Seconds Matter in a Shelter in Place Scenario

Create and reinforce an emergency plan that includes sheltering details



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.”

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