The Two Types of Emergency Evacuation Plans (And Why You Need Both)

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I can remember twice in my life when my family and I had to evacuate. The first time was when our children were very young and our home was overcome with toxic fumes. At that time, I wasn’t aware of prepping or bug-out bags — all I knew was that we could no longer stay in our home and I had just a few minutes to gather everything together so we could get out.

The second time was an evacuation that didn’t, actually, happen. But we were ready this time! It was in 2017, and Hurricane Harvey had hit our small city. As if the rains and winds weren’t enough, an upstream dam suddenly released massive amounts of water, and quickly, parts of the city were in floodwaters up to rooflines.

Sticking close to the news on TV, our family watched the water creep closer to our home, one block at a time. We were ready with our bug-out bags, we had plans for our pets, and a couple of safe destinations in mind but weren’t racing to get out of town. This time around, we had ample warning of the incoming storm and the advantage of local news and social media updates. Although we were prepared, we didn’t need to evacuate, this time.

image: signpost with Plan A and Plan B signs pointing in opposite directions

You Need To Prepare For Both Types of Evacuations: Urgent and Planned

Evacuations happen for many reasons but there are really only two types: urgent evacuations and planned evacuations. You need emergency evacuation plans ready for both kinds.

So before you begin packing that emergency kit, you need to first consider why you might need to evacuate. If you have specific scenarios in mind, and then one of them suddenly becomes a reality, there’s a good chance that your brain won’t lapse into normalcy bias, causing you to waste precious minutes or hours.

What is an Urgent Evacuation?

An Urgent Evacuation is one in which you have zero time to think; you can only react.

The smell of smoke and the realization that your home is on fire is not the time to inform the kids how to get out of the house, run around scooping up family heirlooms, cash, and vital documents, and then yell at everyone to meet you in the front yard! Fire spreads too quickly to allow for any of that.

If you’ve considered this scenario, have planned for it, and have a routine that you’ve rehearsed, your brain will most likely revert to those memories and your actions will become automatic.

Events That Could Trigger an Urgent Evacuation

What other Urgent Evacuations might you need to plan for? Tornado warning? Natural gas leak? Wildfires or a chemical spill?

All of these events will require you to get out of the house as quickly as you can. A few others are:

  • Avalanche
  • Earthquake
  • Explosion nearby
  • Landslide
  • Floods
  • Nuclear event
  • Riots
  • Terrorist attack
  • Tornadoes
  • Tsunami

Planning for Urgent Evacuations

You can’t plan on the fly for an Urgent Evacuation.

It won’t work.

You MUST prepare in advance. An Urgent Evacuation is life or death.

In the case of the housefire example used above, planning in advance for an Urgent Evacuation is simple.

  • Take time to stash valuables in a fireproof safe
  • Train the kids and other family members to get out of the house ASAP and have a pre-planned meeting place.
  • Make sure that each room has an exit point that can be accessed by everyone, even if that means keeping a step stool or a sturdy chair in the room. My daughter’s bedroom has one window whose bottom ledge is a good 4 1/2 feet from the floor. In her case, she’ll need to stand on something to get out.

Tips to Help You Plan and Prepare for Urgent Evacuations

  1. Have a packed supply bag for your pets, complete with food, bedding, and food/water bowls. If your pet requires transportation in a crate, place all supplies in the crate. Everything will be in one place when you need it.
  2. Create a “Last Minute Bag” with things like prescription medications, cash, and small valuables.
  3. Store emergency kits in an easy-to-access location, such as by the backdoor. They can also be stored in the trunk of your car, along with a case or water.
  4. Be in the habit of having your vehicle ready with at least half a tank of gas and emergency supplies.
  5. Have some sort of signal for the family members, so they know it’s “Get serious!’ time. Kids, in particular, have a way of tuning out their parents, so establish a code that sends the message, “Urgent! This is not a drill!”
  6. Practice this evacuation drill and keep track of how much time it takes to get everyone out of the house. Emphasize that getting people out is far more important than any belonging, or even a pet.
  7. Have written lists of what must be grabbed. Prioritize so that no one is searching for something that isn’t strictly necessary.
  8. Select a primary and one or two alternate evacuation routes.

In Urgent Evacuations, the longer you wait, the more likely you are to endanger yourself and your loved ones.

And if you must leave the area, it also increases the chance that you’ll run into major traffic issues as panicked people also try to get away from harm.

What is a Planned Evacuation?

Not every emergency is one that requires great haste. The Planned Evacuation is one of “prepare and wait-and-see.”

It requires a different mindset — one that emphasizes checking and double-checking and keeping a constant eye on developing news. In many cases, you have several hours or days in which to make your plans and put the final pieces in place.

Events That Could Trigger Planned Evacuations

For example, a hurricane is a scary natural disaster that can bring with it an enormous amount of damage, but thanks to modern meteorology, we can track these storms. We know, with a fair degree of accuracy, when and where they will make landfall.

These scenarios allow us to time think, review our plans, and get to safety, beating the crowds as well as the expected disaster. Examples of these are:

  • Earthquake — If your home isn’t too damaged, you may want to plan to evacuate, just in case.
  • Epidemic or pandemic
  • Rising floodwaters
  • “Storm of the Century” — Blizzard or otherwise, you may want to get out to avoid the worst.
  • Volcanic eruption — Usually these give some warning before erupting.
  • Wildfires in the area

Tips to Help You Plan and Prepare for Planned Evacuations

Along with the tips for Urgent Evacuations, here are a few to help you plan for a more leisurely escape:

  1. Make a date on your calendar to review and refresh all emergency kits every 6 months.
  2. Have at least 2 different ways to get information, in case of a power outage or if telephone/cell phone lines aren’t working. A shortwave radio and ham radio are both good choices.
  3. If you have a smartphone, install phone apps that provide alerts for inclement weather, tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Red Cross makes several, and they are all excellent.
  4. If you have larger animals, contact at least 2 locations that could provide temporary shelter as part of your emergency evacuation plans.
  5.  Give careful consideration to how your home can best be protected while you’re gone. You have time to board up windows, drain pipes, etc.
  6. Get phone numbers from neighbors, so you can keep in touch and update each other with the news. This will be especially important if you do evacuate and want to know how your home and neighborhood are faring.
  7. During the school year, contact your child’s teacher and ask for a list of their assignments for the coming week or two.
  8. Make sure your vehicle is filled with gas and is ready to go. Pack it with any supplies or gear that won’t be needed, just in case you decide to leave. It wouldn’t hurt to know how people live in their cars, in case you must do so far a season.

A Final Thought About Preparing Evacuation Plans

The good news about both these types of emergency evacuation plans is that preparation for one is preparation for both.

The major difference between the two, other than the actual event, is your mindset. You must be the one to make the call to get out now or wait to see how things unfold.

Ultimately, it will be your call.

It’s better to err on the side of a quick evacuation if there’s a chance the event could escalate. By then, you might be trapped and unable to get out.

Don’t rely on others to rescue you. Take charge of your and your family’s survival and write evacuation plans.

I’ve written an easy-to-read handbook to help families like yours prepare for and survive both types of emergency evacuations. Click the big orange button below to learn more.

Do you have both types of emergency evacuation plans? What would you add to this?

This article was originally published on May 5, 2015, and has been updated.

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I'm the original Survival Mom and for more than 11 years, I've been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more with my commonsense prepping advice.

11 thoughts on “The Two Types of Emergency Evacuation Plans (And Why You Need Both)”

  1. Pingback: How to Make an Evacuation Checklist • Survival Atlas – The Trusted Source for Everything Survival

  2. I follow your pinterest boards and read your articles. I find your information excellent and your advice very good. However, I have a concern with number 7 above, to ask your child’s teacher for assignments in an emergency situation. So many people forget that the teacher is a person too, likely with a family and a need to get to his or her own preps and bug out plans. Please have your own plans in place for occupying and educating your children in an emergency situation and do not place an additional burden on another human being. I am a teacher with a husband and four children, the youngest being 4. In an emergency situation I will not be creating long term lesson plans for your children, I will be working to insure my family’s safety. This does not make me a bad teacher or a bad person.

    1. I used to be a teacher, so I know where you’re coming from. If an emergency is one that gives teachers, and families, time to prepare, then yes, teachers can provide a list of assignments should the school shut down for a while. Frankly, I’ve never heard of a teacher refusing to provide children with a list of assignments when the child’s family is going on vacation or if the child is sick for a period of time. An emergency that may require a planned evacuation is no different.

      In case of something like a tornado, where there is no time to think and barely enough time to find a safe shelter, then of course, no one has that expectation.

  3. One more thing, it’s good to get the call to evacuate or to prepare for evacuation. Most people are notified by TV news or by a first responder knocking on the door. Much better to get a Reverse 911 emergency notification cell phone call, text and email from the EMA. These are local authoritative messages and updates that are location specific. If needed, you know quickly when to pick up your go bag and leave without waiting for a knock on the door.
    Our nonprofit is working to increase the number of people who register for mobile alerting. The services are all free. We offer a ZIP code search of your local registration sites. http://www.safetyinformed.org

  4. Thanks again, Lisa for a great and thought-provoking article! Something worth mentioning is a way out of upstairs bedrooms in the event of fire, for example. A second story fire escape ladder is a very affordable and worthwhile investment. In our house, a fire downstairs could easily prevent us from exiting on the first floor, so we have one of these in the main bedroom, which is close to the other occupied bedrooms upstairs. Everyone can get to it quickly. Drilling a fire escape using it is a good idea too, because this kind of climb can be scary and it would be better if a dire emergency wasn’t the first time you or your family tried it.

  5. It is better to be prepared on both, it’s less panic. even if it is urgent or planned, emergency is emergency, disaster is disaster no one can ever predict when it is going to happen. What we can do is; If we knew that there is a big typhoon prepare ourselves and the rest of the family, have the 72 hour bag always ready and place it where you can grab it easily. listen to the radio. And in case you really need to evacuate the house just grab your bag 72 hour survival kit and go. And to add to that we, can also prepare even a small survival kit because someone might needed it, in this case we can also help other people. By the way, you have a very nice article.

  6. Good tips! Also good to plan for… If a mandatory evacuation occurs, plan to be out of the house for at least a couple of weeks. This may impact what you do with fish tanks, sensitive plants, refrigerated foods, etc.

    A number of our friends who evacuated with a few hours notice found this to be true during recent fires. Their house didn’t burn down, but they couldn’t return until the danger had passed. Had they realized they wouldn’t be able to return, they would have spent more time closing up the house and utilities and would have brought all their food with them.

  7. If you have time, one of the ways I plan for getting as much out of my house as I can, as fast as I can, is to grab every drawer in my house. Your desks, dressers, kitchen drawers, bathroom drawers generally speaking will have every important file, medicines, clothes etc. that you will need. They are sturdy, pre-built boxes that can be stacked quickly. Grab all your hanging clothes still on the hangers and then toss them over the top of the drawers to pad and stabilize. Have done a drill and can get a whole lot out in under 30 min. As I said, If you have time.

    1. That’s an interesting strategy. It would require a larger vehicle and/or trailer, I imagine, but could work for some people.

  8. This is very informative. I also think always having an emergency kit with you and your kids when they go to school is very important. Also, do you have other recommended apps that can be used when there’s an emergency?

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