Imagine you’re home folding laundry when all of a sudden you hear a loud message coming from the street. You pause what you’re doing to figure out what the commotion is all about. Then you see, past the haze of a smoke cloud, a law enforcement officer driving through your neighborhood and repeating over a megaphone, “A fire is approaching. Everyone must evacuate immediately.”
Instantly, fear sets in, and with it, a rush of adrenaline. You only have minutes to escape…ready? GO! OK now, hold that thought for a minute.
In this very moment, you have a choice. You can either prepare for such an event, or figure it out what to do the day it happens. I hope you choose the former. Preparing now for a five-minute evacuation in the future could potentially save you and your family’s life.
The scenario I just described is exactly what happened to a close friend of mine. What I didn’t mention was that she was home alone, with her one-year-old son, and without a car— her husband had taken it to work and was at least 30 minutes away.
Disasters are mostly unpredictable, and in a situation like this one, you will either resort to putting your plan into action (which I hope you’ve practiced) or to reacting out of sheer panic.
For an evacuation plan to be effective, you must:
- Have a communication and reunification plan, a home escape route, family responsibilities established, and an evacuation destination in mind
- Have your grab-and-go kits and emergency supplies pre-packed and up-to-date
- Practice your evacuation drill at least twice a year
In this section, we will focus on planning a home escape route, assigning family responsibilities, and determining where to evacuate to.
Drawing your home escape route
Every disaster will present a unique set of challenges, therefore you should consider multiple evacuation options in the event that your primary option becomes blocked or impassable.
When determining the best escape route for your home, consider:
- Having two escape routes per room. Doors and windows are equally viable escape route options, so long as they’re accessible (no obstacles standing in the way) and easy to open. In the event of an earthquake, doors might get jammed and you may need to escape through a window.
- Having an escape ladder near the windows if you have a two-story home.
- Evacuation procedures, options, and alternatives if you live in an apartment or high-rise building.
With your family, do a complete walk-through of your house. With a sticky note or a piece of painter’s tape, mark the two best exits in every room. If there is anything blocking an escape exit, clear those spaces out.
Then, draw the basic layout of your house and the two best escape routes you can use to evacuate. If you have an upper story, consider at least two routes for the upper story as well.
This is an example of a home escape route.
Use the following template to draft your home escape plan.
With a red marker, draw the primary escape path and circle the safest meeting place just outside of your home (whether that’s the front yard or across the street).
With a yellow marker, draw the secondary escape path.
With a blue marker, mark where all the windows are located.
Identifying essential items and assigning responsibilities
For a quick evacuation to be successful, you must first determine which items are crucial for you to take with you. Ask yourself:
- Which items would you need to survive the first 72 hours without outside help?
- Which items would you need to start your life all over?
- And which irreplaceable items would you like to protect or keep forever?
Remember, you can’t take your entire life with you so keep the list as short as you can.
The next step for a quick evacuation is to designate family duties. When an emergency strikes, your mind will not be able to focus on too many things. Rather than having a long list of items to grab on your way out the door, have each person in your household become responsible for one or two items (or tasks). This process will save you a lot of time, thereby making a five-minute evacuation possible.
TIP: If you have young children, you may want to set them up with a movie on your phone or tablet to keep them distracted and entertained while you pack the car.
Consider the possibility that someone with assigned duties isn’t home, or that you may even be home alone during an evacuation. If this occurs, know you’ll have to adjust your evacuation plan a bit and grab the items on the list yourself.
Using the template below, determine which must-have items you would need to take with you in the event of an emergency. Then, rank them in priority (1 being the most important, 2 being the second-most important, and 3 being the least important). We gave you some ideas.
Then, filter those items by level of importance. Mention where they’re located in your home and who is assigned to grab them. As a family, agree on the best place to keep these lists, such as the side of the refrigerator, the inside of a pantry door, or in a kitchen drawer.
Finally, delegate tasks to ensure the security of your home upon evacuation.
The 5 minute evacuation plan
Using the previous template as a reference, list any items marked “1” (those of highest importance) on the following chart. Then, write down where they are located in the home (such as the downstairs closet, a bedroom, etc) and who is assigned to get each item during an evacuation.
Remember that during a quick evacuation you may only have time to get the absolute essentials, so keep this list short.
The 1 hour evacuation plan
Hopefully you have more than five minutes to evacuate your home. In some circumstances, you will have several hours to gather up your belongings and go.
In this chart, you’re going to do what you did on the previous template, except this time, list any items marked “2” (those of second-highest importance). Then, write down where they are located in the home and who is assigned to get each item during an evacuation.
Do not repeat items from the 5 minute evacuation plan— just add new items and responsibilities to this list.
The 1 day evacuation plan
Some natural disasters, like hurricanes, can be predicted days in advance. In the best case scenario, you’ll be given a voluntary evacuation warning first. This should give you plenty of time to put your evacuation plan into action and be ready to go if the disaster gets worse and forces you to leave your home.
On the chart, you’re going to do what you did on the two previous templates, except this time, list any items marked “3” (those of lowest importance). Then, write down where they are located in the home and who is assigned to get each item during an evacuation.
Do not repeat items from the 5 minute nor the 1 hour evacuation plans— only add new items and responsibilities to this list.
Meeting all the needs
Consider anyone living in your home who may need extra assistance evacuating, such as pets, young children, the elderly and anyone with special needs. Assign someone in your family to help evacuate them quickly and safely.
Securing your home before an evacuation
Protecting your home before a disaster and securing it at the time of an evacuation is a key component of your plan. After all, these are your hard-earned belongings we’re talking about!
In the previous section this topic was discussed in greater detail, but it’s important enough to reiterate it.
Read the article "41 Ways to Secure Your Home Before an Evacuation."
Determine the best ways to protect your home based on the suggestions provided.
Delegate tasks to family members to ensure the security of your home upon evacuation. We’ve provided some ideas for you below. You can add to the list as you see fit.
Will your evacuation plan work?
Congrats, you did it!! Your home evacuation plan is complete and it looks amazing, doesn’t it? Since plans don’t always get executed in the same way they’re laid out on paper, especially under pressure, it's time to test how well your plan works and determine which adjustments need to be made.
Schedule an evacuation drill with your family. Set a timer and see how long it takes you to evacuate (aim for under five minutes). Take note of where your plan can be improved and make any necessary adjustments. Then, practice it again.
Have an evacuation drill with your family every 6 months— at least once in the daytime and once at night. Practice crawling out on your hands and knees in preparedness of a house fire or smoke and heat situation.
Where will you evacuate to?
Getting out of the house safely is the first of many missions during an emergency evacuation… and knowing where to go from there is your second mission.
Make a list of two to four evacuation destinations. Consider nearby evacuation shelters, the home of a relative or friend, hotels, or a vacation home you own in a different city.
Evacuation centers open up as emergencies occur. Check with your local emergency management agency for shelter availability and services and stay tuned to the news broadcast via radio, TV, or social media to find the latest information. To find a local shelter, send a text to 43362 that says “shelter” followed by your zip code. (For example: shelter 92007.)
Learning your way around
“Okay Google! Give me directions to the nearest evacuation shelter.
We’re so accustomed to the convenience of having directions dictated to us on our phones, that many of us have forgotten how to use paper maps and figure out directions without artificial intelligence.
Let’s imagine not having Siri or Google’s help for a moment. Can you get home from work, the gym, or the grocery store using alternative roads that you don’t normally take? How about your kids or elderly parents? Can they navigate their way home or away from the neighborhood without a GPS?
During disasters, major roads can become blocked due to rising floodwaters, debris, or even traffic. Do not count on using the route you take on your typical commute every day. Knowing back streets is ideal and can help you evacuate faster. Knowing your way around your neighborhood and the places you frequent most is crucial because you need to prepare for the possibility of failed telecommunications systems and infrastructure.
Study the evacuation routes in your neighborhood and city. Determine which side streets will take you home from work, school, the gym, grocery store, and any other places you frequent the most. Outline at least two different routes to and from those places on a paper map.
Then, buckle up and go on a mini field trip. Practice driving around the roads you outlined. If you have kids, allow them to direct the way home using only backstreets (or roads not frequently traveled). Avoid using a GPS unless you get really lost.
What’s your back up plan for transportation?
Emergency preparedness is not a one - two - three step type of program. Unfortunately, things don’t always flow as planned, which is why having a plan B, C, and maybe D will be important.
Consider alternative forms of transportation for evacuation. If your main vehicle gets a flat tire, do you have the supplies to fix it and are they within reach? [That’s something to think about when you’re packing your car.] Also, do you know how to change a tire?
But perhaps a flat tire isn’t the worst issue you may encounter.
What would you do if your car breaks down altogether— do you have another method of transportation lined up? These are some ideas for you to think about:
- A second vehicle: Families who have two or more vehicles oftentimes choose to evacuate with both vehicles. This is beneficial for several reasons. For one, if you have a big family or several pets, you can evacuate more comfortably and have room to take more supplies. More importantly, however, if one of the vehicles breaks down, the people, pets, and supplies can be transferred over to the second vehicle and the journey can continue.
- Motorized options: Motorized vehicles, including motorcycles, quads, moped scooters, electric-assisted bikes, and golf carts, are beneficial because they’ll get you to your destination faster than walking and they require a lot less physical effort. The down side, however, is that they may require a battery charge or gasoline. Sometimes you may also need an additional license and/or registration for it to be street legal. That’s just another thing you’ll have to plan for.
- Non-motorized options: Non-motorized vehicles, including bicycles and scooters, are beneficial because they don’t require gasoline or an electric unit. The down side is that they require a lot more physical effort on your part, and you won’t be able to carry too many supplies with you.
- Carpooling: Plan to carpool with a neighbor. After the Camp Fire in California, I met an elderly woman who, at the time of evacuation, was in distress from the situation. Her neighbor decided to drive her car (with her and her pets as the passengers) while his wife drove his family’s car. This situation not only saved her and her cats, but it saved her vehicle too.
- Public transportation: Some cities organize public transportation to help people evacuate in mass groups. This is an option to consider but keep in mind that some services, such as the metro and subway (which run on electricity) may stop working during an interruption in power. If this is your alternative transportation option, you should keep your evacuation kit as lightweight as possible.
- Ride sharing: In the event where you’re given more than a day’s notice to evacuate, you may be able to schedule a ride with Uber, Lyft, or another ride sharing service. This option would require that you only take the basic necessary belongings with you, such as the contents of a bug out bag (or grab and go bag).
- Your feet: Fleeing on foot may become your last resort in some circumstances, whether it be that your car is having issues, because of a power outage, a major gridlock, too much traffic, blocked roads, or something else. If it comes to the point that your legs become your only method of transportation, be prepared to use them. Determine which vital supplies you will need to carry with you, and make adjustments for your kids (strollers) and elderly loved ones (wheelchairs).
Plan one or two alternative methods of transportation, especially if you only have one vehicle and/or dependents in the family who cannot drive.
Get in touch with your neighbors to see if they may need help evacuating, and consider helping them come up with a plan as well.
Know when you need to go!
When a disaster threatens a community, local government authorities will impose voluntary and mandatory evacuations to those areas.
A voluntary evacuation order means that your area is not at immediate risk but there’s a potential for the disaster to threaten your life and property in the near future, so you should begin to pack your belongings and make plans to evacuate soon.
A mandatory evacuation order means that your life and property are in imminent danger and you need to leave the area immediately.
Depending on the nature of the disaster, you may not always receive an evacuation notice. This would be the case during a fast-moving wildfire, for example.
If you feel your life and property are in danger, go with your gut and evacuate.
If you or a loved one have an anxiety disorder, such as panic disorder, PTSD, or something similar, it might be wise to evacuate before the threat becomes worse. I’ve met people whose loved ones experienced a panic attack in the midst of their evacuation, and it made things much more difficult.
Government authorities typically use a level or color code system to define the disaster risk in certain areas. Understanding what each level or code means may help you in becoming aware of how severe the situation is in your community and the surrounding areas.
You can find more information on the evacuation and danger levels/ code systems in the disaster preparedness section under each disaster type.