It was pleasant Saturday afternoon and my friend, Amanda, was home alone with her 5-year-old daughter, Sadie. Suddenly, Amanda felt light-headed and passed out, landing on the living room floor. Sadie heard her mom fall and went to check on her. Since her mom wouldn’t wake up, Sadie found the cell phone and called 911. Everything turned out okay but would your child know what to do in this situation?

With so many activities including work, school, playdates, and managing the household, it is easy to tell yourself that you will plan for an emergency when things are less hectic. Some families find time but others stay busy. Amanda’s experience reminded me that it is worth finding time to prepare for an emergency. This is especially important if children live in the home, as the planning conversations will help children understand and know what to do if an emergency occurs.

It is very important to ensure all emergency planning and conversations with children are age-appropriate.

Age-appropriate conversations will reduce fear and more importantly, may prevent or reduce injury. It is important to ensure children are educated but not scared about emergencies.

1. Calling 911.

Before teaching children to call 911, it is beneficial to talk about emergencies and help the child understand what is an emergency. This can be done using life experiences to provide visuals for children to understand. For example, as you drive by a car stalled on the side of the road, you can share that they are having an emergency and will call for help from the police or a tow truck. As a child watches a cartoon about a fire, you can talk about how it’s an emergency and to call 911 to reach the firefighters.

When the child is old enough to recognize an emergency and can follow verbal instructions from an emergency dispatcher, usually around age 4, then the child can be taught to call 911 on a landline or cell phone. If using a cell phone, the child should be taught how to find the emergency button if the cell phone is locked and how to explain their location as cell phones may not be able to determine the location. If you have a landline or home alarm system, you can show the child where to engage the emergency response buttons.

It is also important to talk about emergency responders. To help the dispatcher, the child will need to learn their home address, the legal names of parents/guardians, and ideally, the phone number of an emergency contact. Also, make sure the child knows how to unlock the front door and that it’s okay to open the door when you have called for help. So the child is more comfortable, make sure they can recognize first responders by pointing out police officers, firefighters, and paramedics in your community and talk about what happens when they arrive and that the paramedics take people to the hospital. It is important to reassure children that if a parent is ill and must go to the hospital, the child will not be left alone.

2. Escaping from a fire.

Daycares and schools are required to practice fire drills so bringing this practice into the home will provide consistency and help children understand that fires can occur in various locations.

For homes, the most important safety tool for fires is to install smoke alarms on every level of your home, inside bedrooms, and outside sleeping areas. Then, make sure all family members have a fire escape plan and practice the plan every few months. This is especially important for smaller children who will be scared by the alarms and may be hesitant to run outside at nighttime. As you practice the escape plan, teach children not to hide from firefighters so they can be rescued quickly, if needed.

The fire escape plan should be practiced with children so they know all the exits from the home and make sure to teach children to get outside even when the house is very dark. Once the child is outside, they should be shown exactly where to go for the family meeting place. The meeting place may be down the street as crossing the street may be dangerous if fire and/or police have been contacted.

If the home has a second story, invest in a collapsible ladder so an escape can occur in the event the stairs are blocked. For older children, have them practice deploying the ladder on the window and using the ladder so they are confident they can climb down safely.

For windows and doors with security bars, make sure they have a quick-release device. Teach children who are old enough to reach the windows, how to open these devices and practice escaping outside.

3. Understanding weather emergencies.

The most common types of emergencies are weather emergencies including severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, landslides, forest fires, winter storms, and heatwaves. Depending on your location, some of these are more probable than others, and thus children should be prepared for the events most likely to occur near their home.

For weather emergencies, there are a multitude of advisories, watches and warnings, all of which were developed by the National Weather Service. The most important terms are Watch and Warning. A watch is used when the risk of a hazardous weather or hydrologic event has increased significantly, but its occurrence, location, and/or timing is still uncertain. A watch is intended to provide enough lead time so that those who need to set their plans in motion can do so. A watch usually covers a large geographical area for a lengthy time.

A warning is issued when a hazardous weather or hydrologic event is occurring, is imminent, or has a very high probability of occurring. A warning is used for conditions posing a threat to life or property. Warnings are usually issued for much smaller geographical areas and usually for shorter more definite time.

Advisories are sort of in between a Watch and Warning. The expected weather condition has a pretty good chance of occurring, even a likely chance of occurring, but typically an advisory is used for less severe type of weather conditions. A Wind Advisory or a Freezing Rain Advisory might be issued instead of a High Wind Warning or an Ice Storm Warning.

4. Helping with an Emergency Plan.

The entire family may not be together if an emergency occurs, so it is important to have a plan. These plans are important for safety and helping those most at risk including children and seniors.

You should build a plan together with your family and keep a copy in your home, often on a refrigerator or bulletin board. Depending on the type of emergency, having the plan available may allow you to grab it on the way out. Emergency plans should contain emergency meeting places, contact phone numbers, and information on important locations including schools, work, and childcare. Make sure the plan also has the house address in the event a house guest must provide it to 9-1-1. Ensure all cell phone numbers are provided and provide contingency instructions of the family can’t be reached. For the communication plan, plan to text message. If you are using a mobile phone, a text message may get through when a phone call will not.

The emergency plan should also have the locations of the first aid kit, fire extinguishers, medications, and flashlights. For all members of the family, write down any medical conditions or medicines being taken as well as any other health issues. For medicines, make sure the times and doses are clear to prevent overdosing. Be sure to include any food or other allergies.

FEMA, the US federal emergency management agency, provides templates for parents and kids to complete emergency k to prepare for an emergency at The child template allows traditional alphanumeric inputs as well as a place to draw a map and the exits.

5. Knowing where to get the Emergency Kit.

An emergency or disaster kit is a collection of basic items that may be needed in an emergency and is assembled in advance of an emergency. These kits are kept together in a box, go bag or designed cabinet. A basic emergency kit should include at least one gallon of water per day per person and plenty of non-perishable food. Also, include flashlights, a radio with extra batteries and make sure the kit has any needed medications.

Other helpful items include a dust mask to filter contaminated air, plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter in place and seal the windows and doors, moist towelettes for personal hygiene, garbage bags, manual can opener, a whistle to signal for help, and a wrench or pliers to turn off utilities.

With a million things fighting for your attention, it is easy to forget emergency planning. Unfortunately, emergencies happen every day so it is worth the time to teach your children about emergencies. My friend Amanda was thankful she took the time to teach Sadie how to call 911 and remain calm when help arrived.

To learn more about emergency planning and family preparation, an Emergency Planning course is available within the Basic Childcare Certification Program from the Nanny Institute. Elite nannies can earn professional childcare certification, an online nanny training program taught by college faculty.