Right after a major natural disaster, the world suddenly gets very small. Roads are blocked, phone and Internet lines go down, emergency help may be days away, and you are stuck in place.
Who do you turn to?
Again and again, survivors tell us that their neighbors were the first “emergency responders” on the scene. Their stories are wonderful and inspiring, but if we’re being honest, they’re also frustrating and potentially dangerous.
When as many as a dozen people rely on one prepared neighbor for food, water, and help, it sucks up resources quickly and puts an enormous strain on the folks who’ve already prepared.
To prevent this from happening to you, we’ve put together a helpful guide with advice and resources to get your community involved in preparedness and potentially save lives in the process.
For even more help getting your neighbors and friends ready—including big savings on bulk emergency food—check out our newly relaunched GROUP BUYING PROGRAM.
Find Out What's Already Being Done
The good news is that no matter where you live, like-minded people in your town or county have probably already done some of the work for you. They’ll have invaluable information and additional contacts that will make organizing much easier.
They’ll also be good people to know when disaster hits, so make sure to keep their names and phone numbers in your neighborhood’s emergency contact list.
We recommend reaching out to any of the following:
- Local fire department or district (likely a major player in local disaster plans, especially if you live in a rural area).
- The County's Office of Emergency Services
- The local Red Cross office
- A local chapter of RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services).
- The local Humane Society.
- FEMA Citizen’s Corps
Make sure to ask these groups if they have plans for helping leaders like you organize their neighborhoods. Some of them may even be willing to attend or conduct local training meetings.
Sample script and contact chart
Click here for a sample script you can use when calling any of these organizations. If someone other than you is making the phone calls, the script is especially helpful because it will ensure that everyone’s asking the same questions.
Find Your Team
How many people do you need?
This may be the hardest part of the process, but not to worry! You don’t need the entire neighborhood active in your emergency preparedness group for things to work out. Just a small handful of dedicated volunteers is enough. Heck, one person besides you is better than going it alone.
As for the rest of the neighborhood, all you really need is their awareness and brief help on projects like emergency food drives; group readiness plans; and making tallies of available equipment, individuals with special needs, etc.
Where to find people
Where you find your dedicated volunteers is going to depend on where you live and what kinds of relationships you have with the folks around you.
Friends – If you’re lucky enough to have friends or close acquaintances nearby, ask for their help. These are people you can rely on (ideally) to come through on their commitments to you.
Neighbors – The closer your preparedness group is the more help and support that you can give each other. Take this as an opportunity to walk your neighborhood and invite others to join your group.
Local churches – If you live in an area with an active church community, you’re fortunate. There is no better place to find volunteers. Contact the leaders of the congregations nearest you and let them know about your plans.
Other local organizations – You might also consider reaching out to organizations like your local PTA or HOA. Say what you will about these groups, you’ll be hard-pressed to find people more committed to the community—and that commitment is exactly what you need. And like churches, these organizations come with built-in networks of volunteers
Regardless of which groups you choose to contact, have some documentation prepared to share during your initial conversation. This will help in lots of ways. First, having a tangible document on hand helps communicate your message more clearly than the spoken word alone.
It also leaves a reminder behind once you’re gone. Best of all, it gives leaders something to pass on to their groups and congregations. (See the flier below for a great template you can use).
Assign Roles—Get Specific
Before you ask your neighbors to help, know exactly what you need them to do. They’ll appreciate the specificity, and it will save you time and headaches.
Write out a list of roles that need to be filled for your neighborhood emergency group as well as a description of duties. These roles will vary depending on your circumstances and location, but here are some we’ve seen other groups use:
Oversees the entire group and all roles and responsibilities.
The tip of the spear for staying in touch with outside organizations (FEMA, Red Cross, fire department, local churches, etc.) and conveying information (like the evacuation plans) to the neighborhood.
May include neighborhood meetings and fundraisers.
Ultimately responsible for an evacuation plan and then overseeing that plan's implementation in the event of a disaster. For help with that, download our Emergency and Evacuation Plan guide.
Food supplies manager
Helps oversee any group food storage. They might also help families understand food storage basics and learn how to access supplies. Check out our Food Storage Planning guide for tips on how to do that.
Water supplies manager
Counterpart to the food supplies manager, but with water. These two roles can be wrapped into one, though water is important enough to merit its own position.
Medical emergency manager
Ideally this person would be an experienced medic or doctor. This role should not only be available to help treat injuries, but to train others as well.
Emergency supplies manager
The neighborhood can't share all their supplies, but at very least it's good to know who's got what. Someone should oversee collecting this information. If everyone can pool together to purchase the items no one seems to have, all the better.
Collecting supplies costs money, and if you’re able to do any fundraising to help, it’s nice to have someone dedicated to overseeing it.
If you think mechanical skills are useful in everyday life, wait till an emergency hits and your only generator gives out. A mechanic is one of the most critical roles on this list—right up there with medical emergency manager.
Get the Word Out
The best plans in the world do little good if no one knows about them but you. Spend time “advertising” to your friends and neighbors.
Bring it up in conversation
If you’re lucky enough to talk to your neighbors, bring up your plans and/or meetings and make invitations in casual conversations.
Door to door
You can leave fliers at the door or better yet just knock and talk to your neighbors. Letting them know face to face and then leaving a flier will be much more effective.
Social media is a great way to reach lots of people with little effort. Facebook, for example, lets you create events and groups. We suggest exploring both options. You can also reach out to neighbors individually and share. Make digital versions of any documentation you have for easy distribution on social media.
If you can tap into pre-existing networks like churches, scout troops, rotary clubs, PTAs, and more, do it! Ask permission to present at their meetings and hand out your fliers and information if they’ll let you.
Pre-generated invitation flier
Here’s a clean, pre-generated meeting flier you can tweak to fit your needs.
Hold a Meeting
It’s one thing to talk about organizing a preparedness group, but talk is all it will be until you kick off your plan with an opening meeting. This is a must.
Here are a few things you can do to help make your meeting a success:
Plan, plan, plan
We don’t’ suggest having your entire neighborhood emergency plan formulated to the last detail before the meeting. It’s actually important that others help develop the plan, if for no other reason than it will help them feel more invested and engaged.
However, you should come in with an idea of the outcomes you want to see and lots of suggestions. If you need help coming up with those, check out FEMA’s 120-plus-page Facilitator Guide for neighborhood volunteers. It might be the single most helpful piece of information our there for group emergency planning.
Have an Agenda
This is a lesson many of us have learned through hard experience. Meetings can quickly stray into tangents and drag on for far too long without a solid plan in place.
Create your agenda well ahead of time and leave copies of it near the entrance of the meeting. Other than general welcomes, make sure the agenda is the first thing you cover once the meeting starts. (Here's a great, ready-to-go agenda template you can use).
Invite an expert
Invite an expert from the Red Cross, Fire Department, the FEMA Citizen’s Corp, or your local Office of Emergency Services to be present at your meeting. Their knowledge of emergency preparedness and organizing is invaluable. And their very presence will make your efforts appear even more “official” to your neighbors. This should make it a little easier to get folks to come out and help when you need them.
An obvious tip, but worth mentioning, especially since forgetting to record important items can come back to bite you. If you’re running the meeting, we suggest doing everything you can to delegate this task to someone else. Write these out on a computer so you can easily send them to your members after the meeting (don’t forget to collect email addresses!)
Produce action items with commitments
A much-loved colleague of ours here at Emergency Essentials used to call everything in our meetings “gee whiz” talk—until our ramblings turned into work assignments. And he was probably (mostly) right. So much of what we say in meetings, interesting as it may be, is forgotten as soon as we walk out the door.
What we don’t forget, and what usually ends up mattering most, are the commitments we make. Ensure before every meeting ends that your conversation has materialized into a to-do list.
Be as specific as possible. For example, “Jeanie, you said you’d be willing to collect phone numbers of everyone in the group. Thank you so much! Will you be able to send that to me by next Tuesday?” Make sure that commitment ends up in the minutes you send around after the meeting.
It may seem trite in the face of acts of God and nature, but your neighbors are only human. And like most humans, the probability of showing up for a meeting goes way up when food’s on offer.
You can provide refreshments yourself (if you’ve got the energy and time) or you can recruit others to help. If you’re truly ambitious, nothing’s better than a potluck for rallying the neighborhood. You might even consider preparing some emergency food and offering it as an enticement to get people involved in a group purchasing program.
Become a CERT Volunteer
Another great way to get involved in community emergency preparedness is to become a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteer. CERT is a federal program promoted under Citizen Corps to help assist professional emergency responders in the event of a disaster. CERT is made up of everyday people—over 600,000 Americans have taken the free training!
A great way to get started with CERT is to check out the online Introduction to Community Emergency Response course. You can take it just for your own edification or as a prerequisite for the CERT Basic classroom training that may be available in your community.
Click here to see if there’s a CERT program near you.
Buy Together, Buy in Bulk
Preparing to be food independent just for two weeks (let alone many months) is a long-term project, and the costs can add up. One of the big advantages of group emergency preparedness is that you can spread around the difficulties and costs of buying supplies.
As an example, a household with a large freezer and a generator could be in charge of storing freeze-able fresh goods (meats, etc.), while a family with an insulated shed could pick up extra water barrels.
Other families—maybe medical professionals—could take care of stockpiling specialized medications.
Spreading supplies around this way can leverage your neighbors' unique skills, give you more space for storage, and if you're strategic, even save you money.
If you're interested in buying in bulk, check out our Group Buying program. It gives you big discounts on all kinds of food and gear, with new deals every month.
Your Final Step in Personal Prep
Helping your neighbors get prepared can be a lot of work, but it has the potential to spare you an enormous burden and expense. When your neighbors can take care of themselves, it leaves you time and space to care for yourself as well. And in the end, that’s a much safer arrangement for everyone.
For more awesome group preparedness resources, check out our Neighborhood Emergency Plan packet. It's full of great ideas and templates for planning and collecting information.