Guest Column: Emergency preparedness is priority

For 30 years, I worked on creating safety programs for families and businesses, yet it was the events of Sept. 11, 2001, that made me realize the extreme importance of being prepared for an emergency. Spending three hours trying to contact my adult children that day and the resulting stress made me realize I was probably not alone in not being prepared for a disaster.

We only needed to get a pad of paper and family members or key employees and create a plan, buy some emergency supplies, rehearse an evacuation plan, put up smoke detectors, buy an emergency radio and flashlights, and stash some emergency cash. Those needed basics would suffice for a few days of being out of touch and without basic necessities like power, communications, heat, air conditioning, running water and the like. I also wrote a book and workbook to help people answer their most important question: how do I create a plan?

Some people heard me. Many others had good intentions, but once they left the seminar or workshop, they went on with their lives without taking any action.

But Emergency Preparedness is no longer optional, nice to have, for the other person, something you will get around to doing. Now, my workshop can be reduced down to one short phrase, “New Orleans,” and I will say thank you for attending. That phrase and the images it brings to mind should say it all!

If you love your family, if you love your business, your job or at least the money it provides, your community, your church, you should be asking yourself what you need to do to get prepared. Even if you have a plan, after the events of the last week, you must ask yourself if it is any good.

Eight out of 10 people in America do not have a family emergency plan, and one out of four small businesses that employ almost 90 percent of workers in this country do not have an emergency preparedness plan. Statistics also show 40 percent of businesses without a business continuation plan will never reopen when destroyed by a disaster.

For four years, we have been telling people that the Emergency Preparedness Educational Institute, a not-for-profit organization we created, has a single purpose: helping people help themselves. In any large-scale disaster or emergency, people who expect to depend on government for assistance will be disappointed. Ask the people on the Gulf Coast. Ask the victims of Katrina. They are disappointed, and they are devastated. Many are dead.

This is not about finding fault but about fact-finding. In the 1950s, people in America took preparedness seriously because of the fear of the bomb and its potentially widespread and deadly result. But today’s disasters like Katrina, Charley and the rest of the hurricane family that visited in the past year were not as widespread, though certainly they were catastrophes. What is the difference between the preparedness of the ’50s and the 2000s?

The answer is ATTITUDE. People can develop their own “Safety Map” if they want to, whether they are rich or poor, old or young. It is not poverty or money that prevents preparedness planning because the price of basic preparedness is about the same as the cost of a carton of cigarettes. People can buy a whole lot of water, a battery radio, a plastic 5-gallon can and some plastic bags, pack some spare clothes in a plastic bag, buy some canned goods, and put it all together to grab and go when disaster hits.

Remember, you can do all that for about the cost of a carton of cigarettes! When you’re told to leave, to evacuate, it is probably a good idea to go. It is again a matter of ATTITUDE!

Preparedness is about peace of mind, about knowing that you and your family, with a little planning and a little bit of preparing some supplies, can deal with an emergency perhaps a little better than the people in New Orleans did.

Safety Map for Families

1. Be realistic. Disasters are real and can happen to you and your family.

2. Be aware of pending current disasters and warnings.

3. Prepare a plan. Rethink and challenge all your assumptions; play out various scenarios.

4. Communicate the plan to your family and friends in advance.

5. Obtain emergency supplies to last for one week.

6. Be prepared to leave your home, city, or state if necessary.

7. Establish a multi-channel communications plan for use during and after disasters.

8. Conduct a role-play or drill every 90 days to make sure everyone knows and is ready.

9. Avoid denial, “optimism bias” and overconfidence. Act on warning signs.

Norris L. Beren is the author of When Disaster Strikes Home and executive director of the Emergency Preparedness Educational Institute. He may be reached at

From the Oct. 5-11, 2005, issue

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