How to Communicate with Your Family During a Disaster
Not being able to communicate with your family during a disaster or emergency is a terrifying scenario. You should know however, the panic that comes from this scenario is often preventable. Yet so few people take the small steps it takes to make communication during emergency situations ready and accessible.
This post will help you take some quick steps to make sure you are not complacent and caught off guard. We will also touch on cell phone use during a disaster, gathering other relevant information, and best practices for communications during emergency situations.
There are a lot of potential scenarios in which you could be separated from your family when an unexpected disaster strikes. From a local evacuation of your neighborhood due to a contamination issue (ex: flipped truck leaking toxic chemicals at the closest major intersection) to a tornado, earthquake, or even a power outage.
Now imagine any one of these scenarios, but the internet and phones are down. There is gridlocked traffic across the city, and you do not know where your family is or if it is even safe to return home.
Lessons from the West Coast Wildfires
During the now-famous California Camp Fire (a deadly and record-breaking wildfire) of 2018, separation and no way to communicate became a scary reality for many families that had to evacuate their communities with little notice.
“Sheriff Kory L. Honea [of Butte County, California] said his office had received 35 reports of missing persons… For many family members, that meant desperate searches for loved ones missing amid the chaos.” (New York Times, Zaveri, Miller, “Families Search for Missing Loved Ones Amid California Fire Chaos,” Nov 10, 2018)
Can you imagine the number of scenarios that would be going through your head if you found yourself in a situation such as this?
Another scenario to consider is being at home with your family, the power has gone out, you can tell something significant has happened, but you do not know what. You do not see how it will impact your family or how long it will last for.
Let’s take a few steps to prevent the chaos, having a plan to get back together with your family and to gather other critical information on communicating during a disaster.
Communicating During a Disaster 101
1. Decide Who You Need and Want to be in Communication With
The first step is to consider who you would want to be communicating with during a disaster.
Once you decide on your who, include them in conversations around the these four points. I suggest hosting a dinner or gathering where one aspect of the evening is a 30 - 40 min conversation around how you would communicate in a disaster, just in case!
If you are concerned that your friends or family members may think you are paranoid, this should not stop the conversation from happening. Instead, approach it causally, but sincerely. Start the invite by citing all the families that got separated in the California & British Columbia Wildfires. Then "... I got thinking, what if something happened here? It really would only take a short conversation to make sure we all had a plan of getting back together and supporting each other..." is a natural place for the conversation to go.
Here is a link to the article I referenced in the intro if you want to share it as part of your justification for bringing people together: Families Search for Missing Loved Ones Amid California Fire Chaos
Here are a few examples of people and information sources you may want to include:
- Immediate family or household members
- Family or real close friends around town
- Elderly or particularly vulnerable people from your community (ex: the elderly couple or single parent that live by themselves down the street)
- Daycare providers for your children
2. Meeting Locations and Ways to Communicate without Cellphones
A lot of people count on reliable cell phone use during disasters. Cell towers could, however, be down entirely from the damage. If they are still running, so many people may be trying to make calls to Emergency Services and loved ones, that the bandwidth becomes jammed and you can not get through to anyone.
Two quick strategies you can implement in just a short conversation are:
A. Create a back-up meeting place
Imagine your home or community is evacuated for whatever reason and you can not return home. Or maybe you are in one part of town and your kids and partner in another. A tornado rips through and destroys your neighborhood, and cell phones and internet are down.
How are you going to get back together with your family?
Create an agreed upon meeting place at least 1 - 2 km from your home. This is the place you will meet if you can not get home or need to evacuate your home and everyone is not together.
Ideally, this place is at a location that has a substantial storm-resistant structure, has water and possibly even an emergency food stash. If this is a friend or family members home, make sure they agree to have there home as a meeting location.
If possible, arrange to have a well-hidden key available for your family at this location.
B. Leave a paper trail.
If you have to leave home and the phones and internet are down, have an agreed upon place in your home to leave emergency notes. Make sure everyone in your emergency communications plan know where this is.
Also, pick a location at your back-up meeting place where a note could be left. Make sure whoever lives there knows that place as well in case they need to leave a note for you.
Do not leave the note on an outside door in case wind, rain or an unwanted stranger were to remove or destroy it.
3. Know the Local Stations from Emergency Alerts & Information
We live in an era where information is often abundant and sometimes overwhelming. During a real disaster, you do not want to be wasting time sorting through conflicting reports. Unfounded rumors can also be rampant during an emergency situation.
It is crucial to know where to get “official” reports and updates from. I also recommend following a few alternative outlets that have proven track records for accuracy. There are a few places you can look to get the information you need to keep your family safe and improve your incoming communication during a disaster.
Visit your municipality and state/provinces website and look at the “Emergency Preparedness” page. Most Municipalities will have a website with useful public information. Some even have copies of the official emergency management plan available for you to look at.
Here is an Ontario Town with an excellent page. It has:
- A tool to make a basic preparedness plan
- Important numbers to call
- Which Radio Stations will be releasing Official Information Statements
- Twitter and Social Media Channels that will be broadcasting information.
The Municipality of Victoria, British Columbia is in a potential Tsunami Zone. As a resident or tourist, you can sign up to get Tsunami alerts right to your phone. In a situation where every minute counts this could be life-saving.
What does your community have available?
4. Using Radios for Communicating During a Disaster
There are two different types of radios you should consider having on hand to help you receive (and in one case transmit) critical information.
A. Hand-crank or Battery Operated Radio with Built-in Weatherband Station
Remember, phones and internet may be unreliable. Knowing what is expected around the next corner, how long a situation may last, and the weather can help you make critical and even life-saving decisions. Understanding the scope of a disaster may also help you in understanding the possible impact on friends and family and relieve worry as you learn certain areas were not affected.
I recommend getting a hand crank radio to allow you to listen to local news and weather. Make sure the radio also includes reprogrammed “Weatherband” stations. The Weatherband broadcasts weather and emergency alerts 24/7 across all of Canada and the United States. Even if the local radio station has been shut down from the incident, it is likely the Weatherband will still be broadcasting.
The back-up radio I use is the "Eton - American Red Cross Weather Radio".
The link is an Amazon affiliate link. If you purchase through the link I get a small commission to help support all the free content on this blog.
B) Handheld radios.
During Hurricane IRMA that struck the United States in 2017, a friend of mine said she was very grateful to have a set of handheld radios. She passed them out to neighbors and close by family before the storm, so they communicate during and after the hurricane, check in on each other and call for help if needed. She said this offered HUGE peace of mind for her.
In this video, I interview an OPP Officer and Owner of Rapid Survival, an emergency preparedness gear store. He talks about why a family may want to have radios and the basics of emergency radio communications.
5. Develop a Proper Family Emergency Communications Plan
I hope by now you recognize the importance of having a plan for communication during emergency situations. This does not take a lot of time or money and could save you a lot of panic stress and even save lives.
The four suggestions above just scratched the surface of family emergency communications planning. There are a bunch of other quick and simple steps that can create real peace of mind and preparedness for a host of possible scenarios.
We have created a fun, entertaining and super practical online training program called, “Survive the Storms.” The course (it’s more of an interactive adventure than boring course) will provide you a template for all the critical information that should be in your family communication plan and walk you through step by step all the other essential pieces.
It also walks you step by step through creating an emergency kit and some essential survival skills.
The course will be going live March 26, 2019 so stay tuned. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or you want to be on the waiting list to get first notice when it is released.
Here is a sneak peak at the Trailer!