Most of us have been conditioned to prepare for natural disasters including hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods, but we may not be as prepared when it comes to other types of emergencies. Our society today faces new and specific threats that require an equally specific form of preparation.
U.S. law enforcement officials make every effort to protect the public from non-natural disaster situations like bombs, bioterrorism, and chemical spills—all of which involve the release of hazardous materials into the atmosphere—yet it is important for the community to be adequately prepared to respond in the event that such a disaster unfolds.
Chemical or radiological agents may be released intentionally or accidentally (as in the case of a nuclear power plant spill or leak, like the one in Japan in 2011). In either case, authorities will sound the alarm as quickly as possible and instruct local residents to shelter-in-place.
Sheltering-in-place involves finding an interior room in your current location (whether at home, school, work, or out and about) with few or no windows, and seeking refuge there. Here are some important steps to follow to safely shelter-in-place.
1. Prioritize Safety and Stay In Place
It should go without saying, but the foremost priority in any emergency situation is protecting human life. In situations where authorities are instructing you to seek immediate shelter where you are, do not delay—seek immediate shelter NOW! Your life and the lives of others may be at stake, and it is essential that you allow this sense of urgency to guide you away from distractions that would prevent you from seeking shelter. Your business meeting, TV show, or math quiz can wait—nothing is more important than your safety.
Unlike many emergency situations, the key to sheltering-in-place is exactly that: remaining in place. Consider these location-specific tips:
- If you’re in the workplace: Help ensure the safety of fellow employees and clients by offering shelter to visitors or anyone who may be on site but unfamiliar with your building—staying on location will be safer for them than evacuating.
- If you’re outside but near your home, office, or any other public building: Proceed into the nearest building as quickly as possible and follow the instructions of residents or personnel there.
- If you’re in a vehicle and unable to get to a building safely and quickly: Pull to the side of the road and turn your vehicle off, making sure to close air vents and windows as you are able.
If a specific room or shelter has not been previously determined for your location, act quickly to select the safest space in which to shelter immediately. There are a few key criteria to consider when selecting the room where you and others may be sheltering. Consider whether the room is:
- An interior room(s) with few or no windows: This will minimize the amount of contaminated air that can enter the room.
- Above ground level: Certain chemicals weigh more than air and can sink into below-ground rooms such as basements, even if windows are tightly shut.
- Large enough for everyone to sit in comfortably: Avoid overcrowding for both safety and comfort. Bear in mind that it’s acceptable and may even be necessary to have more than one designated room for sheltering-in-place; just make sure that you have an effective mode of communication between the rooms.
- Equipped with a hard-wired telephone line (if possible): Cell phone lines have been known to go down in cases of emergency, so do not plan to rely exclusively on your smart phone or cellular device for up-to-the-minute information in an emergency situation.
- Free of mechanical systems/pipes: Avoid mechanical systems such as air conditioners or heaters and ventilation components such as industrial fans, as these may not be able to be sealed off completely and could pose a danger to the occupants in the room.
3. Follow Safety Protocols Before Shutting Yourselves in the Room
There are several protocols that need to be followed before you will be ready to seal yourself and your companions safely in the designated room. First, work quickly to ensure that all exterior doors and windows in the building (or car) where you are sheltering are closed and locked. Close blinds, window shades, and curtains—precautions that are especially important if an explosion is anticipated. If you were unable to find a room free of any fans, AC, or heating units, at least ensure that these units are shut down before moving people into the room.
Second, gather a disaster/emergency supply kit if one exists on site (For suggestions on what to include in emergency supply kits, click here). Duct tape and plastic sheeting—or at least their comparable alternatives—are important to bring with you into the safe room. While these supplies should be included in an emergency preparedness kit, they are especially important to have on hand for any emergency situation that requires sheltering-in-place.
At this point, you are ready to move all individuals into the designated room. Once everyone has safely entered, close the door(s) and use the duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal up any vents and cracks.
4. Await the Instructions of Emergency Authorities
Be patient while awaiting further instructions from authorities! Trust the men and women who have been trained in disaster preparedness, and who are dealing with the threat directly. Remember that it may take them quite a while to control or secure the situation before they can provide the public with further instructions. Do your best to keep children and elderly comfortable, well nourished, and hydrated while you wait. If possible, try to think of an activity or game to help distract everyone from worrying about the emergency—which is beyond your control at the moment.
Rest assured that emergency responders and law enforcement officials will have the most critical and accurate updates about the situation as soon as they are available. That means it’s important to tune in to television and radio stations and await notice before leaving your sheltering place. Evacuation may be called for in cases where residents are in greatest risk or closest proximity to the source of the disaster.