Emergency Preparedness Plans

The official logo for National Preparedness Month 2017. [High Resolution JPG]
(Photo Credit: Department of Homeland Security)

Sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security, National Preparedness Month is observed annually during the month of September. The initiative aims to drive education and awareness surrounding disaster preparation and to encourage citizens to take steps that will prepare them for disasters at home, work, school, or while away. Knowing what to do in the event of an emergency can save time and lives.

Know What To Plan For:

While certain types of emergencies, such as fires, thunderstorms, heat waves, and power outages can occur just about everywhere, your preparedness plan should be tailored to the types of disasters specific to your geographic location. For example, people living in areas where hurricanes or flooding are common will have a different evacuation or preparedness plan than people who live inland. Businesses along active fault lines should be retrofitted for earthquake protection and be prepared to suspend operations for extended periods of time if an earthquake takes place. And those living near nuclear power plants should be aware of what to do in case an emergency alert is activated.

Make A Plan:

A comprehensive emergency preparedness plan will incorporate a list of important info (contact, medical, etc.) for family members or coworkers and contact info for various people/places such as hospitals, doctors, schools, or caretakers. The plan will outline things such as evacuation protocol, where to find emergency supplies and equipment, and disaster specific info (how to prepare a home for a hurricane, where to shelter for a tornado, the location of life jackets, etc.). Keep adequate supplies, emergency and medical equipment, and cash on hand.  An outline on how to create an emergency plan can be viewed here.

Consider Backups:

Your plan should include contingencies for what may arise based on the type of emergency. For example, during a power outage, you may not be able to receive alerts on TV or your cell phone. Gas, water, or food shortages may happen during events such as a mass evacuation. Make alternative evacuation routes in case of traffic, blocked roads, or flooding. Around the home or office, it’s important to know where every fire extinguisher, AED, first aid kit, and emergency exit may be in case access to the nearest one is blocked. Think of the potential issues that may arise for each type of emergency.

Communicate The Plan:

Whether it’s for home, work, or elsewhere, a disaster plan is only effective if everyone who may be involved is informed. At home, this will include all members of the household as well as a babysitter, neighbor, or a nearby relative who may be an emergency contact. Include emergency contacts out of town as well, if an evacuation is ordered. Having all members of the plan informed of what to do helps save time and avoid confusion in times of panic and dangerous conditions.

Run Practice Drills:

Once everyone understands their role in the emergency plan, the next step is to practice and test the plan. Simulating a real emergency, such as an incoming hurricane, will help members of the plan become more familiar with their responsibilities and identify any potential issues or conflicts. Run practice drills for each type of major emergency that you can expect in your area.

Review The Results:

After running your practice emergency drill, review the results with your team. Identify any bottlenecks, shortcomings, and/or vulnerabilities (single points of failure) that the plan may present and come up with solutions to these issues. If needed, rerun the drills and reassess the results, keeping in mind that the conditions present during the practice drill will probably be different during a real emergency.

To learn more about creating your own emergency preparedness plan, visit the Department of Homeland Security’s Ready.gov website.

Fire Extinguisher Safety

fire extinguisher safety
(Photo Credit: Jared Bartlett)

When they are used correctly, fire extinguishers can save both lives and property, but many adults do not know how to properly use one. It is important to know how fire extinguishers work, how to use them, how to identify which type to use, and how to maintain them before a fire takes place.

Before Using an Extinguisher

While it is necessary to act quickly in the event of a fire, education also goes a long way in fighting hostile fires. Knowing what to do in an emergency before it happens will help make firefighting quicker and safer:

  • Pull the alarm – If you see a fire, always activate the fire alarm to alert both the occupants of the building as well as the fire department (call 9-1-1 if your alarm system doesn’t do this automatically).
  • Plan an escape route – if you plan on fighting the fire, know how to leave the area quickly in case the fire gets out of control. Only fight the fire if you have a clear escape route.
  • Know how to use the extinguisher – take time to learn how to properly aim, sweep, and extinguish a fire; many offices and companies have annual employee safety trainings which include fire extinguisher exercises.
  • Assess the size of the fire – fire extinguishers are only meant to put out small, single-location fires; never attempt to put out a large conflagration with a handheld extinguisher.
  • Determine the fuel source – it is important to know what kind of fire is burning before you use an extinguisher – using the incorrect extinguisher can be extremely dangerous – by spreading the fire or causing flare ups. For example, using a water-based extinguisher can spread an oil fire or electrocute a user fighting an electrical fire, and Carbon Dioxide extinguishers can actually fuel certain types of fires.

Types of Extinguishers

A fire’s fuel source will determine what type of fire extinguisher needs to be used to extinguish it. In the United States, there are five classes of fires as defined by the National Fire Protection Association:

  • Class A – Common combustibles such as wood, paper, most plastics, rubber, and fabric. Symbols: Triangle with letter A and picture of burning wood/trash can.
  • Class B – Flammable liquid such as gasoline, oil, paint, and kerosene. Symbols: Square with letter B and picture of burning gasoline jerry can.
  • Class C – Electrical fires and electrical equipment. Symbols: Circle with letter C and picture of burning electrical plug and socket.
  • Class D – Combustible metals such as lithium batteries, sodium, magnesium, and potassium. Symbol: Five-Pointed Star with letter D and picture of burning machine gears.
  • Class K – Cooking oils and fats such as vegetable oils, margarine, butter, animal fats, and grease. Symbol: Hexagon with letter K and picture of pan/pot on fire.

Each class is marked on an extinguisher by both a letter (class letter), and a symbol. Most homes and offices contain multi-purpose “ABC” extinguishers which can be used for those three classes of fire. The contents of fire extinguishers vary depending on the class of fire being put out. Some materials can put out multiple classes of fire, while others are used for only a specific class. These include dry chemicals, foams, Carbon Dioxide, halon gases, compressed water, and pressurized metal based powders. It is important to know what is in your building’s extinguishers so they do not cause more damage than necessary (especially when used around electronic equipment). It is also important you never use the incorrect class of extinguisher as it may exacerbate the fire.

Using an Extinguisher

When using an extinguisher, remember the acronym “PASS”, which stands for, Pull, Aim, Squeeze, and Sweep. Stand between 6 to 8 feet away from the fire and:

  • Pull the safety pin to release the trigger.
  • Aim at the base of the fire (where the fuel source is).
  • Squeeze the trigger continuously until the spraying stops.
  • Sweep from side to side until the fire extinguisher is empty.

An average size fire extinguisher dispenses its contents within 8 to 10 seconds – if the fire does not disappear, leave the area immediately.

Proper Maintenance

Fire extinguishers need to be routinely checked for adequate pressure and cleanliness.

  • Make sure there is no visible rust or dents on the extinguisher and the handle/trigger are clean and free of dust and debris.
  • Fire extinguishers should always be kept in easy to reach, clearly visible (and marked with signage), unobstructed places, evenly distributed among floor plans and throughout multiple floors of a building. Keep in mind the typical hazards located around the building – keep Class K extinguishers near the kitchen, Class C extinguishers near the computer room/server room, and class A extinguishers near the dumpster.
  • Depending on the type of chemical/gas used, the fire extinguisher will need to undergo hydrostatic pressure testing by a professional on a varying schedule: between 5 years for wet contents, CO2, & foams, and up to 12 for halon gases, dry powders, and dry chemicals.
  • Extinguishers exposed to elements such as vibrations, extreme heat or cold, or ones stored on vehicles should be inspected/tested more frequently.
  • Regular maintenance such as visual inspections, cleanings, and pressure checks should be done every month.
  • In areas with many kids and teenagers, fire extinguishers should be kept in protected cabinets (where glass must be broken or an alarm sounds if opened) to deter vandalism.

While fire extinguishers can be the first line of defense against a fire, they have their limitations. Never use a fire extinguisher without training and only use it to combat small fires. Handheld extinguishers are ineffective against conflagrations, so the best course of action when confronted with a large fire is to leave the area immediately and wait for the fire department from a safe distance. Most importantly, always activate the fire alarm and if for any reason you cannot fight the fire, leave the area at once; you can replace property, but you can’t replace lives.

“Choosing and using fire extinguishers.” U.S. Fire Administration, FEMA, 29 Dec. 2016, www.usfa.fema.gov/prevention/outreach/extinguishers.html. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

Tornado Myths Busted

tornado myths
(Photo Credit: The N&D Group)

Tornadoes can form at anytime and almost anywhere if the conditions are right. While accurately predicting their formation and movement can sometimes prove impossible for meteorologists, the damage tornadoes cause is widely documented and studied. Still, due to unique firsthand experiences, word of mouth, and sensationalized news stories, there are many widely spread myths about tornadoes that, if believed to be true, can put people in the path of danger. This list includes some of the most common misconceptions surrounding tornadoes.

Using Highway Overpasses as Shelters

Perhaps the most notorious and dangerous tornado myth is believing that a highway overpass is a suitable storm shelter. This stems from a 1991 Kansas event in which a TV news crew sought shelter under a highway overpass during a tornado and escaped with only minor injuries. The footage captured was shown across the US and led viewers to believe that highway overpasses are a good place to hunker down during a tornado. However, several unique and specific factors led to the crew’s survival, including the unusual design of the bridge in question as well as the path of the storm, which changed directions at the last minute, avoiding the bridge. A typical highway bridge’s shape could act as a wind tunnel, actually intensifying wind speeds and making overpasses some of the worst places to seek shelter. Wind speeds also increase with elevation and if a bridge’s embankment is higher than the surrounding area, it compounds the effect. In addition, vehicles stopped on roadways under bridges may disrupt the flow of traffic and block emergency vehicles, creating a traffic jam and/or cause accidents, putting others in danger.

The National Weather Service recommends that if you’re traveling in your car into the path of an oncoming tornado, immediately pull over and seek the nearest sturdy shelter – preferably an interior basement or first floor room of a well built municipal structure like a school or town hall. If no suitable building is available, as a LAST RESORT, lie flat in a ditch or low lying area to avoid flying debris, or drive away from the tornado only if it is far enough away and the road is clear.

Tornadoes Themselves

There are several widely held, but inaccurate beliefs about the storms themselves. The first is that the size of the funnel cloud is an indication of its relative strength. In reality, size does not matter when it comes to the wind speeds observed in tornadoes. Some of the strongest F5 tornadoes have measured less than 100 yards wide.

Another incorrect assumption is that tornadoes always move northwest, which may leave those southwest of a storm in a false sense of security. The truth is that while most tornadoes move in a general northwest direction, many times they do not and more importantly, a tornado can change directions suddenly and without notice.

Finally, the funnel cloud does not have to reach the ground in order to be destructive. Many believe the funnel cloud marks where the intense winds are located when in actuality, it’s just condensation. The destructive winds can reach the ground even if the funnel cloud does not. Furthermore, not all tornadoes have visible funnel clouds, and some may be obscured by heavy rain.

 Where and When Tornadoes Strike

When most of us think of tornadoes, thoughts of storms over expansive corn fields and flat prairie lands come to mind. And while the majority of tornadoes in the US do indeed occur in the Great Plains known as “Tornado Alley” during the period of March through June, they can occur just about anywhere and at any time. Tornadoes can traverse mountains, lakes, rivers, cliffs, and valleys. In fact, tornadoes have been documented in every state of the US and during every month of the year, in both rural and heavily urban areas. Dallas, St. Louis, Nashville, and even Brooklyn for example, have been hit multiple times, though many think that cities, especially ones with tall buildings, cannot. Tornadoes can also form on water (phenomena known as waterspouts), and the presence of a body of water does not weaken or stop a tornado.

Outrunning a Tornado

There are times when people try to outrun a tornado in their car, but this can be very dangerous. It is true that an average tornado moves slower than most cars at highway speeds, and at a great distance, motorists can avoid a visible tornado by driving away from it at a 90 degree angle relative to its path. However, this doesn’t take into consideration that a tornado doesn’t have to deal with traffic, obstacles blocking the road, emergency vehicles, flying debris, following a specific route (the road), or other drivers. Panicked driving can lead to fatal car accidents, and put others in danger. A vehicle can be swept up and tossed several hundred feet by a small tornado, even if the funnel cloud appears far away. Cars can also be damaged by debris and become disabled, blocking roadways and putting the occupants and other motorists in danger.

Never leave the protection of a sturdy building to escape in a vehicle. An interior room, preferably in the basement (or lowest floor) is the best place to be in a tornado. Vehicles offer very limited protection during a tornado. Whether you are in a car or not, if you are outside, seek suitable shelter immediately.

Opening Windows

Because tornadoes cause changes in atmospheric pressure, it is believed that the difference between the inside and outside air pressures can cause a home to explode outward. This is false. In even the most violent tornadoes, the differences in pressure rarely exceed 10%, which most frame homes could withstand with closed windows. The “explosion” like damage can be attributed to disintegrating roofs and walls that have blown inwards into homes, causing the other three sides to fall outwards, creating the appearance of a house that has exploded. Not only does opening windows cause more damage to the interior of the home by allowing rain and wind inside, it also wastes valuable time that should be spent seeking shelter. Additionally, being near windows in a storm is dangerous as it potentially exposes occupants to flying glass.

In general, there is no guaranteed safety when in the path of a tornado. With winds up to 300 miles per hour, these forces of natures can derail trains, rip up highways, and destroy skyscrapers. But preparedness is the best way to increase your chances of survival. Knowing where to shelter is an essential part of tornado safety. If you live in a mobile home or are planning on traveling in a vehicle, make sure you have an evacuation plan and pick suitable shelters before an emergency takes place. A car or mobile home offers very little protection during a storm as they can be easily damaged, rolled, or thrown by weak tornadoes. Practicing a tornado drill with your family and coworkers will help educate them with what to do if a tornado does form. Finally, pay attention to weather forecasts and storm watches & warnings as these will provide you and your family more time to get to a safe location.

Edwards, Roger. “The Online Tornado FAQ.” The Online Tornado FAQ (by Roger Edwards, SPC). NOAA, 1 May 2017. Web. 05 May 2017. http://www.spc.ncep.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/.

“Tornadoes.” Tornadoes | Ready.gov. Department Of Homeland Security, n.d. Web. 10 May 2017. https://www.ready.gov/tornadoes.

“Tornado Myths.” Storm Aware. State of Missouri, n.d. Web. 05 May 2017. https://stormaware.mo.gov/tornado-myths/.

US Department of Commerce, NOAA, National Weather Service. “Highway Overpasses as Tornado Shelters: Fallout From the 3 May 1999 Oklahoma/Kansas Violent Tornado Outbreak.” National Weather Service. NOAA’s National Weather Service, 27 Sept. 2016. Web. 10 May 2017. https://www.weather.gov/oun/safety-overpass.