 feet from your home, and preferably uphill. Find out more at Weather Underground.
Preparing for an earthquake
Like wildfires, earthquakes are increasing in some areas of the country, such as regions where oil and gas are produced. Insurance Journal notes, for example, that in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico, earthquakes went from 242 tremors in 2017 to 938 in 2020.
If you live in an earthquake-prone area, regularly practice the drop, cover, and hold on method, which can be used in the bedroom if one occurs at night. If you are in bed and have no time to drop to the floor, turn face down and cover your head and neck with a pillow. Remember that aftershocks can be almost as bad as the first shock, and be prepared for them in the minutes and hours after the earthquake. Find out more about earthquake drills at The Great Shakeout.
Preparing for a hurricane
Unlike earthquakes, you should have some warning time before a hurricane hits. A hurricane brings double dangers: flooding may happen during or after the hurricane, and high winds can damage your home and render it unfit for habitation.
Keeping loose items — even large ones — from moving around can limit some damage. “Secure any large items in your bedroom that could cause damage or injury in the face of an emergency,” says Kristen Bolig, founder of SecurityNerd. “Things like dressers and shelves could cause a lot of extra damage and risk during an already stressful situation.” The CDC offers more tips to help you prepare for hurricanes and survive the aftermath.
Preparing for a flood
One important way to prepare for a flood is to purchase flood insurance if you are in a flood zone. But floods can happen anywhere, and even those on high ground may experience flooding after a hurricane or other natural disaster. “One way to prep for this and other types of disasters is to know where your family will go if they must leave the home,” says Kristen Bolig.
“Always set a meeting place,” she says. “Your meeting point should be outside of the house and easily accessible for all members of the family, young and old. When choosing a meeting place, make sure everyone is clear on the route they should take in the case of emergency, and younger members of the family should be walked-through their route from beginning to end.” To learn more about prepping for a flood, check out FEMA’s Floodsmart website.
Preparing for an extended electrical outage
In some parts of the country — often, but not always in rural areas — power outages are a way of life. These are inconvenient at best, and If they last more than a few hours, they can result in damage to the home and dangers to its inhabitants. One big-picture way to handle them is to purchase a generator, but be sure to operate it only outdoors and away from windows.
Prep for power outages by taking stock of how you rely on electricity. Keep batteries available, and consider purchasing a portable charger or solar light. Know if your phone will work with no electricity, and keep fridge and freezer doors shut. A full freezer can keep food cold for about 48 hours. If the temperature inside it goes above 40 degrees, you’ll need to throw out the food. Learn more at the ready.gov power outages page.
Preparing for a tornado
Few disasters are as frightening as a twister, and certain parts of the country, including the notorious “Tornado Alley,” are prone to them. But they can happen anywhere: the National Weather Service notes that there have been fewer tornadoes in the past few years in the Great Plains region and an increase in the southeastern states.
If a tornado strikes your home, you may have to get out of your bedroom quickly. Chaz Wyland says you can prepare for that beforehand. “I recommend having two escape routes established ahead of time from your bedroom,” he says. “The main exit to your home is one possible option, but you need a backup in case it’s blocked by debris or fire.” Missouri’s Storm Aware website has more tips on how to prepare if a twister heads your way.
Preparing for a home invasion
Home invasions aren’t limited to inner-city, high-crime neighborhoods. They can happen anywhere, and it pays to be prepared. A good, working intruder detection system provides vital information in the event of a break-in. Well-made door and window locks are also important and should be installed throughout the home. Install bright, outdoor lighting that is triggered by motion, and regularly check to be sure the light bulbs work.
Suppose a burglar breaches your home security systems. Your first job is to keep yourself and your family safe. That might mean leaving the house if you can, but if you can’t, stay where you are and call 9-1-1. If you have an iPhone 8 or later, you can hold down the power button and one of the volume buttons and select Emergency SOS from the options shown on the screen. Security system company ADT has more tips to help you create a burglar-unfriendly home.
Additional Considerations for Preparation
In addition to the suggestions above, there are some situations that require a bit more effort.
If an older person lives with you, be sensitive to the fact that they might not be able to move as quickly or hear warning sirens as well as you do. Preparation is key here. Your escape route will be useless to you if your elderly mother who lives with you isn’t able to clamber up the hill behind the house to escape a fire. Set realistic standards for your preparation, and ensure that you have complete buy-in from the older residents as well as the younger.
We love our animal companions, and it’s worth including their needs in disaster prep. When building your go bag, throw in your dachshund’s leash, and if you’re creating an emergency kit with food, add a few cans of Whisker’s cat food. Many shelters won’t allow pets, so it’s worth exploring hotels and motels that do allow animals in the event that you need to leave home. Consider, too, adding a sticker to your front door to alert firefighters of the presence of animals on the property.
Persons with disabilities
If you live with someone who has a disability, or you have one yourself, you may have additional considerations regarding emergency preparedness. If, for example, the person relies on medical equipment that requires electricity, a generator may be a necessity. If they have mobility issues, this may influence your evacuation planning. Since everyone is unique, your preparations will need to take into consideration the circumstances of your own situation. Involve the person in your prep planning as much as possible so that you are all on the same page regarding what will happen if disaster strikes.
Practice your evacuation plan
The best evacuation plan in the world will be of no use to you if it is not regularly practiced. According to Rick Musson, a first responder with 20 years of experience, “during emergencies, your body relies on muscle memory — so that nothing can take the place of physical practice.” This is especially true if you have children who need to understand the evacuation route and what their job is in an emergency.
In our digitally connected world, there are multiple ways to stay informed during emergencies. You may want to consider purchasing a battery-operated radio that fits in your go-bag, for one thing. For another, consider these services and apps:
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) app: receive real-time emergency alerts and information to help you know what to do in an emergency, locate a shelter, and more. Available in English and Spanish for iOS and Android.
- Clime: NOAA Weather Radar Live app: real-time radar images, severe weather alerts, and more. For iOS and Android.
- American Red Cross Emergency Alerts: alerts for severe weather, earthquakes, tornadoes, and more. Customizable alerting and push notification options. Toolkit with flashlight, strobe light, and audible alarm. For iOS and Android.
- Red Cross Hurricane Tracker: directions on what to do; track the path of a hurricane and find Red Cross shelters. Informational material such as how to assemble a go-bag. Available in English and Spanish, in English and Spanish.
Although no one can be fully prepared for any eventuality, it is not difficult to prepare yourself to mitigate damage and reduce the personal risks to you and your family if a disaster strikes. It’s worth the time it takes to make up a go-bag and work with your family to ensure that they are all, old and young, able to leave the home when necessary — and know when it’s better to stay put. Disasters can happen in any area of the U.S., but knowing how to deal with them means you will be a survivor, not a victim.
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