A shelter in place explained

The other morning a fire broke out at a Chevron oil refinery less than 10 miles from where I live. An hour after the fire started, residents in the neighborhood of the refinery received automated phone calls calling for a shelter in place due to the fumes and smoke in the air.

It made me wonder how many other people would know how to handle a shelter in place if it happened to them or what a shelter in place is. I’ve included a few links at the end of this post with reference to more information.

A shelter in place is an instruction given when there is an emergency where potentially hazardous materials might have been released into the atmosphere. It’s meant to keep you safe while staying where you are, be it indoors, at work or school, or in your car.

When a shelter in place is issued you should select a small (preferably centrally located) interior room with no windows if at all possible.

When a shelter in place is advised information should be provided by your local authorities on television and radio on how to protect yourself and your loved ones. Note also that a shelter in place usually only lasts for a few hours, not days.

Most of the following shelter in place information are recommendations from the Red Cross.

How to Shelter-in-Place

While at home:

  • Close and lock all windows and exterior doors
  • If you are told there is danger of explosion, close the window shades, blinds, or curtains
  • Turn off all fans, heating and air conditioning systems
  • If you have a fireplace, close the fireplace damper
  • Get your family disaster supplies kit and make sure the radio is working
  • Go to an interior room without windows that’s above ground level. In the case of a chemical threat, an above-ground location is preferable because some chemicals are heavier than air, and may seep into basements even if the windows are closed
  • Bring your pets with you, and be sure to bring additional food and water supplies for them
  • It is ideal to have a hard-wired telephone in the room you select. Call your emergency contact and have the phone available if you need to report a life-threatening condition. Cellular telephone equipment may be overwhelmed or damaged during an emergency
  • Use duct tape and plastic sheeting (heavier than food wrap) to seal all cracks around the door and any vents into the room
  • Keep listening to your radio or television, (or checking the internet if possible) until you are told all is safe or you are told to evacuate
  • Local officials may call for evacuation in specific areas at greatest risk in your community

It’s always a good idea to learn how and when to turn off your utilities and where to find them. If there is damage to your home or you are instructed to turn off your utilities:

  • Know where to locate the electric, gas and water shut-off valves
  • Keep necessary tools near gas and water shut-off valves
  • Teach other family members how to turn off utilities
  • Important: If you turn the gas off, a professional must turn it back on. DO NOT attempt to do this yourself

While at work:

  • Close the business
  • If there are customers, clients, or visitors in the building, provide for their safety by asking them to stay – not leave. When authorities provide directions to shelter-in-place, they want everyone to take those steps now, where they are, and not drive or walk outdoors
  • Unless there is an imminent threat, ask employees, customers, clients, and visitors to call their emergency contact to let them know where they are and that they are safe
  • Turn on call-forwarding or alternative telephone answering systems or services. If the business has voice mail or an automated attendant, change the recording to indicate that the business is closed, and that staff and visitors are remaining in the building until authorities advise it is safe to leave
  • Close and lock all windows, exterior doors, and any other openings to the outside
  • If you are told there is danger of explosion, close the window shades, blinds, or curtains
  • Have employees familiar with your building’s mechanical systems turn off all fans, heating and air conditioning systems. Some systems automatically provide for exchange of inside air with outside air – these systems, in particular, need to be turned off, sealed, or disabled
  • Gather essential disaster supplies, such as nonperishable food, bottled water, battery-powered radios, first aid supplies, flashlights, batteries, duct tape, plastic sheeting, and plastic garbage bags
  • Select interior room(s) above the ground floor, with the fewest windows or vents. The room(s) should have adequate space for everyone to be able to sit in. Avoid overcrowding by selecting several rooms if necessary. Large storage closets, utility rooms, pantries, copy and conference rooms without exterior windows will work well. Avoid selecting a room with mechanical equipment like ventilation blowers or pipes, because this equipment may not be able to be sealed from the outdoors
  • It is ideal to have a hard-wired telephone in the room(s) you select. Call emergency contacts and have the phone available if you need to report a life-threatening condition. Cellular telephone equipment may be overwhelmed or damaged during an emergency
  • Use duct tape and plastic sheeting (heavier than food wrap) to seal all cracks around the door(s) and any vents into the room
  • Bring everyone into the room(s)
  • Shut and lock the door(s)
  • Write down the names of everyone in the room, and call your business’ designated emergency contact to report who is in the room with you, and their affiliation with your business (employee, visitor, client, customer)
  • Keep listening to the radio or television until you are told all is safe or you are told to evacuate. Local officials may call for evacuation in specific areas at greatest risk in your community

While at school:

  • Close the school. Activate the school’s emergency plan. Follow reverse evacuation procedures to bring students, faculty, and staff indoors
  • If there are visitors in the building, provide for their safety by asking them to stay – not leave. When authorities provide directions to shelter-in-place, they want everyone to take those steps now, where they are, and not drive or walk outdoors
  • Provide for answering telephone inquiries from concerned parents by having at least one telephone with the school’s listed telephone number available in the room selected to provide shelter for the school secretary, or person designated to answer these calls. This room should also be sealed. There should be a way to communicate among all rooms where people are sheltering-in-place in the school
  • Ideally, provide for a way to make announcements over the school-wide public address system from the room where the top school official takes shelter
  • If children have cell phones, allow them to use them to call a parent or guardian to let them know that they have been asked to remain in school until further notice, and that they are safe
  • If the school has voice mail or an automated attendant, change the recording to indicate that the school is closed, students and staff are remaining in the building until authorities advise that it is safe to leave
  • Provide directions to close and lock all windows, exterior doors, and any other openings to the outside
  • If you are told there is danger of explosion, direct that window shades, blinds, or curtains be closed
  • Have employees familiar with your building’s mechanical systems turn off all fans, heating and air conditioning systems. Some systems automatically provide for exchange of inside air with outside air – these systems, in particular, need to be turned off, sealed, or disabled
  • Gather essential disaster supplies, such as nonperishable food, bottled water, battery-powered radios, first aid supplies, flashlights, batteries, duct tape, plastic sheeting, and plastic garbage bags
  • Select interior room(s) above the ground floor, with the fewest windows or vents. The room(s) should have adequate space for everyone to be able to sit in. Avoid overcrowding by selecting several rooms if necessary. Classrooms may be used if there are no windows or the windows are sealed and can not be opened. Large storage closets, utility rooms, meeting rooms, and even a gymnasium without exterior windows will also work well
  • It is ideal to have a hard-wired telephone in the room(s) you select. Call emergency contacts and have the phone available if you need to report a life-threatening condition. Cellular telephone equipment may be overwhelmed or damaged during an emergency
  • Bring everyone into the room(s)
  • Shut and lock the door(s)
  • Use duct tape and plastic sheeting (heavier than food wrap) to seal all cracks around the door(s) and any vents into the room.
    Write down the names of everyone in the room, and call your schools’ designated emergency contact to report who is in the room with you
  • Listen for an official announcement from school officials via the public address system, and stay where you are until you are told all is safe or you are told to evacuate. Local officials may call for evacuation in specific areas at greatest risk in your community

While in your vehicle:

If you are driving a vehicle and hear advice to “shelter-in-place” on the radio, take these steps:

  • If you are very close to home, your office, or a public building, go there immediately and go inside. Follow the shelter-in-place recommendations for the place you pick described above
  • If you are unable to get to a home or building quickly and safely, then pull over to the side of the road. Stop your vehicle in the safest place possible. If it is sunny outside, it is preferable to stop under a bridge or in a shady spot, to avoid being overheated
  • Turn off the engine
  • Close windows and vents
  • If possible, seal the heating / air conditioning vents with duct tape
  • Listen to the radio regularly for updated advice and instructions
  • Stay where you are until you are told it is safe to get back on the road. Be aware that some roads may be closed or traffic detoured
  • Follow the directions of law enforcement officials. Local officials on the scene are the best source of information for your particular situation. Following their instructions during and after emergencies regarding sheltering, food, water, and clean up methods is your safest choice.

Remember that instructions to shelter-in-place are usually provided for durations of a few hours, not days or weeks. There is little danger that the room in which you are taking shelter will run out of oxygen and you will suffocate.

Recommendations for disaster supply kits:

  • A home disaster supply kit should contain enough food, water, and supplies for at least three days
  • A work place disaster supply kit should contain food, water and comfortable walking shoes in case you need to walk long distances
  • A disaster supply kit for your car should contain food, water, first aid supplies, flares, jumper cables, and seasonal supplies

For the ultimate list of disaster preparedness resources, see these tips from Omaha Outdoors.

Recommended items for inclusion in your basic disaster supplies kit:

  • A three day supply of non-perishable food
  • A three day supply of water – one gallon of water per person, per day
  • A portable, battery-powered radio or television and extra batteries
  • A flashlight and extra batteries
  • A first aid kit and manual
  • Sanitation and hygiene items (moist towelettes and toilet paper)
  • Matches and waterproof container
  • A whistle
  • Extra clothing
  • Kitchen accessories and cooking utensils, including a can opener
  • Photocopies of credit and identification cards
  • Cash and coins
  • Special needs items, such as prescription medications, eye glasses, contact lens solutions, and hearing aid batteries
  • Items for infants, such as formula, diapers, bottles, and pacifiers
  • Other items to meet your unique family needs

If you live in a cold climate, you should also think about warmth. It is possible that you will not have heat. Think about your clothing and bedding supplies. Be sure to include one complete change of clothing and shoes per person, including:

  • A Jacket or coat
  • Long pants
  • Long sleeve shirt
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Hat, mittens, and scarf
  • A Sleeping bag or warm blanket (per person)
  • Be sure to account for growing children and other family changes

For more information  on recommended supplies, see the FEMA web site.

How to shelter in place during a chemical emergency from the National Institute for Chemical Studies.

Deciding to stay or go from Ready.gov.

Sheltering in place during a Radiation emergency from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Evacuation Plans and Procedures from the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

How to prepare for sheltering-in-place for the U.S. Department of State.

Shelter-in-Place questions and answers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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