Seconds Matter in a Shelter in Place Scenario

Feb. 20, 2014
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.PageBreak

10 Steps for Safe Sheltering in Place

  1. Close the business.
  2. Find any customers, clients, or other visitors and ask them to stay. A command to shelter in place means everyone – do not drive or walk outdoors.
  3. Ask everyone (employees and visitors alike) to call their personal emergency contacts and let them know where they are and that they are safe.
  4. Turn on call forwarding or other phone answering systems. Change voicemail recordings to say that your business is closed and that staff and visitors are remaining in the building until authorities say it is safe to leave.
  5. Lock outside doors and close all windows, air vents, and fireplace dampers.
  6. Facilities personnel or others who are familiar with mechanical systems should turn off all fans, HVAC, and dryers (if applicable). Turn off, seal, and/or disable air exchange systems.
  7. If you are advised that an explosion is possible, close all window shades, blinds, or curtains.
  8. Gather disaster supplies (see “Key Sheltering Supplies” on page 38) and head to your pre-designated sheltering area. If instructed by officials, seal all windows, doors, and vents with duct tape and plastic sheeting, garbage bags, or any other supplies on hand.
  9. Write down the names of everyone in the room and their affiliation with your business (employee, customer, etc.). Call your organization’s designated emergency contact to report this information so everyone can be accounted for. If you need to seek shelter in multiple rooms, appoint one person per room to gather this information.
  10. Monitor radio, TV, or internet for further instructions until you are told it’s safe to come out or until you are evacuated. Open windows and doors, turn on the HVAC systems, and go outside when officials tell you the area is safe following a hazardous material release – this will allow any contaminants that entered your building to air out. Follow any special instructions from authorities to avoid outdoor contaminants.

But what if instead of a chemical spill, you’re instead facing an intruder? The best place to shelter might be in individual offices with the doors barricaded as much as possible, not a large interior room. And if the intruder arrives at night, your emergency plan for normal office hours may offer little to no help. Truly adequate plans account for all possibilities.

“This should be a comprehensive plan that addresses the emergencies that are likely to occur at your particular facility and should clearly delineate responsibilities to the facility manager, secretary, engineering, janitorial, parking – the whole nine yards,” Craighead explains. “Address those threats during and after normal office hours – the staffing of a facility changes at nighttime because a lot of the key staff are not there.”

Repetition Saves Lives
The best plan is useless if no one knows what’s in it. Many organizations don’t bother doing drills, but you should aim to run everyone through a training exercise at least once a year, Tezak recommends.

“Fire evacuation is known to everyone. Shelter in place is different – people need to be alert and listening for a different announcement,” says Tezak. “These are important differences. Schools in the Midwest practice tornado drills so they know they’re not evacuating and can instead successfully move 1,500 to 2,000 kids into a tornado shelter in under three minutes.”

In addition to the yearly practice, you should continually reinforce the basics, Craighead recommends, such as the appearance and sound of the fire alarm and the locations of nearby stairwell exits. Lacking these basics can be deadly, particularly for temporary or part-time employees who may not be on-site for drills or other regularly scheduled training.

In one tragic incident, Craighead explains, a late-night fire in a Chicago office building killed a temporary employee who couldn’t find her way off the affected floor. Her story illustrates the risks of not knowing how to reach the safest place quickly, regardless of whether the threat is inside or outside the building.

“She called 911 and told the fire department that there was a fire in the building and that she didn’t know how to get out,” says Craighead. “She did not know where the stairwell was. She started to have breathing difficulties and they got her to hang up and call back from an adjacent office. This lady died in the building. It’s as simple as that – if only someone had said ‘If you’re working here after hours and there’s a problem, here is your nearest stairwell exit.’ She perished over a simple thing like that.”

Special Considerations for Emergency Plans
After covering all possible reasons your occupants could find themselves sheltering in place, further customize your organization’s policies by accounting for the facility’s hierarchy of authority, access to resources, and other factors. Start with these important considerations.

Who gives the command to shelter? An organization that owns and operates its own building probably has a department head in charge of security or other personnel with sufficient training and authority. A more complex building with multiple tenant organizations might have a director of public safety or security who will coordinate with the appropriate contacts for each tenant. The principal would likely order shelter for a school.

Whoever you choose ideally has ties with local law enforcement and public safety officials to ensure good communication in an emergency.

What supplies should be stockpiled? Essential supplies vary by location and building type, Tezak explains, though there are some basics you should have on hand – first aid kits, battery-powered or hand-cranked radios (preferably NOAA weather radios), flashlights, sanitation supplies, etc. Other necessities are dictated by your geographic location and what else is nearby – for more ideas, see “Key Sheltering Supplies."

Who rescues occupants with disabilities and mobility impairments? Your emergency plan must account for any building occupants who might have trouble getting to the shelter space in a timely fashion. Remember that disability goes far beyond mobility impairments – the day a disaster strikes, you might have a visitor with a speech or visual impairment, a customer struggling to understand English-language emergency alerts, or an employee who can’t move very quickly because she is eight months pregnant. You must accommodate every person in your facility at your chosen sheltering location.

“The truth of the matter is that people won’t be available to run up to that location and move them during an evacuation, so employees should arrange for a couple of people themselves who commit to assisting them,” says Craighead. “However, the onus really is on the facilities department being aware of them. When first responders come to the facility, it would be helpful to know there may be some people with disabilities in a certain location.”

It’s certainly helpful if people with disabilities self-present, but they’re not legally required to, Tezak adds.

“People are required to have the right of self-determination, so you have to provide for them wherever you decide to offer shelter,” Tezak says. “In the past, it was acceptable to direct people who are mobility-impaired go to a staging area until someone arrives, but the guidance has changed. Now people with disabilities need to be part of the emergency plan from the beginning. There are all sorts of barriers that create obstacles for people with functional needs.”PageBreak

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.

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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