Disaster preparedness? Easier than it sounds.

Steve with his daughter Sophie — who’s going to be a first-time driver next year and already has an emergency kit.

Personal experiences push forth the importance of being prepared. Take Twin Cities resident Steve Davis who experienced the 1996 snow storm that brought Philadelphia to a standstill. He laughingly recounts “perhaps I was the only one in Philly who had a shovel on that cold, freezing night.” Stuck in slush and not any help in the offing, Steve’s kit came to his rescue.

Steve always carries an emergency kit in his car, a habit instilled in him since his late teens by his father. Perhaps Steve’s dad knew, like we do, that disaster can happen to anyone, anytime and anywhere. Being proactive helps lessen the impact of emergencies during times of adversity.

The good news is that preparing is easier than it sounds. These three steps will get you going:

We urge everyone to be proactive when it comes to disaster preparedness. Your readiness helps you, your loved ones, and in many cases your neighbors, especially those who are especially vulnerable. Resist waiting until an emergency occurs because by then it can be too late to help.

By Sohini Sarkar, American Red Cross

It’s National Preparedness Month — Make your emergency plan

Last year, the Red Cross in Minnesota supported more than 2,500 people with basic comfort and care after local disasters — mostly home fires, which is the most common disaster threat people face across the country. During September, also known in some circles as National Preparedness Month, we encourage everyone to be ready for emergencies, such as home fires. A few important, easy steps are below. Take them and you and your loved ones will be more Red Cross ready when disaster strikes.

HOME FIRE SAFETY As part of the national American Red Cross Home Fire Campaign, which aims to reduce deaths and injuries from home fires by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, the Red Cross urges households to develop a fire escape plan; and to install and test smoke alarms.

When developing the plan, walk through the home and look at all exits and possible escape routes, including windows. List two ways to get out of every room in case fire blocks one of the paths. Pick a place to meet outside, a safe distance away and – no matter the circumstances – stay out of the home until fire officials say it is okay to go back inside. All households should practice their plan at least twice a year.

People should also install smoke alarms on every level of their home, inside bedrooms and outside sleeping areas. They should test the alarms monthly, replace the batteries at least once a year and replace them every ten years. Need help developing your plan? View our charts for single, multiple and high rise dwellings.

Icon PreparednessEMERGENCY PLAN Everyone in the household should help put the emergency plan together so they know what they should do if something occurs. Because everyone may not be together at home when a disaster happens, the plan should include ways to contact one another and two places to meet – one near the home in case of a sudden emergency like a fire, and one outside the neighborhood in case circumstances prevent people from returning home. The plan should also identify an emergency contact person from outside the area in case local telephone lines are overloaded or out of service.

Any emergency plan should also include decisions about where to go if ordered to evacuate and what route to take to get there. It’s a good idea to include alternate routes in case roads are closed. Remember planning for family pets. Make sure to include places to stay for them, such as pet-friendly hotels and animal shelters, along the evacuation route.

MOBILE APPS Download today the free American Red Cross Emergency  App. The app combines more than 35 emergency alerts to help keep you safe, including information about what to do in case of floods, tornadoes and other major disasters. To find it and other Red Cross mobile apps, including Monster Guard, a fun preparedness game for kids, and pet first aid, search for American Red Cross in smartphone app stories or go to redcross.org/apps.

For more information on how to prepare for all types of emergencies, visit redcross.org.

“Controlled chaos” prepares disaster responders

Volunteer evacuee Maggie Friend talks to a Red Cross volunteer about her mental health.
Volunteer evacuee Maggie Friend talks to a Red Cross volunteer about her mental health.

More than 150 volunteers got a firsthand look at how to help disaster survivors during a Radiological Emergency Preparedness (REP) drill on Wednesday, June 10, at Park High School in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. The American Red Cross, along with partner organizations, such as the Salvation Army, the Department of Homeland Security Emergency Management and Washington County, helped manage the annual training drill.

Park High School is one of two designated reception centers for evacuees who live within a 10 mile radius of the Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant in Red Wing. If a nuclear disaster occurs, the center would provide food, shelter and medical services for displaced residents. The Red Cross would be in charge of providing shelter and emotional support, and reconnecting families through Safe and Well.

Wednesday’s drill allowed volunteers to practice running their designated stations without the pressure of a real disaster, a concept that Red Cross volunteer Mark Doble calls “controlled chaos.” “This is all about preparation,” said Doble. “Controlled chaos allows us to highlight and address potential problems that might not otherwise have been recognized.” And Doble was right, things got quite chaotic at times. From the distributing dosimeter radiation monitoring badges to all volunteers, to herding anxious individuals through multiple checkpoints and reuniting separated family members, there were a lot of moving parts.

“We need our volunteers to build muscle memory in their departments and be able to communicate using the same jargon for everything to run smoothly,” said drill incident commander Wes Halverson. “Tonight is so valuable because we are able to set that precedent.”

Jill Hallonquist, a Red Cross disaster program manager, said that the drill gives the relief workers an opportunity to coordinate with its partners. “It’s so rare that we get to talk through all the little steps that go into disaster planning,” she said.“Usually we have to jump into action without the chance to advise on all the minor details.”

Red Cross volunteers recap the event and make suggestions about what can be improved next time.
Red Cross volunteers recap the event and make suggestions about what can be improved next time.

Mastering those details now will make the operation run more smoothly when it counts. It quickly became evident, for instance, that the original plan made no provision for providing water for volunteers. Hallonquist was able to coordinate with the Salvation Army, which agreed to supply water for both Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers in a real emergency.

Other issues that were addressed included how to transport people to the shelter and how to work around the school’s wifi block on Facebook access. The social network might be a distraction during the school day, but it’s a vital form of communication during emergency response. Red Cross mental health volunteers also took advantage of being on location to identify quiet nooks where they could connect with distressed evacuees during the response.

Red Cross volunteer Rick Campion said he appreciated the chance to prepare for his assignment. “When it’s a blue sky day, literally, we don’t always think about disaster,” he said, gesturing at the sky. “But it can happen at anytime and we have to be ready when it does.”

The next step is moving from REP drill to exercise on July 22. On this date, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will evaluate state, county, and local partner ability to operate a reception center and provide for displaced residents during a radiological emergency in Minnesota.

Story and photos by Vivian Engen, Communications Intern, American Red Cross Minnesota Region

Playing Monster Guard teaches Aryn about disasters

In two days, Aryn Gill, 7, graduated from rookie to member playing the American Red Cross Monster Guard mobile app that prepares kids for real-life emergencies. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross
Aryn Gill, 8, graduated from rookie to member in two days playing the American Red Cross Monster Guard mobile app that prepares kids for emergencies. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

Kids can learn just about anything these days. With help from the American Red Cross Monster Guard mobile app, they can learn about how to prepare for and respond to a variety of real-life emergencies, including tornadoes, floods, and other weather disasters. Take Aryn Gill who’s 8 years old.  “I finished it in two days. BOOM!,” she says after demonstrating how to play the game. She learned “how to cope when I’m in a disaster, when I’m scared. I need to feel calm, take a deep breath and blow it out.” She also learned about getting supplies and going to a safe place during a hurricane; screwing shelves to walls before earthquakes happen; and covering her mouth with a damp cloth if she doesn’t have a mask during a volcano. Home fire safety was a big learning moment, too: “I didn’t know I needed to make a primary escape plan.” And checking smoke alarms is really important she says, especially checking batteries: “once every month make sure your smoke alarms work.” Aryn’s not a disaster rookie after finishing all Monster Guard levels and becoming a member. “I tell other kids they should play so they can learn about disasters, too.”

Story and photo by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

Resources to help youth prepare for emergencies

The Red Cross has free and easy resources to help young people and their families prepare their households for several types of situations from power outages to tornadoes:

  • monster-guard-flood-screenshotThe Monster Guard: Prepare for Emergencies App provides 7-to-11 year-olds a fun, gaming environment to learn how to prevent emergencies, like home fires, and what to do if severe weather or natural disasters occur. Using the app is an exciting way for children to learn, practice the lessons and share the information with family and friends.
  • The Red Cross worked with Disney to develop the “Mickey and Friends Disaster Preparedness Activity Book.” The book teaches children and families how to prepare for and respond to a wide range of disasters and emergencies through interactive games and activities. The book is available to download in English and in Spanish.
  • Other Red Cross emergency preparedness apps contain a ‘Make a Plan’ feature that allows users to create their plan and share it with their loved ones.
  • A Family Disaster Plan Template is available to download.

A Recipe for Disaster Preparedness

Marie Nordahl, Red Cross Youth Engagement Intern, helps kids practice calling 9-1-1. (Photo credit: Lisa Joyslin/American Red Cross)
Marie Nordahl, Red Cross Youth Engagement Intern, helps kids practice calling 9-1-1. (Photo credit: Lisa Joyslin/American Red Cross)

What happens when you put 12 high school students in charge of 50 five- and six-year-olds? You might think it’s a recipe for disaster. But on Thursday, January 31, at Chelsea Heights Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota, this match-up was a great recipe for disaster preparedness.

The high school students, who are part of the Future Educators Club at Como Park High School in St. Paul, worked with the Red Cross to plan an Elementary Prepare Fair – an opportunity for young kids to learn about calling 9-1-1, preventing basic injuries, tornado safety and other important topics.

High school students Dominic and Stephen talked to kindergarteners about fire safety, explaining that fire is very hot and that only adults should handle it. Dominic then taught the kids how to stop, drop, and roll, demonstrating what to do and leading the kids through a practice run. The kids giggled as they watched Dominic roll across the carpet and under a table decorated with red paper flames, then tried it themselves.

Dominic, a Como Park High School student, demonstrates how to stop, drop and roll. (Photo credit: Lisa Joyslin/American Red Cross)
Dominic, a Como Park High School student, demonstrates how to stop, drop and roll. (Photo credit: Lisa Joyslin/American Red Cross)

Katie and Nicole taught students about poison safety using a bright poster and props. They showed students that some poisons – like cleaning products or adult medicines – look very similar to safe products, and explained to always ask an adult before eating or drinking something that may be unsafe.

At a nearby table, kids had the opportunity to practice calling 9-1-1 on bright red play phones. “9-1-1, what is your emergency?” the phone prompted. “There’s a fire in my house!” a kindergartener responded. The high school students then asked him his name and address, coaching him on what to tell the 9-1-1 operator. “Great job! High five!” they praised when the pretend call was complete.

Katie and Nicole from the Como Park Future Educators Club talk with kids about safe substances versus poisons in the home. (Photo credit: Lisa Joyslin/American Red Cross)
Katie and Nicole from the Como Park Future Educators Club talk with kids about safe versus poison substances. (Photo credit: Lisa Joyslin/American Red Cross)

At the end of the fair, the elementary students received colorful achievement certificates, which were prepared and signed by the Future Educators.

The Elementary Prepare Fair is one of several new youth engagement projects for high school students who want to volunteer with the Red Cross, Northern Minnesota Region. Interested groups can contact Volunteer Resources at (612) 871-7676 or arctc.vsvolunteer@redcross.org to learn more and get involved.

Thank you to the fantastic Como Park Future Educators for their hard work and enthusiasm. Because of you, fifty young kids are better prepared for disasters and emergencies!

Story and photos by Lisa Joyslin, Volunteer Resources Director, American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region

Right now we’re helping someone after a fire

Red Cross volunteers respond to a house fire in the south metro. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

Right now the American Red Cross is helping someone recovering from a fire. Across our Northern Minnesota Region, we respond more than 400 fires each year. (And more than 63,000 across the nation annually.) That does not account for  home fires that not requiring Red Cross assistance. In September, we experienced one of the busiest fire response months that Red Cross disaster volunteers have seen in quite a while. There were 48 responses region-wide, including a 12-unit apartment fire in Brainerd where all 12 families needed assistance. To date, October has been no-less busy with 14 incidents. Combined, we’ve assisted 329 people with emergency relief after a fire.

So, we feel compelled to ask: are you prepared for a fire? Are you ready to not return for hours, days, or maybe never to the home you have now? Take a moment to answer those questions. Then what?

The Red Cross recommends two easy steps to help protect your home and loved ones from a fire: get a smoke alarm and create a fire escape plan.

  • Smoke alarms save lives. Working smoke alarms cut the risk of dying in a home fire in half.*
    • Place smoke alarms on every level of your home, including bedrooms.
    • Test smoke alarms once a month and replace batteries at least once a year.
    • Fires can spread quickly and every second counts. Having a plan in place can help you escape, but less than one-fourth of Americans have actually made a plan and practiced it.*
      • Home fire plans should include at least two ways to escape from every room of your home.
      • Select a meeting spot at a safe distance from your home where family members can meet after a fire.
      • Discuss the plan with everyone in the household and practice it at least twice a year.
      • For more information visit http://www.redcross.org/homefires.
  • Download the American Red Cross First Aid App to get access to life-saving information on what to do for common, everyday first aid emergencies. The app is available in the Apple App Store and on Google Play for Android.

* Statistics provided by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Edith Bunker, George Costanza, and Peggy Bundy

Story and photos by Scott Olson

The first casualty. (Scott Olson/American Red Cross)

It’s rare that you get to know exactly when and where a disaster will happen, before it actually happens. And then have time to pack a tidy bag and position yourself in the thick of it as whole thing begins to unfold. But that’s precisely the luxury I had on a blue-sky morning this May when American Red Cross volunteers (among others) participated in the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) Airport Emergency Drill.

As a new member of the Red Cross Public Affairs Team, this was a perfect opportunity for me to get an inside look at the mechanisms that make up a large-scale emergency response. It started in a briefing room, where dozens of volunteer actors were given white envelopes containing their particular injury or ailments, a short bio, and even pseudonyms, like: Edith Bunker, George Costanza, and similar. They were told that they must behave in a manner consistent with their injury, but one trainer added “please don’t be too loud with your moaning and wailing.” Everyone was then ushered to a bus and transported to the disaster scene.

Emergency crews carry a “victim.” (Scott Olson/American Red Cross)

In this exercise a tornado had touched down on the tarmac and a retired DC-9 had been tossed around like ragdoll with all its occupants inside. I followed fire crews as they made ant trails in and out of the plane, carrying grinning victims to the safety of a nearby field. On hand was an impressive array of emergency service personal, MAC authorities and The Salvation Army—who attended to everyone’s dire need of hotdogs and Gatorade. Victims were triaged according to injury. Many of the less fortunate remained prone in the field or taken in ambulance, while others were escorted to a bus bound for the Survivors Center. The whole initial response appeared to be orderly and quite professional. Each emergency worker performed their duty with technical efficiency and a sober face.

Giving comfort. (Scott Olson/American Red Cross)

At the Survivor Center victims were checked in with MAC authorities and passed over to volunteers with the Red Cross and Salvation Army, whereupon they were fed more hotdogs and interviewed. Here many of the minor injuries were treated, psychological counseling was administered, and fictitious families were reunited. At moments it was quite crowded, but even if I had ignored the Red Cross emblems, our presence could be readily identified by the concerned faces and caressing hands of our volunteers.

Triage on the grass. (Scott Olson/American Red Cross)

The last stop was The Operations and Joint Public Information Centers. After passing through a security check point, I stuck my nose into the COM room and watched the flurry of officials work the phones, point at maps and look generally busy—and they were very busy. Colored placards were poised on dozens of tables: Safety, Logistics, Communications, Operations, and a conspicuously red sign for The Red Cross. I was reminded of any one of the Hollywood movies and their depictions of just such rooms. The kind of sleeves-rolled-up orderly chaos that makes you thank your lucky stars you don’t have that kind of responsibility.

When the exercise concluded, there had been numerous fatalities and injuries, but everyone (including Jerry Seinfeld and Peggy Bundy) went home entirely unharmed, well-fed and very much alive.

 Scott Olson is an American Red Cross Volunteer in Disaster Relief. Click here to learn more about joining the Red Cross.

Do you have and use a weather radio?

The Red Cross is providing food, shelter, and emotional support to people affected by Wednesday's tornadoes that swept across the South and Midwest, including southern Missouri (pictured here). Photo Credit: Nigel Holderby/American Red Cross

Following the devastating tornadoes that swept across the Midwest and South early Wednesday morning, we urge you, your family, and your friends to take a moment or two now and prepare for what’s turning out to be an early tornado season. 

  • Pick a safe place in your home or apartment building, such as a basement, storm cellar, or an interior room with no windows, where household members and pets can gather.
  • Use a weather radio that broadcasts National Weather Service watches and warnings. A weather radio can alert you to storms during the night, helping to save your life or the lives of your loved ones. Learn more in this NPR story.
  • Watch for tornado warning signs such as dark, greenish clouds, large hail, a roaring noise, a cloud of debris or funnel clouds. Secure outside items such as lawn furniture or trash cans, which could be picked up by the wind and injure someone.
  • If a tornado watch is issued, it means tornadoes are possible and you should be ready to act quickly. If a tornado warning is issued, it means a tornado has been sighted or indicated by radar and you should go underground immediately to a basement or storm cellar or to an interior room such as a bathroom or closet.
  • If a tornado warning is issued and you are outside,  you should hurry to the basement of a nearby sturdy building. If you cannot get to a building, you should get in a vehicle, buckle in, and drive to the closest sturdy shelter.
  • If flying debris occurs while you are driving, you should pull over and stay in the car with the seat belt on and your head below the window, covering your head with a blanket or other available protection.
  • If you do not not have a vehicle, you should find ground lower than the surface of the roadway and cover your head with your hands.

You can help those affected by disasters like the Midwest tornadoes and storms, as well as countless crises at home and around the world, by making a donation to support American Red Cross Disaster Relief. Consider making a donation today by visiting redcross.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or sending a text with the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Contributions may also be sent to someone’s local Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013. Contributions enable the Red Cross to prepare for and provide shelter, food, emotional support and other assistance in response to disasters.


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