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Disaster Prep and First Response

How to Help Yourself – and First Responders – During an Emergency

Photo: Courtesy of Ozzie Stern

Tammy Franks

Home and Community Program Manager, National Safety Council

September is National Preparedness Month. To limit injuries and deaths during a natural disaster, citizens can take a number of steps in advance of, during, and after the event.

Taking such steps will not only help save the lives of ordinary people, but also the lives of the first responders charged with protecting them.

The importance of evacuation orders

The purpose of an evacuation order is to move people out of harm’s way.

Such orders – which can be both mandatory and voluntary – can be issued for hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and other potentially dangerous events.

Officials don’t issue evacuation orders lightly and consider many factors when determining whether to deliver such an order. According to disaster management experts, these factors include:

  • Weather forecasts
  • The relationship residents have with their local leaders
  • The communication networks used to disseminate information
  • The capacity of roads to carry increased traffic
  • Available shelter space
  • Public resources to transport ill patients or the elderly
  • The possible economic impact on a community if it does shut down for an extended period of time

When life-threatening weather develops in an area where evacuation orders were issued, those who choose to stay behind often regret their decision.

They come to realize their most precious commodity is at risk – their life.

So how can ordinary citizens not only help themselves but also first responders during a natural disaster?

Preparing yourself for a natural disaster

When citizens adhere to evacuation orders and similar safety directives, it allows first responders to focus on other tasks during a natural disaster, including assisting those who were unable to evacuate on their own.

Evacuated citizens can help by leaving the affected area early to avoid being trapped by severe weather; following the evacuation route and avoiding shortcuts that may be blocked; staying alert for road hazards, such as flooding, downed power lines, and washed-out roads; and making sure they have an emergency supply kit.

But following evacuation orders is not the only way to help first responders when disaster strikes.

Reviewing tips found at, people can quickly find multiple instances where a particular instruction will not only help themselves but also first responders.

One of the most basic tips for emergency preparedness is learning what types of extreme events are likely in your area, as well as the local emergency, evacuation, and shelter plans for each specific disaster.

That will help you prepare in case an emergency arises.

Other tips should be adhered to both during and after a natural disaster, such as not driving into flooded areas. Just six inches of moving water can sweep a vehicle away, and if drivers can avoid getting stuck or carried away in flood waters, first responders can focus on other rescue efforts.

Working together, saving lives

Natural disasters disrupt people’s lives, but by following orders and instructions issued by emergency officials, people will keep not only themselves but also first responders safe. Such teamwork will go a long way toward preventing injuries and saving lives in the most trying of circumstances humans can experience.

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