The Importance of a Family Emergency Plan


[Photo credit LILA]

Last Friday I picked up my 6 year old Sabrina a little earlier than usual from school to take her to an appointment. When I got there, one of our supervisor’s brought her to me and as soon as Sabrina saw me she ran into my arms and buried her head into my sweater, crying. She had been with another little girl so I suspected that something had happened between the two of them. I could not have been further form the truth! When I asked Sabrina what was wrong she answered sobbing: “A bad guy broke into our school so we had to stay locked up in the office with kids I didn’t know. The police came and there was a helicopter. It was really scary.”

I took it all in, took a deep breath and asked the supervisor if she could fill me in on what had happened. As it turned out a big black burly man had jumped over the fence stark naked just as the kids were wrapping up their lunch break. He then ran around the playground screaming all sorts of profanities, repeatedly throwing himself to the ground.

Supervisors were alerted by the screaming kids and reacted promptly gathering all the kids and going into “lock down” mode. In no time everyone was in a safe place. Police were contacted immediately, arrived on the scene within minutes and apprehended the man.

I had chills as I listened to her recounting the scary events that had just taken place, yet grateful that the man was unarmed and none of the kids, teachers or staff had been in any physical danger.

Just a year ago, Natasha was enjoying a one week ski trip with her class in the Big Bear area. On the fourth day of their trip Christopher Dorner, a former police officer accused of two murders in the Los Angeles area, went on a manhunt through the Big Bear area. The entire ski resort was put in lock down as helicopters flew low and swat teams were disperse on the mountain ridge. I can still feel the chills running down my spine when I received the call from our head of school informing me of what was happening. After what seemed like and interminable day, our kids were packed up and on their way home, a day before planned but safe and sound! You can imagine the happy tears that greeted their bus as they pulled into our campus just before midnight.

An LA police handout of Christopher Dorner

[photo credit LA police department]

Moments like these can be extremely destabilizing for children, especially younger children and it is important to listen, validate their feelings and remind them that they are safe.

As you can imagine Sabrina could not stop talking about what she had experienced. It was clear that she needed to process what had happened and make some sort of sense of it all. And more than anything she needed to feel safe.  The incident in and of itself was absurd to a 6 year old, and the fear she had felt when the lock down was initiated was still fresh in her mind. The questions tumbled upon one another for the entire car ride. “Why would the man want to scare the kids?” “Did he want to hurt us?” “Why was he naked?” “Why was he screaming bad words?” “Why our school?”

I answered each question to the best of my ability taking time to listen carefully to her response and make sure she was satisfied with my answer. When I explained that the man was probably ill, or perhaps he had been using drugs, more question ensued, as those are really tough topics to understand for a 6 year old. But I felt her questions needed real answers and also believe that even young kids can understand.

As I tucked her into bed that night it was clear the events of the day were still running circles in her head. She asked what would happen if someone would break into our house. Where would we go and what would we do? We talked about it for a while and decided we would make a family emergency plan over the weekend so that everyone would know what to do if anything like that ever happened. I reassured her that the chances of someone breaking into our home were very slim and reminded her of the many exists we have throughout the house. We counted them together so she could have peace of mind and realize that no matter what part of the house she would be in, in any type of emergency, she could get outside. We also talked about calling the police by dialing 911 from the home phone. I made a mental note that I need to put a wireless phone in each bedroom so the girls all know they are safe, and God forbid, if they were ever in real danger all they would have to do is dial 911 and say help! That is the main reason I insist on keeping a landline. Unlike cell phones, landline numbers are tied to a specific address that shows up immediately when dialed, making police response much more efficient. No matter what I won’t get rid of the landline and I highly encourage everyone who does not have one to get one. Your life or that of your children could depend on it!

Living in Los Angeles, where fires and earthquakes do happen, we’ve set up a family emergency plan though I realize now we need to update it. We have emergency supplies in both cars including food, blankets and water – I need to add a pair of sneakers since I wear heels more often than not – and 2 boxes containing photos and important papers (passports, etc) easily accessible at a moment’s notice.

But we need to update our plan and make sure the girls are all clear on what to do should they find themselves alone at home in an emergency. There are many resources for creating a family emergency plan and I strongly encourage you to take some time and put a plan in place with your family. Things you should plan for include:

  • Where to go and how to get there safely
  • How to get in touch with one another if you are separated
  • Who to call
  • What to do with family pets
  • How to safely shut off utilities such as gas
  • Keeping fire extinguishers in good working order and making sure you know how to use it

You can download a great family communications plan from FEMA & here.  We never know how we would react in an emergency and having a plan is the best way to prepare and make your little ones feel safe. Once the plan is established you may also want to run emergency drills once in a while.  Sabrina often asks about what we should do in case of a fire or an earthquake.  They go through drills at school so why not do the same at home?

I kept Sabrina in my bed last Friday night, knowing she needed a little extra “mommy time”. During the night she must have been dreaming about someone breaking into our home because I heard her cry “We need to get locked in the bathroom!” I hugged her tight, hoping the comfort of my arms would be enough to chase the bad dreams away. It seemed to do the trick.


  1. This was scary to read. I can’t even imagine the fear those kids felt…and the parents too! School should be the place one thinks of as a safe haven. Of course it makes sense to have a plan…just sad that we need one. For me, it was the threat of nuclear war with Russia that had the schools teaching us duck and cover. The enemy was more fathomable…he wasn’t one of us,

    • It was scary for the kids yet as a parent I applaud the speed at which our staff responded and the way our children reacted. They were out of harms way in minutes. The school has also made a psychologist available to any child or parents who feels the need for additional support. Our administration immediately contracted an outside firm to assess and upgrade our current security system. Yes schools should be a safe haven for our children and I agree with you Jacqueline that it is sad we have to put any kind of plan in place. and how right you are about the sad fact that the enemy is one of us 🙁

  2. I live near Los Angeles, too. We have an emergency plan, too. My girls are 16 and 19. The older one at UCLA, but since they were little, we’ve had one in place. Terrifying situation you describe here. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • You are welcome Laurie!My husband and I first put a plan in place after the Northridge quake. We did not have kids then and spent 10 days volunteering at a Red Cross shelter. We saw first hand how devastating things could be… Though we have a plan and supplies, I have to say we had gotten a bit complacent about drills… Time to get back into those 🙂

  3. Thanks for posting. I considering myself pretty prepared for an emergency -but, when you put it in context, I wondering whether I really am. I will definitely re-ponder and share the plan again with my children. There is always more room for more practice.

    • You are right Meeghan, there is always more time for practice. I think we all tend to focus on the plan right after something happens, whether it be an earthquake, tornado or other emergency and as time goes by we go back to our day to day and forget about it.. I like the idea of making practice a bit of a game so we go through the motions and make sure we’re familiar with it without stressing out our families 🙂

  4. How utterly scary for both your daughters and you. I’m glad their safe and un harmed. It really helps when you can give your kids the time and space to process things when bad stuff happens. Having a plan can certainly help to alleviate any fears about any kind of emergency. We have such a plan, but to your point, it’s old and need serious updating. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    • You are most welcome Susan! Yes we all need reminders once in a while, and I am forever grateful that the two emergencies that hit us both had happy endings. Kids do need time and space to process something bizarre or traumatic especially when they are so young and can’t truly understand the motives behind those actions. This is the best time for us parents to be really good listeners 🙂

  5. I used to work at a rural school, and we only did lockdown training once, and nobody really took it all that seriously. Just a couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who works in another small school said a man who was being chased in his car by police, stopped at the school, ran inside and down the hallway to leave on a door on the opposite side. The secretary got on the intercom and announced a lockdown, only she half laughed while making the call. No one was sure if it was the real deal. Thankfully, the guy just ran through the building and nothing more.

    • Thank God he only ran through but what a frightening experience it must have been for all involved! How sad that the secretary responded in the way she did. Clearly she had no real sense of the potential danger. What a blessing this particular situation did not turn into a tragic one. Many lessons to learn from this, Thank you for sharing Jeri.

  6. I can’t imagine how frightening that experience would be for a six year old. It would be terrifying for an adult, but so disturbing to a child. Having an emergency plan in place is a great idea. It not only makes life safer for you but it it gives mom and dad some peace of mind which subconsciously also puts children at ease. I can’t imagine you slept well that night after learning about the day’s experience.

    • You are absolutely right Debra, a plan gives us much needed peace of mind. At the end of the day I was grateful for the speed at which our staff reacted and how calm and cooperative our children were. Our school also made a psychologist available for anyone who needed that extra care which I thought was great. As to sleep that night, it was a little elusive but I was happy that I could hold my little Sabrina tightly in my arms, that though marred by the event, she was safe and sound by my side.

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