Staying in touch with family and friends is quick and easy through electronic gadgetry. Yet, should a disaster occur, it's possible that telephone and Internet service will be impaired, hindering your ability to contact family and friends when you need help or want to inquire about their safety. Even if these services are intact, an emergency might cause system overload. So it's important that your family has established a way to communicate before an emergency arises. This article provides some suggestions for staying in touch when an emergency occurs.
Have a family emergency plan
Your family may not be together when an emergency occurs, so it is critical to establish a family emergency plan that lists important contact information and where you will meet. Making a family emergency plan is easy. Ready.gov offers a Family Emergency Plan, a ready-made document that you can download and fill out, and then print it or email it to your family and friends. Here is the information you will need to gather for the plan:
- A local emergency contact. Family members may have different emergency contacts so all contact cards may not be the same. Children may list parents; parents may list spouses; or, if a spouse is deployed, a friend may be the emergency contact.
- An out-of-town contact. If local phones are inoperable, you may be able to use an out-of-town person to relay your status to fellow family members. It is often easier to successfully make a long distance call, rather than a local call, in times of an emergency.
- A neighborhood meeting place. Make sure your family members know where to meet if it is no longer safe to be in your house.
- A regional meeting place. It may be necessary for you to meet family members at another location if it is not safe to return to your neighborhood.
- A list of family members. Include important information about each person that will help emergency personnel identify each family member and any medical needs.
- A list of places you spend your time. List contact information for schools, work, childcare facilities or other places you frequent. Be familiar with evacuation procedures at these locations.
- Important document information. Gather phone numbers and policy information for medical and insurance needs.
Be sure to include a copy of your family's emergency communication plan in your disaster supply kit. Review the plan every six months or as needed to keep the information current.
Being able to communicate during an emergency can save lives. You can help keep the lines of communication open by following a few tips, offered by the Federal Communications Commission.
- Be brief. This will allow more emergency calls to get through the network.
- Give critical information clearly. Speak slowly and identify your name, location and what is wrong. Stay on the line and follow instructions.
- For non-emergency calls, use text messaging. This method may work when cellular phone calls don't.
- Get calls away from home. If you are evacuating, use the call-forward feature on your landline phone so your calls will be forwarded to your wireless phone.
- Recharge your wireless phone. Use your car to charge your wireless phone if you are without power. Some hand-cranked radios also provide a charge for cellular phones.
Find family members
If you are unable to contact a family member after a disaster, here are programs designed to provide information about an individual's well-being:
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency activates the National Emergency Family Registry and Locator System during an emergency.
- The Red Cross Safe and Well program allows individuals to register themselves as safe or to search for others who have listed themselves as safe. During large scale disasters, those who live within the disaster area, but are unable to access the Internet, may call the 866-GET-INFO hotline to register on the site.
- Contact Loved Ones is a phone service that allows people to leave messages for others who may be looking for them. To use this nonprofit service, dial 443-992-4890 from within the United States or overseas, and follow the directions.
- Task Force Alert is a U.S. State Department program that allows U.S. citizens to enter information about themselves or their U.S. citizen friends and loved ones into a database during a major crisis overseas.
Military families who move frequently will need to define what kind of emergencies are likely to occur in their location and prepare accordingly. Contact lists and communication plans will change from duty station to duty station, as well. Keeping an up-to-date plan, and instructing family members, friends, schools and workplaces how to use the plan is important so you can communicate effectively during an emergency.