Your Family Disaster Plan: 5 Questions to Get Started

Do you have a family disaster plan? If you missed it, creating one was one of your action steps in my last article on making your own supply kit for disasters. It will take a bit of time to create a family disaster plan, and you will likely make changes as the needs of your family change. But to begin, let’s take a look at the first step. 

creating a family disaster plan

Considerations for Your Family Disaster Plan

As you put your plan together, a few questions must be considered.

  • What is the best way to receive emergency alerts and warnings?
  • What is our plan for shelter?
  • Which route should we take if we need to evacuate?
  • How will I communicate with my family/household?
  • Is it time to update my emergency kit?

Let’s take a look at each one more in-depth.

Emergency Alerts and Warnings

There are a few methods for receiving emergency alerts and warnings. You can choose one or all for your family disaster plan, depending on your needs.


WEA stands for Wireless Emergency Alerts, and you’ve probably heard one when your cell phone makes a loud, annoying sound. Have you ever received an AMBER alert? This is an example of a WEA. Cell towers can broadcast short emergency messages from authorized federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial public alerting authorities to any WEA-enabled cellphone in a localized area. States and local governments, the National Weather Service, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the President of the United States can issue WEAs.

Most newer cell phones are already set up to receive WEAs, but if your phone is older, you may need to enable these alerts. You should be able to find out how to do this online or in your user’s manual, as it will vary from phone to phone. If you can’t figure it out, contact your service provider to help.


The Emergency Alert System, or EAS, is a national public warning system that the President used to announce a national emergency.  We’d get “tests” on the TV or radio when I was a kid. We’d hear an alert sound, and the message would be, 

This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The broadcasters of your area, in voluntary cooperation with the Federal, State, and local authorities, have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency, the Attention Signal you just heard would have been followed by official information, news, or instructions. This station serves the (operational area name) area. This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System.”

This system is also used for weather emergencies, such as tornado warnings and other local emergencies. To use the EAS, you must be tuned in to radio and television stations, cable TV stations, satellite radio or television, or a wireless cable provider. 


An NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) connects you to a nationwide network of radio stations that broadcast continuous weather information from the nearest National Weather Service office based on your location.

Weather forecasts, warnings, watches, and other hazard information are broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition, NWR broadcasts alerts about non-weather emergencies, such as threats to national security or public safety.


FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They describe their mission as helping people before, during, and after an emergency. The FEMA app makes this easier by allowing you to receive real-time weather alerts, send notifications to loved ones, and locate emergency shelters near you. The app is available on the Play store and the Apple store. Alternatively, you can download the app via text. If you have an Android device, text ANDROID to 43362 (4FEMA); if you have an Apple Device, text APPLE to 43362 (4FEMA).

fema app

This app is great for alerts but also provides you with preparedness tips and other information. You can use the app to find an emergency shelter or apply for assistance if you have been affected by a disaster.

What methods for receiving alerts and warnings will work best for your family? Give this some thought as you prepare your family emergency plan.


Most of us have a comfortable home, but have you considered your shelter needs in the case of an emergency? I always like to think I will stay at home in an emergency, but you never know when you might have to evacuate. Therefore, it’s vital to think about shelter when you create a plan for your family.

Most emergency management experts think of “shelter” as staying home, going to an emergency care shelter, or sheltering in place. 

Typical Shelter Options

Staying at home is obviously the most ideal option. If you have taken the time to prepare, you should have everything you need to care for your family in an emergency. (And if you don’t, I will help you get to that point!) In a stay-at-home situation, you’ll only leave the house if absolutely necessary. Think of the Covid restrictions a couple of years ago, and you’ll better understand this.

Shelter-in-place is a little different. This may or may not involve staying home, depending on the situation. For example, you can’t go home if you must shelter in place while at work. Shelter in place means staying where you are, wherever that may be. If this is your shelter option, you’ll still want an emergency supply kit handy. You may need to close all windows and vents and turn off the AC or heat. In some cases, you may need to seal yourself off in a room with plastic over vents and windows.

No one wants to go to an emergency shelter, but it still should be factored into your emergency plans. Take some time right now to learn if there are emergency shelters in your area. Make a note of the location and different routes to get there. You can search for open shelters by texting SHELTER and your ZIP code to 43362

If you must go to an emergency care shelter, you can expect that they will provide water, food, medicine, and basic sanitation. However, you should still plan to take your emergency supply kit with you to have the specific supplies your family needs. Mass care shelters typically involve living with many people in a confined area, so most prefer to avoid this option if possible. Still, it can save your life, so it must be considered.


You never know when you might have to evacuate so it needs to be part of your family disaster plan. If you’re lucky, you might get a couple of days’ notice, like if a hurricane is approaching. But sometimes there is no notice. You must evacuate. NOW. This is why planning is so important.

First, determine the types of disasters that are most likely where you live. For example, since I’m in Wisconsin, I’m not likely to encounter a hurricane. But I might have to deal with a tornado or flooding.

Wherever you live, emergency, evacuation, and shelter plans for each disaster should be available. Learn what they are and then plan how you will leave and where you’ll go if you must evacuate.

Local officials should be able to tell you where to find shelter spaces. You want to know this before there is an emergency. You should identify several places you can go in an emergency, such as a friend’s house in another town or a motel. When an emergency strikes, make sure you have options by choosing destinations in different directions. Don’t forget to consider your pets while you make your plans. They rely on you to keep them safe.

Also, consider that you may need to leave on foot. You should have a bug-out bag for each member of your household with the necessary supplies. Keep an emergency bag in each vehicle as well.


Other things to keep in mind if you must evacuate are how to stay connected to your family if you become separated. You may not even be together when an emergency occurs, so you’ll need a way to keep in touch, so you know everyone is safe. 

You can’t rely on your cell phones as most will be overloaded with people trying to call friends and family. Consider getting hand-held radios and learning how to use them. You should also establish a meeting place that everyone knows how to find. 

Every person in your household should have a list of names and numbers to contact in an emergency. Keep this list in your bags, and make sure everyone knows where it is and how to use it. This list should have your household information, including your home address and phone number, as well as the names, mobile numbers, other numbers or social media, email, medical, and other important information of each person in your household.

Your Emergency List

Besides what was mentioned above, your list should include information for schools, childcare, caregivers, and workplaces. Also, list emergency hotlines, websites, and emergency pick-up information if you need to get your child from school or daycare. 

Next, create a list of emergency contacts. This should include friends and family in other areas and should list cell numbers, email and physical address, and any other useful information to help you contact them if necessary. 

Add the number for Poison Control: 1-800-222-1222. Then list all of your healthcare providers and their phone numbers. List allergies, prescriptions, and your insurance information.

Emergency Kit

Your emergency kit is the last thing to look at as you make your family disaster plan. Is everything up to date? Is everything in working order? If you have medication or emergency food, ensure it hasn’t expired. Test batteries to make sure your radio and flashlights will work. If you have extra clothes, make sure your kids haven’t outgrown them and that they are suitable for the season.

Go through your kit twice a year to reacquaint yourself with everything and to see if anything needs to be changed or updated.

Next Steps

That’s about it for Step One. Don’t get overwhelmed; take your time and get it right. If you rush through, you may forget something vital. Once all of this is done, you can move on to Step Two, which I’ll cover in the next article.

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