Guest opinion: What you and your family can do to prepare for a major emergency
If you are reading this, my second column, you have already taken the first step towards becoming prepared. You have changed your mindset towards preparedness, and you have acknowledged the need to be ready for any type of disaster. Congratulations, you've gotten through the hardest part. Now, it's time to invest in making the necessary preparations.
There is a four-pronged approach that we recommend. Although these four steps are simple, they will take a bit of time. Think back. How much time did you put into getting ready for your last vacation? Be ready to invest at least that much time in getting fully prepared. If you do, you and your family will be on the right path.
Step 1: Becoming aware
Superstorm Sandy has been a stark reminder of the power of Mother Nature and for us here in the Bay Area, our worry is the earthquakes that undoubtedly are going to strike. As they say, the next one could very well be the Big One.
It is important to be aware of local systems, such as the AlertSCC program (AlertSCC.com) and Nixle (Nixle.com). By signing-up for these programs, you can get updates about flooding, wildfires, subsequent evacuations, public-safety incidents, neighborhood crimes, and post-disaster information about shelters, transportation and supplies.
Additionally, you should know that the local radio stations, KZSU-90.1 FM, and KCBS 740 AM/106.9 FM would broadcast vital information during an emergency. It's important to have these stations readily available. Most people find it easiest to put these stations on their radio's memory button. Finally, you should also be aware that during a disaster, there are resources for getting life-saving help from your local emergency-services volunteers (more on this in Step 4).
Step 2: Making a family plan
Just imagine, it's a hectic Saturday afternoon, and the entire family is scattered. Mom is running errands. Daughter is at home. Dad is out of town. Son is playing soccer with his team. The Big One suddenly strikes. The ground shakes violently, and trees are falling everywhere. Broken shards of glass cover the ground, and phone lines and electricity are down. Chaos erupts as Mom goes rushing to find Son at the soccer field, but Son dashes to the grocery store to find Mom. Daughter notices that her neighbor's house is on fire, and she struggles to decide whether to get far away from her neighborhood or whether to stay home and wait for her family. The entire family is separate in this situation, and none of them knows how to contact the other. This brings up the second step in becoming prepared: making a family plan.
A family emergency plan is a simple way to start the discussion with your family about where to meet, and whom to call in case of a disaster. Starting this discussion is absolutely vital to make sure everybody is on the same page, and everybody understands the plan clearly in order to minimize any confusion and avoidable chaos during a disaster. The family plan is also a vital step in mental preparedness. By discussing, and accepting the fact that a disaster could strike, children, teens and adults become more resilient, and in the unfortunate case of a disaster, nobody panics, and everybody is able to make smart, logical decisions. This is what directly impacts the safety and well-being of the entire family. When everybody is calm, and nobody goes into a state of shock, the family and community can respond faster and more efficiently.
With this is mind, there are many family plans online that you can fill out with your families, but the one that we recommend can be found at: www.californiavolunteers.org/familyplan/pdf/familyplan.pdf.
Step 3: Building an emergency kit
Suppose that Mom, Dad, Daughter and Son were finally able to reunite at home. Now they face a multitude of issues. Due to the lack of electricity, they can't see anything in the pitch darkness of their house. They are hungry, thirsty and tired. Son got injured while tripping over some debris and needs some items from the first-aid kit. Daughter needs a sturdy pair of tennis shoes to insure that she doesn't step, with bare feet, on any broken glass. Mom is frantically searching for some vital house documents. For all these reasons, and many others, it is essential for every family to build a kit. Typically, a kit should include enough survival essentials for the family to live for a minimum of one week with the assumption that help will not arrive immediately, and that there may be severe disruption in water, electricity, sewage and telephone services.
The kit should include food, water, first aid, batteries, flashlights, cash, important documents, sleeping bags, battery-powered radio, cell-phone chargers and pet food, among several other things. Typically items should be kept in airtight plastic bags and all the supplies can be placed in a couple easy-to-carry containers, such as unused trashcans, camping backpacks or duffel bags. Be sure to write the date of storage on all containers, and refresh perishable items every six months. Keep this kit in a designated place and make sure all family members know where it is kept.
You can build your own kit by referring to the checklist we have available at: paneighborhoods.org The link provides information on recommended items for incorporation into your kits. For those of you who find it easier to purchase a kit rather than to build your own, the website also contains information about where to buy ready-made kits online. Check out the "Buy Supplies" section of the PAN EPrep site for the long list of suppliers. Local stores such as Palo Alto Hardware and Costco also sell kits.
Step 4: Getting involved
Mom, Dad, Daughter and Son realize that, since phone lines are down during the disaster, they have absolutely no way to contacting 911 or emergency services should they need to do so. In the case of a disaster, getting help during these situations could be the difference between life and death. We are lucky to live in a city where this fact is recognized, and where it is extremely easy for anybody and everybody to get involved.
You've probably heard about the Neighborhood Watch Program. The basis of this program is that neighbors will be our first responders in case of any incident or disaster. In Palo Alto, this core message has led to the foundation of our Block Preparedness Coordinator Program, Neighborhoods Preparedness Coordinator Program, and CERT Program, which all fall under the title of the "Emergency Services Volunteers Program." In a disaster, your neighbors will be the first people who will be able to help you and your family. Building strong communities, in which we know our neighbors and have set up the tools and processes to help each other, is perhaps the strongest investment we can make in preparing our families and ourselves. If each block in the city has a Block Preparedness Coordinator (BPC), theoretically, during the response phase after a disaster, each block will be able to safely and calmly communicate with authorities to get help. During a disaster, BPCs will prove key in creating this communication link, and blocks without BPCs will probably be impaired in the sense that they won't be able to communicate with authorities to ask for medical help. The BPC program doesn't require much time or intense training, but is a vital component of our city's emergency-service program. You should get to know your BPC, and in case your block does not have one, please coordinate an effort with your neighbors to get one selected and trained.
Additional information on the BPC program is available at: www.paneighborhoods.org. Information is also available on the website for people who are willing to invest slightly more time into the community's safety, to participate in programs including the NPC (Neighborhood Preparedness Coordinator) and CERT program. A full calendar of the year's trainings and classes can be found at: www.cityofpaloalto.org/ccc.
Take the time to research your options, to prepare, to plan and stock up on emergency supplies and to get involved in the community's programs. Also feel free to check out our Facebook page (facebook.com/PaloAltoEarthquakePrep) for simple weekly tips on how to get prepared.
Consider following these four steps as an insurance policy that will give you peace of mind, but more importantly, that could potentially save your life, or the life of a loved one during a disaster. The disaster doesn't always strike somewhere else, and although we cannot control when and where it will strike, we can control how prepared we are. Let's build resilience in ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods and our community. Let's be prepared.
Divya Saini is a junior at Gunn High School and a member of FEMA's first federal National Youth Preparedness Council. Her first column appeared in the Weekly Oct. 19.