26 Mar

Where Are They? Locating Your Loved Ones During an Emergency

Cuddling on the couch enjoying one of our favorite television shows one evening my wife and I heard a strange noise outside our living room window. The volume was muted and we listened intently. Nothing. The television came back on and we relaxed into each other’s arms once again. Not one minute later we heard another noise. Once again the volume was muted and we listened. Silence. We resumed cuddling and watching our show.

Bang! We bolted from the couch and shot to the window. This time we were certain, something had just hit the window. Looking out the window we realized that the wind was blowing, and blowing violently. The toys the children had left out in the yard that day were flying across the lawn. Some of the tools I was temporarily storing on the porch had fallen over and our porch chairs were about to lift off.

Throwing on our jackets we rushed outside to secure all of the objects in the yard. We did not want them being flung into and breaking any windows (or the head of an unlucky passerby). Five minutes later we felt confident that our human yard debris was secure. Bring it on wind!

After admiring the power of nature for another minute or two we went back to watching our show and cuddling. Not thirty minutes later there is a knock at the door and when we opened the door we found my brother-in-law standing there. He had just gotten off at work and came by to make sure that we were okay.

We assured him that we were and invited him in. As we sat chatting with him the wind intensified. It was easily gusting into the 70 to 80 mile per hour range. I felt like the little pigs locked safely away inside of the brick house when the big bad wolf was trying to blow it down. Our house is also made of brick so I knew we were safe.

FLASH. A lightning bolt struck somewhere nearby and in the split second of light I saw a gigantic monster on the road in front of our house. I rubbed my eyes and looked again waiting for the next lightning bolt. FLASH. Yep, I definitely saw something, probably not a monster though. My curiosity had been peaked so I sported my jacket and headed outside.

As soon as I stepped through the door my jaw hit the ground. One of my great oak trees, easily over 70 feet tall and 120 years old was lying in the street. The wind had knocked it down. And under it was my carport. And under my carport was my minivan. The minivan is a story for another day though.

About this same time all of the lights in the valley where our quaint little town is located disappeared. Odd, I thought. When I turned back to my house I noticed that my wife had turned out the lights too. Then it hit me. No, not a branch, thankfully, but the realization that the power to the entire city had just gone out.

The winds died down as the night wore on and by morning a beautiful new day was upon us. When we went outside to survey our damage we saw that the damage was far greater than just one tree. Hundreds of trees, perhaps thousands, had been blown down and branches were everywhere. Streets were blocked so that cars could not get through, power lines were down all over, and even a few homes had been damaged.

Luckily my entire family was home that night. But what if we had not been? My family is regularly separated with me being at work, children being at school, and my wife running errands or visiting friends. If one of the kids had been at a friend’s home that evening staying the night or my wife out late with some of her girlfriends how would I have gotten in touch with them to make sure they were alright? And, though thankfully it did not happen, what if the tree had fallen on my house instead of the carport? The home would not be livable and we would have needed to leave. How would my wife or child find me then?

It is my responsibility as a spouse and a parent to make sure that my wife and children are safe and taken care of. But if we are separated during a natural disaster or some other emergency how will I find them or how will they find me?

This is why it is important to have a family communication plan.

A family communication plan establishes what to do in an emergency to find each other. It can be as simple as choosing a place to meet up and someone to call (like mom) to check in. Or it can be more detailed and include two or three possibilities of where to go depending on the situation, who to contact locally in an emergency and who to contact out-of-state, and the contact information for neighbors, your children’s schools, and places of employment.

FEMA makes available on their website, Ready.gov, two family communication plan templates (one for parents and one for children). They are a great place to start and I encourage you to check them out. They also offer a commuter emergency plan for those that commute to and from work where you can describe the typical routes you take. This would help your loved ones and emergency rescue teams to find you in case something happened during your commute.

Whether you use FEMA’s templates or not be sure to include a few basic things:

  1. Where you will meet in an emergency. Be sure to include at least one alternate location in case the primary location is damaged or destroyed. For my family our primary meeting spot is our home and our secondary is the administration building at the university I work for. It is also a good idea to identify a regional meeting place in case your community is totally devastated.
  2. Who to contact in an emergency. Everyone in the family should check in with the same person. For our family it is my wife. It is also a good idea to have an out of state contact person who most likely would not be affected by whatever has befallen your family. That way if your primary person is unavailable, in my case my wife, then everyone contacts the out of town person.
  3. Though this should perhaps go without saying, make sure that all of the members of your family know how to get to the locations that you choose and know the phone numbers of the contact people you designate. Otherwise, all of your planning will not do any good. IMPORTANT: in our digital world many of us no longer memorize phone numbers. It is critical that these contact numbers be memorized by everyone in our family so that we do not have to rely on our electronic contact books as they may not be available in an emergency or disaster.

Once your family communication plan is complete do not forget to review it at least once a year. Things change and you want to be sure to keep it updated. I recommend that you hold a family meeting and gather everyone together one evening and review the plan. Explain the details, answer questions, and make updates as needed. Doing this at least once a year will keep the specifics of the plan fresh in everyone’s minds.

I have also created a very simple family communication plan template for you. It is free so take a look.

There are cases where you do not know anyone out of town or maybe that person passes away and you do not have a contact person anymore. In these situations you have a few options. There are organizations, like the Red Cross, that provide services to help people locate and contact their loved ones. Here is a brief description of each.

The Red Cross’s Safe and Well Website

The Red Cross has created the Safe and Well website to help individuals find and communicate with one another in times of disaster. It is simple to use. You go to http://www.redcross.org/find-help/contact-family/register-safe-listing and click the red “Register/Search Safe and Well” button at the bottom of the page. Next choose whether to list yourself or search for those who have created listings. If you are listing yourself you will create a basic profile of information such as your name, phone number, pre-disaster address, and the disaster affecting you. You then add your current whereabouts and the best way to contact you. You can also choose messages to display such as “I am safe and well” or “I am evacuating to the house of a family member/friend.” The site also gives you the ability to write a custom message.

If you are using the Safe and Well Website to search for your loved ones you go to the same site (http://www.redcross.org/find-help/contact-family/register-safe-listing) and click “Search Registrants.” On the next page you are asked to provide the name of the person you are searching for and either their phone number or their complete home address. The site will bring back any entries that match the information you provided.

The Red Cross’s Safe and Well Website is a free resource available to all and could be the way you decide to contact one another. Each member of your family could potentially go to the site and create a listing for themselves immediately after or during the disaster if this is the way your family chooses to keep in contact. Just remember that you do need an internet connection to both create a listing and find listings. If the disaster impacted the internet you would need another plan.

ContactLoveOnes.org

This is another free service offered to everyone. It is very simple to use. Your family decides to use an old phone number as the family’s phone number to use with this service. Then, in an emergency, each family member calls the phone number provided by ContactLovedOnes.org (443-992-4890) and leaves a message. The service will ask what phone number to associate the message with and you provide it with the previously agreed upon old phone number. Then when the next family member calls they will be prompted to enter a phone number. They enter the old phone number and all message associated with it are played. They can then leave their own. If you choose to use this service each person’s message should include where they currently are and how to contact them.

It is, in my opinion, easier to use ContactLovedOnes.org than the Red Cross’s Safe and Well Website and, because of its simplicity and the fact that it does not require the internet, a better solution.

The National Emergency Family Registry and Locator System

FEMA offers another tool for your convenience: The National Emergency Family Registry and Locator System (NEFRLS).  It is similar to the Red Cross’s Safe and Well Website in that you create a profile and/or search other profiles that have been created. However, it is even more difficult to use because there are several steps to creating a profile and you are required to provide a considerable amount of personal information in order to interact with the system. While I am not necessarily afraid of Uncle Sam I feel more comfortable with the Red Cross and ContactLovedOnes.org.

While traditional thinking states that we need to make phone calls to get in contact with each other during disasters and emergencies Ready.gov simply reminds us that text messages work just as well. In fact, in many cases texting would be a better solution as the phone lines can get jammed with all of the phone calls to 911 and other people calling each other to check in. Generally even if phone lines are busy text messages will get through. So do not forget about texting in an emergency.

Technology also provides other options. There are now apps that can be installed on our smart phones that keep track of each other. One I came across and was pretty impressed with is called MamaBear. It allows parents to keep track of where their child is at any given moment based on GPS signal from the child’s smart phone. The parent also has the ability to grant the child the ability to see where they are and contact them through the app. While this is a cool feature I have two cautions for those considering it: first, you and your children must have smart phones (the app is available both for iPhone and Android), and, second, this only works if the smart phones are turned on or are undamaged. Once the phone is broken or the battery dies you lose contact with each other.

One final thought on finding family members. There is a certain type of family member that is often neglected when family communication plans are created: pets. I know you cannot teach a dog or cat to call you or even meet you in a certain place if there is a tornado for example but there are ways of finding your pets. The Missing Pet Network, a service provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, is a simple website where you can list your pet as missing or stolen. Then if someone finds your pet they can look at the database to try to find its owner. It is very simple to post a listing and search listings. There are more ways to find a pet but if you want to keep Fido and Sir Meows-A-Lot you will need to plan to locate them as well.

The ultimate goal of the family communication plan is to be able to find each other quickly in an emergency or disaster. It does not take long to create and it does not matter how your family chooses to create it as long as it is simple enough for every member of the family to understand and remember and it accomplishes its basic purpose: locating your loved ones in an emergency.

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