When a fire approached her campus in 1993, Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD, had 15 minutes to back up her data and leave her home.

Such preparation was natural for the University of California, Irvine, researcher, since she has dedicated her career to exploring people's reactions in the aftermath of a disaster. Fortunately, the fire never reached her office, though the area was showered with soot that could have caused damage — highlighting the fact that it's better to be safe than sorry, she says.

To make sure you're disaster-ready, Silver and others suggest that you:

  • Keep an evacuation list. Prepare a list at home and at work of items that are essential to keep in case of crisis, and put them in places that are easy to access — stored in your phone and taped to your refrigerator, for example. Take time preparing your list, as some events, like earthquakes and tornadoes, come without warning.

    "You want to have it in advance of a disaster so you can walk through your home or office and figure out what you want to take," Silver says.
  • Back up important documents. Keep copies of your license, will, diplomas and other important papers in a second location. For most psychologists, that means their office and their home, especially if they're separated by some distance. For extra peace of mind, consider banking your credentials at a national organization, such as the National Register.

    If you're a clinician, keep copies of your billing and work-management systems on flash drives, external hard drives or on an Internet-based cloud system, advises Donna Hastings, PsyD, mental health advisor for the Red Cross in New Hampshire. She paid $350 plus an annual fee to have her work files encrypted and backed up on such a system. "If something happens — a tornado comes through and takes out my house — I know I can replace all of that information," she says.
  • Protect your data. Similar strategies apply to researchers and their data. In addition to backing up her laptop files onto separate hard drives that she stores in her office and home, Silver regularly emails files to other members of her research team, and they do the same. "Even if we're in the middle of writing a manuscript, we send early drafts to each other so it is never just on one person's computer," she says. Again, cloud systems are worth investigating for these purposes, she says.
  • Consider location. As people on the Gulf Coast are aware, some geographical areas are more vulnerable than others. If your office is in a high-risk area, consider a relocation. If moving isn't an option, store your original documents (license, will, diplomas) in a fireproof, waterproof box.
  • Plan alternate office space. Find alternative venues where you can conduct therapy in the event your office is in an area impacted by a disaster. Talk with colleagues about sharing their spaces if needed. Or find public or private spaces that might be available. If a crisis does occur, check with your state psychological association or other colleagues who might be willing to help by offering free office space. "It's part of peer support," says Raymond Hanbury, PhD, coordinator of the New Jersey Psychological Association's Disaster Response Network and the state's disaster mental health advisor for the Red Cross.
  • Prepare a backup phone system. Traditional phone lines are a common casualty in emergencies, so create an alternate communication system for your clients. Cell phones are particularly useful since even if you can't make phone calls during times of caller overload, sometimes you can still text. In addition, disaster response agencies arrange with utility companies to deploy vehicles that contain emergency phone equipment so people can make calls. Make sure your clients are aware of these options.
  • Have information handouts ready. Like other volunteers, Hanbury keeps "go bags" supplied with information on hospitals, counseling services, social services and other essential materials. Having this information on hand means giving your clients an important head start on helping themselves, he says, and prevents you from scrambling for this information at the last minute.
  • Prepare clients. Inform your clients that you volunteer during disasters and may occasionally be called out to help. Most of the time they'll be pleased you do, says Hastings. "Many of my clients have said, ‘You know, I really wanted to help when such and such happened, and I felt so helpless. When you said you were going, I felt relieved because in letting you go, I felt I was helping, too.'"

Tori DeAngelis is a journalist in Syracuse, New York.