Get organized to help in an emergency

As Florida and Houston deal with the aftermath of devastating storms, I’ve seen messages from good-hearted people on social media opening their homes to those who have been displaced. Countless people are affected by these disasters, and will be for weeks and months to come.

It’s a fantastic act of selfless generosity to open one’s home to someone in need. It also takes a lot of planning and organization. If you plan to have friends and/or family stay with you for an indeterminate amount of time — especially when they’ve lost so much — there are steps you can take to make the experience better for yourself and for them.

First, ensure how many people you can safely and comfortably accommodate. Everyone will need space to sleep, so count up bedrooms as well as couches, air mattresses, cots or sleeping bags. If using the latter, make sure that there’s an opportunity for privacy for all. Not everyone wants to sleep on the living room couch. Maybe you can make a rotating schedule. While you’re at it, make sure there is ample room for the belongings they will bring with them.

If you plan on accepting many people, you might even want to check with your municipality for advice on how many people can safely occupy your home.

Next, stock up on supplies. More people means more food, water, toiletries, etc. If you have time, buy these supplies before your guests’ arrival and designate a tidy an accessible place for storage.

Guests forget stuff at the best of times, and in this instance, they might not have the opportunity to grab essentials. Buy extra toothbrushes, disposable razors, extra towels and so forth and make them available.

Your guests will also have clothing to launder. Providing a few mini pop-up laundry baskets will allow guests to keep their dirty clothes out of their suitcases and transport them to and from the laundry area with ease.

Also make sure you’ve got a first-aid kit on hand, as well as some common over-the-counter medications, even pet food if your guests will be bringing a dog or cat with them.

Have phone chargers for various models available, as theirs may be gone, as well as a mini charging station. Make your Wi-Fi password available if you have one (you should). A crank-powered radio is also useful, especially if your own home is in or near a danger zone.

If you’re opening your home to people in need, our hat is off to you. If you don’t have that opportunity but still want to help, contact the Red Cross.

What would you do in a public emergency?

With the recent terrible attacks in Charlottesville and Barcelona, we thought here at Unclutterer that it would be a good idea to review some basic things to consider when faced with a public emergency.

Be prepared. Familiarize yourself with the venue’s layout. Pay attention to the location of medical tents, first aid stations, washrooms, and escape routes. Also pay attention to dead-ends, you don’t want to become trapped in a space where there is no exit.

Be aware of your surroundings at all times. If you get the slightest feeling that something may be wrong, you need to listen to your instincts and act fast. If you see something that doesn’t seem right, such as a rapid increase in the crowds in your area or perhaps a suspicious loner that doesn’t seem to belong, it’s probably a good time to find the nearest exit.

If you’re caught in a crowd, think of it as a flowing river — swim with the current and slowly make your way to the edge.

Prior to the event, choose a meeting spot in case anyone gets separated from the group. Ensure everyone has each other’s phone number. It is helpful to have a contact outside the event that can be called to coordinate planning should something go wrong at the event. In large crowds, mobile phones get lost and damaged so being able to contact someone outside the event is helpful.

Take photos of your group or yourself if alone — share them with your friends at the event and your contact outside the event. If you get lost or separated, you can show a photo of your friend and say, “Have you seen this guy/gal?” Authorities will also want to know a detailed description of what your friend was wearing. Your memory may not work so well under stress so having a photo is helpful.

Now for what to do if something horrible does happen.

First off, stay calm. This is probably the hardest thing to do. With chaos around you, it’s human nature to panic and when we panic, we end up doing things that we normally wouldn’t ever consider doing (I knew someone that in an armed robbery started grabbing people and pulling them on top of her, something she was horrified for having done afterwards). As much as possible, try to keep your thoughts clear and practical.

Next, make sure you’re safe, and if as long as you don’t put yourself at risk, help others get safe too. In most cases, this means getting as far away from the situation as possible, but that may not be possible. For example, exits may be blocked or as happened in Charlottesville, there were so many people in the street and there was nowhere to go. After the Barcelona attack, my husband and I had a conversation about how we always know where we would go in case of emergency. We read evacuation plans in hotels and tend not to put ourselves in situations where there are limited exits. We also talked about how the intuitive way out might not be the best. For example, we live on the ocean. If something happened while we were on the beach, intuition would suggest heading inland, but it may be better to head out into the water where it’s less likely we’d be trampled.

Of course, once you are safe and away, let friends and family know that you’re fine. They’ll be worried about you. Facebook, for example, has a function that they turn on in such situations, allowing you to let all your contacts know that you’re safe and sound.

If you’ve had some sort of first aid training, or see something you can do without putting yourself in danger, do it. As I mentioned above about panic, in emergency situations it’s human nature to think of ourselves first and to maybe cause others harm inadvertently. Maybe the best way you can help is to get out of the way, but if you see someone suffering and it’s in your power to do something, take a deep breath and offer assistance.

When the worst of the situation has passed, find out what you can do to help. Whether it’s donating blood, clothing or food, or volunteering in whatever manner is being requested, it is actions that count. It’s all well and good to express your horror and support publicly via social networks and minutes of silence, but real assistance comes from doing something productive, not just making ourselves feel better with words and flowers.

In this age of social media, it’s important to remember to put your smartphone away and do not distribute images or videos of the tragedy unless asked to do so by authorities. Most of us are not reporters and it’s not our job to inform the world of what’s happening. When my father had a terrible swimming accident, I was shocked that I actually had to tell someone to get out of the way of the paramedics and stop gawking. And the man was hovering about with his phone, as if he wanted to take a picture or something. Watching the news about the Barcelona attack, I was horrified to see people taking selfies while the police were cordoning off the area. Remember that the person you’re filming is someone’s mother, brother, or child and imagine how you would feel if it was your loved one.

And finally, check your facts before spreading information. With news and rumors easily confused online, it’s important to take a moment and make sure that what you are about to share is real.

The Unclutterer site has quite a lot of information about emergency preparedness and I suggest taking a moment to check out our archives to make sure that you know what to do when life takes a tragic turn.

Organize emergency medical info on your phone

When emergencies strike, it’s important to have important medical information close at hand. It’s one of those things you usually don’t think about until you have to, but not thinking or doing anything about it ahead of time can cause you serious trouble. One way to keep this information organized and easily accessible is to securely store it on your smartphone.

If you have an iPhone or an Android device, the following information should help you:

iPhone

Apple has made organizing emergency information quite simple. To begin, open the Health app, which is part of the standard iPhone operating system. Next, follow these simple steps:

  1. Tap “Medical ID” in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
  2. Tap “Edit” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
  3. Enter pertinent information.

There’s a lot of info you can list here, including any medical conditions, special notes, allergies, potential reactions/interactions, as well as any medication(s) you currently take. There are also fields for adding an emergency contact, blood type, weight, height, and whether or not you’re an organ donor.

At the top of screen, there’s an option to have this information available from the lock screen. If selected, your emergency information is just a swipe way from your iPhone’s lock screen.

This is useful should you have to visit the ER, but that’s not all. I recently had to have a prescription refilled and while at the pharmacy I couldn’t remember the medication’s name (nor could I pronounce it even if I had remembered it), so I simply opened this info on my phone and handed it to the pharmacist. “Wow,” he said. “I wish everybody did this.”

On Andriod

Storing emergency medical information is a little tricker on Android, but not impossible. There may be a field for this information among the phone’s contacts, but that depends on what version of Android you’re running. If it has an In Case of Emergency field in the contact’s app, be sure to fill in this information. But in addition to this, I suggest you download and use an app like ICE: In Case of Emergency. For $3.99, it lets you list:

  1. People to call in an emergency (and it can call them directly from the app)
  2. Insurance information
  3. Doctor names and numbers (again, it can call them directly from the app)
  4. Allergies
  5. Medical Conditions
  6. Medications
  7. Any special instructions or other information you wish to provide

Both of these solutions can be a convenience in any medical situation, especially emergencies. More importantly, this simple bit of organization can greatly help a first-responder when you need help the most. Take some time this week to set it up.

Organizing for disasters: your emergency preparedness supplies

What goes into an emergency preparedness kit? As Erin has noted before, FEMA can help you with this and the American Red Cross can help, too.

If you’re interested in creating your own kit, the following are three specific things to think about as you assemble it.

Food and water

You may have heard advice like: “A good rule of thumb is to have supplies for about 3 days, or 72 hours.” That advice comes from the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. Both ready.gov and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have repeated that advice, recommending at least a three-day supply of water per person.

Other sources indicate that 72 hours worth of supplies is a bare minimum. The Southern California Earthquake Center, in its brochure “Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Territory,” recommends that you have enough food and water for “at least 3 days and ideally for 2 weeks.”

FEMA’s guide entitled Food and Water in an Emergency (PDF) advocates for more supplies, too.

If an earthquake, hurricane, winter storm or other disaster strikes your community, you might not have access to food, water, and electricity for days or even weeks. … Store at least one gallon per person, per day. Consider storing at least a two-week supply of water for each member of your family. If you are unable to store this quantity, store as much as you can.

The American Red Cross has made a distinction between the supplies you need if you’re evacuating versus the supplies you need if you’re staying where you are. They recommend a “3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home.”

Emergency lighting

I’ve had clients tell me they were holding onto candles as an emergency supply — but that’s a really poor idea. As the CDC has indicated:

Home fires are a threat after a natural disaster and fire trucks may have trouble getting to your home. If the power is out, use flashlights or other battery-powered lights if possible, instead of candles. If you must use them, place candles in safe holders away from anything that could catch fire. Never leave a burning candle unattended.

I’ve heard people suggest getting a headlamp, so you can walk around with your hands free, which sounds like a good suggestion to me.

Landlines with corded phones

In day-to-day use, many of us rely on our cell phones, and many people are getting rid of their landlines. If you’re lacking power, a landline using copper wire, in conjunction with a corded phone, may work when no other phone will. Tara Siegal Bernard wrote in The New York Times about this in more detail. She noted that 911 services works better when the calls come through on a landline rather than a cell phone.

There are additional advantages to having a landline during an emergency. If your local cell phone network is overloaded after an earthquake, your landline calls might still go through. If you need to evacuate your home and you have a landline with an answering machine, you may be able to call home to find out if your power is back on; if the answering machine picks up and your home is still standing, your electricity is back.

Prep your tech for a weather emergency

Earlier this week, many of us here on the Eastern Coast of the USA endured hurricane Sandy’s assault. As a resident of coastal Massachusetts, I spent last weekend preparing for the storm. There’s a lot to be done, and you’ll find an excellent overview from the American Red Cross here. Now that the worst seems to be behind us in my particular neighborhood (I know it’s not this way for all those affected by the storm), I’ll share some simple tips I picked up from this event to ensure that your tech gadgets are ready to go the next time emergency strikes. Getting things organized ahead of time can lessen the stress of dealing with the event itself.

Charge Up

It’s likely that you’ll lose power during a major storm, so charge all of your devices ahead of time. When power does go out, unplug your devices, as it could be restored with a jolt. Also, if you’ve got a generator, it’s best not to run electronics like phones, laptops, and tablets off of it.

Keep it Charged

I live in a small town, so we lost power at the drop of a hat. Once it’s gone, it stays gone. A good backup battery is great to have on hand. iPhone owners should check out the Mophie Juice Pack. It starts at $80 and provides several hours of additional life to your iPhone 4 or 4S (an iPhone 5 version is under development). It’s a case that charges separately from your phone, and features an on/off switch so you needn’t use it until you need it. If that’s not enough, consider the Mophie Powerstation Pro, an external battery that provides even more power to your iPhone.

There are several options for Android phone owners, too, like the Samsung Galaxy S III Power Bank External Battery Case.

You can also extend your phone’s battery life by disabling certain features, like Wi-Fi (your router’s probably out anyway) and Bluetooth. Also, dim the screen brightness and avoid playing audio at a high volume. If your phone is set to check email automatically at regular intervals, turn that off, too. All of those processes drain battery life.

Store Important Documents

If you’re forced to evacuate your home, it’s helpful to have important documents with you, but not always practical. One solution is to store copies in the cloud. Evernote lets you store digital files remotely and access them from nearly any Internet-connected phone, tablet, or computer. Simply scan your documents or take photos of them. Create a new notebook in Evernote (I suggest the name “Emergency Documents”) and add the digital copies.

Find Some Useful Apps

The American Red Cross has released several great apps for both the iPhone and Android devices. For this storm, I installed one called Hurricane App. This free, full-featured app provides tips on preparedness, push alerts for your area and so much more. You’ll even get location-based NOAA weather alerts and can monitor alerts for far away regions of the country where loved ones are. There’s even a flashlight, strobe and alarm included.

iPhone owners who are interested in NOAA weather radio should check out NOAA weather radio app for iPhone. It provides live NOAA weather broadcasts for a huge variety of locations across the USA. A crank radio is best, as there’s no battery to exhaust, but this works if you have power on your phone.

Back It Up

Back up your computers, tablets, and smart phones before the storm hits (you’re doing this anyway, right?). It’s nice to have a backup in your house, but inadequate if that’s all you’ve got. Create remote backups with a service like Crashplan, Dolly Drive or Carbonite.

Go Social

Finally, keep an eye on social media. It’s amazing how significantly these services affect our lives. You can follow The American Red Cross on Twitter for up -to-the-minute information. Also, look for relevant hashtags, like #Sandy.

Of course, the best advice is to follow the instructions of emergency personnel in your area. Be safe, be careful and be prepared. And our thoughts continue to be with those most affected by this horrible storm.

Workspace of the Week: Emergency

This week’s Workspace of the Week is [email protected]$’s office in red:

The color of the wallpaper reminds me of a fire truck. Everything is organized, similar to how it is on a fire truck, and in its place. I wonder if the colored magnets on the front of the red storage cabinet under the desk denote any information? I like the idea of the magnets meaning “to do today” or something equally valuable. All of the components for this office were purchased at Ikea and the space looks incredible. Thank you, [email protected]$ (I’m saying that as “Vegas” in my mind), for sharing your space with us.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Organizing pet information in case of emergency

My friend Elspeth recently lost her cat. The kitty is home safely now, but in the process of looking for her my friend learned a thing or two about how she could have been a better organized pet owner.

After her experience, Elspeth put together a list of emergency information and resources you should have on file if you have a pet:

  1. Have your pet microchipped and have on file the name of the company, the microchip number, and contact information for the company.
  2. Know the number on your pet’s rabies tag.
  3. Have documentation on all of your pet’s vaccinations and surgeries. Shelters and vets that take in lost pets will conduct blood tests to identify strays from non-strays. Knowing which vaccines are in your pet’s blood and locations of scars can help in identifying your pet.
  4. Take pictures of your pet at many different angles and of all unique pattern markings. Have these images in digital format. Many states and shelters will post pictures of lost pets online and you’ll want the pictures to print fliers.
  5. Most agencies will only allow you to report a pet that has been missing for more than 24 hours. Find out which agencies take these notices (usually shelters and animal control) and have their contact information in your address book.
  6. Even if your pet lives primarily indoors, you still need to have a collar on your pet with identification. Break away collars are best for constant wear so that your pet doesn’t accidentally choke himself/herself.
  7. Keep contact information for how to post messages to your neighborhood e-mail listserv and Craigslist community.

Ultimately, it was a couple who found the cat and also saw one of Elspeth’s posters on a bus stop in the neighborhood. We hope that you never lose one of your pets, but if you do, you’ll be prepared by having the above information at your fingertips.

Preparing your car for a road trip

Today we welcome John Walton, author of the British travel blog Voyagers, to give us incredibly useful tips for auto travel. Welcome, John!

This holiday season, with prices at the pumps lower but airline prices not really dropping, many of us are taking to the road instead of to the skies. But is your car, truck, or SUV ready for the trip over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house?

If you’re like me, your car is normally pretty clean, but this time of year there’s stuff in it that you don’t need. (I live at Land’s End in Cornwall. That free tourist map of Scotland isn’t much use, so I can take a digital picture of it and throw the paper version away.)

Loose objects in your car can be more than just an eyesore. They’re potentially lethal projectiles if you have to stop suddenly. So use those little nets, compartments, and pockets wisely. Embarrassing holiday incidents shouldn’t include a coffee flask to the back of the head.

Often, a messy car results from not having anywhere to put things away. When I downsized to a smart in 2008 it took me a while to figure out where to put my iPhone, water, and coffee. My tiny car doesn’t really have enough nooks and crannies, so I buckled a daypack-sized backpack into the passenger’s side seat belt so my stuff isn’t going anywhere if I have to slam on the brakes.

Take a look around your local auto supply store for things that would be helpful. Beware the temptation to acquire things just because they are  unique, though! You almost certainly don’t need a Purple Petal Mirror Muff, but one of those four-port USB chargers  could be a great investment.

If you’re going far, make sure that everybody in the car has something to keep them entertained. Before you leave on your trip is the time to load your gadgets with your favorite music or that thirteen-hour set of The Lord of the Rings.

Lastly, and perhaps most important of all, be sure your vehicle is mechanically prepared for the season — whether you’re below freezing in Norway or Nebraska or sunning yourself in Argentina or Australia. Make sure you are comfortable driving in the weather conditions. Invest in a car emergency kit. Check your local automobile association’s website for tips appropriate to your region — and remember to check for your destination too, if you’re traveling!

Happy travels and happy holidays!

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Yearbooks: Worth keeping or clutter?

About once a month, a reader writes to us asking what to do with his or her large stash of yearbooks. Whenever this question comes to me, I’m always at a loss for what kind of advice to give. I have all of my old yearbooks — a spiral bound paper one from elementary school, two paper ones stapled together from middle school, four traditional ones from high school, and two traditional ones from college — and my husband has five of his. They take up a cube on our bookshelf and sit beneath our reference books.

In a way, I think of these books as reference materials. If a person I don’t remember makes a request to connect to me on Facebook or LinkedIn, and the request states that I went to school with the person, I’ll head to my yearbooks hoping that a picture of the person will spark my memory. I also look through the portraits before heading to class reunions, but those are pretty much the only times I look at them.

However, the idea of getting rid of them sort of makes me nauseated. Maybe a part of me is fearful that one day I’ll lose my memory and need them to recreate my past? Maybe I hope that my children will be interested in them and want to better understand who I was when I was their age? Even though I can’t exactly identify why I keep them, I have carved out a place for them in my home.

My advice is that if you want to keep them, then it’s okay to keep them. Store them in a place that is safe (not in a cardboard box in a mildewy basement) and scan any pages that you would be crushed to lose if your home were destroyed by a natural disaster. Remember to backup your hard drive at an off-site location so that you won’t lose your data in an emergency.

If you don’t have any desire to keep them, then scan individual pages you want to keep digitally and recycle the books. You might e-mail your former classmates and see if any of them are interested in the books if you don’t want to toss them straight into the recycling bin. You also could contact your school’s historical society and see if they would want them, or if a current journalism teacher at the school might have use for them.

How have you handled your yearbooks? Do you have additional advice for what to do with yearbooks? Your ideas are welcome in the comments.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Keyless entry = fewer keys

Reader Ralph writes in with a tip that may well belong in a Extreme Minimalism Monday post. He writes,

I hated carrying around my keys so I installed combination door lock deadbolts on my house doors. ”Look ma! No more keys!” … There’s also no need to give spare/emergency keys to family, they just know the code.

He points us to this keyless lock solution. There are also fingerprint and Bluetooth enabled deadbolt locks which allow you to unlock your front door if you “knock” on your smartphone — even if your phone is in your pocket.

Not sure keys bother me that much, but if they bother you, pair this with keyless entry in your car and you’re home free.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Work life creeping into personal life? Try a battery-only weekend

I want to start this post by professing my love for the Internet, my computer, and my job. I love the digital age, and shiver with fear at the thought of living without Internet access.

That being said, I spend a significant amount of time on my computer beyond normal work hours doing non-critical work things. It’s a safe estimate that on a weekday I’ll spend one to two hours behind my laptop in the evenings. On a weekend day, bump that number up to three or four hours. Seeing as I officially work somewhere between nine and twelve hours a weekday, I’m surprised I want anything to do with a computer or work in my free time — let alone hours more.

I decided that I was going to take a break from my laptop and from work for a three-day holiday weekend. Unfortunately, I had a few small tasks I needed to do over the weekend, so I knew I couldn’t completely disconnect. I decided instead to unplug my computer at the end of the workday on Thursday and not plug my computer back in until showing up for work Monday morning.

I would survive the holiday only using my laptop’s battery power and nothing else.

I was able to finish the majority of my work on Friday morning and was confident that I would be able to get through the weekend fine. I opened up my laptop a few times throughout the rest of the day, but I didn’t think anything of it since the battery percentages were in the 70s, then the 60s, then the 50s. Saturday morning, however, when I checked my work email, I noticed I only had 35 percent power left!

I was a little stunned that my Saturday morning number was 35 percent. My first thought was that I must have a lame battery. A good battery wouldn’t be on 35 percent in just a day! Except, when I stopped to calculate my usage on Friday, I realized I had easily spent three hours on my laptop. My battery was working fine, it was user consumption that was to blame.

On Sunday, I opened my laptop and saw 8 percent. About half an hour into checking my email and other little site tasks, I got a message on my screen announcing that my computer was operating on reserve power. I immediately closed my laptop and decided to save the last bits of remaining energy in case of a work emergency.

The only problem is that it takes energy to power-up a laptop after its lid has been closed. I discovered this truth after lunch, when I thought I could sqeeze out a few seconds of power just to see if the website was doing okay. But, all I got was a blank screen.

My computer officially died with 20 hours to go before work started on Monday.

I don’t like the idea that I used all of my computer’s battery power before the three-day weekend had come to a close. What I took from it is that I’m having difficulty drawing the line between work and free time. I think about work constantly and would like to be able to turn those thoughts off and relax at least once in a while.

So, for the duration of the month, I’m going to have battery-powered laptop weekends. Work matters a great deal to me, but so does taking advantage of my free time. I hope that this process helps me to better prioritize my time away from work and relax and rejuvenate to make my official work time more productive. Clutter comes in all forms, and, right now, it’s in the form of working through my weekends. If you’re in a similar position, consider joining me in the battery-powered challenge.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

In case of …

No one enjoys thinking about the macabre. But, as Benjamin Franklin so accurately posited in a 1789 letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, “… in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

On Unclutterer, we’ve certainly glossed over the death topic. The truth is that we don’t enjoy thinking about it either. However, if you’re going to take the time to get your life organized, you would be remiss to ignore that there will be a point where you’re no longer here and others will need to find important documents and information to close your estate.

We call these our “In case of …” files. In mine, I include things like contact information for employees, server details, and passwords, and a key to my fire-proof safe where I store my Will and a copy of my birth certificate. The idea is that if something does happen to me, I want things to be easier on my close family and friends who are mourning. I’d rather them have good thoughts of me after my passing, not angry thoughts because they searched for hours trying to find my life insurance policy to pay for the funeral.

If you’ve never put together an “In case of …” file, the best place to start is by visiting a lawyer to draft your Last Will and Testament. This document will include answers to all of the big questions: custody of children, property disbursements, where you want to be buried, etc. After you have this document created, you’ll then need to pass along the name of your lawyer to at least two different people — someone who lives near you (spouse, partner, close friend) and someone who lives in a different part of the country or world — and then store this document safely (such as in a UL 350 fireproof safe).

The rest of your “In case of …” file will be up to you in terms of its contents. Are there people who would need to be contacted at your job? Are you the primary care provider for a child, sibling, or parent who may need to receive immediate attention before the reading of your Will? Do you have bills that have to be paid? Look at your life and identify all of the places that could be stressful for someone to handle if you weren’t there to help. Now, provide information on those issues and put it in your “In case of …” file. It won’t be a fun process while you collect the information, but afterward you’ll have a peace of mind that things will be okay in case something happens.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.