Family emergency plans?

I just finished reading a new preparedness book* that, like all preparedness how-to books, talks about family emergency plans— you know, the whole, “Have a meeting place outside the neighborhood” advice. And you know what? I’ve never done that prep. Moreover, I don’t get it. Maybe it’s because my household is small (fewer people to scatter), or because my house is very small (it’s not like we’d flee a structure fire from separate wings and then lose one another on the expansive grounds, ffs), or because Covid has broken my brain (“We are always together. There is nothing other than together.”), but I just can’t envision a meet-up plan that is simple enough to actually remember but also versatile enough to serve 80% of scenarios in which we would need it. In the most likely 80% of scenarios, we are bugging in, so the house is our meeting place. In any case where we have to bug out, well, which direction we go and how far we can go depends entirely on the nature of the threat. 

Can anyone articulate for me how they’ve approached or operationalized this (presumably good) guidance? What does your family emergency plan look like? Which scenarios do you use it for? Do I not get it because of where I live and the kinds of things it makes sense to prep for here? For example, if you live in the WUI in the Western U.S., it seems clear to me that you should figure out multiple driving and walking routes out of your neighborhood in the event of a wildfire; there are probably limited options, memorizing all of them is both possible and sensible, and it makes sense to come up with a place out of harm’s way to which all routes lead. But I live in the middle of a city, the odds of a wildfire sweeping through are vanishingly small, and there are literally a gazillion ways out of the neighborhood. If you live in hurricane country I can see trying to figure out a way out of your neighborhood that doesn’t direct your through low-lying, flood-prone areas, but our big disaster threat here is an earthquake, and I don’t really see an analog there.

Anyway, any thoughts or anecdotes to help me make this practice make sense for my household would be much appreciated.

* The book was David Pogue’s How to Prepare for Climate Change, and I really only skimmed it, since I’ve read a lot about both preparedness and climate change. Most of the information wasn’t new to me, but it was really interesting to have see those two subjects woven together. The book seems like a particularly valuable resource for anyone in flood-, hurricane-, or wildfire-prone areas, since it goes into how to understand your insurance policy and get assistance from your insurer and the federal government post-disaster— a very unsexy, bureaucratic side of prepping that probably characterizes the reality of post-disaster life better than what we see in apocalypse and survival movies!


  • Comments (11)

    • 6

      I have a bugout plan for my family, but that’s because I have a retreat to bug out to.  Basically if bugout is required, I load up my 4wd and trailer, and the wife, I and 1 adult child head up to a meeting spot on the edge of the freeway to await my son and his partner in tbeir 4wd, who live further north. We then travel south along the freeway through rural land for 2hrs, when we stop to rendevous with my daughter, grandson and another son, in another awd vehicle. We then continue south for another 90 minutes, through more rural land, until we arrive at the retreat. Very little urban area to travel through, but we are well equipped to deal with any problems.  In the event of a total loss of communication, my children are capable enough to get to the retreat on their own. They know where the keys are buried, and the retreat is reasonably well stocked. 

    • 9

      Sarah, These books are written for national audiences. In practical terms, they are good to provoke thought.  The specifics cannot work for most.  There are just too many variables involved.

      Recommend avoiding the “80%” view and migrate to FEMA’s “realistic worst case scenarios”. You’re at Trader Joe’s; partner is home.  There’s a mandator evacuation order effective immediately.  Where would you 2 want to meet up if required to go eastward ?  Where if westward ?  (One reason had mentioned to carry old CERT documents; you could plan to meet up at a new emergency shelter [declared on news perhaps if radios working] or a parking lot of an EOC….factor in safety during these evac events).

      Routes for driving and walking must be realistic.  Some roads are priority to eg National Guard, State Police, responders of all types. There could be wheeled trailer road signs requiring use of certain routes only.  Ditto: walking … and again, factor in safety and security measures. The wildfire escape road might already be blocked by a car and truck burning on the section of road not visible until close by.

      The analogy re earthquakes and hurricanes – and the other perils – distills down to about the same preparedness.  Learn the needed skills: first aid, getting water external to your own dwindling supply, …… Learn and collect the needed stuff: good quality field clothes, portable tools on a belt, document pouch with docs and writing paper, ……. you know all this.

      Not familiar with the referenced book.  I’ve got so many pubs here, they really do take up too much space. There’s only a few that I consider valuable – and they were written before FEMA came into existence.

    • 7

      i have this video saved on my youtube account because i thought it was pretty good and is something i need to do for my family still. while family emergency plans are important for every family, it is especially necessary for those with youngins. 

      what is your little family like that you would be making an emergency plan for? that will be able to help me give you more specific recommendations

      • 5

        Just watched the video— thanks. We’ve already done most of that, i.e., having out of area contacts and phone numbers for various emergency services and friends and relatives both in our area and outside the region; making sure everyone in the family knows what supplies we have, how they work, and how to turn the utilities on and off— to me that’s just “prepping”, but again, maybe that’s because our household is two adults and a dog. The other adult knows how to adult (which includes knowing where the breaker box is), and the dog isn’t going to learn (though he is a full-on genius by dog standards, make no mistake). 😀

        When I think of a family emergency plan, I’m mostly thinking about the “destination” piece of what this guy lays out. That’s where I feel like this just doesn’t make sense for our circumstances. Literally the only situation in which I can imagine us having to get out of the neighborhood in a hurry is a wildfire, the odds of one reaching this deep into this big of a city are vanishingly small (I live in an actual significant metro area, not a small city like Santa Rosa that is just full of WUI), and even if that did happen, which direction we should go depends on the direction of the fire (which probably won’t be clear enough that we can plan out separate meeting places for a variety of possible escape routes without it leading to, say, him showing up in the “Evac East” location and me showing up in the “Evac South” location). I can envision how a meeting place would make sense if you lived in a community along the California Coast where there is a ridge line to the east full of very flammable vegetation and ocean or bay to the west— in that case you know from which direction the fire threat is going to come, and which direction leads to safety. In every other scenario, the safest thing to do is meet each other at the house and then decide together whether to bug in, or to where we should flee. I worry that having multiple meetup locations for various low-probability scenarios would just lead us to interpret the circumstances differently and head off in opposite directions from one another.

        If that helps you understand why I’m struggling to match this guidance to my circumstances, I would love to hear your additional thoughts!

      • 5

        that’s a real concern. i’d hate to have my family separated to one evacuation area and i’m at another. if i was in your shoes though, i don’t think i’d worry too much. 

        like you said, the probability of a disaster (the wildfire) where you would both have to flee immediately is very low. both agree that if this low probability disaster were to happen you would go to your #1 evacuation location (like a friend or family member’s house). in the even rarer scenario that the wildfire happens, and that #1 spot is not accessible or safe to get to, agree on a 2nd spot. you both will probably see that #1 is not a feasible option and head to the 2nd, but lets say you both go separate ways and one is at #1 and the other is as #2, you will at least get reunited eventually and are still better off than most who don’t even have a plan and just go wherever.

        having a good emergency communication plan can also decrease the chance of getting separated. if you see fires going on, track it daily and keep telling each other that if this escalates and we need to bug out, lets go here. and if it changes weirdly than you can try calling, texting, email, social media, or something else to get the word to him that you are going to evacuation zone #2. even using walkie talkies could maybe help. you may even have to leave a message with a before agreed on person, probably someone at your evacuation zones. they can relay your message and tell others, sarah checked in with me two days ago and she is here and is planning on arriving by this time.

    • 7

      I have a small family like you pnwsarah, my wife, myself, and a mutt. And while I haven’t necessarily written out a family emergency plan, I like to randomly quiz my wife like while we are doing dishes together.

      I’ll ask her things like:

      • What would you do if a disaster hit and we couldn’t come back to our home, and our cell phones didn’t work, where would you meet up with me? What if I wasn’t at that first location, where would you go next?
      • What would you do if a disaster hit while you were out shopping and couldn’t drive home?
      • (while sitting down watching tv) What would you do if someone broke into our house right now and ran in and pointed a gun at us?
      • If the house caught fire, what is something you should grab if you have a minute to do so? (I want her to get our backup hard drive)

      I want to make sure we are on the same page and would do the same thing if something were to happen. I’ve wanted to make an ‘Official Family Emergency Plan’, but just haven’t had time to do so. 

      In this official plan, I would list out various disasters and what to do in them. While she won’t be able to go get the sheet and read what to do in something like a home invasion, we will read it over occasionally and hopefully some things will stick in her mind. But for other disasters, it will be her guide on what to do if i’m not there. This is super simplified, but something like:

      • Home invasion- if possible, grab gun and barricade self in a room. Call 911 if possible.
      • No communication – you can’t reach me by cell phone and i’m at work. Go to the bug out bag and grab the ham radio. Go outside and turn the knob on the top until you hear something. Hit this key, and then this key and listen out for me calling….
      • Power goes out to the house, and even small electronics like your phone – An EMP probably has just hit, go put the water bob in the bath tub and fill up. Get as many containers in the house and fill up with water. Keep the fridge shut as much as possible….

      Just make sure you guys are on the same page, teach them how to do basics like shut off the breaker if an earthquake hits so that a broken power line doesn’t spark a fire. 

      I’m a big advocate of having a small piece of paper in your wallet with the address, phone number, and email of close family and friends. Our communication system is so fragile from technical issues to a broken/dead cell phone. Having a way to contact people and tell them you are safe is very important.

      If your family really gets into it, you can make secret code words and signs in case you are ever in trouble and could be monitored by someone you don’t want knowing your true intent. Like in a home invasion, saying that you really could use a can of coke right now could be a code word to get ready to attack at the same time. Or placing a garden gnome facing the house (which usually is facing away from the house) means that the house is not safe and family approaching the house should go to the emergency meetup spot.

      Have fun with it, don’t scare them, and don’t seem overly paranoid. They may not be on the same prepping level as you, so keep it light and teach them gradually over time.

      • 10

        High-five from one two-adult-one-mutt household to another. I like the idea of having a sort of written cheat sheet for multiple scenarios. It avoids the dangers I’m primarily worried about: (1) Missing each other in a disaster because the one meeting place you’ve chosen has become a dangerous place in this particular disaster, or (2) missing each other because having multiple meeting places was a source of confusion. This way you can spell out, “In these five scenarios, meet at home. In these two scenarios, that’s ill-advised, so here is the alternative plan.” Then you make that part of an EDC so you always have a written plan on hand. 

        I don’t think I have to quiz my partner on prepping basics since he is tremendously resourceful. I feel like he’s an honorary prepper because he knows a bunch of practical stuff (e.g., how cars work, how bikes work, how houses work, how to grow plants, how to invest, how to backpack, how to camp, how to fix camping equipment, how to control the temperature of a house without using heat or AC, how to cook good meals from things like lentils and rice… you get the idea) and listens to me talk about prepping… a lot. When we first got together, he realized that he didn’t have an earthquake kit (because I did have one) and then immediately got one. 

        Your questions for your wife do remind me of one quasi-joke that we have in our family: When we’re driving on the coast, I always “inform” him when we enter or leave a tsunami hazard zone (there are signs posted regularly along the highway indicating this). It’s funny because (1) it’s already on the sign, and (2) I say the same thing every. damn. time. But it’s also a real danger and I always like to think about what the plan is if a major earthquake hits while we’re in a low-lying coastal area. I like to think that pointing it out raises both of our awareness of how near or far we are from safety at any given time.

    • 6

      I’ve also not done this well.  Our default plan so far is to communicate, get home, assess and decide.  One very basic plan I have communicated is a meet up location at the light post across the street from the house for local issues like a house fire.  I don’t want one of us to go back into a dangerous house because the other is in the back yard and can’t hear the other screaming her name.  It’s also not near another structure for the earthquake scenario. 

      • 7

        I like “communicate, get home, assess, and decide”— it suggests that maybe having a family emergency plan is just making what feels like common sense explicit. If you have children in the house, it’s probably clear that you have to spell things out, but when it’s two adults, it seems obvious. Doesn’t mean it is obvious, though. Maybe the reason this has been hard for me is that what I actually need to do is simple, so I looked right past it.

      • 7

        Two adult and a rabbit household here. I agree that I would probably get more overt and plan better if we had kids. And that first step of communicate can be more of a challenge than it sounds. In some emergencies, that may be calling or texting (more reliable as Bill Mason states as well). That did work in the wildfires where we had to evacuate. If those are not available as has been in earthquakes and hurricanes, then it’s the HAM radios that we haven’t yet tried out (still need to get the licenses) for the distance between home and work with mountainous terrain. We do work at the same place, so for much of the time we’re able to ‘meet at my car’ which I purposely park away from buildings.  

    • 6

      We have a family emergency plan, primarily because we need a unified response if there is a crisis. In our case there are four of us and three of the four work in different towns.  We have a very simple ” trigger” system in the form of a simple message system via Text.  EG if I text them “Alas Babylon” I dont have to explain the what, why, who, where and when. They all understand its a serious issue and they must come home ASAP.   Alternatively if the crisis make it impossible to return to our home they can go to a pre arranged rendezvous location where we know is secure and has cached supplies.  We use texts rather than voice because it has been proven that texts often get delivered where phone calls will not connect.