Shelter in Place: What You Should Know

The basics

One of the major changes in emergency preparedness over the past 15 years has been the growing importance of shelter in place.  While those in earthquake and tornado country have long relocated to more protected areas inside a building, in recent years shelter in place has emerged a critical core response procedure nationwide, used for threats ranging from gunfire to civil disturbances, hazardous airborne threats, high winds, radiological releases, and external explosion threats.

A certain amount of confusion over terminology has accompanied the rapid recent expansion of shelter-in-place. Some use the term to apply to the hide response in an active shooter event (though the two are very different). In New York City, moving to an area of refuge on your floor is called in-building relocation. Others use the term interchangeably with building lockdown.

At heart, shelter in place means remaining inside the building, either at your work space or in a refuge area offering more protection.  Most shelter in place events are precautionary and over quickly, in 10 to 20 minutes, while authorities investigate a potential threat outside the building.  In these situations, occupants can continue working, they should just not leave the building or come down to the lobby.

The other form, a movement shelter in place, is warranted when you need to move occupants away from windows due to an exterior threat, such as gunfire on the street, a tanker truck spilling gasoline, high winds, etc.

What makes a good refuge area?

An ideal refuge area is an interior room with no exposure to exterior glass. Break rooms, storage rooms, and private offices near the building core work well. On many floors hallways and elevator lobbies offer good protection.  Make sure you’ve designated sufficient refuge space for the people in your organization – 10 square feet per person is a good rule of thumb, though more would be needed for an extended shelter in place.

One growing problem is the trend toward more open floor layouts in office buildings, with cubicles and glass from end to end.  These floors generally don’t have adequate refuge areas.  In these cases, bathrooms and stairwells can be used in a short-lived shelter in place, but the best solution is to identify refuge areas on nearby floors that offer adequate space.

What supplies are needed?

While most shelter in place events are over quickly, federal guidelines want everyone to be able to remain in their building for up to 3 days. In certain high-risk seismic areas such as the Pacific Northwest, emergency managers have raised that guidance to as much as 10 to 14 days.

Even if you are only required to shelter in place overnight, having supplies on hand becomes essential. The list of what items each organization should keep on hand varies by region, based on the types of natural disasters in each area, but all organizations should keep at least the basic emergency supplies – water, food, flashlights, a radio, a first aid kit, etc. Vendors are available to ship pre-packaged emergency supply kits, or you can create your own. Make sure someone checks regularly to ensure the kits are intact and batteries and perishables are being replaced.

Restricting egress

Keeping people inside buildings has been a challenge ever since 9/11.  The current estimate is that even when police order a shelter in place, a third of building occupants will evacuate. Self-evacuation creates a host of safety problems, sometimes even for those who remain inside. Building staff cannot legally hold people inside – those who insist on leaving must be allowed to go. However, the building can restrict how they egress. In a shelter in place, the building’s fire safety director should select the least dangerous way out and restrict egress to only that door or route. And depending on the severity of the situation, building staff may not allow people back inside once they’ve left.  When faced with a hazardous airborne threat, opening doors hundreds of times can jeopardize the safety of those inside.

Plan ahead

Have an emergency preparedness plan in place and train your employees and occupants. If you have any questions about how to secure your own building, feel free to contact us.