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Shelter in Place: When Staying Put is Your Best Option

Aug. 3, 2010

If an office building catches fire, the building management team or the security director will call for an evacuation. But what if spring weather produces a tornado? Instead of an evacuation, staying put or sheltering in place might make more sense.

“A tornado, a bomb threat in a nearby building, a chemical spill, an active shooter, or a terrorist hit that contaminates the area might call for sheltering-in-place,” says Geoff Craighead, CPP, a vice president with Universal Protection Service, a security services provider.

Depending on your location and the type of event, shelter in place plans will entail different responses. A property manager should consider a range of possibilities so their plan is comprehensive and easily deployable.

For example, “the earthquake threat on the west coast has led building managers and security directors to lay in supplies for two or three days,” says Craighead, a member of ASIS and author of High-Rise Security and Fire Life Safety. “On the east coast, it would be unlikely for people to stay in a building beyond several hours — unless there is a serious terrorist incident.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers a basic guide to sheltering in place at work. More specifically, the Willis Tower in Chicago has a comprehensive plan that serves as a preventative model.

The OSHA Plan

When a crisis occurs, first close the business or building. Invite customers and visitors to stay. If possible, have people call their emergency contacts to allay fears. Put up a voice mail message saying the business has closed but that staff and visitors are safely sheltered in the building.

Next, lock exterior doors, close windows and vents, and turn off mechanical systems. If the threat includes violent weather or an explosion, close the blinds and curtains and move away from the windows toward the interior of the building. If the event involves hazardous chemicals or biological substances, seal the windows, doors, and vents with plastic sheeting and duct tape.

Collect disaster supplies if you haven’t in advance: food, bottled water, battery-powered radios, first-aid supplies, flashlights, duct tape, plastic sheeting, and plastic garbage bags. Select a room with a hard wired telephone in case the crisis overwhelms the cellular networks.

OSHA also advises recording the names of those in the room and reporting the list to the building’s emergency coordinator. Such lists make it possible to reassure worried relatives.

The Willis Tower Plan

At 110 stories, the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago is one of the tallest buildings in the world. It houses more than 100 tenants and 12,000 people work there.

“We have plans for tenants and for our people,” says Keith Kambic, director of security and life safety for U.S. Equities Asset Management, the Willis Tower property management firm. “The plans address severe weather, hazardous chemicals, and an active shooter, which has become a threat in U.S. office buildings.”

Kambic’s plan recommends that tenants store 48 to 72 hours of water and food plus cleaning supplies, plastic sheeting, flashlights and batteries, and other emergency tools. “We have collected these materials for our own people, along with cots and bedding” Kambic says. Willis Tower also houses restaurants and convenience stores that can supply food and other necessities should the need arise.

Shelter-in-place procedures vary with the event. For severe weather, a public address system announcement directs people away from the windows and toward the core of the building, typically into the freight elevator lobbies on each floor. On the other hand, if a shooter gets loose in the building, the announcement tells tenants to stay where they are and lock the doors.

“The best way to prepare to deal with a shooter is to talk to your police department and SWAT team,” Kambic says. “Everyone has different ways of handling these situations. To make sure we understand the approach here, we train annually with the police department’s SWAT team.”

Kambic goes on to note that the police or a SWAT team — not Willis Tower security officers — will interdict a shooter. “Our job is to provide directions around the building, deal with building systems, and provide support when we can,” he says.

Kambic drills his security staff regularly on shelter-in-place procedures. For instance, new control room operators practice making announcements for a shelter-in-place event. “We’ll go to an empty office and listen to the PA message,” he says. “Then we’ll help the operator refine the delivery. The goal is for the message to communicate a sense of confidence and calm.”

As an amenity for tenants, Kambic’s group offers business continuity and emergency management planning seminars. Kambic has also commissioned the production of a video and a web-based program that trains tenants in evacuation and shelter-in-place procedures.

“We also do monthly training sessions for new tenants and employees,” he says. “Last year, we hired an Atlanta company, Crisis Management International, to conduct a seminar — at our expense — for tenant HR managers and receptionists on the subject of recognizing the signs of a disgruntled employee or visitor.” It’s this type of early warning system that everyone hopes will prevent a problem that might eventually require tenants to shelter in place.

While not everyone needs a shelter-in-place plan, elements of the Willis Tower plan will work for any building. No matter what type of building you have, concludes Kambic, “The key is to be prepared.”

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