You know what’s sad? I’ve written several articles already on pet preparedness, but nothing on children. Must be because my children are grown, but I’m not yet at the stage of grand kids!  However, since including kids in my teddy-bear triage exercise, questions about unaccompanied children in disasters keep bouncing around my brain. So I started digging, and behold – the reason I know so little is that children are often ignored in disaster planning. When their needs are considered, it is usually part of vulnerable or “at-risk” population planning. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see kids in this group.

Photo by D Sharon Pruitt

Photo by D Sharon Pruitt

Children Belong In All Emergency Plans

Children make up 24% of the population. That’s large enough to impact every plan, from preparedness all the way through recovery. If you consider the intertwining of children and parent needs, you now have a majority of survivors. In addition, children’s needs, although unique, are completely different from other “vulnerable populations”. Most children are healthy, they cover every race and socioeconomic group, and their needs are fairly uniform across all disasters and locations. Children belong in all basic preparedness and response plans, not tacked on as a special population.

Children Need Family 

Editorial aside, what do kids need most in a disaster? First and foremost, they need their family. Any large rapid onset disaster that interrupts transportation and communication (floods, fires, earthquakes) has a huge chance of separating children from parents – consider 67 million American children in school or child care every weekday. Field trips, visiting friends, and after school activities represent other situations where kids are separated from family. Don’t forget kids at home, alone or with a baby sitter, while parents work or enjoy a night out. And in the chaos of an emergency, children get separated at the scene, particularly with parent injury or death.

Photo from World Bank Photo Collection

Photo from World Bank Photo Collection

Adults Need Family

Concerns for children also dominate adult emergency response. The greatest barrier to employees working after a disaster? The need to keep family safe! What’s the first thought to cross your mind when imagining a disaster at work? If you have kids, I bet it’s worrying how to connect with them! First responders tell stories of “creative” ways to keep families together or provide extra care to unaccompanied minors in accident settings. It’s clear that plans for family reunification are an incredibly important part of emergency planning, both for individuals and for communities. If you need an example, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita left nearly 5,000 children dislocated from family, with some separations lasting months. So how will reunification happen?

 School Disaster Planning

Let’s start with schools – the most likely spot children will be when not at home. Most schools have written emergency plans, although drilling for anything other than evacuation is unusual. Schools will not desert children, but can plan to turn them over to other authorities. What would your school do in a major disaster? Are they prepared to shelter kids in place, and for how long? When would they pass children off to another agency if parents haven’t shown up, and where do these kids go? I honestly don’t know – pretty sad considering I had kids in the school system for 17 years. I found sample school operations plans on-line, but not actual plans for my school district. I’ll put this on my to-do list, even though my kids are older now – seems like good info to know. I highly suggest you do the same.


Emergency Planning for Kid’s Activities

Emergency plans at child care facilities or other kid locations vary greatly, from non-existent to fairly comprehensive – mostly dependent on what local law requires. These plans tend to focus on emergency contacts and evacuation plans, not plans for sheltering children until reunited with families. If you have kids, identify plans for any place you leave your children – particularly planned evacuation locations. It’s a lot easier and less traumatic to investigate plans in advance than to track your child down after a separation.

Photo by Camilla Nilsson.

Photo by Camilla Nilsson.

Family Separation and Displacement Resources

For family separation, there are resources to help them reunification. In a presidential declared disaster, FEMA activates the National Emergency Family Registry and Locator System (1-800-588-9822), which allows people to voluntarily register and share information on post-disaster well-being or location with specified family members. Those trying to find displaced friends or families can in turn use this resource to search for them.

For locating children under 21, FEMA refers to the Emergency Child Locator Center, run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They have a toll-free hotline (1-866-908-9572) and website to receive reports of displaced children. They deploy staff to the declared disaster area to gather information about displaced children, partnering with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

Red Cross maintains a web page system called “Safe and Well”. It allows anyone in a disaster to enter a “safe” message, stating briefly where they are (home, shelter, friend, hotel). They also enter pre-disaster and current contact information. This is not publicly listed but Red Cross can use it in attempts to reunite families. Others can search Safe and Well for messages, based on pre-disaster phone numbers or home address.

Locally, local law enforcement, child welfare, and red cross should play a role in both arranging care and working on reunification for children separated from families by disaster. Just like for schools, I couldn’t find much on-line in the way of local plans. Hospitals and emergency responders (fire, ambulance) have required written plans for unaccompanied minors, including identification, supervision, and transfer through different healthcare settings. CERT teams and MRC units probably need something similar.

Photo by Kerry Lannert.

Photo by Kerry Lannert.

Family Planning for Potential Separation

Planning for unaccompanied minors, like many aspects of emergency preparedness, is an acknowledged problem that has not yet been solved. The good news is that everyone cares about children and it’s highly likely they will receive care. The bad news is that I can’t tell what the care will look like. Individual preparedness is key in this area as well.

Here are some suggestions for parents to prevent separation and promote reunification:

Photo by Duca Mendes.

Photo by Duca Mendes.

  • Always know where your kids are.
  • Take time now to investigate emergency plans for school, child-care, and other locations where you leave your child.
  • Help children memorize their name, family first and last names, the most important phone number, home address, and important medical information (like asthma, allergies).
  • Make a master list of all family members (immediate and expanded), with addresses and multiple phone numbers. Add recent digital photos of all immediate family members.
  • Expand the list of trusted people allowed to pick up your child in an emergency. Instead of just including parents, consider adding friends or other family likely to be near-by after a disaster. Give written authorization for schools to release your child to these people.
  • Give both lists to schools, child care, and other locations where your children might be away from you. (Official forms are such a pain that we often just quickly fill in one emergency contact and one phone number.)
  • Give copies of the lists to everyone on them, creating a mini-network.
  • Try to keep a copy of the list with your child at all times, using backpacks, lockers, cars, and the child’s go-bag. If your kids have cell phones, enter this info (perhaps listed under ICE – In Case of Emergency).
  • Review and update your lists every year. People move, appearances vary, and phone numbers change. The only helpful list is a current list!
  • Include the lists, plus phone numbers and web sites for the above resources in parent cell phones. Bring a copy with you when you travel, and print one out for your go-bag.
  • Review emergency plans for separation with your children, adjusting the message to their maturity. Practice memorization of personal information, review where to find the family contact list, and teach them to identify authorities that can help them. Most importantly, reassure children that if separated, they will be reunited with family, and people will take care of them until then.

I promise to keep children in mind, and write other child disaster articles. For example, children have unique needs in emergency healthcare, shelter management, and mental health. I would love to hear from anyone with specific knowledge or experience on plans for unaccompanied children in disasters. Teachers, parents, child welfare – leave a comment!

Stay safe,

Sheila Sund, M.D.

  1. Awesome article. You’re completely right, kids are generally overlooked.
    In terms of Safe & Well, new functionality now permits organizations to register on the website. For example, Ms. Wilma could go on and register that her entire after-school gymnastics class is safe after a disaster occurs. You can also post the update to your facebook or other social media accounts.

    Users are permitted to be as vague as they desire in their current status. If you don’t want to hear from your family, but want them to know you’re okay, you can simply mark the “I’m Safe” box, and that’s the message they’ll see. No other details will be released without your consent.

    • disasterdoc says:

      The organization functionality sounds like a great idea, as is the ability to post it to social media. Overall, the Safe and Well concept is one of the best ideas to come along in years. I have to confess, however, that I really blew it when I first got the Red Cross earthquake app for my Android. While checking out and setting up the “I’m safe” feature, I accidentally sent the actual message, totally freaking out my entire family around the country!

      • LOL.. I promise that you are not the first, nor the last, person to make that error. One of the nice features about the main website is that you can specify which disaster you’re affected by. If Hurricane Joe-Bob comes ashore, and they’re checking in on me, they can see that I’m safe at home, or in a shelter, or if I was on vacation in Alaska at the time.

  2. Brett Popovich says:

    I found this link to the Save the Children “Disaster Preparedness for Kids in the USA.” This website lets you see on a map what disaster plans are in place for children for each state, based on their report from Aug 2012. It also has advice, reports, and a a school safety checklist for parents.

  3. itsadisaster says:

    Shared this (and your FB pg link) in our Feb enews

  4. Felicia says:

    It’s over and above me how so handful of men and women can read an posting such as this and
    never entirely understand it.

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