I recently overheard a conversation between parents discussing home phones, cell phones and emergencies. Who was still using a home phone? Do kids of today even know how to use them? Here’s how the conversation went:

Mom to group: “I actually made my son go into another room and use our home phone to call me on my cell, because he didn’t even know how to use it in an emergency. He kept yelling back to me, AFTER I DIAL THE NUMBER, WHAT BUTTON DO I PUSH? I had to explain to him that after you dial the number, that’s it. There isn’t a big button to connect like on your cell phone. He was totally oblivious.”

Everyone laughed. But when the chuckles stopped, you could tell that a “hey, wait a minute, my kid may be like that too” feeling really began to sink in amongst the group.

Then Dad to group: “I don’t even know where my cell phone is half the time, so in an emergency, we would probably be out of luck. Even if we did find it, my phone probably wouldn’t be charged and it would take too long to find my wife’s phone in that big old purse of hers.”

The conversation made us all stop and think about the what-ifs. The truth is, like many of these parents, we rarely think about or prepare for an emergency. Disaster planning seems to always come down to knowing where the flashlights are located for a power outage and checking your smoke alarm batteries twice a year. But real disaster planning is about going through the details and practicing. Practicing even the small, not so obvious stuff, like using a regular home phone, without the big button.

As we enter the turbulent spring weather season in Arkansas, it’s good to think about these things and have a plan of action for your entire family. Here’s some quick advice:

Use toys as a conversation starter about emergencies. As a dad with a boy and a girl, I can’t tell you how many ambulance, fire and police cars we have scattered alongside Barbie dolls. Sometimes we use the emergency trucks to respond to Barbie and her friends who had a little damage to their dream condo during a flood or a wind storm. While my daughter always says, “Daaaaaad, that didn’t really happen!” I always come back with, “Well, it coooouuuuld.” It seems like this type of play always opens up a conversation about what we would all do if something like this were to happen to our family in the real vs. toy world.

Make a game out disaster planning. Even though my daughter has long since outgrown her Little Tykes red plastic car with the yellow roof, she still seems to squeeze into it and play “the medical alert game” with her brother on his bike. They usually are headed to a scene where someone needs help, and they’re on the way to provide it. It’s great to see them incorporate some of our real disaster talks and training into their imaginative game of response.

Build a kit as a family. A disaster supply backpack and a first aid kit are essential needs during times of emergency. The American Red Cross gives details on all the standard items that should be in your kits, but make sure you’re helping your kids be a part of the planning as well. Ask each of your family members to pick out things that bring them comfort. Include items like camo or cartoon bandages for first aid kits or a copy of their favorite book or snacks for your disaster backpack. I love Everlasting Gobstopper candy, so my kids knew I was going to throw that into our kit. While it’s great to have energy bars and nutritious snacks, it’s perfectly fine to have comfort food as well. Anything to ease the fears and calm the nerves.

Talk about real facts. Tragic and serious things sometimes happen in a disaster. But, I’m always fascinated by the wild stories and imagination of kids when it comes to discussing emergencies. It seems like it’s either blown completely out of proportion, or it’s so big they don’t fully understand the consequences or impact. Make sure that your conversation is both realistic and manageable. Don’t make things more dramatic than they actually are, but at the same time, make sure kids know the power of rising water, swirling clouds or fire in the house. Give real facts when you talk about tragedy and make sure that the facts are appropriate for the age of your kids.

Ensure that you’re prepared. Your kids will be looking to you during times of disaster and they will more than likely reflect your actions. If you react with alarm, your kids are going to get scared. You’re the parent and the adult in the situation and your family needs a prepared leader. It’s too late to have a family disaster meeting when the ground is shaking from an earthquake. It’s too late to figure out what do to with your pet fish when you’re trying to swim out of the house yourself. Build a kit, have a plan and always stay informed.

And finally, when you’re in the middle of it, make sure you hug and kiss a lot. Nothing says we’re all going to be ok like a good family hug and kisses all around. Oh, and since we’ll probably all be in our safe place with our cell phones and not our home phones, make sure you download the award-winning tornado or first aid app at RedCross.org/Prepare/Mobile-Apps.


Darren Irby just celebrated his 20th year working for the American Red Cross. He helps the national office of the Red Cross respond to disasters around the world, collect more than 1,000 units of blood each day and prepare families for emergency situations. He lives in downtown Conway with his son, Hart and daughter, Belle.