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Communication: The Secret to Protecting Yourself and Your Family in an Emergency


The wildfires that are ravaging California remind us of how important it is to be prepared for a crisis. While we hope for the best, it’s critical to plan for the worst—because disaster can strike at any time. The 200 residents and the staff at MBK’s Oakmont Gardens community in Santa Rosa recently experienced this truth firsthand.


At 2:30 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 9, Cathy Allen, Executive Director of Oakmont Gardens, was alerted to the possibility of an evacuation when she was awakened to flames outside her own home. By 3:00 a.m., she was at the senior living community, calling the police every 20 minutes until the sheriff gave the order for immediate evacuation. In the long days that followed, communication was vital to ensure the safety and peace of mind of residents and loved ones.


In the case of this emergency, within the first 24-hours the Oakmont Gardens team had called all residents, family members and employees to verbally update or check in. From then, a comprehensive communications plan was executed that included: a hotline with regular updates, updated information on the company’s website, social media posts, daily email briefs, and registering every resident with Red Cross’ Safe and Well registry.


The fact is, senior living communities are committed to the safety of their residents in times of turmoil. However, there are also ways residents and family members can be prepared and contribute to their well-being during an emergency. As our experience at Oakmont Gardens proves, one of the most vital tools is a failsafe communications plan.

  1. The Red Cross recommends creating a personal support network—friends, family members, personal attendants, etc. who will check in on you in an emergency, ensure your wellness, and give assistance if needed.
  2. Make arrangements, prior to an emergency, for your support network to immediately check on you after a disaster and, if needed, offer assistance.
  3. Share copies of your relevant emergency documents, evacuation plans, and emergency health information card.
  4. Agree on and practice different methods for contacting each other in an emergency. Do not count on the telephones to be working.
  5. Make sure you keep contact information up-to-date both within your personal network of supporters and at your senior living community.
  6. In the event of an emergency be sure your community registers you—or do it yourself—with the Red Cross’ Safe and Well site. Due to privacy laws, your community is unable to post the list of residents’ names online, so this is an excellent alternative.
  7. Know who to contact both in your senior living community and even at the community’s corporate office in the case of an emergency. During the Oakmont fires, community management’s first priority was the safety and well-being of its 200 residents. With phone lines clogged or downed, getting information out to our Home Office was challenging. However, with persistence and the use of satellite phone MBK’s on-the-ground management stayed in communications with the Home Office providing valuable information that could be relayed to residents, family members and staff.
  8. When leaving a message for a loved one with a senior living community’s corporate office, be sure to include your full name and your loved one’s full name. In the first 24-hours many family members called to inquire about parents and grandparents at Oakmont Gardens but neglected to leave complete information. While we eventually were able to connect with all, valuable time was spent on finding phone numbers and relations to residents in order to properly communicate with them.
  9. Use but don’t rely on social media. While Facebook is an excellent resource and way to stay connected, keep in mind that many businesses do not monitor community pages in real time as you might your personal Facebook account. If you leave messages after business hours, be aware that you may not receive an answer immediately. And, like the phone messages, be sure to include your full name, phone number and full name of resident you’re inquiring about to ensure a timely response.

We can’t control when wildfires, hurricanes, floods, or other calamities may occur, but we can control our response. That’s where preparation and a sound communication plan, can make all the difference.

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