This picture is of a Missing Persons board which was made following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The board, in combination with a website which was set up, helped reunite many families which were separated during the disaster. But the fact that boards like this exist speak to a serious disaster preparedness problem: not many families have an emergency communication plan.
What is an Emergency Communication Plan?
An emergency communication plan is a set of steps which each family member should follow after a disaster in order to establish contact with the other members.
What if you are at work when an earthquake suddenly hits. Cell calls won’t go through because the lines are flooded. You rush home, but no one from your family is there. Should you wait for them there? Should you start calling the local hospitals? How do you make sure your family is safe?
There are dozens of scenarios like these which could occur in a disaster. It is incredibly important that you have an emergency communication plan for all of them. In order to ensure all scenarios are covered, your emergency communication plan must include 5 vital components.
The 5 Vital Components of an Emergency Communication Plan
- Modes of communication during a disaster
- Meeting points
- Protocols in case communication cannot be established
- Emergency Contact Info
- ICE number
1. Modes of Communication
This refers to the ways you will get in contact with each other during an emergency situation. Note that each of these methods has its own pros/cons, so you will want your communication plan to include as many modes of communication as possible.
This is one of the best modes of emergency communication because it is convenient and easy. However, cell phones are highly unreliable during emergencies. With many of the most likely disasters, such as hurricanes or EMP, cell phone networks go down. Your phone could also become nonfunctional if it got damaged or broken.
Even if your phone cell and the network are still functioning, the network becomes flooded with all of the people trying to make contact with loved ones. This is known as a mass call event and it occurred during 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and numerous other disasters.
FEMA recommends sending text messages during a disaster instead of calling. Texts are more likely to go through when the lines are tied up, and texting will help keep those lines free for emergency responders.
Tip: Pack an emergency cell phone charger (hand cranked charger is good) in your survival bag so you can keep using your cell for emergency communications even with the power out.
Like cell phones, landlines are also convenient for emergency communications but highly unreliable. Many landline services rely on electricity to work and will fail during a grid outage. Landlines can also become congested from mass calling. However, landlines should still be part of your communication plan – especially when an out-of-state landline is used as your “Central Contact.”
Tip: If you have call forwarding on your landline, forward calls to your cell number during an emergency. This way you will still get incoming calls, such as during an evacuation.
During emergencies like natural disasters, local phone calls might not go through because of network overload. However, long-distance calls will usually go through.
Choose a reliable out-of-state person to be your Central Contact person. If you are unable to get in touch with your family members directly, then you will call the Central Contact instead. Have each family member call at established intervals to give updates. For example:
- Dad: Call on the hour (1:00, 2:00, 3:00…)
- Mom: Call at 15 past (1:15, 2:15, 3:15…)
- Child: Call at 30 past (1:30, 2:30, 3:30…)
The Central Contact will give each family member news and updates each time they call. Keep calling until the family is reunited.
Social media and email are great ways to get bulk messages out to friends and family. Just send one message or status report to everyone to let them know you are okay instead of wasting precious network space to call each individually. Also use the internet when you were unable to make contact with any other method.
Two-way radios, particularly Ham radios, are the most reliable form of disaster communications. They aren’t reliant on the grid to work, nor will they stop working due to network overload. Plus, many two-way radios are designed to withstand emergency conditions like flooding. Keep a two-way radio in your home, car, and at work/school.
As a last resort, you can use written messages to share vital information. For example, if you must evacuate your primary meeting point, you might write a message on the wall. There are some obvious downsides to this. You won’t know for sure whether your family members will see the message, and the message could get destroyed by fire, flood… But it is an easy way to communicate where you have gone.
2. Meeting Points
The next part of your family communication plan should be a meeting point. This is where each of you will go in case you cannot get into contact with each other. Your primary meeting point will probably be your home.
You will also need backup meeting points in case your home is not safe. The secondary meeting point should be local and the third meeting point should be more distant.
Here is how your meeting points might look like:
- Friend’s home at the edge of town
- Relative’s home in a different city or state
3. Protocols in Case Communication Cannot Be Established
A good communication plan must factor in worst case scenarios. What if you can’t make contact? What if no one shows up to the primary meeting point?
The scary truth is that your wife might already be dead, and the rest of you could die while waiting for her to get to the meeting point.
Some of the protocols you must establish include:
- How long should you wait at the primary meeting point for a family member before going to the secondary meeting point?
- How often to call the Central Contact person.
- If changing locations, how will you communicate this (such as by informing the Central Contact person, or by writing notes on the wall)?
- Transportation protocols – should each person move towards the meeting point on their own, or should certain family members wait to be picked up?
Tip: Make sure you know the emergency procedures at your kids' schools so you will know where they will be located and how to get in contact.
4. Emergency Contact Info
The days of memorizing telephone numbers are over. A study found that more than half of people don’t know their partner’s number, and only 35% of people knew their kids’ numbers!
If your phone gets damaged or loses power during an emergency, how are you supposed to call your loved ones?
It is incredibly important that you make a list of emergency contact info. This list must include:
- Phone numbers for family members
- Phone number for your Central Contact
- Phone number for neighbors (you can call and ask them to check in on your family or find out if your home is still safe)
- Phone numbers for local hospital, police, fire department, health care providers
- Addresses of meeting points
- Email addresses
- Photos of family members (useful when searching for lost family members)
Keep all of this emergency contact info in more than one place. If one place gets damaged, then you will have a backup.
- Programmed into your home
- On an encrypted USB on your keychain
- Online, such as in secure cloud storage
- Written down, in your workplace and children’s school lockers
5. In Case of Emergency (ICE)
If you are injured, rescue workers and hospital staff will look in your phone for an In Case of Emergency number, or “ICE.” Without an ICE number, they will not know who to contact. Your loved ones will be left worrying and calling every hospital until they hopefully find you. Learn how to program an ICE number into your phone here.
Remember, a family communication plan is virtually worthless if you don’t practice it! Do a test drill of the communication plan 1-2 times per year to make sure everyone understands what to do and is comfortable with it during a real disaster. Make sure to update any emergency contact information as needed too.