A solid plan for family safety

This weekend my house almost burned down. It was a big wakeup call for family safety.

We returned from a movie date with my parents to find half the power out. Some lights worked, some didn’t, and there was no heat. After checking the fuses were fine we went outside to look at the breaker. This is the box that contains the connection from the street power lines into the house. Everything seemed fine, but there was a strange metallic and warm plastic smell hovering around the box.

Luckily it wasn’t too late and our neighbor who is an ex-electrician came over to check the situation. He turned off the breaker and unplugged it. Behind it, one of the nodes was completely burnt out. Clearly something was failing with the whole thing. Our neighbor moved the breaker into one of the plugs next to it to see if that was working. He switched it on and off; nothing happened. Thinking we might as well have sporadic power than none at all, he moved it back into its original position.

As he switched the breaker back on a huge arch of raw electricity leapt up and the whole box burst into a football-sized orb of fire. All the power in the house flared for a second and the lights of the houses down the street flickered. There was a horrible loud rushing sound. The breaker had failed in exactly what it was meant to do: be a safety catch to prevent the raw electricity from the power lines from blowing up. Because it was an electrical fire of enormous power, there would be no stopping the fire from catching the house and quickly starting to burn. My father, in a flash of genius instinct, struck his rubber booted foot into the blaze and amazingly managed to catch the “off” latch of the breaker. The arch stopped and the fire went out.

We stood in shock for a while. The fire had been so intense that the breaker—metal and hard plastic—had melted.

It was a sobering night. My father and our neighbor had an electrical explosion right in their faces. We could have lost them, and our house could be gone. The kindness of the rest of our neighbors was heart warming. They offered us blankets, hot showers, computer access, and food while we waited out the next three days without electricity. Sitting wrapped up at night by the light of candles made me think of the Connecticut families who have been without power for weeks. I live in California where the winter is chilly but mild. We’re pretty lucky. At the same time, we’ve been having a string of little earthquakes here that remind me that the “Big One” could be coming any time.

This is a bit of a deviation from my normal online marriage counseling posts, at the same time it is so important. Accidents and some disasters happen with no warning. At the same time, all healthy relationships should be prepared. I visited Fema’s Emergency preparedness site to get the low down on what we can do to keep our family safe in an emergency. The easiest thing you can do for your family safety is to make and Emergency Kit. We definitely used ours this weekend. Be sure to keep your kit updated and replace any items that may expire. Make sure everyone in your family knows where it is. It’s also a good idea to have another version in all your cars, including blankets and extra clothes.



A basic emergency supply kit could include the following recommended items:

  • Water, one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
  • Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
  • Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert and extra batteries for both
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • First aid kit (included at end)
  • Whistle to signal for help
  • Dust mask to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
  • Manual can opener for food
  • Local maps
  • Cell phone with chargers, inverter or solar charger

You may want to add to your basic emercency kit with the following items:

  • Prescription medications and glasses
  • Infant formula and diapers
  • Pet food and extra water for your pet
  • Special supplies needed for baby or elderly people
  • Cash or traveler’s checks and change
  • Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records in a waterproof, portable container. You can use the Emergency Financial First Aid Kit (EFFAK) (PDF – 977Kb) developed by Operation Hope, FEMA and Citizen Corps to help you organize your information.
  • Emergency reference material such as a first aid book or free information from this web site. (See Publications)
  • Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person. Consider additional bedding if you live in a cold-weather climate.
  • Complete change of clothing including a long sleeved shirt, long pants and sturdy shoes. Consider additional clothing if you live in a cold-weather climate.
  • Household chlorine bleach and medicine dropper – When diluted, nine parts water to one part bleach, bleach can be used as a disinfectant. Or in an emergency, you can use it to treat water by using 16 drops of regular household liquid bleach per gallon of water. Do not use scented, color safe or bleaches with added cleaners.
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Matches in a waterproof container
  • Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
  • Mess kits, paper cups, plates, paper towels and plastic utensils
  • Paper and pencil
  • Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children