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Disaster Preparation in Child Care
By blank author

Most people in the United States have given more thought to emergency preparation following the tragedies of September 11, 2001 or the August 2003 northeastern blackout. We hope the risk of this type of disaster is low; however, the possibility of disaster has always existed in the form of natural disasters: tornados or hurricanes, fires, floods, earthquakes, or ice storms. Other unintentional acts, such as a chemical spills may require evacuation of children to other sites. Furthermore, power outages or transportation problems could delay parents and require you to care for children longer than expected.

Regardless of the actual event, child caregivers should be prepared to provide safe, high quality care for children for several days, if necessary. Disaster preparation for providers and teachers of young children requires development of policy and procedures, staff training, and practice. The needs of each program or school are unique, depending upon number and ages of children, location, and available community resources.  This article provides guidelines to help you develop a plan that will work for your program.

When developing policy and procedures, remember there are basically three responses to a disaster or emergency situation: lock-down, shelter in, or evacuate.

Lock-down may be a response to a potentially violent situation, such as a hostage situation, or intruder, non-custodial parent, or parent under the influence. The first step in this response is the warning system, a program-wide communication system through which you can broadcast a phrase, such as “We have PBJ for snack today,” which staff will recognize as “lock-down” but which will not alert/antagonize the intruder.

Have staff regularly practice lock-down procedures, such as closing and locking all doors, turning off lights, and sitting quietly with the children. Do a head count and make sure all children are in the room. Have a planned quiet activity to keep children calm, such as storytelling.

“Shelter in” is necessary when it is safer for children and staffs to remain in the building rather than evacuate or have parents come for pick-up. For example, parents might be unable to come due to power outage or traffic breakdown. Other situations might include severe weather, an airborne contaminant, or a potentially violent situation.

Again, what is your warning system to notify staff? For weather condition early warning, have a NOAA weather radio or community sirens. Also, have an alarm system within the program. Identify the safest place in the building for situations such as a tornados, earthquakes, or airborne contaminants. Practice to make sure everyone get there quickly and safely and that there is sufficient room.

Evacuation may be necessary in some situations. A fire, gas leak, or nearby ground chemical spill require immediate evacuation; while the threat of severe weather may provide limited time to prepare children and gather supplies.

When the warning system sounds, evacuation requires immediate action; regular practice is essential to a quick and safe evacuation. All staff should know two exit routes from every room in the building. Evacuate to the safe meeting place; designate a place that is away from the building and emergency vehicle parking area, can be accessed without crossing traffic routes, and is visible. Plan and practice ways to quickly move young children from the building. Infants, toddlers, and children with disabilities may best be transported in rolling portable cribs covered with fire blankets. Preschoolers may hold hands or hold a rope with knots; practice “ follow-the-leader.” As you practice evacuation, remember to have items you will need such as a flashlight, rope to hold, or telephone. Always know how many children are in attendance each day, and do frequent head counts.

If evacuating to an off-site safe shelter, make sure staff know who is responsible for each child throughout the situation. All staff should know the designated meeting place for transportation, and how children will be transported.


Ready-to-Go File

There are many recommended items and supplies, but one of the most important items is a “ready to go” file with current essential information on each child.  This file should remain with the children, whether sheltering in or evacuating. Include the following information for each child. This 1-2 page document includes children’s names, parent names and contact information, names of people authorized to pick up and names of people not authorized to pick up each child, essential medical information such as allergies or medications, and authorization for medical care and transportation.

Other essential information includes emergency phone numbers of local emergency resources, and directions and phone numbers to a safe evacuation place. It is also helpful to have forms for documentation that is generally completed on a daily basis, such as sign-in/out sheets, injury reporting, and medication administration. Keep this file in a zipper plastic bag and remember to maintain confidentiality!



Whether you shelter-in or evacuate to a safe site, you will need supplies to take care of the children. It is recommended that programs prepare supplies for at least three days -- 72 hours; however, this is not always possible due to storage space, cost, etc. Therefore, prioritize and have supplies that are essential for children. For example, if a child is on medication, then always keep extra medication. Also, infants cannot live without food, so formula is an essential supply. Likewise, it is more critical to have sufficient water than to have three days worth of food.

Here are general recommendations for supplies. Look at the supplies you normally have on hand, and determine what, if any, additional supplies are needed.



Clean water is a top priority. A normally active person needs at least two quarts of water each day; children, nursing mothers, and ill people may need even more. You will also need water for food preparation and hygiene. Store at least one gallon per person, per day (for drinking and food preparation).

Store drinking water in carefully cleaned, non-corrosive, tightly covered containers, such as food-grade plastic containers. Label all water containers "drinking water" with the current date and store in a cool, dry place. Stored tap water should be rotated every 6 months; prepackaged bottled water should be rotated once a year



While healthy adults can survive on half their usual food intake, this is not true for children!  Food should not be rationed for children and pregnant women. In a disaster situation, it is important to provide nutritious foods and continue to follow USDA requirements as much as possible. Use canned foods, dry mixes, and other staples that you regularly purchase and that children enjoy. Foods that require no refrigeration, preparation or cooking, and little or no water, such as canned food, are best.

Remember to include foods to meet special diet or food allergy needs, and foods for infants and toddlers, including formula and baby foods.

Foods should include proteins (canned beef, chicken, or tuna; stews; peanut butter), fruits and vegetables (snack sized canned goods with pull top lids or twist open keys; shelf stable, canned, or foil packed juices), and grains (ready to eat cereals, breakfast bars, low-salt crackers).

Milk and formula is important for young children. Store ready-to-feed formula for infants under one year old; if using powdered formula or concentrate, store extra water. Children with special feeding needs may need nutritional formula. Include whole milk products such as UHT (ultra high temperature), canned evaporated, or dry milk. Store food in a dry, cool spot, and keep food tightly covered. Clearly date all foods with a marker and rotate food items regularly. Look for “expiration date” or “best if used by” dates on the product when purchasing.


General supplies

Make sure you have essential tools and paper products on hand, such as a manual can opener and disposable plates, utensils, and cups. Other items are large garbage bags, disposable gloves, paper towels, pre-moistened antibacterial wipes, soap, bleach (for sanitation), paper and markers, tape, and zipper plastic bags.


Infant Supplies

Disaster preparation for infants and toddlers requires additional supplies, including diapers, wet wipes, bottles and nipples, clean teething rings and pacifiers, and soft blankets.


Blankets, clothing, etc.

Children grow quickly. Keep a bag of extra clothing, shoes, and jackets in a variety of sizes. It is also a good idea to encourage parents to keep extra clothing available in each child’s diaper bag or cubby.

If children have daily naptime, then you may already have blankets and cots or mats available. Keep a few extra blankets available; a clean, wheeled garbage can makes a good storage container.

Familiar items help calm children and provide a sense of routine. Storybooks, tapes or CDs of music, and player (with batteries), and toys that children can share can make the situation easier for both children and adults.


 First Aid Supplies and Medications

While most childcare programs and schools do have first aid kits, make sure you have enough supplies for the number of children enrolled. A basic first aid kit could include the following items: disposable gloves; tweezers; adhesive bandages; scissors; bandage tape; sterile gauze pads; flexible rolled gauze; non-glass thermometer; pen/pencil and notepad; activated charcoal; coins (to use in a pay phone); telephone numbers of poison control center, paramedics, and other emergency numbers; first aid instructions, plastic zipper bags; and plastic trash bags.

If you have children or adults who take prescribed medications, these medications and supplies must be available to them. Maintain at least a three-day supply of essential medications. Assign the responsibility for medications to specific staff members – one person designated as “in charge of medications,” and another as “medications back-up” in case the designated person is injured or unavailable. Use small, locked cases for medication storage; refrigerate medications, if needed. Include dose cups or calibrated spoons to use for accurate dosing and special equipment or supplies, such as insulin syringes, and appropriate disposal units.

Some non-prescription (over-the-counter) medications, such as pain relievers or anti-diarrhea, are recommended for disaster preparedness supplies. However, even in a disaster situation, it is still critical that you have authorization and correct dosage information before giving any medication!!! You must still follow your program policy and procedures for medication administration. Do not give any medication without first consulting with the child’s parent and/or a medical advisor (doctor, emergency personnel).

Be prepared with both adult strength and infant/child strength of medications. For example, acetaminophen should be included as infant drops (if you serve infants), children’s strength, junior strength, and adult strength. Keep these medications separate; all adult-strength medications should be in one bag, and infant medications in a separate bag.


Dr. Charlotte M. Hendricks, a Certified Health Education Specialist, has more than 20 years experience in early childhood health education and research and is nationally recognized as a leader in health and safety education for childcare and preschool. She is Associate Editor for Healthy CHILDCare Magazine www.healthychild.net and has published a series of staff training materials on a variety of health and safety topics www.childhealthonline.org/strain.htm, as well as two comprehensive preschool health curriculums and a series of parent health information materials www.childhealthonline.org/parents.htm. For more information about her resources, or to download a free sample of her parent information materials, visit www.childhealthonline.org or contact her at chendricks@childhealthonline.org.