As of today, the Camp Fire in California has burnt 152,000 acres and brought entire towns, like Paradise, to the ground. From stories of families narrowly escaping their scorched homes; a woman who had to drive through flames with her newborn; and the many family pets saved in the nick of time, this blaze demonstrates how a catastrophe can change lives in minutes. Sadly, the rising number of fatalities also shows the dire consequences of such sudden devastation.

It is not possible for a family to prevent a natural or environmental disaster like the Camp Fire, nor many man-made events. It may not even be possible to know how quickly such a catastrophe may be approaching. But it is possible to plan for an event and take into account your family’s basic needs and how to best relocate, if necessary.

Family Emergency Plans Prepare for the Worst

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has long emphasized a whole community approach. This encourages private families to consider their preparedness to respond to disasters and realize that it may be 72 hours to two weeks before services are restored. To overcome this shortfall, all families should have a family emergency plan and adequate resources on hand, and consider developing strategies in understanding situational awareness.

Families who have put the time and effort into developing and practicing emergency plans have successfully responded to emergencies protecting themselves from injury or worse. Ultimately, these plans not only provide guidelines and establish provisions but also provide an opportunity to rehearse. We often compare such plans to those at institutions, like schools and corporations, which allocate extensive resources to develop and practice their plans so they are always prepared for the worst. In other words, the plan should be thoroughly rehearsed so it does not feel like the first time the family has had to respond to an incident if one arises.

Four Steps to Building a Family Emergency Plan

But before you can rehearse, you have to develop your Family Emergency Plan. We implement the four phases of emergency management when designing these types of plans with our clients: Mitigation, Preparedness, Response and Recovery. Below is an outline informed by this four-tiered system that will take you and your family from the brainstorming phase to the aftermath of a hypothetical emergency.

1. Mitigation

It is important to understand what disasters or hazards should be mitigated. To do this, consider likely events and their impacts. Through this exercise, mitigation can be tailored to each family. For instance, it may not make sense for a family in the Midwest to make structural changes to their home to defend against a hurricane.

2. Preparedness

After deciding what possible events may impact your family the most, it is time to develop your Family Emergency Plan. Much of this plan will require documentation — including that of emergency contacts and evacuation routes — and other parts require action. For example, we suggest establishing an emergency fund and setting aside cash that is quickly accessible. Moreover, it is essential to keep key resources, such as water, food and medical supplies, in the home at all times. Much of these resources should be kept in “go bags” that family members can quickly access if emergency egress is necessary. And don’t forget planning for your beloved Labrador retriever.

Like we previously mentioned, training is an integral part of the plan development process. This could include specialized medical training, and tabletops or functional exercises to develop confidence and understanding in the family emergency plan.

3. Response

The response phase can be characterized simply: “This is not a drill.” This is when the emergency plan is put to the test. In the unfortunate circumstance that the plan is used, we recommend reviewing its effectiveness after the fact. After all, disasters are fluid and even the best-made plans at times will change due to unforeseen circumstances that were not accounted for in the plan. A plan is a living document and should regularly be updated.

4. Recovery

Recovery is the most overlooked phase of the emergency management process. During this phase, families return to normal life after transitioning from the response phase. This difficult time will become less burdensome if families lay out what recovery may look for them prior to any disaster. For example, set aside contact numbers for individuals who could assess the structural integrity of your home or even professional counseling services if any event is traumatizing.

Seek an Independent Review of Your Family Emergency Plan

If this all sounds a bit overwhelming, you may need to employ an independent resource to help build a solid family emergency plan. An emergency management professional can help you consider and coordinate all these moving parts and even assist in formalized training.

In the end, a Family Emergency Plan is not supposed to invoke fear of the unknown. It is meant to give you and your family peace of mind that you are prepared for the worst.