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9 tips to be prepared and stay safe in home emergencies

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Take steps to prevent and act fast should disaster ― big or small ― strike.

By Real Simple

Care for your pipes. If you’re excavating outdoors, don’t dig until you have your utility company flag where the lines are. Don’t use basement pipes to hang heavy items, and make sure the gas connections to your stovetop range and other gas appliances aren’t fraying or cracked. By law, “gas pipes leading into a concealed area should be labeled gas, but this isn’t always the case,” says Bob Kordulak, a code secretary for the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors National Association. For extra peace of mind, you could install a natural-gas detector, which detects methane and propane gas leaks (ask your local utility company for recommendations). Still, your nose is your best system of detection.

Educate the family. Make sure every family member knows the basic rule of gas safety: that any time they smell an unmistakable rotten-egg odor or hear a hissing sound and can’t immediately identify the source, they should get out of the house.

Don't overload the circuit. Limit the number of appliances plugged into any outlet. When you lose power in one part of the house, it’s probably because your food processor, toaster and microwave are sharing the same outlet.

Back up files regularly. And consider buying extra batteries and a DC-to-AC auto adapter if you use a laptop computer. This will allow most laptops (12 volts or less) to be operated from the cigarette lighter of a vehicle.

Stash flashlights. Store one in each bedroom. Avoid lighting candles, if possible, as they could cause a fire.

Alert your power company about special needs. If somebody in your home relies on electrical medical equipment, call your power company now to let it know. Your home will be a priority when electricity is being restored.

Install many. Mount one on every level of the house and outside all sleep areas.

Check the batteries regularly. Test them once a month and replace them at least once a year, unless you have units powered by 10-year lithium batteries (these still require monthly checking). Some smoke alarms are connected to the household electrical system and may or may not have a battery backup. It’s important to test these monthly, too. Regardless of the power source, buy new smoke alarms every 10 years.

Keep alarms clean. Dust and debris can cause malfunctions, so vacuum or dust alarms regularly.

Never disable an alarm. Newer detectors have hush buttons, so you won’t have to compromise the alarm’s power source just because you charred your toast.

Choose multipurpose extinguishers. These are labeled as type “ABC,” meaning they are equipped to fight fires caused by ordinary combustibles, flammable liquids and electrical equipment. Make sure you have one in the kitchen, the garage, the basement and wherever your furnace and hot-water heater are located.

Inspect them regularly. If the gauge doesn’t read full (100%), have the extinguisher serviced if it’s rechargeable or buy a new one if it’s not.

Replace old extinguishers. “The dry chemicals in them degrade and become less effective over time,” says Chris Reynolds, a fire chief and a professor of public-sector and critical-infrastructure studies at the American Military University in Tampa, Fla.

Know how to use them. Once you’ve squeezed the lever, sweep the nozzle from side to side at the base of the flames until the fire appears to be out.

Remove garden hoses from their spigots. Cut off the water supply to outdoor faucets before the frosty weather arrives. Leave the faucets turned on so the pipes are drained before winter.

Insulate vulnerable pipes. Using heat tape or heat cable (sold in hardware stores), wrap uninsulated water supply lines anywhere heat doesn’t reach, such as the garage, crawl spaces or under cabinets.

Allow water to trickle through pipes. Even during freezing spells, regularly let a little water ― cold or hot ― run through the pipes. Set the thermostat at 65 degrees, and open the cabinets under sinks to expose them to as much heat as possible. If you’re leaving for an extended period during the winter, turn off the main water supply, set the thermostat at no lower than 55 degrees and keep the cabinets open.

Draw a map of your house. Plan at least two escape routes out of every room. “Windows and indoor and outdoor doorways are all possibilities,” Reynolds says. Discuss these routes with every family member.

Use flame-resistant safety escape ladders. Place them, preassembled, near a window on each floor of your home. Try the Kidde escape ladder. A 13-foot ladder should be long enough for a two-story home. If bedrooms are on opposite ends of a floor, store a ladder in each room.

Pick an outdoor meeting place. Make sure it's a safe distance from your house. A neighbor’s mailbox or the nearest stop sign are good options.

Make sure your address is visible. Emergency-aid vehicles need to be able to locate your home as fast as possible.

Get informed. Contact the local chapter of the American Red Cross or Federal Emergency Management Agency (to find one near you, go to fema.gov). Ask for information about the types of disasters you may encounter, as well as their timing and severity, especially if you're new to an area and unaware of potential risks.

Ask questions. Find out about community-response plans, potential sites for emergency shelters and warning procedures from the Red Cross or FEMA. "Some level of chaos breaks out no matter how small a disaster," says psychiatrist Joseph Napoli, co-author of “Resiliency in the Face of Disaster and Terrorism: 10 Things to Do to Survive.”

"The more you know beforehand, the less frantic you'll feel," he says.

Keep your survival essentials handy. Store the goods in a waterproof container and place it in an easily accessible location. “Your kit should allow you to be self-sufficient for at least three days,” says Keith Robertory, an emergency-preparedness expert with the Red Cross. (For a list of items for a comprehensive emergency kit, see “Emergency-supply checklist” (.PDF file); for a pared-down version for the car, the office or on-the-go, see “Grab-and-go emergency kit.”)

Do a disaster dry run. One weekend night, unplug the phone, turn off the lights, don’t use any faucets or the stove and see how well-packed you are. “You’ll discover little things, like you packed C batteries when you needed Ds for the flashlight, or you could have used a deck of cards for entertainment,” Robertory says.

Choose two meeting spots. Sure, in the best case of a worst-case scenario, your family will be together when an earthquake rumbles beneath your town. But if you’re scattered, you’ll need a meeting place. Pick two spots where your family can congregate if conditions allow: one close to your house, in case of something such as a fire, and one outside your immediate neighborhood, in case nearby streets are closed.

Choose a contact person. This person should be a family member or friend who lives out of state. After a disaster, it may be easier to call long distance than locally, Robertory says. As soon as it’s possible, each member of your family should call that person to let his or her location be known.

This article was written by Dimity McDowell Davis for Real Simple.