Your Family Emergency Binder – Putting it Together Step-by-Step

You’ve been watching the news for days about the potential storm churning toward your area.  The forecasters have been spot on and the rain hasn’t stopped.  The radio has been broadcasting warnings about the rising streams and rivers in your area and how they are approaching flood stage.  Your phone begins to blare an Emergency Alert Message and you’re instructed to evacuate to higher ground NOW.  Earlier you had packed the car with what you thought you may need over the next few days.  You grab the kids, the dog, and jump in the car and go.  As you drive away listening to the sirens and watching your home disappear in the rear view mirror, you have the sinking feeling that your home won’t be the same when you return.  Your mind turns to what you should have also remembered to bring, but it’s too late now. You need a family emergency binder!

We all hope to never be in a situation where we are forced to evacuate or are threatened with losing everything we own to fire or flood.  Having experienced a loss due to fire, I can speak from experience how traumatic it is and how hard replacing your life can be – especially your important documents.  The peace of mind that comes with being prepared for emergency situations will allow you to rest easier knowing that you’ve taken steps toward protecting your family by simply being able to replace documents and prove identity after an unpleasant or catastrophic life event.

Being prepared isn’t exciting or sexy, but definitely a necessity.  Every family needs a formal Emergency Preparedness Plan and that plan should include an Emergency Binder.  This is not “tin foil hat” preparedness, but a common sense approach to protecting and providing for your family.  It’s the ant and grasshopper story.  Family members typically do not jump for joy when asked to split more firewood or make an appointment for seasonal car maintenance.  However, if you have the unfortunate opportunity to experience a flood or house fire, this simple step can save you weeks of work and waiting while attempting to get your identities and necessary documents recreated.  Just as a properly serviced and prepared vehicle can get you to safety quickly, an emergency binder can make coping with and recovering from a disaster much easier.

This article will focus on creating a comprehensive family emergency binder that can be stored in an easily accessible location with a duplicate copy kept off-site in a secure location in the event your primary binder is destroyed or inaccessible.  Don’t let this task overwhelm you.  I’ve broken it into logical bite-sized pieces so that you have a good solid foundation within a few hours of starting.  Fleshing it out and making it truly comprehensive can be an ongoing task as it evolves with your family.  Let’s begin.

Emergency Binder Preparation – Building your family’s emergency binder for grab-and-go is job one as locating all this information in a stress-filled emergency situation will be impossible.  Clothing and food can always be purchased and replaced.  However, if you find yourself in a situation where you need to prove identity after something catastrophic has happened, not having those records available will prove to be challenging, and replacing them with no reference materials may take months.

Step One – Build the foundation

Grab a binder.  No need to invest in anything special.  One of the ones left over from the previous school year should do fine.  Begin with a section divider tab for each of your immediate family members.  The cover page behind each tab should include all their relevant information:

  • Full legal name
  • Date of Birth
  • City and State of Birth
  • Social Security Number
  • Home address
  • Cell Phone number                                        
  • Personal email address(es)
  • Place of employment
  • Common working hours and days
  • Work phone number
  • Work Email address
  • School attending
  • Main school phone number
  • School bus number/stop

Next, gather all the necessary documents for each family member.  These documents should include the basics* such as:

  • Birth Certificates
  • Marriage License(s)
  • Social Security Cards
  • Selective Service Registration
  • Baptismal Certificates
  • Passports
  • Driver’s Licenses
  • Vehicle registration
  • Auto Insurance Information
  • Health Insurance cards
  • Medicare cards
  • Voter Registration
  • Life Insurance Policy Information
  • Adoption/Custody Agreements
  • Permit to carry documentation
  • Credit cards (both sides)
  • Military records/DD214
  • Divorce Decree
  • Immigration/Naturalization Records

Using plastic slip sheets you can purchase at any office store, slide the originals into their new home behind each tab.  You can fit multiple documents into each slip sheet, to keep the bulk down.

Now warm up the copy machine and start copying because you will need at least one additional copy of the binder (more on this later).  While you are there in front of the machine, empty your wallets of additional miscellaneous cards and IDs that you might wish you had your hands on in an event that keeps you from your originals (think stolen or lost handbag/wallet).

You might want to copy Red Cross certifications, LifeGuard certifications, Health Club memberships, School ID cards, Work ID cards, etc.  If it’s in your wallet, you most likely need it from time to time.  Make two copies of these documents and cards, one for your original binder and one for your spare.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?  You are now better prepared than most people.  But don’t stop there.  Let’s make your binder a reference tool.

Step Two – Making it better

Now that you have the basic binder, let’s expand it to make it even more useful.  Just as each family is unique, so is your binder.  For each family member, add additional information to the cover page and the corresponding documents to their tab if applicable.  Here are some suggestions to get you started.  The goal of making this more comprehensive is to aid in remembering and accessing information in a stressful situation.  Again, this is your binder, so make it a reflection of your family and your situation.

  • Typical commute to work/school route
  • Student class schedule
  • After school activities
    • Teacher/Leader contact information
    • Days of the week and meeting location
    • Late bus schedule and drop-off time/location
  • Best friends’ names/parents’ names/contact information
  • Direct report (boss) name and contact information
  • Medical information (for some family members, this may be a separate page or two)
    • Chronic medical conditions (diabetes, cardiac issues, etc.)
    • Name and phone number of physician(s)
    • Prescriptions (photocopy the label or the actual prescription)
    • Eyeglass prescription
    • Dental records
    • Blood type
    • Allergies (specifically life threatening)
    • Dietary needs
  • Banking information
    • Main bank phone number
    • Account numbers and routing numbers
    • Mortgage loan account number
    • Home equity loan account number
    • Location of safety deposit box (and number)
  • Miscellaneous
    • Other licenses (Amateur radio, teacher, nurse, Realtor, etc.)
  • Make a PETS tab and include:
    • Name, age, and description of your pets (photo would be a plus)
    • Veterinarian name, address, and phone number
    • License or tag number
    • Most recent visit/shots/rabies tag ID
    • Medical issues and medications
  • Make a HOUSE tab and include:
    • Full mailing address and shipping address (if different)
    • Township and county, tax ID
    • Copy of your deed
    • Copy of your mortgage (first page should be fine)
    • Mortgage company contact information
    • Insurance company, policy number, and phone number
    • Copy of your homeowner’s or renter’s policy declaration page
    • Utility companies, phone numbers, websites, and account numbers
    • Photos of shut off location for gas, water, electric and any special instructions
  • Make a VEHICLES tab and include the:
    • Title for each vehicle
    • Year, make, and model of each family vehicle
    • VIN numbers
    • Don’t forget licensed ATVs, trailers, boats, etc.
    • Copy of insurance card for all the vehicles listed
  • Make an EXTENDED FAMILY tab and include:
    • Names, addresses, phone numbers, work location and work phone number.  For non-local family members, having an email address may be helpful.  This information doesn’t necessarily need to be as detailed as the immediate family, but you do you!
  • Make a FIREARMS* tab and include:
    • Brand model, action, gauge/caliber**
    • Serial Numbers
    • Photos
  • Make a WORST CASE tab and include:
    • DNR or Physician Order for Life Sustaining Treatment
    • Deed/location of pre-paid burial plot
    • Funeral wishes/preferences
    • Specific end-of-life instructions
    • Wills and preferred attorney
    • Legal and Trust information
    • Life insurance information

Focus on creating a complete story for each family member and a one-stop reference point for everything you may need regarding your home.

Listen to the Podcast episode on 5 bugout docs every emergency binder should have.

Step 3 – Storing Your Family Emergency Binder

Gathering and organizing this information is great, except if you can’t remember where you put it or if you’ll have difficulty taking it with you.  My suggestion is to put this together in a 1-inch binder that is stored in a large (gallon size) zip-lock bag in the hall closet or kitchen cabinet (near required prescriptions) for ease in accessibility at a moment’s notice.  Some people may choose to invest in a fireproof and waterproof envelope to keep their binder safe from harm.  Amazon and Staples carry several affordable options.

Step 4 – The Copy

This next part may make you a bit uncomfortable, but there needs to be at least one off-site duplicate.  Think about it.  If you are away from home and can’t get back to retrieve your binder for whatever reason, this was simply an exercise in futility.

So where to store your back-up copy(ies)?  Obviously a copy in a safe deposit box is the most logical location.  Safe Deposit boxes are still relatively cheap at about $60 per year at most banks.  However, if you are in a situation where your local area is being impacted by floods, fires, riots, etc., your bank may not be accessible.  You will most likely need a secondary copy elsewhere.  I recognize there is a lot of information in this binder that could be misused in the wrong hands.  Therefore, choose your back-up person wisely.  My suggestion for a back-up location would be in a trusted family member’s home in a lockbox that they can store on a shelf in a closet for you “just in case.”  This also gives you the opportunity to discuss their need for an emergency binder, since being prepared should be shared.  An alternative to this would be to copy the entire binder down to an encrypted or password protected flash drive that is retained in a wallet, purse, or glove box.  You could also upload it into Cloud storage if you feel comfortable.  The obvious downside to a flash drive or Cloud storage is the need for access to a computer and printer in order to access the information.  In a SHTF scenario, this may not be possible.

Remember, this is YOUR family’s binder.  Make it as simple or extensive as you would like.  Some individuals go all out and include a current photo of each family member, fishing licenses, hunting licenses, online account passwords, etc.  Others stop after making a cover page for each family member, although I highly recommend copies of the critical documents listed in step one.  Birth certificates can take months to order and receive, and often you can’t get new driver’s licenses without a birth certificate and social security card! 

Now that you have your family Emergency Binder, keep it up-to-date.  Updating is actually easy since the bulk of the information is already in the binder.  However, sit down with the family once a year (Thanksgiving?) and go over it to update contact information or changes in health conditions or employment.  You’ll be surprised by how much changes year to year.

You’ve done it.  You’ve made a first – and critical – step toward being prepared to help yourself and your family in the event of a catastrophe.  In an extreme emergency situation, grab family members and pets, your binder, and go.  The beauty in a thoroughly prepared binder is not needing to worry about collecting or forgetting things in a panic situation.  People and pets cannot be replaced, while things can – especially with the help of your Emergency Binder.

*If applicable

**Firearms Inventory

About the Author: Raised by depression era grandparents, Kate lives the life of preparedness knowing that tomorrow always brings a surprise. When not writing, she can be found gardening, canning, sewing, and doting on her two incredibly needy felines.

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