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Families, Get Ready

Every family can benefit from a little peace of mind when they’re preparing for the worst. Emergency preparedness encompasses many varied circumstances, and any family plan should take as many scenarios as possible into consideration. Most importantly, be ready for anything.

By Sara G. Stephens

Spencer Coursen is a combat veteran, security expert and threat assessment advisor. Emergency preparedness is what he does. For Coursen, when designing any emergency response plan, including one for your family, the primary concern is to first identify the most realistic threat you are likely to face.

“I’m a fan of The Walking Dead as much as anyone,” Coursen acknowledges, “but the thought of zombies coming in through my windows on some random Tuesday afternoon, hell-bent on eating me alive, brings me about as much anxiety as the thought of a grizzly bear scaling a downtown apartment building, intent on doing the same. It’s just not going to happen.”

The Realistic Scenarios

Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy both serve as recent wake-up calls to the very real and very devastating impact of natural disasters. In the Midwest, families prepare for tornadoes. On the West Coast, fires and earthquakes are the primary concerns. In Houston, the main focus is on hurricanes. Every summer, we click on our TV’s to the sound of our favorite meteorologist advising us to prepare for the upcoming storm season.

Across all natural disasters, most of us are at least aware that we should have some type of plan in place to protect our families. But these days, there’s more to consider. Sometimes the disaster we need to prepare for is not natural, but man-made. When the Soviet Union began expanding its nuclear program following World War II, the FCDA conducted “duck and cover” drills in schools to reinforce safety protocol and prepare American citizens for nuclear attack. In their homes, Americans constructed private fallout shelters in basements or backyards, stocked with a minimum of two weeks’ worth of supplies.

Today, many families are following suit by adding the possibility of terrorist attacks to their repertoire of emergency plans. “Anyone who’s walked through an airport in the last ten years has heard, ‘Threat Level: Orange,’” Coursen explains, “which is a non-invasive way for Homeland Security to say, ‘Yes. There is a reasonable expectation for a violent terrorist threat to breach our borders.’”

Whether it’s a fire; a natural disaster; a biochemical attack; or a “cyber Pearl Harbor” that infects our banks, transportation systems, water supply or power grid; regardless of the crisis we may face, the common challenge is to your family’s safety and security after the event has occurred. “When the dust has settled, the winds have died and the waters calmed, you must survive until ‘the return to normal,’” Coursen suggests.

“Stop reading this article for a second and look around,” he continues. “One second from now, your world and your life could change forever. Are you ready?”

What should I do first?

The moment disaster strikes is the worst time to let panic take hold. Familiarize yourself with a basic protocol so you can respond efficiently and effectively. Coursen suggests the following:

Safety First: Protect yourself and get to a safe and sustainable location. You will know your home and your neighborhood the best, so get there as quickly and as safely as you can.

Contact anyone and everyone while/if you still can. Let trusted people (friends and family) know where you are, where you are going and your physical condition, as well as anything you may need. If you haven’t already done so, initiate your family emergency plan so that everyone knows where to go and what to do.

Take inventory: Who is with you and what do you have on hand? If you don’t have what you need, decide immediately how important it is to have vs. the risk of retrieval. This will obviously be a situational-dependent statement, but as a rule: anything less than the life of a loved one, and you should prepare yourself to be without.

Triage: Is anyone hurt or injured? Do they require immediate medical attention? What do you need to do to ensure the health, welfare and safety of those in your charge tonight? Are you safe where you are? Can you safely move to a better location? You will need to determine the most important tasks often, as priorities may shift at any given moment. (Always be thinking: Safety, Food and Shelter)

Delegate: If you are of good enough fortune to be with others, utilize them to their full advantage. There is strength in numbers. Do not try to do everything yourself.

If anything can be done 70% as well as you would do it, delegate that task to another. They’ll learn as they go, and getting something done is better than getting nothing done.


Besides adopting an emergency protocol, your preparation time is best spent gathering supplies that will get you through the crisis at hand. Several organizations, including FEMA and Red Cross, publish lists of recommended supplies on their websites. Materials vary depending upon your family’s size and needs, so you’ll need to customize accordingly. Furthermore, the amount of supplies is a subject of controversy among survival experts.

FEMA guidelines and most government preparedness guidelines tell people to prepare for 72 hours without food, water and power. According to Robert Richardson, founder of www.offgridsurvival.com and author of the newly released book The Ultimate Situational Survival Guide: Self-Reliance Strategies for a Dangerous World, this number is a gross underestimation. “That number doesn’t come close to what it really takes to survive a large-scale natural disaster,” Richardson remarks. “For instance, during Hurricane Sandy, tens of thousands of people were without power for weeks; some even went over a month without power. I tell people they should be preparing for at least two weeks without access to essential services like food deliveries, water and power.”

Four nights and five days of on-hand rations is a good rule of thumb, according to Coursen. Emergency services are generally able to provide basic assistance within three days. “However, having value-added goods on hand (like cigarettes and alcohol) will afford you the ability to barter and exchange for necessities later on should the crisis continue indefinitely,” he advises.

Richardson stresses that water, food, shelter and protection are the most important elements to focus on when building a preparedness stockpile. For those with kids, he recommends stocking up on comfort items like snacks, games and anything that will keep their minds off the disaster. “While things like cookies and candy aren’t the healthiest options in the world, during a disaster a child’s mental well-being should be priority number one,” Richardson emphasizes. “That means helping them cope with what’s going on. Comfort items can go a long way in doing just that.”

Geographic location plays strongly into the process of deciding what supplies to set aside for an emergency, as the likelihood of being restricted to the immediate vicinity of your home is high. “If you live in an urban environment, where daily deliveries to markets and groceries are required, then your focus should be on food storage more so than if you live in a more rural environment where you could feasibly live off the land in a hunter/gather capacity,” Coursen says, adding that dependence on machine-generated climate control is another factor to consider. Without power, these systems won’t work, so you must understand how susceptible your family will be to the changes in the natural climate when deciding where to take shelter.

The Ready Bag

Whatever you decide your family needs to survive in an emergency should be packed into a “Ready Bag,” and each member of the family should have one. Choosing your family’s supplies can be as simple as packing for an extended family vacation, according to Paul Purcell with InfoQuest. Purcell is a terrorism and natural disaster preparedness trainer for first responders and the author of “Disaster Prep 101” at www.disasterprep101.com.

”In addition to their usual foods (notice that I do NOT recommend ‘survival’ or long-term storage foods), you’d pack a few of the usual accessories,” he explains. For babies, you’d pack diaper bags; for toddlers and up, you’d pack seasonally appropriate clothes, etc. Purcell agrees that the key to packing for kids, though, is going to be entertainment and activity, provided that the entertainment is uplifting and confidence-building, not depressing or stress-inducing. “For activity, you want to give them something to help burn off a little energy, but nothing that carries its own danger that would make an emergency situation worse,” he adds.

How kids pack can be as important as what they pack, according to Danielle Cortes DeVito, a National Emergency Preparedness Media Strategist, paramedic and EMS Public Relations columnist for EMS1.com. DeVito recommends having toddlers create their bags with parents, making sure to include their favorite stuffed animal, small flashlight and books. For tweens, DeVito recommends a “Pillowcase Project,” where tweens decorate pillowcases and find items around the house to put into the pillowcase, using the final product as their “Ready Bag.” Such involvement in the packing process serves not only to reduce the stress and fear of preparing for an emergency, but also ensures that each kid has exactly what he or she will want or need during the crisis itself. It’s up to parents to remember to bring any items of importance like medicine, bottled water and glasses and to have a crate for the dog or cat.

Unfortunately, kids will most likely have to break from their electronic devices and go “old school” with their games, in the event of a grid-down setting. Think coloring books, board games, reading materials and so on.

This thought brings us to another essential Ready Bag item: portable power solutions. Having a portable power solution in your kit to run lights can bring some calmness to a family in distress, says Lisa Janssen of Goal Zero, a leader in portable power supply. “The same power devices can also charge phones and tablets to keep children occupied while Mom and Dad figure out their next steps,” she explains. “And finding a reliable product that recharges from the sun means you’ll have long-lasting power.” Janssen adds that Goal Zero’s power packs and solar generators can charge phones, fridges and everything in between.

After creating a Ready Bag for family members, be sure to put one in the car, too. ”Sometimes you are not home when a disaster strikes, or in the instance of chemical plant issue, you might not be able to get to your house,” suggests Kim Fuller, an emergency management professional and national public affairs director of Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant Communities.

A final piece of Ready Bag advice comes from Phil Cox, CEO, Legacy Food Storage: Let the younger kids pick a fun backpack they like in which to store their kits. “You really don’t want a backpack or bag with an emergency red cross because it could draw attention to the fact that you are prepared, and those that aren’t might be tempted to steal the bags,” Cox cautions.


When purchasing emergency foods for families with kids of varying ages, Cox recommends that parents consider the following tips:

  1. Store food you regularly eat. This rule of emergency food storage might seem like a no-brainer, but its importance for a family with kids of varying ages and likes necessitates listing it. Too often, well-intentioned emergency preppers stock up on foods that their family has never actually eaten (ten gallons of whole wheat berries, anyone?) Then an emergency situation arrives, and they either have no idea what to make from their food storage,or they make it and find they can’t stomach it. Or even worse, their kids can’t stomach it. Surviving emergency situations well is all about maintaining as much normalcy as possible. When everything else is scary and unknown, mealtime is not the time to introduce new foods. For all of these reasons, it’s important to store food that your family already eats and enjoys. If this means mac and cheese and ramen noodles, so be it.
  2. Vary your food storage. One mistake first-time preppers often make is to buy large quantities of two or three items in bulk and then call it good. Think about the variety of foods you eat during a typical week. In an emergency situation, things will be a lot more pleasant for your family if you aren’t stuck eating canned chili or boiled rice for every single meal. You might be able to survive on this, sure, but thrive? Not so much. Start by stocking up on staples, and then add sides and snacks as you go along to be sure you have a wide array of foods to nourish your body during emergencies.
  3. Review this food storage calculator to determine how much food your family needs: http://www.preparewise.com/FoodStorageServings.html (Young family members will need maybe half of an adult serving, so take that into consideration as well).

Useful Emergency Tools

A number of manufacturers produce emergency preparedness products that are portable, affordable and serve multiple functions. For example, Champ (www.champprepared.com) provides the following convenient devices: the company’s Bodyguard Battery Rechargeable Power Bank ($34.99) is a backup battery, built-in flashlight and personal alarm to thwart off emergencies or call for help. Champ’s Survival LightStick ($69.99) combines an emergency weather radio with flashlight, mobile charger, distress light, siren and reading lamp into one device. The device offers emergency charging for your smartphone or other portable device with a hand-crank, rechargeable or solar panel charger. And the Champ Nightlight Flashlight ($19.99) features auto-on sensors and a 3-LED nightlight that provide soft light when evening falls. The flashlight also acts as a motion sensor for the immediate area.

The Champ Survival Sidekick 8-in-1 Multitool is like a Swiss Army Knife on steroids, combining eight simple-to-use emergency tools into one device so they’re ready when you need them: a glass breaker to break a windshield when someone’s trapped, a seatbelt cutter to escape from a car seat, an emergency mobile device charger via USB (cables included), a 3-LED flashlight to light your way at night, a red flashing distress light to signal you’re in danger, a magnetic base for mounting devices to your car, a compass to guide you when lost, and a hand-crank dynamo that recharges the internal battery so you never run out of power.

For an additional $15, you can get the Champ Survival Sidekick 10-in-1 Multitool, which adds a weather radio and AM/FM radio to all the above tools. If water damage is a concern, Champ’s Water Sensor Alarm ($14.99) alerts you to water leaks early. It’s perfect for basements, bathrooms, laundry rooms or anywhere a leak might happen, and the device is battery-operated, so you can use it virtually anywhere. All the Champ emergency devices are available for purchase at store.audiovox.com.

As far as preparing your home for an emergency, your set-up can only benefit from having a portable generator that meets your family’s needs. Many companies, including Westinghouse, Honda and Champion, are making high quality, quiet generators for RV’s, small generators for camping and duel fuel portable generators that can usually be converted to tri-fuel portable generators with an easy to install conversion kit. The conversion might be an added expense but can come in handy when a disaster strikes or when resources are hard to come by. By converting your generator from a duel fuel portable generator to a tri-fuel portable generator, you’re adding the ability of your portable generator to run off natural gases and propane, as opposed to just gasoline. Gasoline is a great option if you use all of the fuel in your tank and use your generator often. However, when gasoline sits for long periods of time it can become gummy and cause your generator to malfunction when you need it most. Many natural gases and propane can sit undisturbed for longer periods and are often used by professionals for their emergency generators.

“Gasoline also becomes one of the most sought-after resources after a disaster and can be extremely hard to allocate between your vehicles and your generator,” says Paul VanHevel, who works with a company called generatorgator.com (www.generatorgator.com). “Using natural gases and propane assures you will have fuel when it’s needed most and will probably assure you are the most popular person in your neighborhood if extreme weather does affect your region.”

Water is arguably the most valuable resource in times of crisis. Austin-based AquaStorage (www.aquapodkit.com) makes a product called the AquaPodKit, which is a solution for storing water, especially in an emergency. The AquaPodKit stores up to 65 gallons of fresh water using an ordinary household bathtub. This provides a 14-day supply of fresh water for a family of four.


During most disasters, it’s very likely that most communication channels will either go down or be severely impacted by a flood in network traffic. Although the effect may be only temporary, you will need to plan for the worst-case scenario and have multiple communications options available. “That means planning for disasters that wipe out traditional forms of communication like land lines, Internet and cell networks,” Richardson says. “Your plan should include a failsafe, such as meet-up areas or some central location where family members head during a disaster.” Richardson also recommends investing in alternative forms of communication like Ham Radio, The Family Radio Service (FRS) and The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), all of which are good options for short-distance two-way communication during a disaster. They’re generally used with small walkie-talkie devices and have a range of somewhere between 5 to 35 miles.

As with any family emergency response plan, adopting and memorizing a protocol should be your first step. Purcell suggests having family members recall the acronym “CALLERS” when they find themselves in an emergency situation.

Cell Phone: Naturally, try your cell phone first.

Accessories to Cell Phone: If voice communication by cell phone doesn’t work, try texting, and also try writing a note, taking a picture of the note and sending the picture.

Long Distance: Your emergency contact list should include an out-of-town contact. You want this specifically because long-distance lines are sometimes open when local lines are overwhelmed.

Land Line: If nothing associated with your cell phone is working, try a land-line phone if you can find one. Hint: You should create an “asset map” of your area, and on it you should show pay phones that are still in existence.

Email: All phone lines down? Try email that uses cable or that has dedicated lines. As a backup to direct email, have a family social media page such as a Facebook account where family members can leave messages, instructions or other updates.

Rendezvous: Pick a spot accessible to everyone’s average daily location where two or more family members can meet in person.

Standing Orders: If no communication is possible, each family member should have standing orders on what to do to first protect themselves, and then on where to go and what to do in order to eventually reconnect with the rest of the family.

It’s also a good idea to establish an out-of-state contact that can be reached if your family gets split up. “In the case of a catastrophic earthquake, etc., family members may not be able to come together immediately,” says Richard Moore, Founder/Chief Instructor of Applied Fighter. “Phone lines will be jammed with local traffic as the authorities work to locate people and manage logistics. So a call to an out-of-state relative from each family member stating where they are and that they are okay, can be an effective way to check in and coordinate.” Moore also suggests adopting a code word to focus the family in the event of a real emergency. “These days kids are accustomed to talking back or not responding to the prompts of parents,” Moore explains. “But when facing a real threat, a code word can quickly tell them that this is serious and they need to comply for the safety of everyone involved.”

Besides the out-of-state contact, many emergency preparedness experts recommend using the Red Cross’s Safe and Well website to communicate with family (https://safeandwell.communityos.org/cms/index.php>).

Simply devising a plan won’t cut it in a real emergency. Parents must explain the possible emergencies and when members should use the plan. DeVito recommends having emergency telephone numbers for a close friend/neighbor to let them know you are okay, as well as reviewing the plan with your family quarterly. “Make the communication plan visible for everyone,” DeVito says. “On the fridge or in a family gathering place is great. Have regular emergency preparedness conversations with your children. The change of season or weather is a great time.”

But what’s the plan if your phone service and power are out? There’s an app for that: Find Me Safety (www.findmesafety.com) ), developed by Fuller and her cousin. The app lets you send a message prior to your power going out, and it connects to GPS, sending your location to friends and family if you don’t arrive at your designated meet-up place. The Find Me app also has a follow-me feature that lets users, including the out-of-state contact, “see” the location of anyone who has activated the app.

Juan Cienfuegos is the inventor/developer of the Visual 911 app, Disaster ID (www.triagelights.com). The app is a visual 911 system for survivors of disasters to use during the night to signal their location, condition and group makeup to first responders. Cienfuegos describes how the app works: “1. Over 90% of our adult population carries cellphones or other smart device with them, so in a sense the population is mostly equipped with a visual signaling tool. When you turn on the screen in the dark it gives of a good visual signal. 2. A disaster strikes 3. People in the disaster area utilize the night to their advantage by using the phone/smart device screens to signal their location condition and group make-up. Children equals red lights, women equals green lights.”

Cienfuego’s free f-Ready app not only turns on your screen, but also emails three friends or family that you have activated the app and are in alert status. The email also includes a link to Google maps showing your general GPS location, and it includes instructions to zone in on you by looking for the visual signal coming from your phone. Now your friends or family (lifelines) can go look for you or they can share the information with authorities. You can try it from your computer at www.triagelights.com/f-ready/app.

Legislation was introduced in 2013 during the Texas legislative session to officially recognize the visual 911 system. The bill numbers were HB3261 & SB1540. “I am hoping to have them re-introduced during the 2015 legislative session,” Cienfuegos says. “One day, I hope visual codes for the handicapped are incorporated. This way responders have as much helpful information as possible that can be simply visually conveyed.”


A family should have both a local and a long-distance meet-up area, according to Richardson. Your local meet-up place will serve as a failsafe during small, localized disasters like a home fire or home invasion. Your long-distance meet-up place will help ensure your family’s safety during disasters that make it impossible for you to stay in your primary location. “Once the need for evacuation becomes apparent, everyone should immediately head for your out-of-town meet-up point,” he advises.

Purcell suggests families have at least three rendezvous points: one is in the yard or near the residence so you can all immediately meet in the event of a rapid evacuation of your home such as in the case of fire. Second would be a central location based on your normal daily locations. Third would be an out-of-town location that is along the route of one of your primary evacuation routes. “The second rendezvous point begs for a little more detail,” Purcell acknowledges. “Some key criteria for choosing such a location is that it is a safe area and can be reached via safe travel routes, exists either along the route home or along your evacuation route, and can be reached and left using mostly right-hand turns (to avoid traffic snarls).” Specify a precise spot at the meeting location (don’t just say “the mall,” but rather pick a store and an exact spot in that store. For natural disasters, Joe Alton, M.D., a disaster medical preparedness expert and the author of The Survival Medicine Handbook, advises that families arrange to converge on the most well-built and roomy home available to your family, preferably farthest away from the epicenter of the catastrophe. “If you’re leaving your home, have a designated location to meet (near a water source) away from the event, and make sure everyone has a tent and camping supplies they can use,” Alton adds.


As local officials will more than likely be occupied with more urgent matters, community is any family’s best resource for immediate help.

Alton emphasizes that putting together a “mutual assistance group” with members with diverse professional backgrounds will increase a family’s chances of succeeding, even when everything else fails. “Medical personnel, outdoorsmen, mechanics, gardeners, even counselors would be great members to have in your group,” Alton says. And to best manage the group in times of trouble, Alton recommends reading The Survival Group Handbook by Charley Hogwood. Alton’s own book, The Survival Medicine Handbook, is a good medical reference guide to off-grid caregiving.

Approaching neighbors with an invitation to join your mutual assistance group may feel awkward. You don’t want to come across like the alarmist on the block. DeVito suggests the best time to talk to neighbors is at the local block party or garage sales. Once you have a few neighbors that are willing to get involved, keep in touch with them. “Offer to lend a hand when it’s not an emergency,” DeVito says. “The occasional cutting the neighbor’s grass or shoveling snow, sharing tools, goes a long way when you might need help in case of an emergency.”

Besides the sharing of expertise, a community emergency plan can designate how tools, generators or childcare can be shared. Have neighbors complete a form listing their assets to figure out how best they can help each other (download a sample form at houstonfamilymagazine.com).

“Alliances start now. Community counts,” Coursen stresses. “Find like-minded friends and neighbors who live in close proximity, and start discussing the roles and functions of those who can provide varying and essential skills and services. For example, if your neighbor has a generator and you have a giant freezer full of food in your garage, talk to each other now and work out a system to combine resources should the time come. If any of your neighbors are doctors, RN’s or police, invite them over for dinner.”

As for who to invite into the “circle of trust,” Coursen’s advice is simple: “Who can I trust? You already know the answer to this. If you’re thinking, ‘I think so,’ then the answer is no. If you can unequivocally say, ‘Yes,’ than the answer is yes.

“One may never know where loyalty is born, but the beginning of a crisis isn’t when you want to find out.”


When planning for emergencies, all the experts stress the importance of involving your children in the planning process and talking to them honestly about emergency preparedness. “Children can better cope with disasters if they know what to expect and feel like they can help protect themselves and their family during a crisis,” Richardson says. “When children are allowed to be part of the process, you give them the ability to face the situation without fear, and you give your entire family a better chance of surviving the disaster without harm.” What you teach kids will depend on their age and their ability to understand what’s going on. In general, they should be taught what to do, what to watch out for, where to meet, who to call, and how to communicate during a disaster. “Use age-appropriate lessons without causing unnecessary stress,” Richardson adds. “Kids have wild imaginations, so make sure you talk to them in a way that helps prepare them without allowing their imaginations to get the better of them.”

Alton suggests discussing an oncoming storm as an adventure similar to what early pioneers experienced and showing an air of confidence about the ability to handle the situation. “Consider enrolling children in Boy/Girl Scouts or other organizations that teach survival skills,” Alton says, adding that, “Some catastrophe-related games like ‘Pandemic’ or ‘Doom and Bloom’s Survival’ can be good family-night activities for older children that can teach decision-making in extreme circumstances in a fun way.”

DeVito agrees that children feed off our fear. She recommends educating yourself before talking to kids, then sharing with them your fears while letting them know that danger is improbable, but that it’s just smart to be prepared. She also urges parents to check with their children’s school about their emergency operations plan.

Mindy Cook is the marketing director for national extreme weather expert and Senior Vice President of AccuWeather Mike Smith. She has just released a book geared towards kids who are afraid of the weather. In her book The Animals’ Weather Guide for Children, Cook uses animals’ instinctive behaviors to educate and empower the reader on how to handle any weather condition that might arise. “My pack rat tells the reader which items to collect to plan for an emergency preparedness kit,” Cook says. “These items are also listed on my bookmark.”


When preparing for an emergency, it is also important to keep pets in mind as disasters impact everyone in their path, including animals. Dr. Kerri Marshall. Chief Veterinary Officer at Trupanion, a medical insurance provider for cats and dogs, offers the following advice on how to prepare your pets for an emergency.

  • Preparing for your pets is much like preparing for the rest of the family. Consider packing several days’ worth of pet food, clean water, an extra collar and leash to secure your pet and any medications or important documents your pet may need. It is also helpful to include a couple of your pets’ favorite things, like a toy or treats to keep your pet comfortable and calm.
  • A pet first-aid kit can also be included along with the emergency kit. Ask your veterinarian about basic pet first aid procedures in case of an emergency, and following any first-aid treatments, take your pet to the veterinarian for a follow-up.
  • Pet owners can also place “pet alert” stickers on the inside of front door windows alerting any first-responders of pets inside the home. Research which shelters may be willing to let you stay with a pet, and consider where you would go in case of an evacuation.
  • Make a plan with each member of your family, and practice your plan ahead of time. When disaster strikes, stress levels are high and your pet can sense it. If you practice a routine, each member of the family will be more prepared.
  • If you are separated from your pet, check with local shelters and emergency clinics to see if anyone has found them. Depending on the scope of the disaster, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) disaster team can be deployed to help local veterinarians. They may also be a resource when searching for your pet.

For more information on disaster preparation, visit Trupanion’s resource on Emergency Pet Preparedness at http://trupanion.com/pet-care/emergency-pet-preparedness and Pet First Aid at http://trupanion.com/pet-care/pet-first-aid guide. For more information on pet fire safety, visit Trupanion’s Tips for Pet Owners on Preventing Fires at http://trupanion.com/pet-fire-safety/preventive-vet-talks-fire-safety.

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