Seconds Matter in a Shelter in Place Scenario

Watch for Potential Pitfalls

Key Sheltering Supplies


  • Water – one gallon per person per day for at least three days
  • Food (nonperishable and easy to prepare) and a manual can opener
  • Flashlights
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank radios (preferably NOAA Weather Radios)
  • Extra batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Multipurpose tool
  • Sanitation and personal hygiene items
  • Emergency contact information (personal and business)
  • Emergency blankets
  • Maps of the area
  • Wrenches or pliers to turn off utilities
  • Company cell phone with chargers, inverter, or solar charger

Also Useful for Some Areas:

  • Whistle
  • N95 or surgical masks
  • Matches
  • Rain gear
  • Towels
  • Work gloves
  • Plastic sheeting (preferably pre-cut to fit room openings and labeled as appropriate)
  • Plastic garbage bags
  • Duct tape
  • Scissors
  • Chlorine bleach and an eye dropper
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Matches in a waterproof container
  • Paper or plastic plates and silverware
  • Paper towels
Communication has the potential to break down quickly and create major headaches if it’s not fully accounted for before a real shelter in place scenario occurs, Tezak says. Consider how you will obtain new information from authorities about the event and whether you have access to reliable landline phones. Do you have an alternative method of communicating with people in the building if power and internet outages disable your VoIP system?

It’s also vital to consider communication within the shelter space itself, especially for extended sheltering that might continue for a few hours or more. Because shelter in place is not as well-practiced or familiar as evacuation, occupants are likely to have questions and could be afraid or agitated. Provide occupants with as much information as you possibly can without speculating – there will be plenty of that on social media, so make sure your announcements are sourced from public safety officials.

“Most people in that setting are very unfamiliar with what it means to shelter in place, so people will want to know what’s going on and why they’re being moved. Any information you can provide helps calm people,” explains Tezak. “As a shelter manager, it’s important that you have a strong connection to public safety. Strong reinforcement from the expected authorities goes a long way toward reassuring people that you’re managing the situation.”

Updates and reminders are helpful even when you don’t have new information. Several facilities on Boston’s Boylston Street, including a convention center and residential buildings, used regular, scheduled communication to assure frightened occupants during the bombing at last year’s Boston Marathon.

“They have very strong public safety organizations that decided to shelter in place and proactively managed the situation,” explains Tezak, who works north of Boston. “They had direct communication with law enforcement and controlled how long the shelter in place continued. They announced through their building what people needed to do. They also announced periodic updates, even if the update was ‘It has been X amount of time since the last update and we don’t have any more information.’”

Law enforcement or other public safety officials will let you know when to evacuate your building. However, some occupants may refuse to wait that long, Craighead says – and no matter how foolhardy it is to evacuate prematurely, there’s not much you can do to stop an occupant determined to leave the safety of the shelter.

“You cannot legally detain someone, even though you think sheltering is best for them,” says Craighead. “You can only give them recommendations according to sound guidelines.”

In one incident at the height of the anthrax scare, Craighead explains, an attorney who was personally involved in a divorce case called in an anthrax threat to the courthouse before his hearing. Emergency responders arrived quickly and attempted to corral building occupants in the parking lot while they tried to determine how credible the threat was.

“People were literally running and hiding in the bushes to get away,” says Craighead. “Not even law enforcement could prevent people from leaving.”

With regular practice, sound strategies, and a little luck, you can prevent a similar melee from occurring at your facility. A few minutes lost from the workday every month or so mean that when the worst happens, you can make the most of your five minutes and counting.

Janelle Penny is senior editor of BUILDINGS.

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