Seconds Matter in a Shelter in Place Scenario

02/25/2014 | By Janelle Penny

Create and reinforce an emergency plan that includes sheltering details

When conditions outside get tough, where will building occupants go?

What Makes a Good Emergency Shelter?

What makes a good shelter?

Interior Location: Whichever space you choose should have a minimal number of windows (preferably none) and doors. Make sure it offers the opportunity to shut off outdoor air exchange, at least for a short period of time, explains Scott Tezak, practice lead for security and emergency preparedness at TRC Companies Inc., a national engineering, consulting, and construction management firm.

If necessary, choose several rooms to avoid overcrowding, such as large storage closets, utility rooms, pantries, copy areas, and conference rooms without exterior windows. Do not shelter in rooms with mechanical equipment – you may not be able to seal these areas from the outdoors very well.

Chemical or radiological releases may necessitate a backup plan, warns the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Rooms above ground level are best for chemical spills because some chemicals are heavier than air and could sink. However, a release of radioactive particles would make a centrally located room or basement the better option. “Access to bathrooms is a plus,” the CDC notes.

The Right Size: “Many times you want a large internal area, but not the largest area of the building,” says Tezak. “A large area helps you congregate people in one space where it’s easier to control the crowd, but the largest may have structural considerations you need to be aware of.”

The CDC recommends 10 square feet of floor space per person to prevent carbon dioxide buildup for up to five hours. However, the sheltering period may be shorter than that in the event of a chemical, biological, or radiological release, the organization notes in its official shelter in place guidance: “Local officials are unlikely to recommend the public shelter in a sealed room for more than two to three hours because the effectiveness of such sheltering diminishes with time as contaminated outside air gradually seeps into the shelter.”

Pre-Equipped: Ideal shelter spaces have hard-wired telephones, as cellular networks can be damaged or overwhelmed during emergencies. You will need phone access to call emergency contacts and report any life-threatening conditions that occur while sheltering. Make backup plans for VoIP networks, as they can be disabled if the power goes out.

The rooms should also have radios or TVs – consider keeping some battery-powered radios in your disaster kit in case the power goes out.

Your facility must be ready to serve as a refuge when a natural disaster, crime in progress, or chemical spill make it too dangerous to leave. But your occupants may not even know where to hunker down, especially if you’re not reinforcing the information regularly or your emergency plans are scant on sheltering details.

Take the Boston Marathon bombing last spring, for example – when the two bombs went off, no one knew whether more would follow. The safest solution for the office and multifamily occupants nearby was to seek shelter inside while waiting for the area to be secured.

Or consider a more recent case in which a few inches of snow and ice forced thousands of Atlanta metro-area children to camp out at school overnight. What could have happened if the schools didn’t have enough food or space available?

Every person in your building should be moved to safety within five minutes of notification that sheltering is necessary, and seconds could make the difference between life, serious injury, and death, says Scott Tezak, practice lead for security and emergency preparedness at TRC Companies Inc., a national engineering, consulting, and construction management firm with offerings in security technology and emergency preparedness.

But where exactly is the safest place, and how can you herd everyone there in time?

When Evacuating Isn’t an Option
Good planning starts with knowing your building’s vulnerabilities, whether that’s a location in Tornado Alley or proximity to industrial areas. Chemical spills from delivery trucks or an accidental release of biological or radiological substances could make evacuation dangerous for a few hours. And the possibility of crime or terrorism – anything from gunfire outside of your building to a mass casualty event – is a concern for any building, whether urban, suburban, or rural.

Shelter in place events typically last less than a day, explains Tezak. But sheltering periods can vary widely within that 24-hour window – active shooter scenarios are typically over within minutes, whereas it could take hours to neutralize a hazardous material release.

For this reason, your emergency plan should cover all possible eventualities.

What Belongs in Your Plan
In the chaos of a sudden emergency, there’s no room to learn on the fly. Protecting building occupants requires a thorough, comprehensive emergency plan with well-defined roles for all departments – not just FM, but also HR, security, engineering, and any others who can help shut down the building and shepherd frightened occupants to safety.

“In the past, buildings typically only had fire evacuation plans,” Tezak explains. “They need to be more involved than that now. They should cover when to leave the building and when to stay, who has the authority and the ability to decide to shelter in place, how that will be communicated, and what can be done at the facility to complement any shelter in place activities.”

For instance, imagine that a traffic accident near your building results in a large ammonia spill from a delivery truck. The section of your emergency plan covering chemical spills and releases should delegate various building sealing tasks to the FM department – someone should shut down the HVAC system to minimize outside air exchange while others should immediately close and lock all windows, doors, and other means of egress.

In the meantime, shelter managers – perhaps HR representatives or the heads of each department – should escort building occupants into pre-designated shelter spaces, likely interior areas with the fewest windows and doors (see “10 Steps for Safe Sheltering” on page 40). Each floor needs an active floor warden to coordinate sheltering or evacuation as required, says Geoff Craighead, CPP (Certified Protection Professional), vice president of Universal Protection Service, a provider of security and life safety services in the U.S.

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