We have all heard that we should be prepared, but for what and what does being prepared entail? Although certain situations may call for it, preparedness is not necessarily about stockpiling years worth of MREs, or having weapons buried in your backyard. No, preparedness is about being ready for an anticipated crises. Preparedness ranges from having automobile and homeowner insurance policies, to making sure your family has an evacuation plan and bug out bag (BOB) in the case of a disaster.
What to Prepare For
The first step in being prepared is research. What you prepare for is individualistic depending on medical conditions, the weather where you live, and the political climate. If you live near the coast, you must consider hurricanes a likely threat. In the Southwest, wild fires may be the primary concern. Residents of the western United States probably prepare for earthquakes or blizzards. People who live in the Midwest are foolish not to prepare for tornadoes and floods. If you live in an area with an unstable government, you may want to prepare to defend your home from rioters and looters.
It is almost impossible to prepare for all potential disasters. However, it is possible to prepare for the most likely scenarios; if you do prepare for, you are at least partially ready for other possible crises.
Natural disasters, or apocalyptic scenarios, are not the only situations that one can prepare for. Mundane emergencies such as house fire, financial emergencies and power loss are much easier to handle with just a little bit of preparation. Preparing for the zombie apocalypse with shelves stuffed full of MREs and an expensive solar electrical system does not help you if you neglect to have a fire extinguisher to prevent a small kitchen fire from consuming your entire house. Part of being prepared is:
- Keeping cash on hand
- Copies of important documentation on a hard drive or in a waterproof and fireproof container
- Periodically checking your home’s fire extinguishers for expiration dates
- Keeping your first aid kit stocked
Fire Prevention and Mitigation
The most commonly neglected household emergency is the house fire. Do you have fire extinguishers? Do you test your smoke alarms at least twice each year? Little things such as a carbon monoxide detector, smoke alarms, and a fireproof safe for important documents can prevent a minor incident from becoming a major disaster. Draw up a fire escape plan, including a rendezvous point for everyone to meet so you can quickly identify anyone who might still be inside. Place emergency ladders in upstairs bedrooms so that you can escape a blaze blocking the stairs. Make sure everyone old enough to use a fire extinguisher knows their locations and has instructions for use. Flashlights are also useful for navigating smoke-filled hallways.
I cannot stress enough the importance of having a cash reserve. In this modern day and age, we are becoming more and more accustomed to paying for everything with a credit or debit card. But what happens when those financial systems are inaccessible or nonfunctioning? Everyone should have an easily accessible moderate amount of cash stored in a safe, not the bank. In the event there is an extended power outage that prevents you from accessing your money, your cash reserve will be there allowing you to purchase necessary goods and services.
Much of what we consider hallmarks of a modern society predicate upon the abundance of electrical energy. What happens when that electricity is no longer available? Many of us have been without power for a few minutes or hours. We’ve huddled around a battery-powered radio or played Monopoly by candlelight while we waited for a storm to abate and power be restored. Yet sometimes, it can take days, weeks or even months for a power grid to come back online. Without electricity, food in refrigerators and freezers goes bad in just a matter of a few hours. Most gasoline pumps are non-functional without power, making fuel shortages a distinct possibility. Without air-conditioning, the heat can become unbearable and even deadly.
Flashlights, candles, and a battery-powered radio are just the beginning of a power-loss kit. Food preparation is something else to consider. Without electricity, microwaves and electric ranges will not work. In some situations, natural gas may not be available to run a gas stove or oven. Barbecue grills are one option for cooking, but only used outside. Further, they can require copious amounts of fuel when used for extended periods. Propane ranges, Sterno kits, and white-gas camp stoves are better alternatives. These systems use fuel that is safe, easily portable, and very efficient at generating heat.
Generators are one solution to an extended power loss. However, if you have a generator, you must also have a fuel supply. Stored gasoline and diesel fuel can go bad in less than a year if left untreated. There are numerous products such as Sta-Bil for gasoline and PRI-D for diesel. Such products can extend fuel shelf life anywhere from 5 to 10 years depending on storage conditions. Other fuels such as propane and natural gas do not go bad, but can be more difficult to store. Propane and natural gas-fired generators are available too; they are usually larger, not easily portable, and meant for use as a standby generator. Smaller solar panels to keep a charge on your cell phone and small electronics are also an option.
Have a Plan
The second step in preparedness is having a plan. This may be as simple as thinking through various “what if” scenarios in your head—what if I lose my wallet or have a flat tire?—to something as elaborate as having a written escape plan and bug-out bag in the case of a house fire. Have a family meeting to discuss plans. Other family members may have ideas or concerns about your plans. Make sure everyone in your household knows what the plans are for each situation and what role each family member plays. Share your plans with other friends and family so they know where you are and what you are be doing in an emergency.
Air, Food, Water and Shelter
In every situation, you have certain needs. Clean air, water, food and shelter are the most basic of these needs. Meet these four requirements and you can live. Eliminate even one of these needs and death is inevitable. Most disasters threaten one or more of these needs. Any disruption of power or transportation will quickly make food and clean water extremely scarce. Disasters such as fire, severe weather and earthquakes threaten our shelter. Other disasters such as volcano eruptions and chemical or biological attacks can make the air unsafe to breathe.
The most basic requirement for survival is clean air. Gas masks or respirators, plastic sheeting, and duct tape are the most common items used to ensure that you have clean air to breathe. Respirators are the most basic form of protection and are useful for filtering out 95% of contaminants as small as 300 nanometers. This is enough to filter most smoke, dust, and pollution particles, but not small enough to filter out individual viruses or airborne chemicals. Respirators also do not protect the eyes. Gas masks are able to filter almost all viruses and chemicals and protect the eyes as well.
Proper respirator and gas mask fit is critical to achieve adequate protection. Gas masks should create an airtight seal around the face. Respirators should have a good seal around the mouth and nose. Respirators with an exhaust valve are preferrable since they prevent moisture build up in the mask. Additionally, the exhaust valve reduces the chances that rapid exhalation will cause the mask to “blow off” and break the respirator’s seal around the nose and mouth. Discard and replace respirators daily or even hourly depending on the levels of airborne contaminants. Change gas mask filters according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Duct tape and plastic sheeting are great for sealing up doors and windows. While it may not be a perfect solution, even this can stop the infiltration of smoke, ash, or other particulates into the air inside your house. Though it will not stop everything, it is still good protection to store in case of a chemical or biological attack. Combined with respirators or gas masks, duct tape and sheeting could make the difference between life and death.
Flooding or power loss can cause tap water to be unavailable or contaminated. When planning how much water to store, plan at least one gallon of water per adult per day. However, this provides only enough for the most basic washing and drinking needs, so the recommendation is to store more.
If you have access to water, there is the possibility of contamination. Always treat water from streams, rivers, lakes and ponds, as if it is contaminated. Always boil potentially contaminated water or use water treatment tablets. Common, household bleach will also treat contaminated water. To treat water with bleach, use 5.25 to 6 percent plain bleach. Mix one-eighth teaspoon bleach per gallon of water; stir in the bleach and let the water stand for 30 minutes. You may also consider investing in a water purification system.
By simply having a well-stocked pantry you can easily stock up enough food to last a month or more. Always remember to rotate food in and out of your pantry, eating the oldest food first while placing newly purchased food in the back. Canned foods are inexpensive, easy to store, and can last 3 to 5 years. Dried foods have an even longer shelf life. Fifty pounds of rice stored in a Mylar bag sealed in a five-gallon bucket can last 20 years or more. Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber and calories and, with a mill, can be made into flour. Of course, you can always freeze foods, but in the event of a power outage that food will quickly spoil, so make sure that you have an alternate power source such as a generator to keep your refrigeration running.
Fire and severe weather can quickly leave you without a roof over your head. Being prepared may mean you have alternative places to stay such as with friends or family, or it may mean having cash and a bug-out bag so you can evacuate to a safer location. Whatever your solution, should floods, fire, or high winds leave you without a place to lay your head at night, you should plan what you will do in the event your primary residence is no more.
A first-aid kit is necessary. If you do not already have one, you can build your own or purchase a pre-assembled kit. Inspect your first-aid kit annually and discard and replace any old, damaged, used or expired items.
Do not forget to include a supply of any prescription medications your family takes. If possible, generate at least a 30 to 60 day supply of medicine over and above what you usually have on hand. This is especially important for critical prescription medicines such as insulin or heart medication. Many doctors are willing to write a larger prescription, especially prior to hurricane or storm season. Explain to your doctor you want to have a 60-day supply that you can rotate through. Once establishing your supply, continue to rotate new prescriptions through the supply using the oldest dated medicine first. Also, include over-the-counter medicine such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, burn ointment, instant glucose, antihistamine and epinephrine.
Often overlooked is the importance of waterproofing your first-aid kit. If the bag itself isn’t waterproof, its individual containers should be. Adverse weather or moisture can ruin many of the items inside if not properly protected.
Preparedness is not just the domain of survivalists and people with piles of MREs leftover from Y2K. Everyone is prepared to a certain degree. Some people simply stop with a homeowner’s insurance policy, while others religiously test their smoke detectors and keep fire extinguishers strategically placed throughout their dwelling. Preparedness also varies from place to place. A resident in Colorado would likely be wasting their time preparing for a hurricane, while a resident of Florida would be foolish not to. Whatever you need to prepare for, it’s not hard to do with a little research and a little planning. Just remember that preparedness is not something you do once and leave in the closet until a disaster strikes. Preparedness is a state of mind, of anticipating, planning for, and being ready for whatever life throws your way.
The original version of this article appeared on June 29, 2010.