Friday, December 01, 2006

Contemplating Disaster: Daily Emergency Preparedness Habits

As parents, we deal with minor disasters every day. Major disasters are something we all contemplate in passing, but hope against.

A little over a year ago our neighborhood was hit by an F3 tornado at 2:03 AM. From our experiences and those of others in our community, we've established a few simple habits & household guidelines that are simple daily things that can help parents scrambling in disaster situations. This isn't your typical Red Cross or insurance company issued list of suggestions, so please keep reading.

Our son at a month and a half was sleeping in a Pack N Play bassinet at the foot of our bed. We went to bed just an hour earlier to the beginnings of a gentle, unseasonably warm rain. Waking to the tornado's roar, I screamed for Jim to grab the baby and get downstairs. Jim, being a very sound sleeper, responded entirely out of instinct with little conscious awareness of the situation.

He easily found the baby and tucked him in close because the winds were straining the roof and beams just over our heads. The house throbbed and strained in the winds while old growth trees and debris crashed throughout the neighborhood. Our neighborhood's power line had been severed as the tornado entered the neighborhood, so we were scrambling in surprisingly deep darkness through familiar territory. I followed the dark blur that was Jim and the baby down the hallway, down the staircase, and into a windowless internal room yelling "Faster, faster."

We were both shocked to arrive in the pitch dark room alive and intact. The baby was very still. Jim started saying his name (like a question) again and again. I ripped open a drawer to find a flashlight, too scared to ask what was going on.

Shifting the flashlight on, I saw the baby sound asleep, upside down in his father's arms. Jim had been disconcerted by the fact the baby hadn't snuggled his head into the crook of Jim's neck, and had been searching for baby's missing head in the darkenss. Earlier, Jim hadn't realized baby had spun around in his bassinet exchanging the position of his feet and head.

Like an idiot, I finally let Jim wake the baby to be sure that carrying him upside down had done no damage. The baby was fine other than being thoroughly annoyed and cried for the next few hours as we all awaited dawn.

1) Know EXACTLY where you infant or young child is at night. When a tornado wakes you (the sirens didn't sound in our county until AFTER the tornado had hit our area), you have precious seconds to get to shelter. It's amazing how quickly that time passes, the same must be true for most middle of the night disasters.

I have heard of firefighter who (because of what he has seen in fires) latches his children into their rooms each night. While that action bothers me, I now understand his well-meaning desire to instantaneously locate his children in chaos. If we had needed to search for our child in even a small room, we would all have been on the house's most vunerable floor through the ENTIRE DURATION of the tornado scrambling in the dark. Seconds count.

2) For infants, consider that a strong crib can be protective. Not only will a crib help you locate your sleeping child quickly, it can also be life-saving. A local family was not able to get to their baby before their roof collapsed. Minutes later, the father pulled roof and ceiling debris away from the crib to find an alarmed, but uninjured, infant within. Our baby in a Pack N' Play probably wouldn't have fared as well. It gives me chills to think about our Nature Nest in a similar situation.

3) Every night make sure your path is clear and/or any obstacles are known. Nighttime disasters often happen in the dark. Electricity isn't dependable when distaster strikes. In retrospect, this sounds really obvious, but I'd never thought about it before. Ambient light from the community was gone. A parent may not be able to see as much in the dark as they are accustomed to seeing.

When we put the baby to bed, we always pick up the floor of his room and move any trip hazards (push toys, etc.) from the direct path between the door to the crib. Balls are a particular concern. We put them in deep containers so a disaster with shaking (wind or earthquake) won't cast them into our path.

4) Flashlights that double as emergency lights can be really helpful in navigating stairways. We now have 2 emergency lights that turn on when the power goes out. One is near our stairway, the other is in our room near the doorway.

After examination of different styles we especially like the HyLuxes LED emergency flashlights for their easy removal from the convenient cradle-style charger.

5) Smoke detectors: install, test, & maintain. If you have problems with them going off without actual smoke or fire, make sure you didn't install it incorrectly (the directions are amazingly detailed). If your smoke alarm is installed according to manufacturer's instructions, check at a local hardware store to see if a different version wouldn't serve you better [some operate with ionization technology (better at detecting smoldering fires), photoelectric technology (better at detecting flaming fires), or both]. Houses with open stairwells (like ours) have fire spread faster than those with enclosed stairwells, so they require thorough alert systems.

A friend who works for Koorsen Fire & Security helped us figure out where to install our detectors and what type to install. He recommended some of the alarms be the type with emergency lights and that we put small fire extinguishers in our kitchen and garage. Another friend recommended this years ago when a small grease fire ended up consuming his family's kitchen. (We had assumed baking soda would be good enough even though we don't store it in a particularly convenient location. Our thinking now seems cloudy at best.)

6) Carbon Monoxide Detector: install, test, & maintain if you have ANY non-electric, flame-fueled device in your home (water heater, furnace, stove, oven, grill, space heater, dryer, gas fireplace, etc). This is especially imperative for people with older furnaces, but new homes with gas furnaces can have problems as well.

Earlier this year, our friends and their toddler daughter and infant son were quite sick for two days from carbon monoxide poisoning. Luckily they discovered a bird had built a nest in their gas furnace's flue before they got any sicker. A carbon monoxide detector would have notified them immediately of the problem.

We've spent a lot of time thinking about safety practices since the tornado.

It seems unnecessary that every family learn these safety conscious practices through personal experience. Also, some of these tips have other daily life utility (like not breaking your toe or loudly falling in the middle of the night when you go into the baby's room and knowing where to find a flashlight when you have to visit the circuit breaker in the dark, etc.).

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