September is National Preparedness Month (NPM), and if we learned anything this past year, it’s to expect the unexpected. According to Ready.gov, NPM was instituted to help raise awareness on why it’s so important to prepare for emergencies.

Emergencies can come in all shapes and sizes, including wildfires, floods, earthquakes, and of course, pandemics. They’re hard to predict and can manifest in any number of ways, making them all the more difficult to prepare for. This is where some expert guidance can help.

The number of annual natural disasters are on the rise. 310 million Americans have been affected by a natural disaster in the past decade, and yet, less than 40% have an emergency plan. Here’s how households can stay prepared for emergencies. 

What is Emergency Planning?

Emergency planning is the process of identifying emergencies and natural disasters that might happen in your lifetime and making the necessary preparations to keep you and your family safe in case an emergency happens.

Emergency preparedness is made up of the following principles:

  1. Knowing what types of emergencies could happen near you.
  2. Knowing what happens during these emergencies.
  3. Knowing what tools you would need.
  4. Making a plan and a packing list ahead of time.
  5. Practicing your plan in real time.

The tricky thing about emergencies is that virtually anything could happen, at any time. When things are overwhelming like this, it’s always best to break it up and work your way backwards.

A practical strategy is to first identify what types of emergencies have the highest probability of happening in your area. For example, earthquakes are more common in the west, while tornadoes are more common in central states. 

Then, work your way backward by thinking what you’d need to survive if that specific emergency were to strike. Let’s use housefires as an example, since it is the largest threat by far to all Americans. If there was a fire and your house was at risk of burning down, what would likely happen and what would you need to do? What are the tools and things you’d need to rebuild your life in a worst-case scenario?

When disaster strikes, human nature kicks in our flight-or-fight response. In the moment, all we’ll be focused on is getting ourselves and our loved ones alive, but we might not always think rationally. That’s why it’s important to ask yourself these tough questions while your mind is operating calmly.

During this exercise, build lists for what you’d need. This could include supplies to meet basic needs, as well as important documents. Make the assumption that critical utilities might go down, such as power and the internet. Write down important contact information in case you can’t access them during the emergency.

You’ll also want to look around at each member of your family (including your pets) and consider what essential items each of them would need in case you had to evacuate. This could include clothing, medication, and food. Use this exercise to create a packing list for your household

Last but not least, make sure to practice your plan with your household. Set a timer for two minutes. Pretending that there is a fire, run through your house to grab everything in your packing list. Make sure your household practices different scenarios by exploring different exit strategies based on where the fire might begin. Conducting this type of tactical practice puts your plans to real life so that you can see what works versus what doesn’t work.

The Importance of Estate Planning

People often associate estate planning with death, but the truth is, there is so much more to estate planning than that. It’s the process of preparing today for what could happen tomorrow, and in this regard, estate planning and emergency planning are similar.

An Estate Plan provides coverage any time you have a disruption in your ability to manage your own affairs. This includes events that could happen during your lifetime, such as illness or emergencies. These are any scenarios in which you’re unavailable or unable to communicate.  

The set of legal documents included in an Estate Plan varies from person to person. However, there are three basic documents that everyone should at least be aware of: healthcare documents, Wills, and Trusts.

What people often don’t realize is that an Estate Plan can come into play in the case of an emergency. One of the most important reasons for setting up an Estate Plan is designating what should happen in case you ever become unable to speak for yourself. 

If you were to become incapacitated, your Estate Plan can provide the legal authority for someone of your choosing to manage your affairs. This can include anywhere from legal to financial, business, family, and medical decisions that you would normally make on your own.

This can give you great peace of mind that you and your loved ones are protected in case you ever become unable to communicate your own needs. Common scenarios include injury or illness, but also don’t forget that emergencies can simply cut off your ability to communicate. If your children are at daycare and you’re trapped, who has the legal right to pick them up and take care of them? What documents would they need? These are the types of issues that your Estate Plan can cover.

Again, estate planning doesn’t only have to do with death. Estate Planning is the process of ensuring that you have a plan in place to handle any situation that could arise during an emergency.

How to create an Emergency Plan for your Family

Before you get started, know that emergency planning is a process. It’s not something you should “set and forget.” Instead, it’s something you should practice, update, and fine-tune over time. That way, if an emergency does strike, you’ll be as prepared as you can.

Earlier, we went over the steps of the emergency planning process. Once you’ve written out a plan, it’s time to execute it. Make sure to acquire any supplies and tools you need and create a transportable kit that’s readily accessible. As a part of your kit, be sure to place a combination of hard copies of critical documents, as well as flash drives containing the electronic versions of those documents.

It is also recommended that you include a family profile as well. Create a document for each member of your family, including pets. Be sure to include a photograph of that family member, with you in it. That way, officials can verify that you’re related to your loved one if you were to become separated. Be sure to include vital profile information, such as their age, birthday, medications, what they eat, and any other critical information that an official or emergency responder might need to know. 

Once you’ve turned your plan into a viable reality, it’s time to get your household on board. Hold a meeting to go over your plan, and make sure everyone is on board. This will help you ensure that everyone understands the plan, and it also gives your family members a chance to provide you with feedback and ideas. Then, make sure to continue practicing and improving upon your plan on a regular basis. 

Last and certainly not least, make sure to have your Estate Plan in place. Your Estate Plan goes hand-in-hand with your emergency plan. It designates exactly what should happen in case you were to become incapacitated or cut off from communicating with your loved ones during an emergency. Remember, we typically go into a fight-or-flight response when disaster strikes. Taking the time to create contingency plans and predetermine desired outcomes in a variety of scenarios will not only protect you, but also your loved ones.

About the Author:

Patrick Hicks is the Head of Legal at Trust & Will. Hicks serves as Trust & Will’s General Counsel overseeing all attorney-related operations, including regulatory efforts and legal affairs. As a seasoned estate planning attorney, Patrick brings over a decade of knowledge and real-life taxation law experience to our service offerings. Previously, Patrick practiced law in the trusts and estates practice group of law firm Hahn Loeser & Parks LLP. He holds a J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, and an LL.M in Taxation from the University of San Diego. 

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