What To Do Before, During, and After a Disaster
Disasters come in all forms. Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, storms, fires, and more common problems like being stranded away from home. Some disasters only last a few hours and some require years to recover. In a storm you may lose power for an hour, while a fire, flood, or tornado may require a years to rebuild.
Do you know how to actually protect yourself during an earthquake or hurricane? What about a tornado or fire? You’ve probably heard lots of conflicting information over the years. We hope you won’t ever need it, this guide to handling disasters will help you remember what you should really do during an emergency and afterwards to recover as quickly as possible.
To break down the best practices to keep you alive in each type of disaster, Dr. Arthur Bradley, author of The Handbook to Practical Disaster Preparedness for the Family and Disaster Preparedness for EMP Attacks and Solar Storms has laid out plans for several disasters. Here’s what he had to say.
Table of Contents
- For Any Disaster: Make a Disaster Preparedness Plan
- Floods and Tsunami
- House Fires
Make a Disaster Preparedness Plan
Regardless of the disaster you should have a plan before the disaster happens. Once a disaster begins, you will not be able to plan and prepare effectively. You should create a plan and be familiar with it before the disaster, and ready to act on it in case a disaster happens. We can tell you all about the best thing to do but in the heat of the moment and when the danger has passed, a disaster or emergency plan can be the difference between you and your family being safe and secure or being lost, unable to find one another.
Everyone should prepare for a disaster before it happens, and you should bookmark the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster preparedness site, Ready.gov, but here are some stand-out tips:
The earthquake and tsunami in Japan, followed by tsunami warnings in Hawaii and across much of the…Read more Read
- The previously mentioned disaster kit from 72hours.org is a must-have. Offered up by the City of San Francisco, the 72hours guide can help you prepare for any type of disaster, and has special tips if you have children, are disabled, are a senior citizen, have pets, and more.
- Keep your family’s most important documents, like birth certificates, passports, and social security cards in a safe place in case you need to grab them and leave the house. Create a home inventory and keep it with those documents. Make digital copies, and put them on a flash drive in the same place. A portable safe/fireproof box is a good idea.
- Make sure you have a well-stocked go-bag that will keep you safe, warm, fed, and any medical needs you have taken care of for at least a few days. Include things like emergency food and water, an emergency radio, batteries, extras of any prescriptions you take, and even a charged cell phone just for 911 purposes. 72hours’s guide says that you should prepare to take care of yourself for at least 72 hours without help.
- Make sure you and your family have a planned and practiced escape route from your home, and a place you all agree to meet up if something terrible happens. Whether it’s a burglar or a fire, everyone in your home should know the fastest way out of the house safely. Escape ladders from high windows are good investments, but if you live in an apartment building or high-rise, memorize the fastest route to a stairwell. Finally, practice your escape route with your family so everyone’s clear on it.
- Make sure you’re familiar with the emergency or disaster plan at your office. Your company should have evacuation routes from your workplace and meet-up locations outside of the building. If you don’t know what they are, ask. If no one knows what they are, come up with them on your own. Ask yourself where the closest stairwell to your desk or work area is, and time yourself getting to it. Find out where the closest first-aid kit in the office is, in case you need it.
Gear and kits are great, and you should definitely have them on hand, but nothing replaces a good escape plan that you can quickly act on without thinking about it in case of an emergency. Many people die in accidents and natural disasters simply because they don’t know what to do and find themselves waiting for someone to tell them. Plan accordingly.
Don’t assume that because you may not live in an area that’s specifically prone to tornadoes that you’re not at risk. Anywhere a thunderstorm can appear, a tornado can too. The amount of concentrated damage they can inflict is stunning. As with most storms, the best way to handle a tornado is to get out of its way and steer clear.
Learn the Warning Signs and Prepare
There’s little you can do to actually “prepare” a home or business for a tornado. Their destructive power is simply too immense for you to just armor up and go on about your business. Here’s what you can do, however:
- Make sure you have a disaster plan. We may sound like a broken record now, but it’s still important. If a tornado warning is issued for your area, you and everyone in your household or office should know what to do and where to take shelter.
- Familiarize yourself with the warning signs. Tornadoes are usually accompanied by other strong storms, like thunderstorms or hurricanes, but not always. Watch the sky—the sky will get dark suddenly, and you may hear a loud rushing sound, almost a roar. The wind may pick up for a while, but suddenly die down. Watch for clouds beginning to rotate in a circular pattern. Tornadoes may strike quickly—the trademark funnel cloud is a good sign, but the cloud doesn’t take on that tone until the cloud descends or debris is picked up. They may be transparent before that.
- Learn the truth about tornado myths. “Tornadoes don’t cross rivers or bodies of water.” “Tornadoes don’t happen in the mountains or on rough terrain.” Both of these are false (The Great Natchez Tornado of 1840 moved along the Mississippi river for miles, and just last year a tornado in the Colorado mountains was the 2nd highest on record), and there are more where those came from. Don’t get caught following superstition or old wives’ tales in the middle of a life-threatening emergency.
- Listen to emergency radio. We’ve said this before too, but it’s just as important. Severe weather information is often first communicated by NOAA Weather Radio. Secondhand reports like weather apps, television news, or talk/music radio may also convey useful information, but they’ll always be moments behind. Listen for emergency broadcasts if the conditions look right for a tornado, or if you’re in the middle of a severe thunderstorm.
- Understand the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. A tornado watch means the conditions are right for a tornado to develop. A tornado warning means one has been sighted and you should seek shelter immediately.
Stay Low and Get Away from Windows or Exterior Walls
What you do during a tornado may save your life. There are several misconceptions about what you should do and where you should go if a tornado warning is issued. For example, your bathroom is not necessarily the safest place in a tornado, unless it’s a small interior room. Never ever open your windows in a tornado to “release the pressure.” Instead, commit these tips from Ready.gov to memory, and you’ll stay safe.
If you’re indoors, shelter in a basement, storm cellar, or the lowest building level. A designated safe room or root cellar will work just as well. If you’re in a high-rise and can get downstairs, go, but don’t waste too much time getting there. Stay away from windows, doors, corners of the building, or any other outside wall in the process.
If you’re indoors and cannot get to a lower level/live in a high-rise, go to the smallest interior room or hallway, as far from the exterior of the building as possible. The goal is to get as many walls and structure between you and the storm as possible, and to keep you away from flimsier things like windows, siding, or flying debris.
If you’re driving when a warning is issued, try to drive to the closest place you can take shelter. This is, of course, if a warning is issued and you’re advised to take shelter, not if you actually see a storm.
If you’re driving and cannot get to shelter, get out of the vehicle. Lay face-down, hands over your head in a ditch or a noticeably lower level next to the roadway, away from the vehicle. If you can’t get out or cannot get lower than your vehicle, shelter in your vehicle. Lay down or bring your head below the level of the windows, and try to cover the back of your head with a seat cushion, pillow, coat, or blanket.
If you’re driving and see a tornado, do not try to outrun it. Pull over immediately and shelter with one of the two previous methods. Avoid overpasses, bridges, tall buildings, and flying debris
Watch for Debris, Nails, and Damaged Structures
Most tornado-related injuries that occur after the storm has passed are caused by people attempting to rescue others, or by people injuring themselves on debris while cleaning up and assessing the damage. Keep monitoring emergency radio, and check with your local authorities before determining if an area you evacuated from is safe to return to. Remember, tornadoes can cause incredible damage and down power lines, rupture gas lines, and damage structures and put them in danger of collapse. Many injuries after tornadoes are just people stepping on nails or cutting themselves on broken glass. Be careful, both immediately after and when you try to clean up the damage.
Generally we see hurricanes coming from miles away, and we have the technology to forecast how severe a hurricane will be when it gets close enough to us to matter. This is a double-edged sword though; what you do beforehand matters, but because the real threat won’t show up for hours or days, it’s easy to ignore. Hurricanes are still dangerous and deadly, and shouldn’t be underestimated. Here’s what to do..
Secure Your Home and Learn Local Evacuation Routes
Preparation is critical if you’re in the path of a hurricane, or if you live in an area where hurricanes are frequent. Remember, hurricanes can be dangerous enough, but they can bring flooding, thunderstorms, and tornadoes with them, along with sustained rains and winds, so you should think as though you’re preparing for those disasters as well.
- Make sure you have a disaster plan. Your disaster plan, go bag, and important documents are more important here than in many other cases. You’ll likely have enough warning to get them and evacuate if an order is issued, but you probably won’t have time to assemble them if the storm is coming. Do yourself a favor and do it beforehand, and Make sure your family understands what to do if the storm arrives and you’re not all in the same place together. A 72 hour kit with food and water is especially important for a slow-moving storm like a hurricane, which can knock out power for days and cut off potable water supplies. Make sure you have water, either by buying it or filling bathtubs and toilets with fresh water before the storm hits.
- Prepare your home. If you’re a homeowner (or you live in an area prone to hurricanes), you can board up your windows with plywood or install storm shutters, secure your roof and siding to your house frame with straps. Reinforce garage doors, trim back long branches, bring in outdoor furniture, and so on. Check the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood map database to determine if your home is in an area prone to flooding. Check where the highest ground in your area is, just in case. Familiarize yourself and your family with utility shut-off switches and valves in your home in case you have to evacuate.
- Familiarize yourself with emergency evacuation routes and shelters. If an evacuation order is issued, you don’t want to wonder which path is the best and safest out of town. Check with your local emergency management agency to see what the designated evacuation routes in each direction are, and commit them to memory (or draw them out on a paper map and stash it in your vehicle.) Also make sure you’re aware of any community shelters in your neighborhood, or buildings that qualify as shelters (like old fallout shelters with deep basements, for example.)
- Prepare for travel. If an evacuation order is issued, you want to make sure your vehicle is ready to leave, or you have a way to get out of town safely. Make sure your car’s gas tank is full, important items are already stowed in the car, and any repairs that might impede your evacuation are done. Make sure there’s a first aid kit in your car (as well as in your go-bag and with your disaster kit.)
Hunker Down, Evacuate When Ordered
Even weaker hurricanes are still hurricanes, and can cause serious damage. If you haven’t been told to evacuate, you’re likely safe sheltering in place, but you should still be alert and aware of what’s going on outside. The order to evacuate can come quickly, even if everything else seems like it’s going well. Remember, in many cases it’s not the hurricane itself that does the damage, but the storm surge—or water that’s pushed ashore by the hurricane’s fierce winds and motion. Much of the damage from Hurricane Sandy, for example, was caused by the surge, not the winds and rain.
- Monitor emergency radio, news radio, or television news for relevant information. Paying attention to emergency radio can keep you up to date on whether an evacuation order has been issued for your area, but local news in this case can keep you up to date on how your neighbors are faring and when it’ll be safe to go out to other parts of town.
- Secure your home and shelter in place. Now is the time to put into motion all of the preparation you did before the storm struck. If you didn’t need to reinforce your home, close the blinds, move important items away from the windows, and secure them. Stay away from the windows yourself. Close interior doors, and stay as far to the interior of your home as possible.
- Obey evacuation orders. If an order is issued for your area, leave immediately. Grab your go bag, disaster kit, any important documents and items, and leave as quickly as possible along evacuation routes. Don’t try to pack your car after the order is issued—grab what you can and go.
Don’t be fooled if there’s a lull in the storm or if conditions seem to suddenly improve. You may be experiencing the eye of the storm, and the winds and rain will return soon. It may be a good time to evacuate or get to a shelter if you’ve been instructed to, but don’t think the storm is over.
Watch for Lingering Storms or Flooding
Hurricanes can often leave the type of destruction in their wake that resemble floods, thunderstorms, and tornadoes all in one. If you’ve sheltered in place, odds are it’ll be safe to leave once the hurricane has passed over, although you may still see thunderstorms in your forecast. Continue to monitor local weather conditions and emergency radio before you head out. If you’re without power, avoid using candles (for fire safety reasons) and try to use flashlights to get around.
If you were evacuated, check with authorities that it’s safe to return before going back. Remember, there may be flooding or standing flood water, so just because the storm has passed, it may not be safe to return. There may not be power, there may be ruptured gas lines in the area, contaminated water, or damaged structures in the wake of a damaging hurricane. When you are able to return, inspect your home and take note of any damage. Report it as soon as possible to the appropriate authorities. Throw out any spoiled food that may have been in your fridge or freezer while you were without power, and stay alert for additional trailing storms or wind that may follow the hurricane.
If you live in a part of the world where earthquakes are common, you probably already know it. That trademark shaking or rolling of the ground is unmistakable. If you’re not sure, or want to know if there’s any seismic activity in your area, the Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program and the United States Geological Survey both provide maps that highlight areas of high seismic activity. The USGS also has a live map of seismic activity around the world. Photo by Nigel Spiers (Shutterstock).
We can tell where in the world it’s likely you’ll experience an earthquake, we just can’t tell when one will happen and what magnitude it’ll be when it does. Because of this, preparation is critical. What you do in and after an earthquake may save your life, but what you do beforehand almost certainly will.
Debunk Earthquake Myths and Learn You Should Really Do
There’s nothing you can do to actually avoid the effects of an earthquake. All you can really do is make sure you understand the difference between a minor one and a serious one, and prepare accordingly. Here are some tips Dr. Bradley suggested:
- Make sure you have a disaster plan. As with our other disasters, a disaster plan for an earthquake is important. However, because earthquakes can strike suddenly and without warning, and in some cases they can lead to other problems like fires or tsunamis, it’s critical to have a disaster plan for your household and family, and to have practiced it so it’s second nature when you need to act on it.
- Give your home an earthquake checkup. Check for hazards, fasten shelves to wall studs, and store breakables and poisons in cabinets that latch shut so they won’t fall out and onto someone in an earthquake. Put heavy objects on lower shelves, and secure heavy furniture, either by fastening it to the wall or blocking rollers so they won’t slide around. Make any structural repairs to the walls or foundation that are necessary.
- Practice drills with your family (or coworkers.) Know where the utility shut-off switches are in the house, and time yourself getting from your bedroom out of the house to a safe location. Time yourself doing the same again, but shutting off utilities and grabbing your go bag, documents, and checking on family members along the way. In a real emergency, you may not have time for any of that, but it’s important to see if it’s possible.
- Familiarize yourself with common earthquake myths. Earthquake myths abound, and many keep people from doing the safe thing in an emergency. For example, you may have heard that in an earthquake you should stand in a door frame to protect yourself from collapsing walls. That’s not true at all: Door frames in most homes are lightly constructed and will collapse easily. Ready.gov notes you should only stand in a doorway if you know for fact that it’s sturdy and load-bearing in your home. Other myths, like “earthquakes only happen in the morning,” and “hot and dry equals earthquake weather,” are all similarly false. The idea you should shelter next to furniture instead of under it is also untrue. Finally, don’t assume that earthquakes are a California, west coast thing. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Get Under Something Sturdy or Find an Open Space
Dr. Bradley noted that most earthquake-related deaths and injuries come from flying debris and falling objects. Collapsing walls and structures are dangerous too. Your first priority in an earthquake should be to minimize personal injury. Here’s how:
- Shield yourself or take shelter under sturdy furniture. The old “get under your desk” rule is a good one, but only if your desk is sturdy enough to take the impact. If you can, get underneath and hold on. If you’re in bed, try to cover yourself (specifically your head) with pillows and hold on. Photo by Sinisa Botas (Shutterstock).
- If you’re indoors, stay put. If you’re indoors, try to stay clear of obvious hazards like windows, hanging fixtures, shelves, or anything that’s already loose and might collapse. Otherwise, if you’re in bed, stay there and shelter. If you’re at your desk, get under it. “Unless you feel your current location is particularly hazardous, don’t attempt to move to another room or evacuate outdoors,” Dr. Bradley noted. “It is usually safer to stay put.”
- If you’re outdoors, get away from tall objects that may collapse. This includes buildings, trees, utility poles, streetlights, construction equipment—anything tall that might fall from the shaking or rolling. Try to get to as clear and open a place as possible, like a park or parking lot. Once you’re in the open, get on the ground and hang on.
- If you’re in a vehicle, stop quickly, but try to stay clear of those tall objects. You don’t want anything collapsing onto your car. Stay in the car and shelter in place. When the earthquake has passed, tune to emergency radio and be careful of bridges, ramps, or other structures that may have been damaged.
Again, your primary goal in an earthquake is to stay put and avoid any personal injury. Moving around only puts you at greater risk, and in an emergency situation, you need to make sure you take care of yourself—you’ll be no help to others if you’re hurt or killed on the way to help a family member. Also, don’t take earthquakes lightly, even if you live in an area where small ones are common.
Avoid Damaged Structures and Watch for Aftershocks
After an earthquake has passed, don’t immediately assume the danger is gone. In some cases, damaged structures can fall well after the shaking has stopped, or there may be other hazards in or around your home or office to deal with. Assess the situation, and execute on your disaster plan. Meet your family or coworkers in a safe space, away from damaged buildings and other hazards like hanging wires, fires, gas leaks, falling glass, or uneven ground. Be prepared for aftershocks, which can be just as dangerous (or more so to already compromised infrastructure) than the original quake.
If you’re trapped under debris, make as much noise as possible so emergency services can get to you. Tap on pipes, whistle, shout—just make sure not to inhale dust or debris that may be around you. Cover your mouth with clothing to filter out some of the dust. If you can move or see a path out, try to get out, just be careful not to move anything that might cause other debris to settle or fall on you.
Once you’re safe, administer first aid to those who need it, and listen to the radio—preferably emergency broadcasts—for more information. Be prepared to move to higher ground if you live on the coast and the earthquake may have triggered a tsunami. If the quake was minor, inspect your home and property to make sure you don’t have ruptured gas lines, dangling wires or tree limbs, or any other hazards that need to be addressed before you can go back into your home. If you think your home is damaged, call the appropriate service provider to inspect it properly.
Floods and Tsunami
Floods and tsunami can happen on regular schedules or they can be complete surprises. Tsunami are series of large waves triggered by undersea earthquakes or major disruptions on the sea floor. The amount of time you have to prepare or get to higher ground depends entirely on how close to the shore the disturbance was. Flooding is a little more predictable, but not necessarily. Flash flooding can occur in areas where there’s been no rain. There’s a great deal of data on regional flood plains and areas with histories of flooding, but don’t assume that because you don’t live in said region, it can’t happen to you. With planning and research beforehand though, neither have to take you by surprise.
Find High Ground, Get Ready to Leave
With floods and tsunami, preparation is absolutely key. Flooding can go from a trickle to multiple feet in no time, and in the case of tsunami, storm surges can wash away entire buildings in minutes. Dr. Bradley notes that these disasters, tsunami specifically, are subject to his Cardinal Rule: That some disasters can only be survived by getting out of their way. Here’s how to prepare:
- Make sure you have a disaster plan. Specific gear won’t generally help you in a flood or a tsunami’s surge, but things like food and fresh water, medication, water purification tablets, and a first aid kit definitely will. What’s more important in this case though is that you have a plan that you and others can put into motion quickly to get out of a dangerous area and to higher ground. It’s essential to practice your escape plan with family members so you can get to a meet-up point quickly and safely.
- Visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood map database. Use the tool to see if you live in a flood plain or area at high risk for flooding, and how often that flooding normally occurs. You can also use topographical maps to find out where the highest points in your community or area are, so you can head there if a flood or tsunami occurs. If you’re a property owner, get flood insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program.
- Make sure you have an emergency radio. Tsunami warnings are usually issued by NOAA’s Tsunami Warning Center, and it’s important to tune in after an earthquake to find out whether a tsunami warning has been issued. Flood and flash flood warnings are also issued by NOAA, so make sure you have a radio that can tune in to NOAA Weather Radio.
Monitor Emergency Radio, Be Ready to Move Quickly
During a flood or a tsunami, the critically important thing is to get out of the water and to higher ground. Tsunami are generally violent, fast, and destructive—much more so than they may appear at first glance. What looks like a slow-moving cascade of water from above is actually a rushing wave dozens of feet high to someone caught in it. If you don’t believe me, the video here was taken with a dashboard camera during the 2011 tsunami in Japan. It goes from happily driving to a bobbing bubble of metal floating in the water in less than four minutes. Here’s what to do if you’re caught in a sudden flood or rush of water:
- Listen to emergency radio. There’s no way for you to tell whether what you’re experiencing is a flood, a flash flood, or how high the waters will get. If an evacuation order is given, you’ll need to pay attention to emergency services to hear it. Listening to emergency radio can make the difference between moving to a higher floor in your home or apartment building and needing to leave your home entirely for safer ground.
- If you’re driving, do not pass through standing water, or water where you cannot see the bottom. Six inches of water will reach the bottom of most cars, causing control issues. If that water gets into the engine, your car will stall. Six inches is all it takes. A foot is enough to float a car or truck. Two feet will carry almost any vehicle off, including SUVs. Don’t be deceived by what looks like a little water either—the road underneath may have washed away, making it deeper than it appears, especially at night. Don’t risk your vehicle or your life. Pull over, drive around, or get out and get to higher ground.
- If you’re walking, do not walk through moving or rushing water. A few inches can make you fall down, and fast-moving water can carry a person off quickly. If you have to walk through water, look for where the water isn’t moving. Stay away from streams, sewer drains, and manmade channels or drainage canals.
- If there is any possibility of a flash flood, or you think a tsunami is imminent get to higher ground immediately. Don’t wait for instructions or an official warning—just get your go-bag, important documents, family members, and go as soon as possible. “Trust your instincts and take action,” Dr. Bradley explains. If an actual flood warning has been issued, do the same and evacuate for higher ground immediately. Make sure you know the difference between a warning and a watch.
- If you time to evacuate your home, turn off utilities and move critical items to the highest possible point. Do this only if you have time, but if you live in a floodplain, you may have some warning. Make sure you know where gas, water, and power cut-off valves are, and disconnect any appliances you can. Of course, don’t touch any wires, plugs, or other electrical equipment if you’re standing in water
Avoid Floodwater and Stay Out of the Way
Many of the rules post-flood are the same as during a flood. Just because the water starts to recede doesn’t mean it’s gone where you want to go. Don’t walk into moving or deep water just because the storm has passed or rushing water has receded. Keep your ears on emergency radio, and stay out of the way of emergency service personnel who may be working to help people who have been trapped by the waters.
Keep in mind that any flooded area is prone to additional flooding if conditions pick back up. Even a little rain can turn a once flooded area into a sudden flash flood. Also, floodwaters may have swept debris and other hazardous materials into an area. Look out for glass, downed power lines, ruptured gas lines, damaged buildings, and so on. Floodwater itself can be contaminated by gasoline, oil, sewage, or other chemicals—another reason to stay out of any of it, even if it’s standing water. Do not return to a flooded area until authorities indicate that it’s safe.
Home fires are deadly, killing thousands every year in the United States alone—and they’re almost always preventable. Still, while prevention is key, it’s what you do in the middle of a fire that may save your life. Unlike other disasters that give you warning and time to get away, a fire isn’t nearly as forgiving. Here’s how to prepare, and what to do.
Preparation (and Smoke Detectors) Is Everything
Remember, a house fire isn’t just one thing—it’s a deadly mixture of things: Smoke and toxic gases, lack of oxygen, crippling heat, scorching flames, and a lack of light are all dangerous on their own, and a house fire offers every single one of them. It’s important to be prepared and act quickly if a fire occurs.
- Make sure you have a disaster plan. Your plan in the case of a fire should largely consist of an evacuation plan that you’ve practiced. Everyone in your household or office should be well versed in it, and you should have meet-up or rally points set at a safe distance from your home or office. Make sure you have multiple ways out of each room, even if that means you need collapsible fire ladders for upper-floor windows. If you live in an apartment building or high-rise, memorize the fastest way to the nearest stairwell, by sight and by feel. You should be able to get there even if you can’t see—which you may not be able to in a fire.
- Make sure you can open windows, screens, security bars, and doors. You and everyone in your household should be comfortable opening security bars on windows, screen doors, anything that might slow down your egress from a burning building.
- Make sure you have smoke alarms installed and you change their batteries regularly. Dual-sensor smoke detectors are best, as they feature both ionization and photoelectric smoke sensors. If they’re wired to the power in your home, that’s best, but they should also have battery backups. Change those batteries regularly—every year is a good guideline, or every time daylight savings kicks starts or ends. Don’t let cost hold you back—most fire departments will give smoke detectors and batteries out for free if you can’t afford them. While you’re getting smoke alarms, get a carbon monoxide detector too.
- Keep household fire extinguishers handy. If the fire is serious, do not try putting it out yourself. A household extinguisher can help keep a small fire from spreading, or help you clear a path to a safe area, but they’re not for heroics. I like to keep one in my bedroom and another in the kitchen in my apartment. If you live in a larger house, you may consider two on every floor, especially near bedrooms, kitchens, furnaces, or water heaters.
Get Low, Get Out
During a house fire, escape should be your top priority. You may only have seconds to get out safely. You likely won’t have time to grab a go-bag or run around the house collecting important items. Leave them and get out as soon as possible. If a fire alarm has gone off in your building, you may have a few moments, but if there’s a fire in your house, there’s no time to waste.
- Get to the nearest exit immediately. If there’s smoke in the air, get as low as possible where you may be able to breathe and feel your way out. If there’s smoke blocking your door, open the window. Before opening any door, feel the doorknob and the door body. If it’s warm or there’s smoke coming in from the other side, don’t open the door—there may be a raging fire on the other side. Use your second exit, even if it’s a window. If you have to open a door, open it slowly and be ready to shut it if smoke comes in.
- Once you’re out, contact emergency services. Don’t wait to contact them inside the house. Get out first. If you can’t get to family members or pets on the safe way out, let them know when you call 911 and let them know where in the home they are.
- Do not go back into a burning building.
Stay Safe and Pick Up The Pieces
House fires are incredibly destructive. You likely won’t be able to return to your home until well after the danger has passed. Wait for the fire department to tell you it’s safe. Contact your insurance company, landlord, mortgage company, or any other relevant agencies to let them know about the fire. When the fire department has given you the okay to go back inside, try to collect valuable items like documents, records, or irreplaceable items and assess the damage. Before you leave a fire-damaged home, let the police know that you’re leaving and the place will be unoccupied—fire damaged properties are often a target for burglars.
The US Fire Administration has an What to Do After a Home Fire checklist and guide to help you through the first 24 hours after a fire, including everything from insurance to replacement documents that may have been lost. Rebuilding after a fire is a long and draining process. It’s not something that happens in a day, or even a few weeks—it takes a long time. Be ready for a long process, and give yourself plenty of time to recover.