Thursday, May 7, 2009

Preparing for an emergency

With a wildfire burning less than 100 miles from here in Santa Barbara, I’m reminded of those things everyone knows they should do to protect themselves in case of emergency, but few of us rarely actually accomplish. We put off doing these sensible things, since a part of us always hopes we won’t need them because there will never be an emergency. Not to be clichéd, but the old saw “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst” is actually pretty good advice. Obviously, we all hope there won’t ever be an earthquake, flood or fire that affects us or our loved ones, but no one can ever know what the future holds. 

So here’s a short list of items that you really SHOULD take care of, not someday, but now. If you do one a week for the next five weeks, you’ll be done, and except for some minor maintenance, you’ll have the peace of mind that comes from knowing you are prepared for something less than pleasant to happen.

  1. Okay, let’s start with an easy one--smoke detectors. Take a moment and make sure you have the proper number of smoke detectors in your home and that they are in working order. Here’s some great information on smoke alarms from the U.S. Fire Administration:
  2. Next, make sure that all of your vital documents (deeds, birth certificates, insurance policies, etc.) are stored somewhere safe, such as off site at a safe deposit box or in your home in a fire safe box. Here’s a good guideline of what to keep where:  Along these same lines, I cannot stress enough how important it is to back up your digital files as well, such as photos, videos and documents you may be keeping on a home computer. If you don’t already have a backup system in place, such as an external hard-drive, I highly recommend you create one immediately. If you can, make a second backup that you can store off site, or use online storage, just in case your external hard-drive gets destroyed in an emergency.
  3. For insurance purposes, it is smart to read your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy and make sure you understand it. If you have valuables, such as art or electronics, that may not be covered, consider extending your insurance. Once you understand what you are insured for, make an inventory of all the items in your home. A visual inventory, either photos or video of the items, is a good idea. You may also want to keep receipts and make a spreadsheet or other database of the items in question with information like when you acquired the object and what you paid for it. None of this information will do you any good if it is destroyed in an emergency, so make multiple copies and keep them with your documents off site, and give a copy to a friend or relative to hang on to. Consider also backing up the information online via web storage. Remember that when you make an improvement to your home, or if you make additional major purchases, you’ll need to update your records accordingly.
  4. Next, consider what area you live in and what the most likely disasters to affect you might be. I live in Southern California, and earthquakes are always at the forefront of my mind. Fire can affect everyone, either wildfires or residential fires, and flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, frost and heat take their toll on thousands of people every year. Make sure you do research into the disasters likely to affect your part of the world and plan accordingly. FEMA has some great information on its website about different hazards.
  5. The last thing I want to mention is in some ways the hardest: estate planning, which basically means what you want to have happen to your stuff when you die. This refers to your will, trusts, dispersal of your money and property and all of that legal stuff. It can also refer to your wishes regarding your body and funeral. It is never too early to start thinking about these things. Especially if you have children or have had a life change since your last will such as a marriage or divorce, you want to make sure that your wishes are backed up by legal documents. This is a pretty huge topic, so don’t be afraid to ask for professional help. Making sure your wishes are known and recorded will ensure you peace of mind and also be a burden lifted from your spouse, children or family upon your death. Please, make sure your affairs are in order as soon as possible. Here are a couple of good online resources for estate planning: SmartMoney and CNN Money

So that’s a lot of preparation for something that may never happen, but it is really important to do. If it is difficult for you to prepare for something unpleasant, think about how much safer and easier it will be for your family in the case of emergency if you take a few steps right now. Get help, from a family member or friend, if you don’t feel like doing it alone, or hire a professional to make a home inventory and get a lawyer to help you with estate planning. Good luck!

Creative Commons photo posted to flickr by 91RS

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