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Survey suggests children’s first instinct in an emergency might not be the safest

September 26, 2009

NORTHBROOK, Ill., Sept. 1, 2009 -- Darkened skies, emergency warning sirens or smoke creeping under the bedroom door in the middle of the night - would your family react safely? Emergencies can happen anywhere, at any time, and often without warning. Therefore, it is critical to discuss - and practice - emergency and disaster preparedness plans, such as a home fire escape route and severe weather safety plan.

A national survey released by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), an independent product safety organization, reveals that children's initial reactions might actually put them in danger during an emergency. While more than 90 percent of children said they would know exactly what to do if there was an emergency like a fire, only 47 percent chose the safest option - get out of the building immediately.

As part of National Preparedness Month, UL encourages parents to prepare children for a variety of unexpected situations like home fires, severe weather and natural disasters.

"It's natural to get confused when sudden danger demands quick action," says John Drengenberg, director of Consumer Safety at Underwriters Laboratories. "Children may say they know what to do, but as parents we need to be diligent and provide them with the guidance, resources and skills to make the right choices."

UL urges families to consider the following safety tips before, during and after any type of emergency situation.

Preparing for the Unexpected

Families that have discussed where they'll meet and what to do in different situations are always better prepared when disaster strikes. Preparation is key to keeping your family safe; here are three crucial safety tips:   

  • Make sure children can spell their name, parents' names and know their phone number and address. Children should know their full name, parents' full names, address (including city and state), home phone number (including area code) and parents' work phone numbers or cell phones before leaving the home.
  • Designate an out-of-town relative or friend to be your family's emergency contact and keep their information with you at all times.
  • Prepare an emergency kit, including: five days worth of non-perishable food and water, a can opener, flashlight, portable emergency radio (hand-crank, solar-powered or battery-operated), batteries, any prescription medication needed by family members, a first aid kit, list of phone numbers for relatives, neighbors and utility companies, and pictures and descriptions of your family. If you have pets, include five days worth of canned pet food and water, sturdy leashes, harnesses or carriers, current photos and descriptions and a litter box.
  • Develop and practice several disaster preparedness plans. Make sure your child knows the first thing he/she should do in the event of a storm or other disaster, regardless of their location.
    • Practice a fire escape route by drawing out a floor plan and mapping out each family member's route of escape making sure each room has two exit options. Designate a meeting place where your family will reunite if separated. Consider posting the fire escape route on refrigerators and in each family member's bedroom.
    • Make sure your children know how to respond to an emergency in the environments they frequent, including schools, friends' houses and public buildings like grocery stores. Point out exit signs in public buildings, ensure they actively participate in school fire drills and talk to their friends' parents about their individual escape plans.

Stay Connected

While it might prove challenging to stay connected with family during a disaster, parents can use the following to help them stay connected and re-connect with their family.

  • Keep your child connected. If you're not with your child, make sure they have your family's emergency contact information on-hand. Additionally, whether your child is at school, at a friend's house or participating in an extracurricular activity, make sure you have the appropriate contact information should an emergency occur.
  • Identify your family's "ICE" (in case of emergency contact). If you have a cell phone, program your emergency contact as ICE - in case of emergency. ICE is recognized by police and first responders across the nation. In addition, identify an out-of-town contact. In a disaster situation they may be in a better position to communicate among separated family members.
  • Subscribe to alert services. Check with your local Office of Emergency Management to see if your community has an alert system that will send instant text or e-mail alerts to let you know about bad weather, road closings, local emergencies, etc. If listening to an emergency radio, make sure you know the most appropriate station for your community.
  • If separated from family members, call your designated out-of-town contact. It is often easier to make a long distance phone call than a local call from a disaster area. Keep in mind, telephone lines are frequently overwhelmed in disaster situations, so try to keep regular telephone use to a minimum.

Post-Disaster: Don't Take Safety For Granted

While the winds may have calmed or fire debris has been cleaned up, it's not a time to let down your guard when it comes to keeping your family safe.

  • Watch animals closely after returning home. Pets may become disoriented, particularly if the disaster has affected scent markers that normally allow them to find their homes. Be aware of hazards at nose and paw level, particularly debris, spilled chemicals, fertilizers, and other substances that might not seem to be dangerous to humans.
  • Stay clear of downed wires and power lines and be extremely cautious of floodwater - it is frequently contaminated with septic waste, oil and/or dangerous debris. If appliances are water damaged have them inspected by a qualified technician and then either refurbish or replace.
  • Keep generators outside of the home and garage and away from doorways and ventilation systems. A potential post-storm danger is carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, especially if generators are being used as an alternative source of electricity.

"The first step towards safely handling an emergency is planning ahead," says Drengenberg. "Take the time to ensure your child is Safety Smart® in emergency situations and know how to empower them to respond safely."

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Ready Campaign, National Preparedness Month helps raise awareness and promote action by Americans, businesses, and communities on emergency preparedness.

Survey Methodology

The Safety Smart® Survey was conducted by Kelton Research on behalf of Underwriters Laboratories, between April 16 - 23, 2009, using the phone, an email invitation and an online survey. Results of any sample are subject to sampling variation. The magnitude of the variation is measurable and is affected by the number of interviews and the level of the percentages expressing the results. In this particular study, the chances are 95 in 100 that a survey result does not vary, plus or minus, by more than 5.6 percentage points from the result that would be obtained if interviews had been conducted with all persons in the universe represented by the sample.