Emergency Preparedness Priorities: How to Build Your Kit

Everywhere you look online you can find a difference approach to prioritization in emergency preparedness. And I’m no different, of course. I have my own approach, which I do hope will help you more than the rest.

The difference in this one is that it helps you think through what you and your own family need. Other sites might tell you to start with water, then first aid supplies, then food, sheltering, etc. etc. While I agree with those priorities, I don’t find them super helpful past the first few items. They either stop there or go on to yet another intimidating list of supplies, which may or may not make sense for your family’s situation.

This approach will also allow you to slowly build your kit over time, without overwhelm. Don’t forget, something is better than nothing.

Through teaching preparedness workshops to foster families and hearing their concerns, questions, and priorities, I came up with this matrix of preparedness priorities:

Preparedness Priorities: Severity, Likelihood, Low-Hanging Fruit, Hard to Get
Preparedness Priorities Quadrant

The risk-management matrix of severity, or impact, and likelihood is a familiar one to many people in business. (My day job for 20+ years has been in marketing and communications.) The higher the severity plus the higher the likelihood determines the amount of resources to expend on a particular hazard.

Similarly, in my quadrant, the severity and the likelihood help me determine levels of risk. I’ve added two more elements, which guide me in the purchase of supplies and preparation of other resources, such as communications plans.

What I call “low-hanging fruit” are items that are easy for me to get right now, or tasks that are easy to do now, before a disaster. For example, picking up a case of bottled water during a routine grocery trip, or sending my out-of-state aunt’s contact info to my husband.

What I very uncreatively call “hard to get” are items that are likely to be (wait for it) hard to get in a disaster scenario. Like low-hanging fruit, these are items to obtain now. One example would be small bills, in the likely event that the power goes out for an extended period, including credit card machines and ATMs.

A nice thing about this quadrant for nonlinear thinkers like myself is that it offers the opportunity to build your emergency kit in small, easy cycles, each time allowing you to build out your kit more and more. As I’ve said before, in preparedness, something is better than nothing.

Before we dig into this more deeply, I want to suggest you do first pick up a first aid kit and start collecting your water supply. The CDC recommends individually packaged, one-serving containers as the most convenient and safest method of storing drinking water. This could include bottled water from the grocery store (IMO the easiest and most economical), or emergency water pouches, boxes, or cans.

To find out how much emergency water you should store, go to my emergency water calculator, the most advanced emergency water calculator you’ll find online.

Okay. Now let’s work through one scenario to see how this emergency prioritization system works.


  • You live in the Pacific Northwest (likelihood of strong earthquake = medium to high)
  • Your children are in school near your home, in an old building with a lot of big windows (oh, heckfire, possibility of severe impact)
  • You work a half hour drive away. There are many slide areas and old bridges between your office and home/school. The likelihood that you won’t be able to reach your children quickly in a severe earthquake is very high. And the likelihood, in such a scenario, that you will be sickly panicked for hours as you try to reach them is also very high.

So, by looking at likelihood and severity, we’ve now determined two possible nightmares, or risks, in this scenario:

First and worst, of course, is the nightmare that your children will be hurt or killed in an earthquake.

  1. Let’s say that you can’t change schools for one reason or another.
  2. One piece of low-hanging fruit is to talk to your kids about what to do in case of an earthquake.
  3. Another thing you might choose to do, later, is to talk to the administration at the school about their emergency plans and earthquake drills. I say later, because this isn’t exactly low-hanging fruit, at least not for a busy, overwhelmed mom like me, who also happens to be somewhat of an introvert.
  4. And then a BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal) would be to work with the state or local government on earthquake retrofitting laws, or lead a giant fundraising campaign to pay for any retrofitting needed at the school. This is the kind of thing that might be listed on one of those intimidating, super-prepper websites. Not low-hanging fruit by a long-shot, and will definitely distract you from reasonable preparedness activities for normal people.
  5. There isn’t anything I can think of that will be hard to obtain in the middle of an earthquake that would protect your kids, unless you’re going to have them store a hard hat under their desks. And no, I’m not recommending that.

So, in this case, #2, talking to your kids, would be the best first move you can make.

The second nightmare is that you have to suffer for hours not knowing if your kids are okay. So what can you do to reduce the chances of that?

  1. Change jobs? Probably not low-hanging fruit.
  2. Work from home? Possibly, now more than ever, depending on your situation. But also not exactly low-hanging fruit.
  3. Put an emergency contact list in your child’s backpack and tell both your child and the teacher about it. Most schools’ emergency contact lists only include local emergency contacts, so it would be hard for the teacher to get in such a scenario. It should be pretty low-hanging fruit to put in this note, especially if your family has already decided on your out-of-state contacts you might need if local circuits are damaged or overloaded. You can put the note in a Ziploc bag to keep it from disintegrating in the bottom of a backpack. You know what I mean.
  4. What about on your end? What’s low-hanging fruit, and what could be hard to get after a major earthquake? One piece of low-hanging fruit could be to make sure you always have at least a quarter-tank of gas. Or *almost* always, if you’re me. You know. Something is better than (let me hear you shout it!) NOTHING!
  5. Another piece could be to keep an eye out during your commute for slide area signs and old bridges, and try to work out alternative routes.
  6. Something that isn’t low-hanging fruit (but isn’t a BHAG either) and would be hard to get after a disaster, is a power supply for your phone. It would be a good idea to pick up a portable power bank now, and recharge it as often as the manufacturer suggests. That way you wouldn’t have to worry about your phone dying as you try to reach your kids and/or your out-of-state contacts.

Now that I’ve gone through this scenario, I’m going to skip on over to Amazon and find a portable power bank to stow in my purse. Hope this helped.

– Jenny

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