New Kit for Today's World

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Disaster preparedness takes more than duct tape.

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Yesterday's family first aid kit has gotten an upgrade. Today's disaster kit contains all the traditional elements of a first aid kit and expands it to include survival items that could make the difference between life and death in the case of emergency.

Experts say the best way to cope with disaster is to prepare and have everything you might need in one place. That way you'll be ready to deal with emergencies large and small, from a bee sting to a biological attack.

Although recent world events may have made many people more aware of the need for disaster preparedness, researchers say the basic principles of protecting you and your family during a disaster haven't changed.

"There is no difference between the kits we've been recommending before 9/11 and after," says Rocky Lopes, PhD, senior associate for disaster education at the American Red Cross.

"What is different is that a lot more people are paying attention to terrorist threats or other types of hazards. And people are more serous about looking at kits that contain first-aid items as well as disaster preparedness things."

What's a Disaster Kit?

Lopes says the American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommend that every household assemble a two-part family-disaster supplies kit.

The first part consists of a home first-aid kit with standard supplies, such as bandages, antiseptic ointments, and non-prescription drugs, to deal with minor medical emergencies.

"These are things that a lot people have in their medicine cabinet and kitchen drawers, but we recommend that people have them together in one place so they know where they can find it and can grab it and go if they need to take it with them," Lopes tells WebMD.

For a full list of medical supplies that should go into a first-aid kit or a basic first-aid manual, contact the local American Red Cross chapter in your area, or visit their web site.

The second part of the disaster kit includes tools and emergency supplies that you might need in case you have to evacuate your home quickly or are confined to your home for a few days due to a natural, biological, chemical, or nuclear disaster.

Those items include:

  • A battery-powered radio to listen to emergency announcements in case of power failure.
  • Flashlights with extra batteries. Store the batteries separately so they retain their charge.
  • Enough non-perishable food and water for each member of the household for about three days.
  • One complete change of clothing and footwear for each household member.
  • Blankets or sleeping bags.
  • Sanitary supplies, such as toilet paper, soap, disinfectant, chlorine bleach, personal hygiene items, and plastic garbage bags.
  • Plastic sheeting and tape.
  • Personal identification, and cash, traveler's checks, or a credit card.
  • Emergency contact information and family documents (store in waterproof container).

Lopes say one recent change to disaster-kit recommendations is that candles are no longer recommended due to the risk of fire.

"We advise against using candles because we have seen too many times when they were used in an emergency, got tipped over, and caught fire," says Lopes.

Personalizing Your Disaster Kit

But experts say the most important element in putting together a disaster kit is you.

"You can have all the duct tape in world but if you don't know why or how to use it, you can cause yourself a great deal of injury," says Angelo Acquista, MD, author of The Survival Guide: What to Do in a Biological, Chemical, or Nuclear Emergency. He says there is a risk of suffocation if an area is sealed off with plastic sheeting and duct tape for too long without adequate ventilation.

In the wake of 9/11, Lopes says some people have become hyper-prepared and tend to go overboard in buying items they think will offer protection like gas masks, which could actually do more harm than good if not used properly. He says a good rule of thumb to remember when putting together a disaster kit is that if you don't know how to use it, you probably don't need it.

It's more important to remember the individual needs of your household and include items in the disaster kit they might need, such as prescription medications, extra eyeglasses or contact lens supplies, and appropriate seasonal clothing. If there are children in the household, the kit should also contain diapers, baby food, and entertainment like cards and books.

Knowing How to Use a Disaster Kit

Experts say one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of disaster preparedness is how to "shelter in place."

Acquista says emergency personnel are much more likely to ask people to remain in their homes in case of a biological, chemical, or nuclear disaster until evacuation procedures, if necessary, are in place.

"They're going to ask you stay indoors, and you need know how to shelter in place," Acquista tells WebMD. "After 9/11, no one could come in or leave New York."

That's why it's important to have a disaster kit with adequate food, water, first aid supplies, clothing and bedding, and emergency supplies to last at least three days located in a convenient place known to all members of the household.

Once the kit is assembled, you should:

  • Rotate food and water supplies every six months to keep them fresh.
  • Replace batteries and re-access your disaster kit at least once a year to keep it up to date.
  • Store the items you are most likely to need during an evacuation in an easy-to-carry container, such as a camping backpack or duffel bag.

Lopes says he keeps his family's disaster kit in the pantry near the garage door. That way, he can grab a can of soup or other foods from the kit and replace them with a fresh supply while he's cooking.

"It's really just a matter of putting things together in one place, and then you can change food items out when you eat them regularly," says Lopes. "People think it's complicated but it's not."

Published June 6, 2003.

SOURCES: Rocky Lopes, PhD, senior associate for disaster education at the American Red Cross National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Angelo Acquista, MD, author, The Survival Guide: What to Do in a Biological, Chemical, or Nuclear Emergency. U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): "Are You Ready? A Guide for Citizen Preparedness." WebMD Medical News: " Advice on Preparing for Disaster."

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